reading list

2008
Books Read To Date

1.      Kingsley Amis, Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980)

2.      William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (2002)

3.      William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

4.      John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)                 

5.      John O’Hara, Sermons and Soda-Water (1960)

6.      William Gibson, Virtual Light (1993) 

7.      William Gibson, Idoru (1996)

8.      Michael Connelly, The Overlook (2007)

9.      William Gibson, Spook Country (2007)

10.  James Purdy, Garments The Living Wear (1989)

11.  Dominique Fabre, The Waitress Was New (2008)

12.  William Gibson, Count Zero (1986)  

13.  Lydia Millet, Everyone’s Pretty (2005)   

14.  Gary Indiana, Gone Tomorrow (1995)   

15.  William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)  

16.  Lydia Millet, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005)

17.  Peter Abrahams, End of Story (2007)    

18.  V.S. Naipaul, Magic Seeds (2004)   

19.  Lucius Shepard, Softspoken (2007)

20.  Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer (2006)

21.  Lucius Shepard, Green Eyes (1987)

22.  Nicholas Mosley, Look at the Dark (2006)

23.  James Meek, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent  (2008) 

The books by Lydia Millet, John O’Hara, Gary Indiana, V.S. Naipaul and James Meek all deserve to be read, while Michael Connelly and William Gibson write readable — if not re-readable– genre fiction.

James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent and John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara are the best works of fiction I’ve read this year. Of all the novels dealing with the post-9/11 world, Meek’s is the best one, at least in English, outracing Don DeLillo’s Falling Man right from the starting gate. While DeLillo sees post-9/11 New York as just another Cosmopolis-style locale for staging the medium-cool lives of his flattened characters, Meek’s book catches the ambiguities and compromises faced by Anglo-American liberals in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq; his free indirect narration becomes a subtle voice of moral force, despite the reversals and concessions and shabby bargains his characters experience along the way: with this novel Meek seems like a Graham Greene whose faith is not Catholic but catholic, attuned to a broader range of political frequencies than Greene ever was, and just as knowing about the sad secret recesses of the human heart. 

In its opening pages Appointment in Samara reads as a period piece, but by the end its narrative feels as ruthless and inexorable as a Greek tragedy… The alcohol-fueled destruction of Julian English’s marriage, reputation and career is capped by one of the most powerful descriptions of suicide in modern literature.

So how come O’Hara never topped the brilliance of his first novel? His biographers typically point to O’Hara’s thirst for alcohol, quest for fame and money (motivated by his legendary social insecurity) for compromising his subsequent work. Only BUtterfield 8, along with some of his longer short stories and novellas, like “Imagine Kissing Pete,” come close to the high point he set with the story of Julian English, famously ranked by Fran Leibovitz ahead of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (she went so far as to label O’Hara “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald”). And in a uncharateristically generous mood, Ernest Hemingway remarked that “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.

But by the end of his career O’Hara was closer in subject matter to Harold Robbins than Fitzgerald, who he so strongly resembled when he started publishing in the 1930s. As for his hundreds of short stories, it seems safe to say O’Hara remains the emblematic short fiction writer of The New Yorker, followed by the other Johns, Cheever and Updike, while only Joyce Carol Oates rivals him in terms of consistency of genuine literary merit across such a huge body of work.

Mosley’s slight Look at the Dark shows flashes of the learning and wit that shines throughout his five-volume Catastrophe Practice series, while cranky Sir Vidia’s Magic Seeds continues the journey of deracinated exile Willy Chandra, modern literature’s passive-aggressive character par excellence.

Finally, although it ultimately fails to cohere as a novel, Kingsley Amis’ Russian Hide-and-Seek is brilliant in spots. In a strange way it illustrates the interpretation made by some of Alexandre Kojève‘s commentators  that “the end of history” will be a time when the rationalized and routinized life of the masses convince the superior or “great-souled” man that criminal enterprise and political rebellion are the only undertakings worthy of him… 

 

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