This year I suffered a crisis of faith in reading fiction. It began early this summer and lasted for several months. At its deepest point I thought I might not ever read another novel. Its origins lay in a complex amalgamation of factors, including a long run of uninspiring reads, the completion of the final stages of a three-year writing project, and a profound deepening of my Zen Buddhist practice. The details of how these factors intersected are of a personal nature that I won’t explore here. Ultimately, however, I weathered this crisis and am pleased to report that I returned to fiction this autumn, albeit with a radically altered view of how I approach my reading and what I hope to extract from it. Perhaps I will write more about these changes in the future, but for now here are the highlights from my reading year, most of them from before the crisis hit. Most links are to my Goodreads reviews, but in cases where I didn’t write a review I’ve provided a publisher link when available.
I enjoyed spending more time with the British avant-gardists of the 1960s, including B.S. Johnson (Travelling People), Ann Quin (completing my reading of her slim output with Berg & Three), Alan Burns (Europe After the Rain & Dreamerika!), Rayner Heppenstall (The Greater Infortune / The Connecting Door), and those others included in the excellent anthology Beyond the Words.
The lost American Modernist Margery Latimer captured my attention, although after reading most of her published output, I found that We Are Incredible was the only work of hers to linger long with me.
Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists was an expected winner in the spring. I look forward to moving on to the sequel The Brunist Day of Wrath, of which I’ve already read a tantalizing excerpt in Conjunctions (#60) a couple of years back.
At the end of the summer I confronted my crisis head-on and approached fiction again through the lens of some old favorites, namely Thomas Bernhard and Marguerite Duras. It was a bittersweet experience with Bernhard, as I was closing out his novels with his final opus, Extinction, and I had a mixed reaction, as I discuss in my review. With Duras, I discovered a new favorite of hers in Summer Rain, which regrettably appears to be out of print, though easy enough to find on the used market (or through interlibrary loan).
But it was Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren that truly immersed me in the wonders of fiction again. This one had been on my to-read list for several years, but its length led me to keep putting it off. I knew, though, that the frenetic pace of my reading had contributed to my crisis and I suspected that a long book might force me to slow down and allow proper digestion to take place. My hunch was correct, for Delany’s storytelling, while compelling and highly readable, demanded the downshift in pace that I so desperately needed to make. Review here.
Other favorites from the year:
Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou – defies description.
Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk
The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz – one of those books whose word count belies its depth. Plot materializes like a squid undulating in its own inky emissions.
The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf – “The paths we really took are overlaid with paths we did not take. I can now hear words that we never spoke. Now I can see her as she was, Christa T., when no witnesses were present. Could it be possible? –The years that re-ascend are no longer the years they were. Light and shadow fall once more over our field of vision: but the field is ready. Should that not amaze us?” (p. 23)
My reading goal for 2017 is to maintain a more leisurely pace—no more gobbling down prose like a pig at the trough. I want to allow literature to seep into my consciousness and take root instead of finishing with restless haste before moving immediately onto the next book. I see more long books in my future, where there is space to lie down and rest awhile, where the last page doesn’t come too soon, leading me to veer off in yet another direction before first taking stock and reorienting myself.