BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 1, 2010
One of the perks—and curses—of my work is that new books and galleys arrive at my home at an astonishing rate, often four or five a day. As a person with hoarding tendencies who also happens always to be in search of ideas for pieces, I put an alarming number of them in the “to keep” pile. But when the books, like some out-of-control vine, threaten to choke everything in their path, it’s time for a year-end purge. Sorting through the last year’s accumulation, I discovered a number of books that I had set aside intending to write about but never got to. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it intended as anything like a “year’s best” survey. It’s merely a selection of books that piqued my interest but, for one reason or another, never made it into full-length pieces of their own.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. This book hardly slipped by unnoticed; happily, it received the accolades it deserved, despite the fact that many critics were unsure of what to call it: a novel in new form or a collection of linked stories? I’d argue for the former, if only because the book works largely on its cumulative impact: It ends in the same place as it starts, except that everything has changed, including you, the reader. The book cycles backward and forward—and then far forward—in time, relentlessly putting its finger on the most painful moments in the lives of its characters: a kleptomaniac’s surrender to impulse, a wife’s discovery of her husband’s latest infidelity, a journalist’s emotional breakdown during a celebrity interview, a teenager’s sudden, terrifying glimpse of the adult world. As for the much-discussed PowerPoint chapter, either you love it or you hate it. Along with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (which I wrote about here), Egan’s was one of my favorite novels of the year.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, adapted by Seymour Chwast. Chwast’s graphic-novel adaptation of Dante’s poem took a little time to win me over. Part of the jolt—in addition to seeing Dante himself rendered in the style of a film noir detective, wearing a trench coat and hat and chewing on a pipe, accompanied by a portly Virgil in bowtie, spats, and walking stick—is the diminution of the original’s language. Chwast retells the poem in a vastly streamlined text, stripping down each canto to just a few lines, and his drawings, too, are done in plain black ink. But Chwast uses the ordinariness of both language and imagery to his advantage to bring out the quotidian side of the Inferno. In his rendering, Hell looks like a kind of apartment building, with Dante and Virgil descending stairs onto landings where new horrors await. The “flame in a tower” that illuminates the River Styx comes from a generic lighthouse. Chwast’s Divine Comedy lacks the sublimity of the original, but it emphasizes Dante’s earthlier (and earthier) qualities.
Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, by Jessica Kerwin Jenkins. I admit that it was the design of this book that first led me to pick it up; I was drawn to its unconventional, squarish trim size and glittering, red-etched cover. But, once it was in my hands, this odd, precious little object had me totally absorbed. Jenkins writes that the book grew out of her abiding interest in the little treasures of life, from her childhood collection of trinkets in a jewelry box (an acorn cap, her father’s old watch face) to the years she spent covering luxury as a writer for a “slick magazine” (she was an editor at W, as well as the less-slick Women’s Wear Daily). Here, she has channeled her obsession into an idiosyncratic catalogue of the good things in life: hot-air ballooning, Champagne, top hats. Each item is explicated in a vignette just a few pages long, shaded with lovely observations. If the book’s fixation on delicacies sometimes carries a hint of the vulgar, Jenkins delivers her observations with enough piquancy to keep things from feeling too twee. In an entry on the “Claude glass,” a mirror that European aesthetes once used to frame landscapes for better viewing over their shoulders, she compares the glass-toting poets and artists to “modern tourists wielding digital cameras,” who likewise prefer the image in their apparatus to real life.
Last Words of the Executed, by Robert K. Elder. This extraordinary book gathers the last words of victims of capital punishment in the United States, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the present. The book includes some famous cases, such as the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and Truman Capote’s subject Percy Smith, but the balance is tilted more toward the vast sea of young men, mostly black, many with IQs well below 100, who constitute the majority of those subjected to capital punishment in America today. Elder explicitly renounces any political agenda, but the numbing sameness of his subjects, together with the touching mundanity of their last words—some variation on either “I’m sorry” or “God help me”—inevitably leads to certain conclusions.
Microscripts, by Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky. The Swiss writer Robert Walser, whom Bernofsky in her introduction calls “one of high modernism’s quirkiest, most mischievous storytellers,” has been recognized in recent years for novels such as The Tanners, The Assistant, and Jakob von Gunten. But he also produced a voluminous quantity of manuscripts written in such small letters—only one or two millimeters high—that they were initially thought to be in code. These so-called “undecipherable” texts have been painstakingly transcribed by a pair of scholars who spent more than a decade laboring over them. A selection now appears in a gorgeous edition from New Directions, accompanied by facsimiles of some of the original pages. Written on whatever Walser had at hand—a business card, the back of a torn-off calendar page—the texts are as odd and enigmatic as the paper on which they were recorded, aphoristic meditations rather than linear stories. “A person can be swinish in matters of love and might even succeed in justifying himself to a certain extent,” begins a selection called “Swine.” “One can say with a rather large degree of certainty that men seem to possess a greater predisposition and talent for swinishness than women, who of course are now and then capable of achieving excellence in this regard.”
Wide Awake, by Patricia Morrisroe. Insomniacs approach sleep like unrequited lovers: The more it spurns us, the more desperately we want it. Morrisroe’s book is a chronicle of her lifelong struggle with insomnia and the desperate measures she undertook to cure it: a night hooked up to electrodes in a sleep-study clinic, pills from Ambien to Zyban, cognitive-behavioral therapy and dream workshops, and a night in a Swedish “ice hotel,” where the temperature reaches a high of around 15 degrees. (The northern lights disrupt her sleep as much as the cold.) If chronic insomnia doesn’t rank as high on the scale of medical concerns as cancer or heart disease, anyone who experiences it knows how disabling its effects can be, inducing depression, impaired cognition, and even obesity. Morrisroe’s zeal in investigating her malady is tempered by a strong dose of common sense: As fervently as she wishes for a cure, she’s not susceptible to the lures of snake oil.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor for The New Republic.