American Pastoral: As Striking a Portrait of the Middle Class as Ever Existed

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Excuse me while I gather myself. American Pastoral is a slow burn with bountiful excursions down rabbit trails that really have no necessary meaning to the story itself. In a way, it is the only novel I’ve read that approaches the wacky writing of Dostoevsky (in the words of Hemingway: “How does someone who writes so poorly make me feel so much?”), by which I mean that Roth’s style is meandering, often with short conversations resulting in pages upon pages of text that lets the reader know every single detail of every memory that possibly comes into a character’s head. As a result there are moments in which a reader can be greatly frustrated with the text, encountering backstory after backstory of characters one can never be certain are even important to the piece as a whole. Yet, identically to Dostoevsky, when suddenly, as if by magic, Roth is on, what was once tedious becomes impossible to get enough of. Every word becomes as important as the last utterance of a family member on their death bed. In American Pastoral, these Dostoevskian moments pieced together form a novel that is perhaps worthy of being declared the great American novel.

In the same way that the Coen Brothers’ film, Fargo, tags itself with the phrase, “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere,” American Pastoral can likely be tagged, “A lot can happen to no one.” Roth’s protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov is a classic American man: captain of the football team, joined the marines, married a beauty queen, took over his father’s business, and started his own plans for a nuclear family beginning with a daughter. And it is these classic elements, almost prototypical checklists for the American Dream, that function to cement Swede Levov as just another successful nobody. By doing nothing but following the instructions of his father and the blueprint for happiness, Swede lives out his life as an inherently neutral person, minding his own business and making sure to keep his nose out of other’s. Yet this all comes crashing down when his daughter, Merry, who had been increasingly outspoken and ferocious in her opposition to the war in Vietnam, blows up a local post office and general store, killing a man in the process. What is chronicled in the pages of American Pastoral is Swede’s subsequent life following Merry’s act of terrorism and quick disappearance.

Swede can barely hear two sentences from someone without thinking about Merry and just where it all went wrong with her. The basic problem Swede has, however, is that absolutely nothing went wrong. He gave her everything she could have ever wanted. In his flashbacks that occur through the novel it becomes apparent that he let her rant and call him a racist and a capitalist pig who sells his workers out for profit and “unjustly owns the means of production.” And  often Swede has absolutely no clue what Merry is talking about, he does not even begin to understand what she is so upset about when he makes sure she knows that he agrees with what he can comprehend from her tirades. Feeling like he has no other choice but to cling to a hope, he chalks her rants up to being a phase. A phase in which she reads The Communist Manifesto and falls in with Alice Palmer on the weekends. Most of their disconnect hinges on Vietnam war, and whether or not it is good enough to be against it, or if more should be done. When Merry lobs linguistic grenades at Swede that contain the words “privilege” and “pig bastard” Swede has no idea how to take it beyond washing his hands of her ideology and then wondering how it all went wrong.

And that is the pure brilliance of American Pastoral. Within the relationship between Swede, the Liberal All-American Middle Class Male, and Merry, the leftist bent on revolution, Philip Roth contains and comments upon the entire American political spectrum. What makes the novel a work of genius is how utterly neutral Roth stays throughout it, despite the fact that in the first 100 pages we are made excruciatingly aware of the fact that this is the writing of Skip Zuckerman, not Philip Roth. That Zuckerman maintains his voice without infecting the way the characters’ opinions are given is masterful. Any disagreement a person has with anything a character in this novel says comes purely from the person reading. Reading American Pastoral with an open mind is to be pulled in so many directions from so many well-thought out perspectives that it is nearly maddening. As you read you get the same inkling that occurs when reading Dostoevsky, even when you enjoy it; the inkling: what the hell is this even about? Yet the novel keeps going beyond all thought possible. Swede has so many normal things to say, yet all of them read as if they are a revelation in this chaotic world. Merry’s bogus life truly is, in some moments, the correct way to live by pure ideology.

American Pastoral, at its best, captures a maddening and infuriating perversity that is at the core of America, namely that our values are unreachable. That doing everything right, living the American way and achieving the Dream, still ends in utter despair. Nothing one can do is good enough, and this is what Swede cannot cope with, nor can Merry accept. It is brilliant in all aspects, from its humor to its wrenching sadness. A masterpiece.

Recommended to: Those that have wondered what it would be like if Dostoevsky was an American.

Avoid as if it is a wholesome church super bowl party where the commercials are being skipped: This is exactly the sort of novel that seems absolutely pointless if you read it for plot and plot alone. There is no plot, just a frame of reference that masquerades as one. If you need that guiding force, then this one is not for you.

Lincoln in the Bardo: Brevity, Brilliance, and What’s to Come

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There are some novels that endlessly resist being succinctly qualified or explained in a way that enlightens the reader quickly and meaningfully as to whether or not they would be interested in reading such a book. These novels are paradoxes in themselves; a student once explaining the phenomenon to me perfectly through declaring Langston Hughes’ Harlem to be “depressingly uplifting.” That wondrous paradox seems to me to be the full function of great literature, or at least what much of it attempts to achieve. Just like all people, novels are multiplicities: containing at once profusions of happiness, sadness, hopes, dreams, realizations, darknesses, and memories, almost all of which existing in conflict in some way. It is this conflict within a person that, when brought to light and examined emphatically and empathetically, in literature creates some of the most memorable and beloved characters in history, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to August Wilson’s Troy Maxson in Fences.

But often these characters are achieved because we spend so much time with them. In Hamlet we have what can feel like a neverending cavalcade of soliloquies and monologues ebbing forth from the young prince. These give great insight into his psyche, but Hamlet‘s length is much noted, and perhaps works against the play at times. In Fences, we get the full impact of what it is like to be Troy Maxson because we are treated to his endless rantings on baseball, fatherhood, marriage, and everything in between. To be frank, Troy and Hamlet have an annoying, similar quality in that they never shut up. And this leads us to George Saunders’ chief problem in writing a novel. Namely, that he is almost too efficient to create such a character. Saunders does not need fifty pages to create a character we are just as attached to as Hamlet or Troy. In fact he barely needs ten. For this reason I can confidently say that I never expected a novel from Saunders. And if I got one, then I certainly did not expect that much out of it; Saunders’ novella’s and longer short stories usually being by far the weakest portions of his collections. Thus, when Lincoln in the Bardo was announced, I was excited, but also a little tentative. How will Saunders manage to give us a single character for so long and maintain what makes his writing so effective? The answer, of course, is clever, and cements Saunders’ already fantastic legacy as one of the greatest writers in American history.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a title with two functions; both of which are literal. A novel about the death of Willie Lincoln in 1862, it first functions as the simplistic taste of the plot of the novel: Willie Lincoln has died and is now existing in the Bardo, a state in which the souls of humanity exist inbetween one life and the next. Yet the title also points to the dual meaning of the word “Bardo,” which can also convey a period of a person’s life in which the norm is suspended indefinitely. While Willie is called to rebirth in the Bardo, Abraham operates in his own Bardo, wondering how life can ever return to normal after the death of his eldest child. Unlike what could be expected from a typical novel, however, Saunders does not simply alternate between the two characters, instead choosing a far more interesting an effective structure in which we spend hardly any time at all directly with Willie or Abraham, allowing him to make full use of his tremendous talent for brevity and efficiency.

The story is told through a variety of lenses. The setting and reality of 1862 is conveyed through “quotes” from historical documents concerning President Lincoln and his time in the White House. These “quotes,” however, are a heavy mixture of fiction and non-fiction, though all are cited, much like Mark Z. Danielewski’s novelHouse of Leaves. When we leave “reality” as such, we are primarily given the narrative through the triad eyes of three souls existing alongside Willie Lincoln in the Bardo: Hans Vollman, a man who died on the night before he could consummate his marriage to a much younger bride; Roger Bevins III, a gay man who killed himself after being unable to live a life alongside his lover Gilbert; and the Reverend Everly Thomas, a preacher who was denied entry into Heaven for reasons he cannot discern. The plot consists mainly of these three souls attempting to communicate with Abraham Lincoln in hopes that he will tell Willie that he wants him to move on to the next life without fear- Willie refusing to leave the Bardo due to his attachment to his father, and subsequently being assaulted on all fronts by demons and lost souls attempting to drag him to Hell.

Yet throughout the novel the story is moved from soul to soul, the cast of characters- though I did not count- likely numbering well over twenty. It is this reason that Lincoln in the Bardo shines as a novel, as Saunders finds the perfect vein for his uniquely efficient style. We do not become over familiar with a character, nor does Saunders fall into any heavy handedness. Perhaps just as well as his best short stories, Saunders has managed to write a deeply and profoundly human story in which he fully incorporates everything he has from black humor to the incredible ability to pull deep meaning and familiarity from the most absurd crevices of the human imagination. Like his best short stories, Lincoln in the Bardo feels like it is suddenly over, ending before a reader is ready despite having more closure than any short story I’ve read from Saunders since CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It reads as the culmination of everything Saunders has created so far.

Now we must ask: what will he do next?

Recommended to:  This novel stands completely on its own as a masterpiece that is both accessible while maintaining artistic integrity.Yet it is such a wonderful blend of postmodernism and historical fiction that it’s also almost a perfect entry point into more difficult reads such Mason & Dixon. While not for everyone, it is a high recommend for most.

Avoid as if it is losing your queen to a pawn: As with other non-linear narratives, there are just some readers who don’t enjoy them. Lincoln in the Bardo jumps more often than most, but it also does it better than most. It’s difficult to say someone shouldn’t at least attempt to read it.

Fates and Furies: The Space Between Who We Think They Are and Who They Are

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Fates and Furies, if a person was to read the back cover and take a guess at what it is about, appears, more than anything, to be a classic love story. Maybe there is some intrigue. Maybe someone is unfaithful. Maybe they are both unfaithful and that’s why it works. Maybe he is gay and she lets him do what he does on the side for the sake of their marriage. Maybe she is a lesbian who married by mistake but refuses to do something that would make him unhappy because, after all, she does love him. Once again, however, I have to scold the person who wrote the blurb on the back. It makes Fates and Furies into something it is not, namely a hyper-gendered, melodramatic romance novel. I cannot imagine the number of people that have turned down the opportunity to read it after being turned off by the sensationalized back cover. Well, before I go any further in this short explication, let me put it succinctly. Read this damn novel. It is good. Really good.

Fates and Furies is indeed about a marriage, but it is not a novel of marriage that is interested in taking marriage and making it scandalous in some way (See above). Instead it does something far more interesting. Lauren Groff takes two people and lays them bare, going into exuberant detail as to convey to her readers not only the characters of Lotto and Mathilde, but how both characters view one another. This is not a novel of an interesting marriage as much as it is a novel of how we need and hold on to our ideas of other people in order so that we may function as people. That to encounter the truth of someone is sometimes unbearable, and that what is hidden from view is often hidden for a reason. Yet the question Fates and Furies asks even more is whether or not these secret selves that we keep from even our closest loved ones can make us unlovable or even “bad.”

Far from a linear novel, Fates and Furies is split into two portions: Fates and (you guessed it) Furies. Fates is told predominantly from the perspective of the husband in our focal marriage, Lotto (a sobriquet for Lancelot). Lotto is a former evangelical who is shipped to an all boys school after he falls into a crowd that his overbearing mother disapproves of. Central to his story, and Groff deserves endless praise for this, are very male themes of over-attachment, the tendencies of men to view women as soteriological figures rather than flawed humans, and loneliness. While sculpted as a fully three-dimensional character, Lotto functions wonderfully as this vessel of familiar actions for a lot of men. He holds antiquated views despite loving a powerful woman, he wishes for purity in his wife, and he refuses to really interact with who she is, often making up stories about her past, a past that she does not offer up freely to him. Lotto, and I mean this in the best possible way, reads like a person who feels endlessly incomplete. And he tries to fill his incompleteness with an idea of his wife.

Likewise, Furies concerns itself fully with Mathilde and what she has withheld from Lotto and why she did it. Like Lotto, Mathilde is crafted to perfection, holding within her all elements of humanity, from the pure weakness found in total pettiness to the strength found in confident solitude. Mathilde is constantly struggling to live out of the shadow of Lotto, feeling compressed by the idea of being a wife, someone destined by history to be a background figure. What Groff places in her so extraordinarily is Mathilde’s ability to know what Lotto can and cannot handle. There is a strength of difference in her that seems to be only found in truly powerful women that I rarely read in novels. She oozes multitudes, functioning as an iconoclast to all female archetypes. She refuses to meet Lotto’s idea of her, and in this way she triumphs over the the entirety of the novel, even when, at times, one must ask whether or not she is simply beyond the pale in her actions.

Lotto and Mathilde hold, on top of the weight of their relationship, the rush of great plays, both tragedies and comedies. They and their friend’s names bring to mind Arthurian Knights and Shakespearean Drama, and this classicism combined with fresh modernity makes the novel an endless delight with almost no dull moments. We find Lotto in his plays (excerpts of which are littered throughout the pages of Fates and Furies) and we find Mathilde in her past. Yet somehow they meet in the middle and work, the reader constantly aware that they seem to know nothing about the other one. Each one functioning as the Sphinx’s riddle to the other; only after they solve it do they understand they didn’t really desire to.

Fates and Furies outstrips all expectations that can be put upon it. It captures the human condition and spirit so well that if one is paying attention, moving beyond the temptation to dismiss it as pretentious or condescending in its mode of being, they might find themselves changed in an eye-opening manner. It is a novel to shake the ground you walk upon.

Recommended to: This is a novel written in an almost obnoxious American literary voice. Its confidence in itself will attract some in the way that reading classics does, yet it will delight with breaks from its classic prose into opera and plays.

Avoid as if it is remembering that 2016 really happened: If you hate classics then you will not enjoy Fates and Furies, as it feels more like a classic than it does a contemporary novel.

 

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Disappointment and Life Itself

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I swear that I have had The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in my hands, in line to check out, at the counter, with my debit card out ready to pay for it, at least five or six times in the past year. It is, across the board, the novel I always think, “I should read that” more than any other novel, and also the novel I just end up saying “no” to the most. It has not been an active “no.” I have not gone out of my way to avoid reading Diaz’s supposed masterpiece, I have just consistently found ways to bother reading something else entirely. However, recently having walked into Half-Price Books with the idea of spending at least thirty bucks in hopes of getting my hands on several award winning novels that my fellow humans have mistakenly bought in hopes of a simple beach read and wound up turning in for cash or credit, I found, among speculation on Naked Lunch and other mind-trips, Junot Diaz’s novel and decided enough was enough; I needed to buy the book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has something going for it that few books have at this particular moment in history: uniqueness. And this uniqueness which inhabits it makes the relativity typical family history that inhabits the pages of Wao something wonderful to behold. Much of this uniqueness is thanks to the narrator of the novel, Yunior, whose voice is both insightful and delightfully crude and normal. The prose of Wao makes no attempt to portray what is expected from the typical, Literary American tradition. Instead, Yunior’s voice is the voice of a person you run into on the street, telling a story in aphorisms and expressions you may or may not have heard before, but likely never in this context. And it is the way in which the story is told that makes a book about a character that would likely fail to be memorable in most instances, cherishable and compelling.

To boil it down, Wao is a novel about Oscar Wao, Dominican-American man who atypically – according to Yunior – has absolutely no game. As the joke is commonly expressed, Oscar might just be the first Dominican man to ever die a virgin. Yet this is not due to Oscar’s lack of trying. The problem with Oscar, once again, depending upon who you ask, is that he is a member of the Cabral family, every member of which has been cursed with a Fuku by the now deceased dictator of the Dominican Republic, El Trujillo. And this Fuku is a larger focal point of Wao than Oscar Wao himself. Of the 335 pages in my edition, less than 150 are spent with Oscar. The majority of the novel is actually a history of Oscar’s mother and her father, Abelard – who brought the curse upon the family when he refused to let Trujillo sleep with his oldest daughter. These portions of the book are filled with footnotes (interesting footnotes that, for once, do not just feel like a rip off of David Foster Wallace and truly enhance the novel).

The reader’s experience of Oscar actually comes not through Oscar – who we never have the thoughts of, and who has very few lines of dialogue, all of which are hysterical in their oddness – but through the enormous impact Oscar must have had on Yunior, who, despite retaining the manner of the jock he made himself out to be when he first encountered Oscar, makes the sort of references you would expect Oscar to make. The novel is filled to the brim with analogies to The Lord of the Rings (Trujillo is often described as though he is Sauron), Dune, and Dungeons and Dragons (when people run into Trujillo’s secret police and get beaten to near death, it is usually mentioned the amount of hit points they lost in the ordeal). And in a way, the enormous amount of references to Oscar, the way that Oscar holds people together from a distance, represents the point of the novel. There is absolutely nothing about Oscar Wao’s life that is deserving of the title of the novel, but it is his absurdity, his paradoxical normal uniqueness, that binds so many people together who came into contact with him. It’s difficult to know whether or not Oscar breaks the Fuku on the Cabral family, but it is his choice to not accept the Fuku’s control of his life, to refuse the tough breaks and follow his heart, that makes him the most wondrous of all the characters involved.

Diaz’s novel is a delight, a wonderful experience of human bond found in the most unlikely of places. It is a testament to the fact that even at your lowest you matter more to those around you than you could possibly comprehend. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel that many people, even if they don’t realize it, need.

Recommended to: This book is a nerd’s delight. It carries within it all aspects, from the special joy to the contempt and loneliness.

Avoid as if it’s an angry kangaroo: There is a lot of crudeness in the novel, and while I don’t care, I’ve met enough people in my life that would be distracted by it that I feel the need to warn them.

Moonglow: Love Between the Chaos

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My relationship to Michael Chabon’s novels is most assuredly love/hate. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a novel that’s quality I would put up against nearly any book a person could read, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was a novel that I really liked, but could not enjoy quite as much as I was expecting to simply due to the style in which it was written. Meanwhile the other two novels I’ve read by Chabon, Telegraph Avenue and Gentlemen of the Road, rarely jived that well with me. Often I found them extremely confused at what they were doing, or, in the case of Gentlemen of the Road, annoying and frustrating. And really this will always be both the greatness and the danger of Chabon; when a writer is as talented as he is at bending genres to his will in an effective and appealing way, sometimes he’s going to be using a genre that just does not line up with a reader’s interests. In the case of Moonglow, however, Chabon manages to stay in a lane that is thoroughly enjoyable while still creating deep meaning in way that is neither cynical nor trite.

Moonglow is the fictional memoir of Chabon’s maternal grandfather, who, after being restrained and muted throughout all of Chabon’s childhood, opened up as he lay dying of cancer in his final days. While the novel is ostensibly concerned with his grandfather’s experiences in Nazi Germany and his lifelong love of Rocketry, – in particular the infamous V-2 Rocket, as inseparable from Thomas Pynchon as it is from Werner von Brahn – Moonglow is also very much the love story of his grandfather and his grandmother. Depending upon the reader, one story the book is telling may seem infinitely more appealing than the other, but Chabon does a terrific job of making both his grandfather’s stories – tracking the V-2 and maintaining a relationship with his grandmother – equally appealing. While the story skips around almost constantly, story threads picked up randomly and left just as often, there is no disappointment in leaving one timeline and going to another. While at times this necessarily disjoints the flow of the novel by causing the reader a brief moment of confusion in attempting to figure out which timeline he or she has rejoined, Chabon’s earns this difficulty with the strength and coherence of the narrative.

If one aspect of the novel can be lobbied against it, it is that this disjointed narrative is the only risk Chabon takes in all of Moonglow. More than any other story that I have read by him, Moonglow plays it safe, which, for a writer such a Michael Chabon results in a very satisfying novel moreso than it might for lesser novelists. However, what usually makes stories masterpieces – and I think it is to Chabon’s credit that I expect nearly everything the man does to be a masterpiece, however unfair that is – is the amount of risks they take and just how many of those risks pay dividends by the end of the book. That Moonglow ends up being “just a story” rather than something more experimental and satisfying in its pay off such as it has come to be expected from Chabon does work against the novel. Yet, this is all just to say that it’s not quite on the level of, say, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, nor does it have the technically and intellectually satisfying moves of Kavalier and Clay, and despite that, Moonglow is still an outstanding novel that will leave anyone deeply moved.

As the novel comes to a close the reader will find themselves quite unaware of just how “bad” a life both Chabon’s grandparents have had from a logistical standpoint. When Chabon’s mother puts it into such harsh words, I found myself shocked to realize how right she was, but also how it hadn’t felt that way at all. Despite their heartbreak, I had found his grandparents’ life to be magical and exciting, not so simple as she puts it:

“She went crazy. His business failed. They couldn’t have children of their own. He went to prison. HRT gave her cancer. I shot his brother in the eye and then married a man who cost him his business. When were they happy?”

Such a laying bare of the situation makes one ask the same question: When indeed? And the beauty of Moonglow is found in Chabon’s response to his mother. The answer to why the book maintains a lovability beyond its means and attempts.

“In the cracks?”

And so somewhere, apart from the bare bones of what exactly happens in life, is where our lives really find their meaning. That when we look back at all the things that are memorable and mattered, we often fail to remember what got us from moment to moment and kept us full of love and liveliness: the space between.

Recommended to: Chabon fans, obviously. Yet this is also a fantastic place to begin with Michael Chabon as an author. If you enjoy this, you have a lot of cause to read his others.

Avoid as if it is skipping an episode of Rick and Morty: First novel in awhile that it is difficult to imagine someone really not enjoying it in the end. There is a lot to love here, and the mix of memoir and fiction has mass appeal.

The Goldfinch: Dickens Meets Salinger for Drinks

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The Goldfinch is exactly the sort of novel that a good many people clamor for the chance to hate. Not only is the novel long (my edition is a whopping 864 pages), but above everything else, above all other themes, it is a novel obsessed with art. Not necessarily art in its full breadth, though there are hints of movies and novels within the pages, but primarily art as paintings, and the effect art has on our lives. The quote that begins part four, the final part, the denouement, is from Nietzsche: “We have art in order to not die from the truth.” And really, this is a quote that describes the entire arc of The Goldfinch’s complicated protagonist, Theo Decker.

The Goldfinch is first and foremost a coming of age novel. Theo Decker begins the novel as a 13 year old punk kid who loses his mother in a right-wing terrorist bombing of an art-gallery in New York. Separated from his mother before the blast, upon coming to, Theo stumbles upon a dying man who gives him a ring and tells him to take a painting (Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch”) from the gallery. In the midst of the chaos of the bombing, Theo slips out of the gallery and returns home with the painting, not realizing for a couple weeks that he is an art thief in a post-9/11 world, something with increasingly serious consequences. After learning that his mother was killed in the explosion (this is not a spoiler, it is the frame of the novel and is oft mentioned on the back cover of the novel, depending upon your edition), he is taken in by the rich family of perhaps his only friend.

This opening section is chock-full of references to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which, if you’ve read this blog much, you know I am not exactly a fan of. Throughout reading this novel, I kept joking to people who asked me what I was reading, “Oh, something I ignored the warning labels about.” The Goldfinch, in nearly every blurb and review of it, is described as a Dickensian novel in every sense. Yet, it is only in this opening section that it really carries the heavy weight and dense trudge of Dickens’ writing. As surprising as it may be to call a novel both Dickensian and fast-paced, there are not many other ways to describe The Goldfinch. And where it saves itself from readers like me, the kind of readers who just cannot stomach Dickens, is Tartt’s turn into blending of Salinger into Dickens.

While most of the novel finds itself deeply entrenched within the world of art and antiques, spending time with people who seem completely other to the average person on the street, there is a distinct side of the novel that this world is juxtaposed with through the eyes of Theo Decker, who, as he ages, becomes a drug addict and the type of person that just cannot help but find trouble in every crevice. While Theo does not quite hold the same depressed and cynical worldview that Holden Caulfield did in The Catcher in the Rye, there is a similar vein they both have in their mode of being, namely admiring people who deal with them in truthfulness, even if the truthfulness is ugly, while despising those that seem to have an air of falseness around them. For Theo, the quintessential example of this is his father, a man who abandoned he and his mother less than a year before Theo would find himself in a burning art gallery. His father cannot handle being a father, a husband, or a provider. His heart leads him to wander more than anything else. Tartt, in a move that makes the novel great, balances Theo’s character arc with that of everything Theo believes he hates about the man. While The Goldfinch is pitched to readers as the story of a boy dealing with the loss of his mother, the novel becomes almost the opposite of that. As the story concludes, Theo is not meditating on the loss of his mother, but the newfound understanding he has of his father, a man he hated throughout the novel, and maybe still does.

In the same way of The Catcher in the Rye, The Goldfinch finds its protagonist existing in this state of perpetual forthcoming darkness. What makes both novels so gripping is the sense of dread that every scene places over Holden and Theo. One cannot help but get the sense that Theo is making all the wrong decisions, that at his most basic sense he really is just kind of a broken human being and there is very little, if anything, he can do about it. All he really knows is that, like Fabritius’ single goldfinch standing on its perch, chained to a moment, he too, is solitary, and he must make of life what he can with only that truth in mind.

The Goldfinch is a wonderful novel that accomplishes everything it sets out to do. At times it drags – it would not be Dickensian if it did not – but these passages end up being rare, and at most points you will find yourself wholly caught up in Tartt’s prose and three-dimensional characters. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give it is that I did not feel its length.

Recommended to: Those prepared for a trek through a difficult life told through great, but at times dense prose. This is not the easiest novel you will ever read, but Tartt does not expect so much without due reward.

Avoid as if it is going to the gym on January 1st: Oddly enough, I can see a great many people not liking The Goldfinch, especially those who just cannot enjoy long novel for whatever reason. There are typical Dickensian clichés and conveniences, and the ending is not typical of supposedly great American novels, but this is a difficult novel to gauge people’s interest in.

Top Ten Books of 2016

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In hindsight, my Best Books I Read in 2015 List was a little boring, and at best, predictable. I still stand by every single book on that list, but I’m hoping that this year’s list can tell you a bit more than what you already know.

First, the honorable mentions, the notables that just weren’t quite as good as these (but still great):

The Liars’ Club – Mary Karr
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
On Writing – Stephen King

And for the best of the best, out of the 42 novels I read this year, here are the 10 I thought were the best.

#10 Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

Cover of Gilead

I never thought that a book that started so slowly could so absolutely mesmerizing by its end. Gilead is the story of a small town preacher named Jack Ames who, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, sits down to write his infant son a letter that will tell him everything he would have been taught had he be able to know his father. While the letter begins as boring, prototypical things you would tell your child, when Jack’s best friend’s son returns to Gilead, Iowa and he is skeptical of his intentions, the letter takes a turn. Gilead is a fantastic novel that I highly recommend patience with, as it pays off in droves, with each character so well composed and offering so much insight into the human condition that it is deserving of any recognition it gets.

#9 Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon

AgainstheDay

Against the Day, to me, is Thomas Pynchon’s retry at Gravity’s Rainbow to make it less cynical and more sincere. It is Pynchon’s longest, and perhaps his most difficult, but it is a worthwhile read just to the the full arc of Thomas Pynchon in his move from some cynical, young idealist to an older writer that, while still well in-touch with the brutal aspects of humanity’s worst qualities, also knows the best of humanity and, more impressively, can write it earnestly into a novel.

#8 CivilWarLand in Bad Decline – George Saunders


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I had heard so many good things about George Saunders when I bought Tenth of December, that when it disappointed me, the disappointment was severe. But I was certain I was missing something, so I flipped a coin and ordered CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and it utterly redeemed him. In fact, the title story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” may be the best piece of fiction I’ve read in my life. That alone earns it a spot on my top ten list. Buy this book for that story alone.

#7 The Nix – Nathan Hill

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That The Nix isn’t #1 on this list is probably a grave injustice, as Nathan Hill’s debut novel accomplishes so much in conveying the struggles of its main character that it is a wonder to behold. The Nix affected me in such a meaningful way that I can’t necessarily say it isn’t my favorite on this list despite it being closer to #10 than it is to #1. While it at times tries too hard, it hits so well so often that it may be a masterpiece of American Literature. At the least, it is profound.

#6 The Instructions – Adam Levin

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This is the only novel I’ve read twice this year, and it is also the longest novel I read this year. Adam Levin’s debut is maddeningly funny and exciting. The story of a ten year old Jewish boy named Gurion Maccabee who will neither confirm nor deny that he believes himself to be the Messiah, The Instructions is a novel that is an exercise in midrash, offering up so many delicious meditations on Torah and life that you’ll find yourself having to remember that the main character is likely a terrorist, not someone to adore. It should be stated that beginning here, I would call each novel forthcoming a masterpiece, required reading for all book nerds.

#5 The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

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What’s more exciting than taxes? Everything, and that’s the point. The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s crowning achievement, and it is a tragedy that he could not finish it. While Infinite Jest is more entertaining, after reading The Pale King it reads like a young man’s novel, while The Pale King appears patient and wise, focused on everything that really matters. This is a novel about boredom and death, and its insights into both should be listened to with open ears and eyes.

#4 The Good Lord Bird – James McBride


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McBride makes the difficult look effortless in this novel that is as much about racism in the 1860s as it is about racism, homophobia, and transphobia now. The Good Lord Bird is a novel that teaches while remaining relentlessly entertaining and funny. McBride takes risks and paints what is absolutely a picture that is unmistakably his own. As you journey through the pre-emanicipated south with Onion and John Brown, you’ll learn as much about each character as you also will about yourself, whether it be your own prejudices or a good within you that you weren’t aware was there. And perhaps most remarkably, the novel is a pretty simple read.

#3 Fortune Smiles – Adam Johnson

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What Adam Johnson manages to pull off in these stories is unfair to the average writer, taking old themes such as loneliness and truth and making them fresh and new. Johnson will challenge the limits of your empathy, nearly always making his heroes detestable people in some way, or at least people who you just are not sure you should be rooting for. In particular, stories such as “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” and “Dark Meadow” are unforgettable and bold.

#2 Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon

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Without a doubt a die-hard Pynchon fan is reading this and has now closed the tab. If you don’t know, Bleeding Edge is a bit of a controversial topic in the world of Thomas Pynchon fans, some regarding it as the biggest piece of drivel the man ever put to print, others, like me, regarding it as a masterpiece. What you need to know is this: This doesn’t need to be the first Pynchon novel you read, but it can be the second. What Bleeding Edge shows is Pynchon’s movement into something beyond simple postmodernism. This book, more than any of his others, is full of love and care while admonishing his own generation for its failures. It is a deeply moving novel, and perhaps the only one of Pynchon’s to be accurately regarded so.

(Drum Roll Please)

#1 A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James


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This novel should have swept every major book award of 2015, I do not care what else was published. A Brief History of Seven Killings is as if the brainchild of Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce visited Jamaica and managed to encompass it within a novel. What Marlon James does in 770 pages is rarely done in literature, and has almost no comparison simply because it is so difficult: he has captured the essence of place through a select few people, letting them tell their own stories and letting morality be damned. The novel is impossibly complex, but also richly satisfying. It will reward endless rereads, and it earns them. It is far and away the best novel I read this year, standing above the rest as if on the top of a mountain.

That is it for this year, dear reader. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank you for stopping by and reading my weekly exercises in narcissism. My pace slowed halfway through the year, but I’m hoping that next year that will be be fixed since I have adjusted to teaching. Before you exit your browser, though, be sure to check out my friend Mattia’s booktube page, The Book Chemist. Make a point to watch his 2016 Top Ten list and subscribe to his channel. He is a brilliant reader.