- [Unnameable Novel 1] (abandoned)
- [Unnameable Novel 2] (abandoned)
- Little—Edward Carey
- Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond—Larry McMurtry
- Fools—Joan Silber
- The Library Book—Susan Orlean
- The Friend—Sigrid Nunez
- Grant and I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens—Robert Forster
- News of the World—Paulette Jiles
- How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea—Tristan Gooley
- The Quest for Queen Mary—James Pope-Hennessy
- Fierce Attachments—Vivian Gornick
The first column I ever wrote for The Believer, over fifteen years ago, provoked a mild rebuke from the then editors. I had made a little joke about a sentence in a novel I’d read, a sentence I had decided was infelicitous, and it was pointed out to me that the magazine was a snark-free zone. I was and remain a supporter of that policy, and, a little embarrassed, I removed the joke before publication. That tiny contretemps changed my reading life forever, and for my own good. I realized the novel I’d poked fun at was not a novel I’d expected to like, particularly; I had picked it up because everyone else was reading it at the time, and I’d wanted to ask myself, What is all the fuss about? That particular question is almost always, in my experience, followed by the answer “Nothing,” because it is rarely asked in a spirit of generosity, and from that day on I started only books that looked as though they were going to suit my tastes and needs as a reader. Of course, you can’t always tell, but disposition is all, and now I am always well disposed toward the contents of my fiction and nonfiction even before the first paragraph.
So what went wrong with my two abandoned novels this month? I got more than halfway through both of them, and one of them was really long, but I reached a point where I simply ran out of steam and patience, and each paragraph seemed to consist of a mix of mud and treacle. The shorter of the two was, I’m afraid, a what’s-all-the-fuss-about choice, an act of recidivism that was severely punished by Tedius, the wrathful god of Boredom; the longer one was bought from a secondhand-book store some years ago as a result of the gushing quotes on the front and back covers, but proved to be, underneath its corpulence, a much leaner work than I’d anticipated: one that had let itself go. Is one allowed to fat-shame a novel? I don’t suppose so. But I’m not going to post a photograph of it on Instagram, and I’m not going to name any names, so hopefully I’ll get away with it. Why give books up? Why not plough on until the bitter end? Because, young friends, we want to do everything we can to break the link between literature and grim duty. You wouldn’t stick with a long Spotify playlist consisting of music that displeases you; you wouldn’t wade through a Netflix series you were hating. Do reading a favor and treat it as if it were just like everything else you enjoy. You’re doing it in your leisure time. You don’t have enough of that.
Edward Carey’s Little, which I began shortly after giving up on the twin disappointments, was, now that I look back, a big risk for me, mostly because it’s a freely imagined novel about the history of Marie Grosholtz, who would eventually become Madame Tussaud. And Madame Tussauds, the famous waxwork museum in London, is a tourist attraction that brings my city into disrepute. I pass it quite often, and there is always a long queue of foreign visitors, and I fear that once they get inside and realize they have paid good money to see pointless, life-size replicas of Benedict Cumberbatch and Posh Spice, they will hate my country and all who dwell therein, me and my family included, forever. (In one of today’s cheaper newspapers—like, literally, today’s paper—there is a photograph of Lucas Torreira, one of my team, Arsenal’s, successes this season, doing Usain Bolt’s signature pose alongside a waxwork Usain Bolt. If he ends up hating me and my family, we’re in trouble. He’s irreplaceable.) Anyway, none of this matters, because Little is brilliant—horrifying, unique, savage, funny, sad, beautiful, and ambitious. Edward Carey had the extraordinary vision to see that this material could, if played right, enable him to write about everything that matters: love, death, war, class, ambition, politics, money.
As far as one can tell, Little uses history as a base and flies off every now and again, not in search of adventure—Grosholtz lived through the French Revolution, when she was frequently called upon to cast recently decapitated heads—but in search of a rich, heartbreaking interior life. She was held in slavery by her landlady; fell in love with her son; was sent to Versailles to be the plaything of Princess Elisabeth, with whom she also fell in love; was imprisoned, prepared for execution, and freed. Some of these things may be true, and many of them are apparently taken from Tussaud’s own memoir, much of which cannot be corroborated, and some of them Carey invents, gloriously. Google “Jacques Beauvisage,” the thuggish young vagrant that Marie and her household adopted and apparently tamed before he went off to do the revolution’s dirty work, and you will be led only to the novel; Google “Benjamin Franklin and Tussaud,” by contrast, and you will find that Franklin probably did know Marie. Little is the novel Dickens might have written if he had seen the films of Tim Burton (and had ever come to understand women). It’s even been illustrated, rather wonderfully, by the author himself, rather than by Phiz, the guy Dickens used. Tedius didn’t raise his head for a single page.
I wrote about my newfound devotion to Joan Silber in my last column, and I read Fools because I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to let me down. She didn’t. Like Improvement, Fools consists of cunningly, surprisingly interlinked short stories, which in this case wind their way through the last American century—in particular, the last one hundred years of belief, commitment, monogamy, integrity, all the things that complicate our lives and take us out of ourselves. The first story, the one that gives the collection its title, is about the lives and loves of a group of anarchists in 1920s New York, and the last is about a former investment banker and clubber now raising funds for lepers. “You don’t know what you’re going to be faithful to in the world, do you?” asks the narrator of “Two Opinions” plaintively, and Silber’s characters illustrate this unpredictability with a whole range of dilemmas, all of them carefully and intricately imagined. Silber, I can tell, is never going to let me down, and I will keep a copy of one of her books, one I haven’t yet read, on a special emergency get-out-of-book-jail-free shelf.
Finally, two books about books, and therefore two books about much, much more than books: Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. To say that McMurtry’s memoir is about his relationship with literature is to risk having you skip on to the next paragraph or page: Yeah, yeah. A writer has a relationship with literature. Big deal. But McMurtry, author of The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove, probably the best book I have read in the last decade, grew up in Texas, and not in Houston or Austin, either. He lived in Archer County, ranching country, almost uninhabited when his grandparents arrived there in the late nineteenth century; fewer than ten thousand people live there now. One of McMurtry’s neighbors when he was a boy was a woman who had been traded for pelts when she was a young girl, and who, when the author knew her, no longer spoke. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen is an elegant, wise, moving account of how he read his way toward Europe, a place so densely populated that writers “could no more escape culture than I could escape geography.” It’s a particularly rich book for an Englishman of my age and interests, I think, as I have spent much of my cultural life trying to head the other way—toward accessibility, excitement, vulgarity, the demotic, and away from snobbery, fustiness, and deadening Bloomsbury intellectualism. And yet I still think of McMurtry as a kindred spirit, to me and to everyone who has gotten this far into a magazine dedicated to the arts, and a column dedicated to reading. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen will take you two or three hours to read, and some of its aperçus and stories may remain with you forever.
Perhaps wisely, given the suggestion carried in her book’s title, Susan Orlean’s publishers have created a gorgeous, seductive object, and you’ll be on your way out of the bookstore before it even crosses your mind that you could have borrowed The Library Book. It has an embossed red cover that gleams in the sun, no dust jacket, and it comes equipped with a facsimile of an old-school slip tucked into its cardboard wallet. It’s a book I’m very happy to own, and a book I’m even happier to have read.
The Library Book is, at its core, a history of the Los Angeles Central Library. And if that sounds boring, then you have clearly never read anything else about that extraordinary city. The history of the LA Central Library is as colorful, bewildering, and quite frequently as insane as the history of Hollywood. Orlean takes as her starting point the 1986 fire that destroyed four hundred thousand books, reached a temperature of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and raged for seven hours. (Orlean wonders how she missed the news of the fire. Even though she was living in New York City at the time, she found it hard to believe that a literary tragedy of this magnitude would have escaped her notice. A quick trawl through contemporary newspapers explained her oblivion: the big story that week was another fire, at a Soviet nuclear plant in Chernobyl.)
Orlean provides a gripping account of the fire and its aftermath—a seven-year period, with profound psychological implications for grief-stricken staff members, a fund-raising drive, and an arson investigation. (Arsonists, it turns out, frequently target libraries.) But she also burns a book to see what it feels like, provides a brief history of book-burning both ancient and modern, and tells the story of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. There is also some startling but depressingly believable information about Hollywood’s use of the library: researchers used to chuck books out of the window to colleagues waiting outside, simply because they knew they’d be needing the books for a long time and didn’t want to pay the fines.
If you are determined to write a library-based motion picture, there are three or four ideas in here. I’d probably start with the Great Library War of 1905, when Mary Jones was asked to leave her post as city librarian on the grounds that she was a woman. The women of LA didn’t take this lying down, and there were protests; Jones, meanwhile, just carried on as if nothing had happened until she realized that her cause was hopeless. She was replaced, had already been replaced, by Charles Fletcher Lummis, an adventurer and eccentric who walked to LA from Ohio, and who published poems printed on translucent slivers of bark. His extramarital conquests were rumoured to include Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. His wife discovered a diary listing fifty such liaisons, thus scotching the theory that it was easier to keep adultery secret in the pre-electronic era. He was fired, in the end, for a great variety of infractions. Disgruntled, he pointed out that he had gone “to the roots of that Sissy Library and made it, within two years… a He-Library.” I think it’s fair to say that he would not have come to grips with the twenty-first century.
And, meanwhile, I keep buying books—about water, and Queen Mary, and all sorts. I don’t suppose I’ll read all of them, but I like to think I might, one day. Larry McMurtry and Susan Orlean and their books about books have left me with an appetite for anything and everything, just when I feared I was losing the taste. I can’t wait to start whatever it is I’m reading next, and finishing it, and starting the book after that. And so on, and on.