2016 was a bad year in almost every conceivable way—and in many previously unconceivable ways, too. But at least there were some good books. Reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time helped get me through the interminable period of pre-election anxiety; reading Marie Ponsot’s Collected Poems has helped get me through the seemingly endless period of post-election despair.
I just finished watching the wonderful 2016 adaptation of War & Peace. (If you do one thing in 2017, watch the series and then read the novel, or vice versa.) Over the last week, I’ve been thinking about Pierre’s response to tragic despair: “As long as there’s life, there’s happiness. There’s much, much still to come.”
Easy words to quibble with. Sure, you’ve survived, Pierre, and yes, the life that remains to you might be a beautiful gift. But what about the many characters who didn’t survive, the many instances of life snuffed out, sometimes beautifully but more often meaninglessly and alone? (This was my wife’s response to Pierre’s voiceover towards the end of the series: “But what about [dead character’s name removed due to spoilers]???”)
But Pierre’s claim isn’t that tragedy doesn’t matter. It’s that life is blessed—not just in its moments of happiness but in its sheer ongoing existence. Pierre’s words remind me of the theological concept of creatio continua: that God’s creative act is an ongoing one; that existence is sustained at every point, even the darkest ones, by an act of divine love.
Good literature—Smith’s fiction, or Ponsot’s poetry, or Annie Dillard’s essays—can remind us of the sustaining abundance that continues in spite of and amidst the darkness.
The Abundance—Annie Dillard
This collection gathers together a representative sampling from one of America’s great essayists. Dillard is, perhaps more than any other living writer, Emersonian—not just in her fine attention to nature’s ferocious beauty (though that’s there, in piece after piece) but also in her incredible velocity of mind. These pieces jump from geology to theodicy (as Kaitlin Campbell has mentioned) to poetry and back again; they never settle down and they leave the reader exhilaratingly, sublimely unsettled. Dillard, it appears, is incapable of writing a boring sentence.
Ninety-Nine Stories of God—Joy Williams
This is the second straight year I’ve chosen a Joy Williams book. Here, read my thoughts on her most recently published book. In this slim gem, Williams thinks and writes theologically: as one story puts it, “We can never speak about God rationally as we speak about ordinary things, but that does not mean we should give up thinking about God. We must push our minds to the limits of what we could know, descending ever deeper into the darkness of unknowing.”
Private Citizens—Tony Tulathimutte
Like Dillard, Tulathimutte is above all a brilliant stylist, though he trades more in comedy than in theology. (To be fair, Dillard can be funny, too!) Tulathimutte’s first novel takes on that most thinkpieced demographic group, millennials, and offers sharp rants and riffs on social media, the pornification of American culture, the anthropology of the hipster, and much else. This novel had the highest laugh-to-sentence ratio of anything I read this year.
Means has made his name as a short story writer, and Hystopia is his first novel. A work of alternate history (kind of) that takes on the legacy of the Vietnam War, Hystopia is, as Means told me in an interview for the magazine, about trauma, memory, and history: “traumatic memory freezes time in a way, locks into it, and those who are traumatized feel unable to stay in the present moment because these horrific memories come in fleetingly, suddenly, and destabilize the sense of being present in time.” Imagine Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory fictionalized, transported to the Vietnam Era, and given a bunch of amphetamines.
Collected Poems--Marie Ponsot
This book should be a cause for celebration among poetry and Commonweal readers.
The Sport of Kings—C. E. Morgan
Morgan’s novel about Kentucky horse racing and the legacy of American racism is a masterpiece, the best new novel I read this year. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” The Sport of Kings demands comparison with some of the greats of American fiction: Faulkner, Melville, Morrison, Steinbeck. Read Morgan's interview with Commonweal here.
An olio is a stew composed of many different elements, and so is Jess’s formally and materially inventive book. Its central subject is the history of black artistic performance in the United States, with a particular emphasis on blues and jazz. But the means by which Jess grapples with such a lineage is what makes this book sing. There are sonnets and photographs and essays and imagined dialogues; there are pages that can be torn out and manipulated into three-dimensional textual objects. In writing about Millie and Christine McCoy, conjoined twins born into slavery who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and became part of the Barnum Circus, Jess creates a syncopated sonnet: the page is divided into two halves, with a poem on each side. The two halves can be read in isolation (first you read the left-hand poem, then the right-hand one), or you can read across the page (from line 1 of Millie to line 1 of Christine; then line 2 of Millie to line 2 of Christine; etc.), or you can read from bottom to top, or you can read diagonally. In each direction, the syntax and grammar work and meaning work. Olio, beautifully produced by Wave Books, is a book that demands to be read, re-read, and treasured as a material object.
Swing Time—Zadie Smith
Smith’s first novel to be written in the first person, Swing Time, like Olio, thinks about the history of black performance. In Smith’s case, though, the interest is in dance. The unnamed narrator is a lover of dance, from early tap to Michael Jackson, even if she can’t dance that well herself; by contrast, her childhood friend, Tracey, “had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells.” Smith’s writing is graceful and flexible. Unlike Olio, this book can just as rewardingly be listened to as read.
The Ghosts of Birds—Eliot Weinberger
Weinberger is perhaps most famous for a review in which he described George W. Bush’s Decision Points as an unwitting work of postmodernism—a book that, through its hollow prose and strangely absent central figure, calls into question the meaning of words like “fact,” “fiction,” “author,” and “self.” The Ghosts of Birds includes this short piece, and it’s just as good on a second read. But it’s Weinberger’s other essays that make this book singular. Though Weinberger’s essays are non-fiction and his sources can be tracked down, they don’t resemble what we tend to call “essays.” They aren’t, after all, the expression of a single voice in conversation with itself and others. Often, they are written from multiple perspectives, bringing together different voices and periods in a contrapuntal rhythm. At other times, they resemble an olio, a brilliantly curated mixture of strange facts and fragments of past cultures and histories. As a collection, The Ghosts of Birds reads like The Waste Land (originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices”), if the scraps and fragments cobbled together magpie-style were factual instead of poetic. Weinberg is trying to do with the essay form what Ezra Pound said the modernist poet needed to do with verse: make it new.
The Needle’s Eye—Fanny Howe
I’ll be writing on this book in the near future. Howe possesses a restless imagination and an ever-inventive style. She’s also Catholic, and this Catholic sensibility can be felt deeply in a book that meditates upon the Boston Marathon Bombing, the radical fervor of young adulthood, St. Francis of Assisi, Italian cinema, and much else.
Every year, New York Review Books Classics reissues wonderful books. Thanks to them, David Jones’s In Parenthesis, one of the great books to emerge out of World War I, is back in print; thanks to them, Renata Adler, whose novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark were reissued in 2013, has had something of a moment. Of the many books that the imprint brought back into popular consciousness this year, I’m most thankful for A Visit to Don Otavio, a travel memoir by Sybille Bedford, and Henry Green’s novel Loving. Bedford and Green are two exemplary stylists, though their styles couldn’t be much more different. Bedford’s prose is cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and chiseled; Green’s is knotty, earthily lyrical, slightly off from standard “literary” English (he often omits definite articles, for instance). Critics and the common reader have unfairly neglected both. Here’s hoping that NYRB Classics has changed that.