A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Let's Talk About a Really Good Book

We've all been talking ad infinitam and ad nauseam about a really bad book, which has also had the effect of bringing out the worst in some of our discussions, so let's switch the topic to really good books for a change. The Sunday NYT Book Review (delivered on Saturday), announced the winner of its best novel of the last 25 years survey (Toni Morrison's Beloved), and the four runnersup: Underworld ( Don DeLillo); Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy); Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels (John Updike); American Pastoral (Philip Roth). I note that three of this five made my Personal Top Five Pantheon of the Last Twenty-five: Roth, McCarthy, DeLillo. This 3 for 5 hit rate merely establishes that my taste is appallingly conventional. I would have replaced Beloved and Rabbit with Roth's Sabbath's Theater (at #1), and Independence Day by Richard Ford (both of which made the top 25). These rankings are absurd but great fun and may provoke serious thinking about the books, so I'm all for it. A couple of notes on my choices. Sabbath's Theater's long elegy for the Jersey Shore of the 1940s is the opposite of the sentimental and the parochial; it is a universal meditation on the passage of time and the nature of loss, and the prose has a classical, understated quality that effortlessly sweeps the reader into its world. It is part of Roth's late-life burst of genius that now includes The Human Stain, American Pastoral and now Everyman. Richard Ford's Independence Day shares the mood of elegy so pronounced in Roth's late books -- and also traverses New Jersy, which seems to be taking on mythical dimesions in American lit. I've never encountered a scene as heartbreaking as the one describing the fatal suffering of the protagonist's young son, without a shred of melodrama or cheap emotion, and it is a passage that has never left me. Two things stand out for me in Underworld. First, the exhilerating rush of the opening sequence, "Pafko at the Wall." If you don't get the allusion, just won't get it. Suffice it to say, the passage covers a vanished ballpark, Jackie Gleason puking, and race in America. Second, a demonstration of why Jesuit education was once so good, involving a description of plain black clerical shoe. I would also point out that there is not an awful lot of anything like the Catholic sacramental imagination in most of the top 25 books (though the list includes Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, which I've never heard of, much less read, so I guess I need to reserve final judgment). The universe of most of these books is disenchanted, with a sense of loss replacing the enchantment, particularly in Roth. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, however, is mythic in its tone and worldview, though profoundly prechristian. The top 25 also includes Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (which I would have put there too), a kind of American magical realism with mythic overtones. But these books are. in general, much less God-besotted or God-struggling than many others from earlier generations. A.O.Scott, in writing about the list, points out how few of the authors of the top 25 were baby-boomers; the authors of the top 5 were all born in the 1930s. The only boomers in the top 25 are Maryanne Robinson for Housekeeping and Tim O'Brien for The Things They Carried. Shocking! Are we boomers suffering from terminal irony? -Mark



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I beg your pardon!I thought it was a rather good mystery and enjoyed reading it very much.Perhaps you should have:" What I think is a really bad book."Thank you. I'll take it as such.

Mark,As Andre stated it is your opinion. Secondly, literature is art and the definition of art is that it pleases, albeit to each her own.

One small correction - it's Marilynne Robinson.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment