The Best Books and Non-Books of 2013
Why you should Facebook stalk your new favorite writer and read more poetry in 2014.
Justin Taylor is the author of Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and The Gospel of Anarchy. His next book, Flings, will be published in August 2014. Find him online at http://www.justindtaylor.net/.
Tampa, by Alissa Nutting (Ecco)
Alissa Nutting’s debut novel inspired me to do two things I almost never do. First, I paid full price for the hardcover, despite knowing that I could probably have gotten the publisher to send me a free “review” copy. Why? Well, the right answer is that it’s important to support independent booksellers, and if you want people to buy your books you should buy other people’s—but those aren’t the real reason I bought Tampa. The real reason was that after reading the first five pages in a bookstore, I was hooked. Nutting’s novel is narrated by Celeste Price, a ridiculously attractive sexual predator who has taken a job as a junior high school teacher to gain access to adolescent boys. Celeste is conniving, vicious, amoral, and explicit in a way that would give her great progenitor, Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, a heart attack. Objectified to the verge of dehumanization by her own hotness, her predations are largely ignored by a hypersexualized and hypocritical world that only sees her in terms of its own desires. I finished the book the day after I bought it, which was when I did the second thing I almost never do and is not at all creepy: I went on Facebook, tracked Alissa down, and sent her a fan letter. It read: “Alissa, I just finished reading TAMPA, which I bought yesterday, and couldn't resist offering my admiration & cheers. It's so blistering and relentless and smart. I especially dug the stuff about Celeste's fear of aging; the cultural desire to have/be the Eternal Teenager. (When she thinks about offering beauty cream to Jack! Holy Christ!) The last lines were like a blast of freezing wind across the beach; just perfect. I could go on but I guess I shouldn't. So again: great job & congrats; may it go far and leave burning wreckage in its wake.” (If you’re wondering, she sent a nice note back and does not seem to be that scared of me.)
The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions In a Culture of Easy Answers, by Curtis White (Melville House)
The only thing more irritating than an evangelical Christian is an evangelical atheist. In The Science Delusion, White assails and dismantles the ideological inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the Dennett-Dawkins-Hitchens set, but his greatest disgust is reserved for TED Talks, Richard Florida, Jonah Lehrer, and the broader cult of tech: “The ideology of science insists that… [w]e are like computers, or systems, and so is nature. Therefore, no one should be surprised if our lives are systematized” by our employers, our government, or the various corporations that tell us that our doing their market research and product placement for them is a thing called “social networking.” White’s model for resistance is the Romantic tradition: Schiller, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, etc. The Romantics evinced a deep intellectual curiosity about science and the natural world, while still insisting on the primacy of the individual over the polity, the man over the machine. Though White’s tone can be hectoring and smug (which seems to be de rigeur for the genre... not that that makes it any less obnoxious), the book is short, rife with intriguing suggestions for further reading (Schiller’s Essays—who knew?), and, most importantly, will give you everything you need to piss off the people you’re trying to piss off.
The Magnolia Electric Co. 10th Anniversary Reissue, by Songs:Ohia (Secretly Canadian)
It’s hard to believe that Songs:Ohia’s seminal and still jaw-dropping record The Magnolia Electric Co. is ten years old. It’s harder still to believe—and a crying sin—that front man/mastermind Jason Molina did not live to see and celebrate the anniversary (he died in March). Listen: I’m not one of those people who thinks that song lyrics are poetry (the conflation is pernicious to both traditions, excusing lazy readers who get their “poetry” via Spotify, while at the same time devaluing the role of actual, you know, music in music), but that’s not to say that lyrics can’t be poetic—or a poet’s lines musical. And anyway, the real issue here isn’t whether I can justify this record’s inclusion on my list, but rather the fact that the record’s so fucking great this list wouldn’t be complete—or honest—without including it. Molina’s lyrics are rough-hewn and haunted by a set of images and ideas—ghosts, highways, hearts, lightning, the moon, to name a few—that make his records feel a bit like sestinas or pantoums, poetic forms built around recursive variation. The reissue comes with an hour’s worth of bonus material, including demos of the Magnolia songs,plus two tracks from the sessions that didn’t make the album: “Whip Poor Will”, which ended up on 2009’s Josephine, and “The Big Game Is Every Night”, which never ended up anywhere and finds Molina in full-blown Neil Young-circa-On The Beach mode. It’s heartbreaking that Jason Molina is gone, and the only consolation—if it is one—is that the body of work he left behind is like the soundtrack to heartbreak itself.
Even Though I Don't Miss You, and hey, why not, while we’re at it, Heavy-handed, by Chelsea Martin (respectively: Hobart, therumpus.net/)
I don’t remember exactly when Chelsea Martin started publishing Heavy-handed, or when I started reading it, but 2013 was the year I gradually realized that her comic was my favorite thing on The Rumpus. When I saw a small announcement from Hobart press that they had released a book of her poetry (prose? prose-poetry? whatever...), I immediately ordered a copy. Even Though I Don’t Miss You is a pocket-size paperback that clocks in at under a hundred pages. Martin’s a brooding minimalist who is great on relationships, the choreography of neurosis, and the feedback loop between selfishness and self-abnegation: “I momentarily forgot that you were not just an appendage to me and I said, ‘Do you want to make an OkCupid account?’ / You said, ‘What are you talking about?’ / I said something unintelligible while piecing together newly forming ideas such as the fact that you were a separate body from myself, that we were dating, that what I said was unprofessional, and that ‘unprofessional’ wasn’t the right word to use to describe my behavior, since this wasn’t a workplace…”
Soul in Space, by Noelle Kocot (Wave Books)
Like letters from an intimate but mysterious and transient friend, a new Kocot volume appears every two or three years, always anticipated but never quite expected, and brimming with strange surprise. Kocot is a profound—and profoundly hermetic—elegist and mystic. Since the death of her husband in 2004, Kocot’s poetry has borne the scars off loss—personal as well as cosmic, though Kocot would likely reject the distinction—and has devoted itself largely to the work of mourning, in what has sometimes seemed to be a private language of ecstatic sorrow. It is only in her two most recent collections—2011’s The Bigger World, and now this new volume—that the vice-grip of grief has begun to loosen. The newer poems have embraced a (relative) transparency of image and idea, as well as a playfulness that gives me hope that Kocot’s long winter may be yielding, finally, to spring. “Enjoy yourself,” she writes in a poem called “After the Feeding”: “Encourage / The memory of restoration. Locusts / Ate us, and then they stopped in their / Colorful tracks.”
Woke Up Lonely, by Fiona Maazel (Graywolf)
I reviewed Fiona Maazel’s second novel in Bookforum this past spring, and since then my estimation of the book has only grown. I’ll happily quote myself: “a deeply felt and wildly original novel that repays the attention it demands, and once read won’t be soon forgotten. There are sharp jokes on every page, luridly bad sex, and a passel of outrageous conceits—a secret wonderland in tunnels beneath Cincinnati, an airplane custom painted with the original cover art for Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a basement orgy—but unlike in [her also excellent first novel, Last Last Chance], here the darkness is inexorable, and will not be denied.”
Three Older Books I Got Around to Reading for the First Time this Year and Am Putting on This List Because I Loved Them, So There:
Open City, by Teju Cole (Random House, 2011)—I guess I thought that this book was like Sebald for hipsters, and so ignored it when it first came out. I finally picked it up over the summer and liked it so much I made two of my undergraduate classes read it, and the quality of the discussions it yielded—about character development, narrative withholding, the archeology of trauma, writing a city, and much more—made me grateful to Cole for writing it. If the hipsters liked it too, well bully for them.
Garcia: An American Life, by Blair Jackson (Penguin, 1999)—A sympathetic but thankfully not quite hagiographic account of the life of Jerry Garcia, with special attention to the development of his musical sensibility and his many side projects, i.e., the stuff that you don’t hear much about in band-biographies of the Grateful Dead. (Not that you asked, but my preferred Dead bio is Carol Brightman’s Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure.) I was sorry to learn that Garcia’s longtime friend and collaborator John Kahn was a fellow heroin addict, and viewed as a bad influence by much of the Dead family (Vince Welnick apparently considered having Kahn killed!) but it was delightful to learn of Garcia’s later-life enthusiasm for scuba diving. He liked it, Jackson says, because he didn’t feel fat in the water, and looking at coral reefs reminded him of tripping.
Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot (William Blackwood and Sons, 1876)—The friend who gave this to me said it was a lot like Middlemarch, only much, much weirder. It’s a fat Victorian novel with all the usual class and marriage stuff, but complicated considerably by Eliot’s ethos—unique in 19th century English novels, or really, almost anywhere—in which fortunes are ambivalent blessings that create as many problems as they solve. The novel gets weirder still when it starts paying a fetishist’s loving attention to Jewish traditions and proto-Zionist politics, developing what might have been a minor subplot into a central theme. The result is screwy and amazing, something that feels both meticulously organized and radically unhinged. Put another way: my friend was absolutely right.
“Monsters of Modern Literature” trading cards by Lincoln Michel
OK, this isn’t a book either, but deal with it. Lincoln Michel is one of contemporary literary culture’s great natural resources. He writes fiction and essays (sometimes for VICE), draws comics, co-edits the literary magazine Gigantic (which has lately expanded into book publishing, with a literary sci-fi anthology called Gigantic Worlds due out in 2014), and—perhaps most impressively—has a genuinely funny internet presence that never makes you want to kill him or yourself. Last Halloween, Michel drew some fantastic “Monsters of Modern Literature” portraits for Vol. 1 Brooklyn: Cormac McCabre, Bone Didion, and my personal favorite, Haruki Murderkami (author of The Grind-up Bodies Chronicle). The series was so well received that this year Michel made some new ones (Tao Fin, Golem McCann) and put the whole collection out as a set of trading cards. You can get them on Etsy or at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
The Best Book of the Year: Sam Lipsyte, The Fun Parts (FSG)
No hesitation here. No qualifiers or bet-hedging. No worries about overstating the case, or about the fact that I (obviously) didn’t read every book that came out this year, or about the fact that I know and like the guy. The Fun Parts was the best work of fiction by an American author to be published in 2013. The book is supersaturated with humor, depth, acuity, pain, a warped sense of grace, and the rolling thunder of Lipsyte’s matchless prose. A number of these stories first appeared in either The New Yorker or The Paris Review, but you should read them again now. There’s something about the gathering of their energies, the way they feed off and comment on and amplify one another—the recurring character in “The Climber Room” and “Deniers”; the acid fabulist explosions of “The Republic of Empathy” and “The Real-Ass Jumbo”, and I could go on but would end up reproducing the entire table of contents. If you’ve got time for one more book before 2013 is out, make it this one. And if not, well, there’s always next year.
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