Edgar's Book Round-Up, April-June 2019
First of all, I realize June is not yet over. But I have read fifteen of the thirty books on my Goodreads goal, so it seemed like a good time to do another book round-up. It’s been a bit of an odd go, for reasons that will hopefully become clear, but we’ll see. Also worth noting is that most of the links do go to Goodreads pages; they are not subsidizing me, but it seemed more useful than anything else.
In any case, the reader may recall that, at the end of my last book round-up, I was reading a book I had sought — admittedly casually, and without too much concern — for about ten years, and that it was just okay. Reader, it continued to just be okay, and actually that might be a bit of a reach. The book was The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora, in a pretty good translation by Martin Ryle. I had been fascinated by it in since learning of it in the computer room of the library in Salina, Kansas: a book about the destructions of the library of Alexandria, told in part through more scholarly surveys of the extant materials and in part through fictionalized imaginings of critical moments in the library’s history. Sounds promising, right, especially if you are, as I was then, a deeply pretentious nineteen-year-old in the middle of some serious struggles? So when I found it by chance in the Half-Price Books in my town, while on a completely unrelated mission, I snagged it.
Maybe this is my fondness for stuff like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle and Le Grand Meaulnes speaking, but I almost would have been more disappointed if it had actually been good. The only real conclusion to a quest that has stayed with you like a weird rock in your pocket is, I think, disappointment. And The Vanished Library is, frankly, disappointing. The structure doesn’t quite pan out, Ryle’s translation is trying but can only do so much against the sidelong way Canfora tells his stories, which are often deeply unclear, and the conclusion, insofar as there is a conclusion, is as muddled as the rest of it. I am glad to have read it, if only to be rid of it, but for 200 pages, it was a goddamned slog.
Up next was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I would like to mention that this is another book that has followed me since that accursed period in Salina, Kansas, which gave me a few good friends and lot of worse memories. But somehow I still have a first edition, first printing of this book — some miracle of storage and shipping and friendship, no doubt. I’ll reserve my discussion of these books until the third and final one, but I would add that this first entry in the series took me a while to get in to, and it wasn’t until the characters had left Brakebills and the Harry Potter pastiche got traded out that I really liked it.
But what better to read after all this than Mark Fisher’s underrated gem, The Weird and the Eerie? Theory nerds have disdained it, even in appreciating the rest of his works, but I found it irresistible. As usual, Fisher’s intense engagement with ideas and topics was delightful, and while I have always been a fan of reading reviews of stuff I never intend to read, Fisher made such compelling cases for each of the pieces that he discussed that I would actually consider watching British sci-fi from the ‘70s (and I hate the British and ‘70s TV sci-fi, so you know it’s pretty damn compelling). I loved this book, honestly, and devoured much of it in one evening.
The Magician King, the second in the Magicians trilogy, came next; as mentioned, discussion of the trilogy is delayed to the third one. Unfortunately, me getting an opportunity to read it was also delayed: while I had the first two, neither Cameron nor I had acquired the third one. A friend thought he had it, and then couldn’t find it; I couldn’t turn it up in my local bookstores as swiftly as I’d have liked. Eventually, I caved in and ordered it from Amazon, to which I will not link now.
In any case, I had to do something to pass the time. And this is where workplace distractions come in. At my current job, sometimes I am planted at a desk and told to stay there until someone needs me for something. There is a computer there, and one of my bosses said it could be used to browse the Internet, so long as said browsing remained discreet and art-related (his words; I work at an art museum). Which is how I came to re-read J.-K. Huysmans’ decadent classic, À Rebours, sometimes translated into English as Against the Grain or Against Nature.
In any case, it’s a book I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to read in my early teens — but I did read it then, and it seemed reasonable to revisit it in the public domain and in its original language. I remember really enjoying it on my initial reading, but my memories of it had settled into that kind of blurry pool of sensations filtered through hormones and heightened emotion. So rereading it, while a fairly lengthy process, was interesting, for sure.
It was very much not as actually good as I remembered it, and the main character, Des Esseintes, now seemed less attractively reclusive and angst-ridden and much more like an obscenely wealthy asshole (though honestly, he’s a bit of both). Also notable is the fact that, of all of Des Esseintes’ romantic/sexual entanglements, the only one treated with any tenderness is his affair with a young man he meets by chance — which also sort of tells you how Des Esseintes feels about women (spoilers: not good). On the other hand, it’s every bit the handbook on how to be a French Decadent as it ever was, for better and for worse. If that’s your niche, it’s very much worth the read; if it’s not — frankly, the Elric books are more exciting and basically about the same guy, so I’d read those instead.
The next book I finished after putting that particular trip down memory lane in the fucking ground was Many Subtle Channels, a book about OuLiPo by, I think, the only American member of OuLiPo, who also worked on The Believer and I think has done some translations or something and basically what I’m saying is Many Subtle Channels is not a bad book, but it is a fucking insufferable one. It details, more or less, the history of the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, the membership of which has included such illustrious figures as Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and, best known of them in the Anglosphere, Italo Calvino. It also touches on some of the techniques used by the workshop, which basically posits that through constraint great literature — or at least, readable chunks of text — can be created. Also math? There’s a fair bit of math. In any case, it’s a body of writers and mathematicians who deserve more recognition, but I’d advise anyone interested in it to read, first, some of the works put out by Oulipians, and then perhaps dip into Becker Levin’s book. It’s that kind of wank.
Since I was still waiting for the third of the Magicians books to make its way into my greasy little paws, I followed that up with more wank — specifically, Terry Eagleton’s textbook, Literary Theory: an Introduction. I was kindly inclined towards Eagleton, having read much of his How to Read a Poem as part of a poetry class. I enjoyed the brusqueness of his style, which betrayed the kind of easy mastery of the subject matter that I find dangerously appealing. Literary Theory turned out to be a bit of a different animal: much more like a textbook, and as such rather less passionate. It was really only fun in the last few pages of every chapter, when Eagleton, a committed Marxist, would get into the lack of class consciousness, for example, of each theory outlined. It was fun; I can’t say I learned a lot, but at least I gained a passing familiarity with several different modes of literary theory, which was kind of the idea.
And so we come to the highlight of Q2, Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. It was at this point that I read The Magician’s Land, the absolutely phenomenal final piece. I’ll admit, The Magicians was a bit of a slog at first: the obvious pastiche of Harry Potter was grating — very much a well-executed but nonetheless tiresome trek through the tropes of Harry Potter and related phenomena, but with a distinct darker-and-edgier vibe. Honestly, it was a relief when the novel seemed to run out of steam on the goal of exploring how things would really go if you gave a bunch of horny young adults unbridled access to magic in a boarding school setting, and instead delved headfirst into everyone’s actual fantasy of getting sucked into another world and ruling over it, which consumed the back half of The Magicians and quite a bit of The Magician King.
Of course, that idea has been upended before: as anyone who has ever hung out with me for like five minutes can attest, I am a huge fan of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, the latter half of which was elided in the film and concerns Bastian being taken to Fantasia (as it is called in the novel) and making a complete hash of everything including his own personal integrity. And Grossman is definitely in similar territory. Quentin is somewhere on the complete asshole spectrum for most of the first two books, self-absorbed and somewhat unpleasant, and it is only through his personal growth in the wake of the events of The Magician King that he really becomes an interesting person, which, by the time we reach The Magician’s Land, he is.
Quentin’s development as a character (as well as the relative lack of bestiality, which appeared at somewhat unexpected junctures in the first two for some fucking reason; the fact that it both had been made known to me before I read them, I think, helped me enjoy the books more because I could brace myself a little) made the third book by far the most compelling for me. Of course, the similarities between Quentin’s situation and my own also helped: pushing thirty; wondering what, if anything, you have done or could do to make any kind of mark on the world; a rising tide of general physical discomfort that was really not foreshadowed in one’s youth. I can very easily relate to all — much more than I can to a shitty fucking dude barely out of his teens with a general air of entitlement and rich-ass parents.
The denouement for this season is Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet, the first volume of his Horror of Philosophy trilogy. As mentioned in my prior book round-up, I don’t read philosophy right, and also, I really liked The Magician’s Land a whole hell of a lot, and both of these factors contributed to my generally lukewarm attitude towards this work. Honestly, I should have loved it: Thacker marries a general sense of pessimism to mysticism and even Scholasticism in a very fun way, and his blend of references to a variety of media is generally something I enjoy in works that are more focused around capital-i Ideas. But In the Dust of This Planet didn’t quite land for me; I suspect Thacker could have used a better developmental editor, and his propensity towards gleefully coining neologisms like he thinks he’s clever or something was really annoying. It was a slog, but as I mentioned above, this may not be entirely the fault of the book itself. In any case, I’ll probably make my way through the other two, if only because Thacker’s project is very relevant to my own personal beliefs: as I write this, I am nursing a freshly-inked tattoo of a line from Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I’m all about horror and philosophy being blended; I just don’t think Thacker is doing it as well as he might.