My Summer Reading, or How I Spent a Few Months Desperately Avoiding the Literature of Narcissism

Way back in 1987 or 1988, I was at a party in New York City hosted by my girlfriend’s sister.  At the time I was a college student who was deeply infatuated with the notion of becoming a writer – a poet, a short story writer, maybe a novelist someday.  I loved to spend my days reading, thinking about the construction of stories and poems, getting into conversations about Milan Kundera, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton.  That night, I met Jenny Egan, who was an emerging writer who had recently published a story in The New Yorker.  Jenny was lovely, not only physically but in her generosity in sitting down and talking me about being a writer, about her work, about some of the books and writers we both liked.  It was pretty great.  I was a rather smalltown kid, about twenty years old, hanging out in a groovy downtown apartment, drinking cocktails and chatting up a New Yorker writer.  Now, it certainly helped that she was a good friend of the hostess!  But what was great to me was her willingness to not so much offer advice but to validate my place in the conversation.  That I belonged in that space and that conversation, and that I might have something valuable to offer in it.  It was wonderfully affirming.

Jump twenty one, twenty two years.  Although I’ve written plenty of poems and some stories, that’s not the path that I’m on.  And yet I’ve been lucky enough to follow my passion for reading and for talking about what I’m reading.  I’m an English professor.  And it’s every day that someone asks me, “Who’s your favorite writer?”  I always want to answer, “John Milton.”  Or Wordsworth.  Blake.  Alexander Pope.  Hawthorne.  Ben Jonson.  But that would do no good.  So I try to engage in a civil conversation about reading and his/her favorite novels.  I’ll be honest – it’s almost always brutal to someone who studies literature to have this discussion.  But it’s to be expected.

Nonetheless, like all other professors and like most other people, I try to keep abreast of what writers are doing and writing.  Which brings me to this past summer and what I encountered.  First a brief note: it took me some time this summer to get into reading again, but I found my way there.  I’m not looking to discuss every book I read, but want to highlight some in particular.

My early summer summer was spent with Nick Hornby.  I’m teaching High Fidelity this Fall and needed to read it and thought that Fever Pitch would be good fun considering my interest in the World Cup.  Let me be plain: Fever Pitch is not a good book.  I understand that memoirs are, by nature, focused on the individual telling the story, but I can’t seem to find any entree into this book – and I’ve been at it for about four months.  I want to like it, but I can’t figure out why I should.  Yes, his family situation sucks and he finds companionship and something larger than his own troubles in his loyalty to his team, but really it doesn’t add up to anything much. I haven’t given it a go in a while.  And while I’m about to teach High Fidelity, it reads like a young man’s novel – focused on his own woes, his own foibles and misunderstandings.  It can be entertaining, but is also rather solipsistic.

I bring these up because I read a third Hornby book – Juliet, Naked.  This is a novel I’d recommend, and the novel that took me into my summer reading.  Here Hornby finds a way to move beyond boyish obsessions into character study.  The obsessions are still there mind you, but now he is able to write from outside them and to recognize their limitations.  Part of this was his move to focus on a female protagonist – for at least part of the novel.  It did him good.  He might think about doing more of it.  t led him to be much more compassionate to his characters and the situations he places them into.  He learned to do more than play them for laughs.

Boatloads of friends and reviewers recommended Jeff in Venice, Death in Varnasi and I tried to give this novel a go.  Rarely have I ever found a novel so very difficult to get into.  I know lots of people love Geoff Dyer, but I just wasn’t willing to follow him – and I’m usually one willing to do so.  And I recognize that part of the point was to engage the reader in the narcissism of the protagonist in the opening section as a means to undercut that self-centeredness.  But it just didn’t work for me.  It was just self-centered as a novel, not a study of self-centeredness.

Which brings me to The Imperfectionists, one of those novels that got amazing press over the summer. But why, I’m willing to ask, do readers think this is a good novel?  It was reviewed pretty well.  How, I don’t know.  It doesn’t work structurally, not in terms of revealing something deeper about character or about the themes or ideas that it seeks to dramatize.  It’s a fine study of the evolving newspaper business, but it’s not a good novel.  It’s shapeless and lacking in any overall cohesion or coherence.

A brutal summer of reading this sounds like, no?  In many ways, yes, except for two books.  The first is A.M. Homes’s This Book Will Save Your Life.  Admittedly, part of the reason I love this novel was its setting in Los Angeles, where I spent part of the summer.  I gravitated toward the insanity of the novel as a reflection of what I was also experiencing in actual life.  But my deep engagement – and it was extremely engrossing not only in the basic storyline but in the way that Homes took us further into the characters’ lives – was more a result of Homes’s rather striking love of the story she was telling.  That might sound funny, but it’s not.  Homes came up with a crazy, eccentric story that wonderfully matched the irrationality of LA and she embraced it in not only the story but in the way she told the story.  And all along, she never lost her affection for her characters.  As I read this novel in mid-July, often late night in Venice Beach, I appreciated more her generosity toward these character than the zaniness of the story.  Homes was having fun, but she was also doing something worthwhile.  And I enjoyed being part of that as I read along.

And that’s what takes me back to Jenny Egan.  Of course I’ve kept track of her, reading her stories in The New Yorker and Harper’s and having a sense of what she was doing.  I didn’t get to The Keep, but wanted to.  It’s a novel that sits on my list of “What I want to read that is still new and what I haven’t read.”  An ever-expanding list, but also shrinking in its own way.  Jenny has never left that list – I like what she does with characters and situations.  What do I mean? That’s best explained by my brief take on A Visit From the Goon Squad, her latest.

How shall I put it?  This is a novel that focuses on the lives of a number of individuals in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.  It’s realism that doesn’t worry about being realistic, it’s fantasy without being particularly fantastic.  More than anything, it’s a novel that looks at a group of people in a stunningly sympathetic way that first delineates the choices they make, and then, over the course of the novel, takes the time to unearth the origins of those choices.  As such, I found it to be one of the most deeply empathetic novels I had read in a long, long time.  Egan doesn’t excise her characters’ choices, nor does she overly explicate them.  She places her characters in moments in time and allows them to be individual.

I think it’s fair to say that this is the most generous novel I have read in a long time.  Generous in terms of what she does with her characters, generous in terms of what she allows  her characters.  Most writers set up their characters and their narratives to conform to a novel’s “meaning.”  Egan refuses.  She’s strikingly empathetic (like Homes).  The space this allows for the reader is magnificent and welcoming.  Egan’s work in this novel is noteworthy because she can understand sympathy and empathy as complicated and sophisticated emotional responses to complex moments.

Plus, what she does with Powerpoint is pretty much beyond belief.  You might think I’m kidding but I’m not.  It’s a tour de force.  A powerpoint as an emotional blunt object that will bludgeon you with love.  I’m not joking.  Jenny Egan is not to be messed with.  She’s a writer, a great one.  Her novel must be read and engaged with.  She has always been a lovely soul, but little did I know way back when just what this woman could do.  And, for me, she points me toward an aesthetic that insists on a world beyond the self, toward others, beyond the narcissistic.

It’s not a new notion: Don ‘t worry about the fireworks, there’s really interesting things going on in the trenches.

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