Some books to get excited about in 2015
I’m stealing a great idea circulating about the interwebs (I saw it on The Millions) and am going to list some of the books to look forward to in the first part (mostly) of 2015. Some of them I’ll be reviewing, but others are just going to make for great reading.
First, in just a few days, we’ll have the American publication of a novel already out elsewhere in the English speaking world, Amnesia, by Peter Carey. Carey–the amazing Australian double Man Booker Prizer–has written a lively, rollicking political novel chronicling the farcical downfall of a prominent left-wing Australian journalist chock full of theories about American-Australia relations and strange CIA plots in the 1970s. It’s prose is simply amazing, a pitch-perfect parody of media blowhard lingo, and dissects much that is wrong with a backwards-looking left as it tries to deal with the political scandal of a mysterious hacker–known to the protagonist–somehow freeing the populations of the US’s prison system in one massive internet attack. I don’t think we’ll read anything this well-written the rest of the year.
In early February, the amazing cultural critic Morris Dickstein does what most amazing cultural critics do in the twilight of their careers: he comes out with a memoir. It’s something like the culmination of a critic’s career: after all these years judging other people’s work, you get to talk a little about the person making those judgments, and the formative elements of that strange, powerful, insistence to be pleased and share your pleasures which we call one’s taste. It looks as if Dickstein is following in the venerable tradition of New York critics who also feel impelled to document the social history that surrounded them, as the memoir looks outward and recalls a lot of childhood memories, as well as later thoughts on changing neighborhoods. The book does this–along with profiling influences and teachers like Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren–rather than follow the more recent trend among younger critics in particular of talking directly about one’s intimate relationships with books and culture, characters and atmospheres of ideas. Though I’m partial to this new writing–with some reservations, since some of it is much too sappy–this historical view will be refreshing to see here, since few people can synthesize cultural events and place them in perspective so smoothly, so unforcedly as Dickstein. His writing always manages to be free from the chill determinist air of historicism, even as it always remains broad in scope. To apply this rare ability to the events in his own life should make for great reading.
In March we have Horacio Castellanos Moya’s new book, The Dream of My Return, translated by Katherine Silver–New Directions’ amazingly productive translator, who is worthy more mention and more repute in her own right. Castellanos Moya, of course, should be much more well known too, and not just by the sometime fans of Latin American literature. His prickly, hesitant style brings out the silences and neuroticisms that emerge when living in the shadow of violence, the personal and individual struggles involved in living in a violent society, and this is something Americans can relate to just fine. It may be more fun being mystified and awed and horrified and made paranoid by the grim carnival that is Roberto Bolaño’s picture of Latin American life, but Castellanos Moya keeps Latin American literature from becoming a kind of “Law and Order”-like, “ripped from the headlines” spectacle, by probing into more uncomfortable and awkward psychological dramas. It also suggests continuities between these hesitations and hiccups and the tradition of politics of resistance in Latin America, perhaps the one political tradition with staying power in the Caribbean and Central America.
In April, we have the book which makes me most excited: Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile, the first biography of Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell has always been recognized as a master journalist, his New Yorker profiles taken apart and analyzed by aspiring writers as perfect examples of the genre. But now, as the new interest in nonfiction storms the literary world, his reputation as an artist seems to be growing. Inspiring the New Journalism’s blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, but uninterested in too-often narcissistic narration used to do this work, Mitchell’s incredible and selfless devotion to his subjects suggests fresh possibilities in American writing, and now we get to know a bit more about the motives behind the work. His strange forty year silence after his last profile was published in the sixties–a silence which so strangely resembles that of one of his subjects (the strange “Professor Seagull” Joe Gould)–added a layer of mystery and complication to this artistic vision, and Kunkel’s explanation of it will be fascinating to hear.
Then, there’s Langdon Hammer’s biography of James Merrill. Hammer is one of the best critics in the United States, sure of touch, impeccably informed. Every sentence of this chronicle should contain some slight insight worth chewing over. Merrill, precise, poignant, playful, brilliant at wringing changes on form, but also perplexing, containing multitudes–Merrill couldn’t have been a better subject for him.
Then, Toni Morrison has a small novel (just under 200 pages), called God Help the Child. It tells the interweaving tale of Bride, Sweetness, and Rain, and sounds like it will be another baroque semisymbolic story like her earlier novels, less domestic than Home, more along the ragged, rough, untamed exposed lines of A Mercy. But that’s just an initial impression, and as always we’ll be sure to savor the sentences and the thoughts of which the book will be made up.
In July, we have the American debut of Xiao Bai, the Chinese author of Game Point (a 2010 novel about gamblers and hustlers) and movie translator. The novel is called Concession, and it portrays Shanghai in the 1930s with some vividness, as it narrates a story of crime and gangsters. We’ll see whether it proves a little too literal, a little too documentary, to be truly a work of art, whether it relies on its seedy background for suspense or gives us some real plot. What’s promising here is that the intrigue starts with a neat twist of just this sort: a man discovers one of the women in a photo he took has turned up dead. Hopefully, the novel will have more incidents like this one, charged with meaning and with a self-consciousness about recreating the past which shows it isn’t just nostalgia porn.
Finally, in September, we have Jonathan Franzen with his unbearably-titled Purity. You’ll have to read it, to do your cultural duty, and naturally you’ll also have to admire its prose, as well as respect its moral aspirations. What is in truth so exciting about this book is not the book but the ferment already surrounding it. Franzen has only become more and more a crusader since his last big brick Freedom hit bookstores. He seems more focused in his mission. At the same time, that mission seems more and more doomed as the realities of his Aughts-era-angst about the fragmentation and political polarization of American culture fade further and further into irrelevancy. I’m anticipating some backlash by a less moralistic, more vivacious, more scrappy younger generation of readers. It will be glorious fun to watch, another great event in this upcoming book season.