Man Out of Time: The Books

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

On the evening of January 4th, 2009, I was settling in to write about a post about my favorite books of the past decade (2000-2009), the final part of my Man Out of Time series. I was in the middle of my second paragraph when I got the terrible news that one of my good friends had been found dead of a heart attack. Yesterday was the first anniversary of Sang’s death, and the best way I can think to honor his memory is to get back to those books and what they mean to me.

(Actually, the best way to honor Sang’s memory came up last April, when I took his best friend to the final New Jersey Nets game to be played at the Meadowlands. Sang & I had plenty of good times watching the Nets at the arena during their run to the NBA finals in 2001-02.  I think of him every day.)

At a year’s distance, “the decade” still doesn’t make much sense to me. Literature, it’s been argued, has fragmented in ways that reflect our multicultidigital age. My attempts at following literary websites have been fruitless; RSS feeds pile up with entries about books I’ll never get around to reading.

Last week, I walked through a used bookstore I once adored, and I thought, “A generation from now, kids aren’t going to believe these places existed.” Half an hour later, I visited an upscale liquor store nearby and had a far more engaging conversation about gin than any I’ve had about books in months.

Pessimistic? Sure! I know I make myself out as some sorta classics snob, but I did manage to read nearly 80 books from the decade during its span. (I’m even reading a contemporary novel right now!) Sure, some of them were terrible, and very few of them would crack the top 10 of favorite books that I read for the first time during the decade, but my point is that I haven’t avoided all contact with the books our of times. I just have ridiculous standards.

For the record, here are my favorite non-recent books I read for the first time that decade, just so you know what the competition is like:

Essays – Montaigne

Middlemarch – George Eliot

The Power Broker – Robert Caro

In Search of Lost Time – Proust

The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James

Clockers – Richard Price

Little, Big – John Crowley

Alcestis – Euripides

With Nails – Richard E. Grant

Norwood – Charles Portis

Ajax – Sophocles

Yeah, I could swap out a couple of those books with ones from the past 10 years, but I did introduce myself to some awfully good older books during that span. I don’t mind being a bit out of touch with contemporary fiction, as long as I’m reading great work from the past.

Back to this era: I wrote a long post in the middle of the decade about the failures of modern literature. In it, I mentioned an evening I spent with book reviewer and fiction-writer David Gates and my pal Elayne, a writing prof at NYU. I asked them what books from 1980 onwards would become “canonical” (for lack of a better word). Which of today’s books did they think people would still be reading passionately 50 years from now?

“And,” I said, “take Philip Roth off the table.”

Me, I can’t take Roth off the table. He’s in my DNA. And on Christmas day of 2009, a few days before decade’s close, I read Everyman, Roth’s first short novel in what turned out to be his Nemesis Quartet. It was a one-day read on my Kindle, beginning in the early morning at my in-laws’ home in rural Louisiana.

I was puzzled by the shape of Everyman, which begins with a man’s funeral and tries to depict the marriages, illnesses and compromises that made up his life. As with every Roth novel I can think of, the women are more vessels for displaced anxiety than characters, but at least this novel admits the absurdity of our elderly Everyman trying to put a move on a young lady whom he meets out for a jog. It’s a crushing, painful scene, putting the lie to the notion that “though much is taken, much abides.”

Recent novels by Roth tend to go into great detail about specific crafts or vocations. The pinnacle/nadir was the glove-making segment in American Pastoral. In Everyman, that craft is grave-digging, and the unnamed lead character’s conversation about the subject is with the man who will shortly dig his. I’m certainly not doing it justice, making it sound obvious and heavy-handed. In an interview with the Guardian, Roth talked about the title of the book:

Everyman is the name of a line of English plays from the 15th century, allegorical plays, moral theatre. They were performed in cemeteries, and the theme is always salvation. The classic is called Everyman, it’s from 1485, by an anonymous author. It was right in between the death of Chaucer and the birth of Shakespeare. The moral was always ‘Work hard and get into heaven’, ‘Be a good Christian or go to hell’. Everyman is the main character and he gets a visit from Death. He thinks it’s some sort of messenger, but Death says, ‘I am Death’ and Everyman’s answer is the first great line in English drama: ‘Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.’ When I thought of you least.

Everyman didn’t take hold of me right away. When I began writing this post a year ago, it was an afterthought. But after Sang’s unexpected death, I’ve found the book inescapable. Does that make it my favorite? I suppose it has to. It may become the book I remember and return to most often from this era.

Here’s the best of the rest, by my lights.

Favorite Fiction of the Decade

Everyman (2006) – Philip Roth

Gould’s Book of Fish (2001) – Richard Flanagan – The runner-up. I just adore this novel about painting, Tasmanian penal colonies, love, storytelling and, of course, fish. I buy extras of the hardcover, with its beautiful, subtle color printing, to give out to friends.

Up in the Air (2001) – Walter Kirn – So much better than the movie. The narrator is apocalyptically messed up, not just “trying to make a connection,” and the depictions of corporate life and constant travel are tremendous.

Lush Life (2008) – Richard Price – I was torn between this and Samaritan, which are similar in tone. I guess I just liked the setting of the Lower East Side more than Samaritan‘s stand-in for Jersey City.

Carter Beats the Devil (2001) – Glen David Gold – One of the best page-turners ever. One of my pals said he started reading it one evening and the next thing he knew, his wife was asking him if he wanted orange juice with his breakfast.

Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) – Elliot Perlman – I’ve never read Empson’s literary treatise of the same title, but I adored this Australian novel of obsession, love and disconnection.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – Junot Diaz – I liked this a bunch, but I’m perplexed as to why critics didn’t figure/point out that it’s largely a prose mashup of the Hernandez Bros.’ comics.

The Immensity of the Here and Now (2003) – Paul West – The first real post-9/11 novel. I published it back in my micro-press days, and I still think it deserves an audience. You suck for not reading it.

Favorite Non-Fiction Books of the Decade

Moneyball (2003) – Michael Lewis – A year in the life of the Oakland A’s, as they try to use smarts to overcome their small-market status. It’s a fantastic book about revolutions in information and how smart people can identify market inefficiencies. Plus, it has an anecdote about Jamie Moyer that’s one of my favorite baseball stories.

The Good Rat (2008) – Jimmy Breslin – Through testimony transcripts and reporting, Breslin uses the story of Burt Kaplan, who ratted on some killer mafia cops in NYC, to evoke a weirdly more innocent era of evil.

George, Being George (2008) – Nelson Aldrich, Jr. – I got this for Sang a few weeks before he died. He’d made some remarks about wanting to get published in the Paris Review, so I thought he might dig this oral history of George Plimpton and the magazine. I kinda doubt he got around to reading it.

The Shakespeare Wars (2006) – Ron Rosenbaum – Longtime VM fave writes about the various ways of interpreting and staging Shakespeare over the years. It got me back into reading the bard. Also, I’m in the acknowledgements of the paperback edition, which has a horrible red cover.

79 Short Essays on Design (2007) – Michael Bierut – The best essays in this book are about the process of design and how it works in the world. The worst are about the uses of design for propaganda. The best outweigh the worst pretty handily.

The Other Hollywood (2005) – Legs McNeil & Jennifer Osborne – An oral history of the, um, adult film business. Wonderfully illuminating stuff.

Chronicles, Vol. 1 (2004) – Bob Dylan – I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. I have no idea how much was “written” by him, but the voice was much more personable and the stories more revealing than I expected. It’s allusive and elusive, in the best possible ways.

Letters from New Orleans (2005) – Rob Walker – A beautiful book about what New Orleans lost during and after Katrina, without the ranting and pedantry of other books on the subject.

And, because you didn’t ask for it, here’s the complete list of novels and non-fiction books from last decade that I read during that period (alphabetically, by author):

FICTION

The Underminer – Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan

Heyday – Kurt Andersen

Ravelstein – Saul Bellow

The Lemur – Benjamin Black

The Biographer’s Tale – A.S. Byatt

Daemonomania – John Crowley

Endless Things – John Crowley

The Muse Asylum – David Czuchlewski

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Dark Reflections – Samuel R. Delany

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn

Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris

Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

Pattern Recognition – William Gibson

Spook Country – William Gibson

Carter Beats the Devil – Glen David Gold

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Michael Haddon

The One from the Other – Philip Kerr

The Cheese Monkeys – Chip Kidd

Up in the Air – Walter Kirn

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril – Paul Malmont

No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

Saturday – Ian McEwan

Number9Dream – David Mitchell

Netherland – Joseph O’Neill

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

Seven Types of Ambiguity – Elliot Perlman

Prague – Arthur Phillips

Plowing the Dark – Richard Powers

Lush Life – Richard Price

Samaritan – Richard Price

Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

Everyman – Philip Roth

Exit Ghost – Philip Roth

The Dying Animal – Philip Roth

The Human Stain – Philip Roth

Radiance – Carter Scholz

Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson

The Confusion – Neal Stephenson

The System of the World – Neal Stephenson

Mergers & Acquisitions – Dana Vachon

Porno – Irvine Welsh

Lit Life – Kurt Wenzel

The Immensity of the Here and Now – Paul West

NON-FICTION

George, Being George – Nelson Aldrich, Jr.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko – Blake Bell

79 Short Essays On Design – Michael Bierut

The Good Rat – Jimmy Breslin

About Writing – Samuel R. Delany

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue – Samuel R. Delany

Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva – Patrick Dillon

Chronicles, Vol. 1 – Bob Dylan

Book Business – Jason Epstein

The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood – Edward Jay Epstein

Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos – Bruce Jay Friedman

Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke – Peter Guralnick

Why Orwell Matters – Christopher Hitchens

On Writing – Stephen King

Killing Yourself To Live – Chuck Klosterman

Moneyball – Michael Lewis

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management – Roger Lowenstein

The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry – Legs McNeil & Jennifer Osborne

A Reader’s Manifesto – B.R. Myers

Why New Orleans Matters – Tom Piazza

The Substance of Style – Virginia Postrel

Intelligence Wars – Thomas Powers

Taliban – Ahmed Rashid

The Shakespeare Wars – Ron Rosenbaum

The Look of Architecture – Witold Rybczynski

The Business of Books – Andre Schiffrin

On the Natural History of Destruction – W.G. Sebald

Love is a Mixtape – Rob Sheffield

Letters from New Orleans – Rob Walker

Master Class – Paul West

Loose Balls – Jayson Williams

Thanks for sticking around till the end of this post. Sorry the Man Out of Time series took so long to complete. I might put up a “what I read last year” post next week, just to continue the torment. Meanwhile, the point of this whole series, I guess, is that I’ve got my own garden to tend.

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

One Reply to “Man Out of Time: The Books”

  1. Gil–As I near the end of “Oscar Wao,” I understand how perspicacious your assessment of the influence of Los Hermanos Hernandez is: A fine novel, but it clearly is, as you say, a mash-up of Love and Rockets.

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