Gil in his 20s couldn’t have imagined that he’d one day put a thousand-plus-page Thomas Pynchon novel back on the shelf and think, “I will never get around to reading this.” He also couldn’t have imagined that he’d spend years reading Montaigne’s essays and, upon finishing that thousand-plus-page volume, think, “I have to go back and start this from the beginning.”

But there you are. It’s the same theme you read from me a dozen times before: As I’ve grown older, I have less and less interest in contemporary fiction. Especially the (poorly defined) postmodern stuff.

I was quite a pomo in my college days, but I’ve learned to appreciate the merits of a, well, traditional lifestyle in my later years. Unlike other college-era decisions, this one had little to do with trying to piss off my parents. I think rather I had a desire to be New. I wanted to treat This Very Moment as an unprecedented one, unconstrained by past rules and laws. I imagined that novels had to be Encyclopedic in order to capture the world.

In short, I was a bullshit artist.

In grad school I started wending my way back to the beginnings of literature — as well as science & math, politics & society, and philosophy & religion, not to mention poetry, but I’m still a sucker for novels — and began to understand how much of modern writing was merely an echo of the trends, themes and devices that were in use nearly from the beginning.

Still, the occasion of this LA Times piece on the 61 essential postmodern reads interested me a little, at least in an 0-fer kinda way. (There’s also a good 2-part interview with John O’Brien (1 and 2), the publisher of The Dalkey Archive. My tastes and interest have diverged pretty far from Mr. O’Brien’s mission, but I respect his vision for the press, his tenacity, and his attempt to justify publishing such esoterically unreadable works as Carole Maso’s AVA. It’s almost like the Bizarro World version of the Criterion Collection’s decision to put out a high-end version of Michael Bay’s Armageddon.)

Unlike previous times I’ve broken down literary lists for an 0-fer post, I found that I needed to granulate this one a little more finely. In addition to “Read it,” “Read something by the author,” “0-fer” and “Who?”, I found that there were a bunch of books on this list that I started and never finished. Rather than put them in the “Read something by” list, I decided to add “Started, never finished.” It’s probably meaningful that this list has so many books that fall into that category. I should probably add “Will never attempt to finish” and “Why did I waste my time with this?” or “Read, but regret”, but no need to go overboard. I’ll just make little annotations on some of ’em instead.

Without further ado:


  • New York Trilogy – Paul Auster – WHY?!
  • Labyrinths Jorge Luis Borges
  • Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs – this appreciation of it will make you not want to read it
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino – I like Invisible Cities more, but it was my first experience with Calvino and the book was given to me by a high school teacher who meant a lot to me
  • House of Leaves – Mark Danielewski – did have some genuinely creepy sections, but also some useless typographical gimmicks and descents into unreadability
  • The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick – I gotta reread this sometime
  • The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne – high school; it’s on my Kindle
  • Absalom! Absalom! – William Faulkner – the favorite book of one of my best friends
  • “Metamorphosis” – Franz Kafka
  • Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov – whoa, nelly, what a mind-blowingly wonderful book . . . and Mary McCarthy agrees with me!
  • Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon – I liked it less when I reread it a few years ago, but I dug the Rilkean segments more; it’s sorta like how I was all into Rorschach when I read The Watchmen as a teen, but feel more sympathy for the Night Owl now.
  • The Counterlife – Philip Roth – reread it a year or two ago; might be my least favorite of his Zuckerman books
  • Hamlet – William Shakespeare
  • Maus I & II – Art Spiegelman
  • Slaughterhouse-Five– Kurt Vonnegut – “There’s a time and a place for everything, children, and that’s college!”
  • Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace – I’m glad that I finished this book, if only because it enables me to warn people away from reading it, if they’re on the fence. That said, some people consider it the most important book in their lives; those people tend not to be friends of mine, so hey


  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers – bored me silly on a biz trip in 2000
  • Hopscotch – Julio Cortazar – all my pomo friends tell me it’s amazing, but I gave up when it occurred to me that it should’ve been printed in the same font as my old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books
  • Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer – I think the sections with the eastern European guy narrating were just text that was run through a thesaurus, with deliberately clunky words chosen to replace the regular ones; I quit after 50 pages
  • JR – William Gaddis – I’ll probably go back and give this a shot someday
  • The Tunnel – William Gass – I will never go back and give this a shot, despite how beautifully some of it is written, which is why I recently gave it away to someone
  • Edwin Mullhouse – Steven Millhauser – one of David Gates’ favorite books, and something I just need to make time for; I promise I’ll get back to it, not least because of its similarities to Pale Fire
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne – it’s on my Kindle


  • The Atrocity Exhibition – J.G. Ballard
  • Giles Goat-Boy – John Barth – I don’t believe I ever finished anything of his, but I liked the jaunty style of The Floating Opera, as I recall
  • The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker – I read Vox, and wondered why a guy with such a tin ear would write a novel comprised solely of dialogue
  • Great Jones Street – Don Delillo – don’t get me started
  • The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera – I used to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being back in college, whenever I went through a breakup; it got to a point where I could finish the book in under 2 hours
  • The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – Umberto Eco
  • Tours of the Black Clock – Steve Erickson – I read some of his essays, and started a nonfiction book of his on the 1996 election
  • Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem – I liked his redo of Omega the Unknown but haven’t tried his prose
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami – read most of his non-fiction book about the Aum Shinri Kyo gas attack on the Tokyo subways
  • American Splendor – Harvey Pekar – I’ve read a bunch of these comics, but not everything, because I couldn’t stand some of the more prosaically drawn strips
  • The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald
  • John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead


  • In Memorium to Identity – Kathy Acker – should that be “Memoriam”? I’m too lazy to check. Maybe I’ll just appropriate the spelling from a canonical work instead.
  • The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
  • 60 Stories – Donald Barthelme
  • G – John Berger
  • The Loser – Thomas Bernhard – I think I owned this and Concrete, because someone suggested I reissue a few of Bernhard’s books, back when I was a publisher, but I never opened ’em. Sigh.
  • 2666 – Roberto Bolaño – I believe no one has actually read this book, and that it will actually become the hipster pickup book of its time
  • Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
  • The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor – Robert Coover
  • City of God – E.L. Doctorow
  • Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence – Geoff Dyer
  • Remainder – Tom McCarthy
  • The Lime Twig – John Hawkes – I have a copy of Second Skin down in my library; I like to think I’ll get around to it
  • The Lazarus Project – Aleksandar Hemon
  • Dispatches – Michael Herr
  • Skin – Shelley Jackson
  • Wittgenstein’s Mistress – David Markson
  • Women and Men – Joseph McElroy
  • At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
  • The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien – my pal Elayne lent me this a while back, and I really need to get to it
  • Mulligan Stew – Gilbert Sorrentino - I think I used to own a Grove edition of this, but I don’t think I ever opened it
  • Trance – Christopher Sorrentino – Like father, unlike son; I didn’t even own a copy of this book


  • The Hundred Brothers – Donald Antrim
  • Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine – Stanley Crawford
  • I Am Not Sidney Poitier – Percival Everett
  • Notable American Women – Ben Marcus
  • PopCo – Scarlett Thomas

If you want to find out what I have read over the past 20 years, it’s just a click away!

8 Replies to “Pom0-fer”

  1. I could be wrong because I only looked at it briefly, but I think a cute UVA grad student was reading 2666 (library copy) at the hipster diner here in town the other day. We learned what he was reading when my gay friend tried to pick him up, so either cute GS wasn’t into boys or was so absorbed by the Bolano book he couldn’t tear himself away from it. And the men I know who adore Infinite Jest (I don’t think I know a single woman who’s read it) tend to be fairly morose and intense individuals. This may say more about my social circle than anything about DFW, but one can only observe what one observes…

  2. I should amend that: I don’t believe anyone will FINISH reading 2666. It will still be a sign of intellectual hipster cred to be seen carrying it.

  3. I got dragged into a book group by one of my close friends, and one woman consistently proposes Infinite Jest as the next selection. She adores it, and pronounces how fantastic and mind expanding it is in an accent faintly reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn EVERY SINGLE TIME she mentions it. She also looks expectantly at me each time she proposes it – I expect she feels I should be one her side, having a Phd in literature and all, and I don’t want to burst her bubble by telling her that I avoid postmodern literature as much as is humanly possible. Despite all outward appearances, I am not the intellectual hipster that these ladies had hoped I would be – college and then grad school beat that out of me early.

  4. Percival Everett was one of the pro writers at Breadloaf the year I went to it. He was kind of the conference’s resident angry black guy; not ferociously angry, but more the I-don’t-smile-gratuitously-at-white-people kind of angry. In appearance he was something of a cross between Cornel West and Spike Lee. He’s written a lot of books–seems to publish one almost every year. He gave a few readings from his at that time current work in progress, which I don’t think was the Sidney Poitier book. I remember one of his selections was basically a several page rant against George Bush and the people who voted for him which played well to the crowd, though there wasn’t anything especially pomo-ish or for that matter literary about it. Compared to everybody else there he was sort of charismatic so I made a point of looking into a few of his books but to be honest he struck me as kind of a hack.

  5. Hey, before you turn aside from the 20th century in despair try this. First read Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn a few times, then wrestle with Poems of our climate by Stevens. Just give it a rip (and pay close attention to “cold porcelain”

  6. B.S.: I have to say, this review of Everett’s book that I stumbled across this morning does not make it sound interesting/engaging.

    Bobo: I never did keep up with that New Year’s resolution to let up on prose and spend more time with poetry. I’ll give that a shot now! (also, it’s more that I can’t deal with postwar fiction, not all of the 20th c.)

    Ann: One of my coworkers mentioned reading IJ a few weeks ago. He said he was 400 pages in. I asked him is he was enjoying it. He said no. He asked if it gets any better. I said no. Then I told him one of my key lessons from Life So Far: “If you’re not getting anything out of it, put it down. Life is too short for bad books.”

  7. I have to admit that I enjoy David Foster Wallace’s work, for the most part — including Infinite Jest — but I also understand why others dislike that novel so. His non-fiction work is, I think, stronger.

    Re Jonathan Lethem: his first four or so books are a lot of fun; apparently he set out to write sci-fi novels that Philip K. Dick should have written. But it turns out Lethem’s a much better writer.

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