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Media I consumed in 2016, volume 2: Fiction Books · 2:20am Jan 4th, 2017

I read more than this, but this is all I felt like writing about.

Best description of a chicken shitting in front of a policeman award:
That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana – Carlo Emilio Gadda
I never would have heard of Gadda if it wasn’t for Mark Thompson’s The White War, which is about the Italian front during WW1, where the Italians engaged in unbelievably incompetent attacks against the Austro-Hungarian Empire (I strongly recommend this book). Gadda was in the Italian artillery during the war, and his writings about the battles of the Isonzo were quoted in the book. One phrase that stuck in my mind was Gadda decrying the “cretinous egotism” of the Italian officers. I was sold, and so I had to see what writings I could find translated into English. This seemed to be the main one.

Check it:

Once on the ground, and after yet another cluck-cluck expressing either a wrath beyond cure or restored peace and friendship, she planted herself on the steady legs before the shoes of the horrified corporal, turning to him the highly unbersagliere-like plume of her tail: she lifted the root of the same, revealed the Pope’s nose in all its beauty: diaphragmed to the minimum, the full extent of the aperture, the pink rose-window of her sphincter, and, plop, promptly took a shit: not out of contempt, no, probably indeed to honor, following hennish etiquette, the brave noncom, and with all the nonchalance in the world: a green chocolate drop twisted a la Borromini like the lumps of colloid sulphur in the Abule water: and on the very tip-top a little spit of calcium, also in the colloidal state, a very white cream, the pallor of pasteurized milk, which was already on the market in those days.

The surface story is about a murder/burglary mystery, but it isn’t solved at the end (which I’m totally going to borrow whenever I write another mystery, because I just love hearing MFAs tell me I can't write a certain way). This book almost feels like an inspiration for those Italian neo-realist films of the '50s and '60s, where the story will end but the movie goes on, showing things outside of the story in a lingering denouement.

Super Comfy award:
In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower – Marcel Proust
This is the second volume of his In Search of Lost Time, and I probably spent the most time reading this than any other book this year (it’s a long, dense read). Proust is all about exploring memory, and detailing it in minute, extensive detail; not just scenery, but his own emotions. It’s heady, deep reading. It’s also boring-in fact, the beginning is dedicated to showing how dull and boring a certain character is-, which is actually perfectly fine in a serious literary work, and honestly shouldn’t be a detriment to enjoying it. This is why I’m calling it comfy (now I can give Literary Critics aneurisms).

The first part is his failed romance with Gilberte, and the second part is his beach vacation where he hangs with a group of girls, eventually becoming involved with the love of his life, Albertine (though that won’t happen for another volume, I think). From there he writes richly of his memories and emotions.

He seems to be writing about genetic determinism here, where he describes the fleeting beauty of youth:

I knew that, under the present rosy blossoming of Albertine, Rosemond, or Andree, unknown to them, biding its time, as deep-rooted and inescapable as Jewish clannishness or Christian atavism in people who believe they have risen above their race, there lurked an outsized nose, a graceless mouth, a propensity to overweight which would surprise people but which had been standing by, awaiting only the favor of circumstance, as unforeseen, as fated as other’s Dreyfusism, clericalism, national and feudal heroisms, which the fullness of time suddenly summons from a nature predating the individual himself, though which he thinks, lives, and evolves, from which he draws his sustenance, and in which he dies without ever being able to distinguish it from the particular motives he mistakes for it.

I’ll be reading the third volume this year.

Dread and destruction award
Molloy, Malone’s Dead, and The Unnamable – Samuel Beckett
These three are considered a trilogy, and I’ll be treating them as one work. These three seem to follow one character, though he changes identities in each one, and even seems to morph into a character he was chasing. I’m afraid my writing on these three books are going to be even more shallow than usual, as the effect is more psychic than narrative, if that makes sense.

Though the first two have a plot of sorts, the third one takes place entirely inside the narrators mind, doesn’t involve action, contains a hundred page paragraph, and is one of the most painful and disconcerting things I’ve read.

Sample (and I’ve cut to the very ending of pages and pages of this sort of writing):

…I’ll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you just go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

The last three phrases here usually show up as quotes attributed to Beckett, and seem to imply something hopeful or optimistic. Read as part of the story, however, it seems more like dramatic irony, like it doesn’t matter if you go on or not. Beckett’s joke on the reader, or against himself? (This is one of those comments that seem profound, but are actually vague and pointless.)

I didn’t read a lot of fiction this year, compared to previous years. Just like Herodotus’s Histories clogged up my reading schedule, Proust doubled on that. It was worth it for both, of course; reading shouldn’t be a contest anyway.

Some others:

Redshirts - John Scalazi
Intriguing, fun idea combined with wooden, pedestrian, bland writing.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
The Vietnam answer to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and, in my opinion, a superior work.

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkein
I last read this when I was thirteen (I think), and it really does hold up. I hope I’m not being snotty here, but I was afraid my childhood memories would be stronger than the actual work. They weren’t; it’s great, but I’m sure you all know that anyway.

Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck
Yet another comfy read, this time about lay-a-bouts drinking wine and hatching money-making schemes. At least one of them seems to be overcome by the futility of this existence, and snaps.

Up next: Music Nah, I'm done.

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