A few years ago, thanks to a Facebook ad, I stumbled on The Morning News Tournament of Books. Since March Madness is an all-consuming rite of spring in this town and given a choice, I will opt for books over b-ball, I quickly got hooked on this vernal competition among what I can only presume is the organizers’ selection of the Sweet Sixteen best books of the previous year. Brackets are engaged, two books pitted against each other, and the winner advances to the next round. In an interesting twist, reader’s votes are tallied before the start of the competition and two of the defeated titles are resurrected for a “zombie round” that furnishes the Tournament with not one, but two Final Fours.
This year, for the first time, I had actually read one of the books, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, prior to tipoff. More importantly, I vowed to take up at least a few of the entrants on my own, rather than just content myself with the reviews. I’m still waiting for several of them to become available at the local library (perhaps that should be an indication of their promise), but I’ve now read two of them, and in this sudden devotion for contemporary fiction, pulled a third (non-combatant) off the library’s shelves.
My first foray was into the opening novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation (FSG Originals, 2014) an early-round winner in the ToB. It details the twelfth expedition, this time comprised of four women denoted only by their scientific specializations, into a mysterious and threatening subtropical zone called Area X. Narrated by “the biologist” in the crew, Annihilation reads as a contemporary update on the style of H. P. Lovecraft. It is full of unnamed, incomprehensible things that go bump in the night, and sometimes during the day. Like the characters themselves, the reader never quite knows what these strange encounters consist of; there are dark hints, inexplicable discoveries, poorly understood reactions.
From the start the biologist is set apart from the others: the only member (that we know of) with a personal connection to a previous expedition—her husband returned from the eleventh one a husk of himself and died quickly thereafter—and the first on this venture to experience a significant, if again incomprehensible, transformation. The other members of the expedition are dispatched quickly: the anthropologist dies almost immediately, while the surveyor and the psychologist drop out of the action (again somewhat mysteriously) returning only in the moment of their deaths. The biologist herself is a hard-headed explorer and a bit of a dreamer, and it is interesting to see how the two side of her personality contribute to her survival. Perhaps the book’s neatest trick is setting this feminist vision of dauntlessness in contrast to the sniveling narrators of Lovecraft’s tales who can only succumb to the psychological horrors they encounter. But for me, in the end, the indescribable lacks the potential to engage, and I doubt I’ll be returning to Area X for the remaining two-thirds of this trilogy.
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (Faber and Faber, 2014) was not a contestant in the ToB, but it is set in contemporary, hipster Brooklyn like another entry (below). The book’s protagonist, a poet-turned-novelist named Ben is a practitioner of the metafictional, a narrator who addresses the reader directly as attempts to navigate a metropolis that is repeatedly threatened by hurricanes (Irene and Sandy), worries about his literary career, tries to help his best friend conceive a child she may raise without his further involvement (now there’s a metaphor for writing fiction!), and co-authors a children’s book with a reluctant eight year old alter ego.
I kept waiting to find out what substance lay under all this flash narratology and was hopeful that the themes of time and memory and the transformations they effect upon us would arise to redeem the archness of the story. But alas, I should have known better than to expect Proustian insights from a narrator (if not a novelist) whose temporal touchstone is Marty McFly—10:04 is the moment of Marty’s departure back to the future. I was tempted into hope when this conceit got bound up in Ben’s visit to watch parts of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video installation The Clock and I was seduced by moments of identification with Whitman on the Brooklyn Bridge. But I was ultimately disappointed to find that all these threads through the maze led only back upon themselves.
There is, however, one extended passage in the novel that makes it all worthwhile. After receiving a fellowship that takes him to Marfa, Texas, to begin serious work on the novel he will discard in favor of the one in the reader’s hands, Ben descends into a surreal, nocturnal life that begins with an imagined relationship with an imagined reincarnation of Robert Creeley and ends in an equally surreal descent into a Odyssean underworld presented as a drug-infused party in an isolated estate on the fringe of the town. But in between, during the only daylight adventure of his stay in Texas, Ben visits the installation created by Donald Judd at the Chianti Foundation. Lerner’s description of the sculpture is extraordinary and the excerpt below only hints at the magic he works with this art.
The work was set in time, changing quickly because the light was changing, the dry grasses going gold in it, and soon the sky was beginning to turn orange, tingeing the aluminum. All those windows opening onto open land, the reflective surfaces, the differently articulated interiors, some which seemed to contain a blurry images of the landscape within them—all combined to collapse my sense of inside and outside, a power the work had never had for me in the white-cube galleries of New York. At one point I detected a moving blur on the surface of a box and I turned to the windows to see two pronghorn antelope rushing across the desert plain.
I liked 10:04 far better than Annihilation, but neither book left me feeling elated about the prospects of contemporary American fiction. And so I approached Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) with some trepidation, especially since it, too, was set in hipster Brooklyn and moreover, had been ousted from the first round of the ToB by none other than Annihilation.
As I flipped through the book’s pages before starting to read, I wondered even more how satisfying a story I would encounter in these snippets of paragraphs that built chapters a mere five or six pages long. Would this be just another attempt to construct a fiction for the modern world, another search for meaning in a new format? Another experiment with how much chance for success? Luckily, I needn’t have worried.
The novel tells the story of a young woman, another writer, who falls in love, marries, bears a daughter, struggles with solitude and stress, despairs when the marriage ruptures in the wake of her husband’s affair with a younger woman, a woman whose attractiveness somehow mirrors the narrator’s younger self. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” the ghost of T. S. Eliot whispered in my ears. New York, once again, as the waste land.
But it works marvelously. The form allows for echoes to build and overlap like the peals of church bells from a town’s many towers until something almost symphonic emerges from them. The effect in the end is truly poetic, not because the language is beautiful in its simplicity, but because each fragment captures an aspect of life and sets it in dialog with others. Here is the opening of the third chapter.
There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.
The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
Blue jays spend every Friday with the devil, the old lady at the park told me.
I loved the way that Offill trounced my expectations of birdsong as a calmative, a pastoral and idyllic experience by making its absence, and silence, a sign of danger. It’s an acute observation that anticipates panic. The third paragraph takes that silence, implied by the absence of the jays on Fridays, and twists it into a premonition of madness, coupled with that dreadful shuttling between miseries. She has captured almost the entirety of her story there, before most of the action has even begun.
In the end there is redemption, and it is marvelously achieved when suddenly the narrator describes her daughter descending from a school bus at the end of the day and first person pronouns re-enter the story. It was only then that I realized how the perspective had shifted in the course of the novel, beginning with “I” that turns into “she.” He becomes “the husband,” the narrator is “the wife.” “The girl” is not their daughter but the woman with whom the husband betrays the wife. In the simplest of scenes, the closing paragraph telegraphs resolution at the start of a snowfall. “Soft wet flakes land on your face. My eyes sting from the wind. Our daughter hands us her crumpled papers, takes off running.” There is, at last, perhaps, a peace that passeth understanding.