For evidence of our species’ tendency toward complacent self-regard, you don’t have to look very much further than the name we’ve given ourselves. (My Latin is a little rough, but Homo sapiens basically translates as “clever man.”) We see ourselves largely in terms of our knowing; our place in the natural order of things is at the top, as the ones who have it figured out. And it’s pretty obvious, too, that it was a biologist who got to do this naming because the name reflects our conception of ourselves as knowers and understanders of the world—as scientists by nature. There’s another way of thinking about what defines us, though, that is just as reflective of our essential qualities: We are creatures of narrative, makers and consumers of stories. And the things we don’t understand about the world and our place in it—the areas that remain dark to our scientific sapience—have always provided fertile territory for that narrative inventiveness. We understand the world by making it up. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion famously put it; we’re a species of Scheherazades, narrating for our lives.
In her journal in the mid-1960s, Susan Sontag vowed “to give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” Sontag’s ongoing investment in the development and definition of herself always seemed less like self-obsession than a kind of existential industriousness. Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since her death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one.
Be advised: In order to derive the maximum level of pleasure from reading Marisha Pessl’s new detective-occult-noir-mystery extravaganza Night Film, you will be required to make a pact with the devil. The devil will appear in a cloud of ambiguously-scented vapor—sulfurous, yes, but with an unexpectedly pleasant citrus note—and with one plump and soft hand, nails buffed to a dazzling sheen, he will extend toward you some desirable readerly consumables: an intriguing setup, a propulsive plot, a mysterious villain, and a selection of entertaining set pieces. But his other hand will be a gnarled, twisted claw, and its yellowed talons will clutch a quill and parchment with which you will be obliged to sign over to him certain fundamental literary priorities: narrative credibility and psychological realism, for instance, and the adherence to basic standards of best practice in literary prose.
Few artists have built grand structures on such uncertain foundations as Jorge Luis Borges. Doubt was the sacred principle of his work, its animating force and, frequently, its message. To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world. Of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, Borges seems to have been the least convinced by himself—by the imposing public illusion of his own fame. The thing Borges was most skeptical about was the idea of a writer, a man, named Borges.
If you didn’t know much about Tim Parks, and you just briefly picked up Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo as you happened to be passing by the Travel Writing display table at your local bookseller, you might be inclined to think of it as exactly the kind of book it isn’t. The cozy-sounding title and the jacket design — with its fetching pasturescapes, its hazily panoramic Florence skylines — might lead you to think of it as one of those harmlessly middlebrow lifestyle memoirs that tend to get written about places like Tuscany and Provence. But that, as I say, is exactly the kind of book Italian Ways isn’t. It is a book about traveling by train in Italy, but it’s not that kind of book about traveling by train in Italy.
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When Richard Dawkins was named the world’s “Top Thinker” in a poll recently published by Prospect magazine, it was hard to avoid the suspicion that the world—or at least that part of it that votes in such polls—must have an impoverished sense of what constitutes a vital or transformative intellectual figure. Any list of “thinkers” that doesn’t feature one woman in its top 10 (Arundhati Roy opened the scoring for the gals at No. 15) probably shouldn’t be taken completely seriously anyway, but the fact that it was the result of public voting does offer an insight into the kinds of ideas contemporary Anglo-American culture values most highly.
It’s probably about time we agreed to give Colum McCann his own eponymous adjective. It would make sense, at any rate, to refer to a particular kind of audacious fictional gesture as “McCannian”. In his last book, the hugely successful Let the Great World Spin, a cluster of fictions were tied together by the sublime spectacle of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre.TransAtlantic opens in similarly McCannian fashion, with another airborne overture of grand historical significance. The recklessly affirmative act with which this book begins is the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Galway, by the British pilots Alcock and Brown in 1919. It’s the sort of expertly constructed set-piece McCann is particularly good at, and his imagistically lucid prose nicely captures the craziness and excitement of the moment.
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
In 2003, English writer James Lasdun taught a fiction workshop at a college in New York City. The star of the workshop was a woman in her 30s he calls “Nasreen”, who was working on a novel based on her family’s experiences in pre-revolutionary Iran. “There are seldom more than a couple of students in any workshop who seem natural writers, and they aren’t hard to spot,” Lasdun writes in the early pages of his memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. “It was evident to me, after a few paragraphs, that Nasreen was one of them. Her language was clear and vigorous with a distinct fiery expressiveness in the more dramatic passages that made it a positive pleasure to read.”
When you read David Shields, the first thing you learn is that he takes literature very seriously. The second thing you learn is how seriously he takes his taking seriously of literature. There’s a striking moment in the closing pages of his new book, “How Literature Saved My Life,” when he tells us that he is interested only in literature that obliterates the boundary between life and art. “Acutely aware of our mortal condition,” he writes, “I find books that simply allow us to escape existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it).” If there were such a thing as a quintessentially Shieldsian pronouncement, this may be it, with its odd tonal mixture of the bombastic and the beseeching. Shields wants you to know that he is a writer for whom neither life nor art is a matter to be taken lightly.