I Hope I’m Not Wasting My Life or: How I Spent Most of 2013 Reading

AdlerMy favorite book of 2013 was first published in 1976. It is a gift to see the return of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which was brought back into print this year for the first time in two decades. Ms. Adler’s writing has turned out to be prescient and quietly influential, and her debut novel cast a long shadow on what I consider to be the strongest works of fiction published this year. Speedboat does not prescribe to any novelistic convention—namely, plot (linear or not, it does not have one to speak of)—and yet it distills the novel to its most basic necessities. It is a series of disjointed paragraphs, each a kind of novel in itself, in which every sentence has the urgency of a mortal wound. Every word Ms. Adler writes grinds the book forward—just not toward anything in particular. These isolated scenes involve everything from Buñuel-like literary parties to the prowlers in the lobby of the apartment building (these are recurring characters) to Ms. Adler’s philosophizing on a wide variety of topics. I can’t think of many passages more appropriate to 2013 than the following:

“Literally,” in every single case, meant figuratively; that is, not literally. This film will literally grab you by the throat. This book will literally knock you out of your chair. “Presently” always meant not soon but now. Sometimes the assault took the form of peremptory orders. See it. Read it. Go at once. Sometimes it sidled up disguised as musing, in unanswerable-question form. Shall I tell you how much I … Should I even attempt to describe … Or, should I say unequivocally … A favorite strategy was the paragraph-terminating: Right? Followed immediately by Wrong. This linear invitation to a mugging was considered a strategy of wit.

TaoMs. Adler’s ramblings could be seen in a number of books I admired this year. Tao Lin’s novel Taipei follows a writer through his drug-addled book tour and his wanderings on the Internet. He goes to a party in Chelsea. He goes to a bar in Williamsburg. He visits his parents in Taipei, where he fantasizes he is “on his back, on his yoga mat, with his MacBook on the inclined surface of his thighs, formed by bending his knees, looking at the Internet,” where he’d rather be anyway. He takes psilocybin mushrooms and convinces himself he has died. He gets married in Vegas. Holding the book together is the strength of Mr. Lin’s writing, a slosh of conjunctions and Gchat transcriptions and ridiculous similes that work because they are so straight-faced. His writing is sad in the totally unremarkable way that life is sad, though Mr. Lin manages to maintain a sense of humor about everything.

The same couldn’t quite be said about the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume memoir-novel has the decidedly humorless title My Struggle. The first two volumes have been translated into English, the second of which, with the subtitle “A Man in Love” (I can’t make this stuff up), appeared this year. My Struggle is simply the life story of its protagonist, Karl Ove Knausgaard. In book two, his marriage to his first wife dissolves, and he moves to Sweden. He tracks down Linda, a woman he met previously at a writer’s retreat, and they have children. He takes his children to a shabby amusement park. He writes his second novel. In between, he makes himself coffee. He eats a carrot at a dinner party. He goes to the bathroom. He contemplates his corporeal form and ponders the meaninglessness of existence. Mr. Knausgaard is not a verbal trickster like Tao Lin, Book Twobut in the line between eventfulness and boredom—between life and fiction—that Mr. Knausgaard is so willing to explore, his writing comes across as exceedingly brave.

Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History is another book that toyed interestingly with the novelistic form. In interviews, Mr. Sicha emphasized that his book was nonfiction—its subtitle is “An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009)”—and this is technically true, but in its startling lack of specificity (it is set in a nameless city and focuses on the life and relationships of a character who is unhappy at his unnamed job), Very Recent History reads more like sci-fi dystopia. It is also basically porno for journalists who work in New York, as anyone in media will tell you that the “job” is at The New York Observer, c. AD 2009. Assigning the real identities to the book’s characters was a kind of ongoing parlor game in 2013. And yet the desire to inject gossip into the story was the least interesting aspect of it. Mr. Sicha has created a nearly perfect portrait of New York during the financial collapse, even though–or really because the details are kept intentionally vague, capturing all the surreal misery of the time.

ChoireI think I know why, in the last year, I’ve found myself drawn to these kinds of novels where nothing happens except life being lived—what Virginia Woolf called, in describing the composition of her novel The Waves, “a mind thinking.” It’s a kind of escapism, a means of transporting myself out of my own mind—which is a real bummer of a place to spend time in—and into another’s. I assigned these kinds of novels the somewhat regrettable title “post-fiction” in a piece earlier this year, but I think we might go ahead and just call it Modernism (the label Benjamin Lytal assigned Tao Lin in these pages). It’s no mistake that all of the writers I’m thinking of are concerned with cities and new technology, especially the Internet and all its ever-expanding modes of communication and isolation, in the way that the first wave of Modernists were drawn to mapping out the alienation of the new urbanism that arose between the wars.

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers only half fits in here. The best sections of her book are set in New York and follow an aimless group of artists swapping ideas and bodily fluids. At its center is the artist Reno and her doomed love affair with the more successful Sandro Valera, heir to a Pirelli-esque tire fortune. It’s like After Hours with more fucking and portrays all of the disappointment and boredom of being alive with careful verisimilitude. Even when Reno breaks the sound barrier on a motorcycle for a performance piece, becoming the fastest woman on the planet, there’s still a sense of aimlessness, what Ms. Kushner refers to as “the uselessness of the truth.” And then something very strange happens. Reno and Sandro travel to Italy together, and Reno catches her lover in the act—with his cousin. It’s as if this is too heinous a crime for the book’s realism, and the flamethrowercoverstory dissolves in an incredible deus ex machina: Reno retreats through the streets of Rome, where the anarchist Red Brigades are protesting the regime of Aldo Moro. The world quite literally coming apart around her, she joins them and the novel becomes a wonderful piece of maximalist propaganda, all the uselessness of the truth exploding in a tapestry of violence and purpose.

There are two problems with writing a year-in-review, one being the inherent exceptionalism in the form: I wish I could talk about The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte, Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman, Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, etc. The other is how it distorts the passage of time and makes you feel that you didn’t do much in the last 12 months. I’m sure I progressed in some way in the last year, but maybe I just got older. What else could I have accomplished if I wasn’t doing all this reading? I certainly could have used a trip to the gym. Maybe in 2014.

I Hope I’m Not Wasting My Life or: How I Spent Most of 2013 Reading