Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January 2011

Nick Hornby
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  • Dickens Dictionary—Alexander J. Philip
  • Half a Life—Darin Strauss
  • The Anthologist—Nicholson Baker
  • The Million Dollar Mermaid­—Esther Williams


  • Our Mutual Friend—Charles Dickens
  • The Uncoupling—Meg Wolitzer
  • Let the Great World Spin—Colum McCann
  • Half a Life—Darin Strauss

The advantages and benefits of writing a monthly column about reading for the Believer are innumerable, if predictable: fame, women (it’s amazing what people will do to get early information about the “Books Bought” list), international influence, and so on. But perhaps the biggest perk of all, one that has only emerged slowly, over the years, is this: you can’t read long books. Well, I can’t, anyway. I probably read between two and three hundred pages, I’m guessing, during the average working week, and I have the impression—please correct me if I’m wrong—that if you saw only one book in the “Books Read” list at the top there, it would be very hard to persuade you to plough through what would, in effect, be a two-thousand-word book review. And as a consequence, there are all sorts of intimidating-looking eight-hundred-pagers that I feel completely justified in overlooking. I am ignoring them for your benefit, effectively, although it would be disingenuous to claim that I spend my month resenting you. On the contrary, there have been times when, watching friends or fellow passengers struggling through some au courant literary monster, I have wanted to kiss you. I once gave a whole column over to David Copperfield, I remember, and more recently I raced through David Kynaston’s brilliant but Rubenesque Austerity Britain. For the most part, though, there’s a “Stuff I’ve Been Reading”–induced ­five-hundred-page cutoff.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I am a literary fattist anyway; I have had a resistance to the more amply proportioned book all my adult life, which is why the thesis I’m most likely to write is entitled “The Shortest Book by Authors Who Usually Go Long.” The Crying of Lot 49, Silas Marner, ­A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… I’ve read ’em all. You can ­infer from that lot what I haven’t read. And in any case, long, slow books can have a disastrous, demoralizing effect on your cultural life if you have young children and your reading time is short. You make only tiny inroads into the chunky white wastes every night before falling asleep, and before long you become convinced that it’s not really worth reading again until your children are in reform school. My advice, as someone who has been an exhausted parent for seventeen years now, is to stick to the svelte novel—it’s not as if this will lower the quality of your consumption, because you’ve still got a good couple of hundred top, top writers to choose from. Have you read everything by Graham Greene? Or Kurt ­Vonnegut? Anne Tyler, George Orwell, E. M. Forster, Carol Shields, Jane Austen, Muriel Spark, ­H. G. Wells, Ian McEwan? I can’t think of a book much over four hundred pages by any of them. I wouldn’t say that you have to make an exception for Dickens, because we at the Believer don’t think that you have to read ­anybody—we just think you have to read. It’s just that short Dickens is atypical Dickens—Hard Times, for example, is long on angry satire, short on jokes—and ­Dickens, as John Carey said in his brilliant little critical study The Violent Effigy, is “essentially a comic writer.” If you’re going to read him at all, then choose a funny one. Great ­Expectations is under six hundred pages, and one of the greatest novels ever written, so that’s not a bad place to start.

Some months ago, I agreed to write an introduction to Our Mutual Friend—eight or nine hundred pages in paperback form, a terrifying two-and-a-half thousand pages on the iPad—and I have been waiting for a gap in the Believer’s monthly schedule before attempting to embark on the long, long road. The recent double issue gave me an eight-week window of opportunity to read Dickens’s last completed novel (only the unfinished ­The Mystery of Edwin Drood came after it) on top of something else, so I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I first read Our Mutual Friend years and years ago, and didn’t enjoy the experience much, but I was almost certain that the fault was mine rather than the ­author’s. Something was going on at the time—divorce, illness, a newborn, or one of the other humdrum hazards that turn reading into a chore—and Our Mutual Friend never really started to move in the way that the other big Dickens novels had previously done. (There’s this moment you get a hundred or so pages in, if you’re lucky and sympathetic to Dickens’s narrative style and worldview, when you feel the whole thing judder into life and pick up speed, like a train, or a liner, or some other ­vehicle whose size and weight make motion seem unlikely.) So I didn’t worry about taking on the ­commission. I am in reasonable health, my next divorce is at least a year or so away, and I have given up having children, so I was sure that, this time around, I’d see that Our Mutual Friend is right up there with the other good ones—in other words, I was about to read one of the richest, most inventive, funniest, saddest, most energetic novels in literature.

Two thirds of the way through, I was having such a hard time that I looked up a couple of ­contemporary ­reviews. Henry James thought it “the poorest of Mr Dickens’s works… poor with the poverty not of ­momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion.” Dickens’s loyal friend John Forster admits that it “will never rank with his higher efforts.” In other words, everyone knew it was a clunker except me—and even I knew, deep down, given that my first reading had been so arduous. And now, presumably, I have to write an introduction ­explaining why it’s so great. What’s great is the fifth chapter, an extended piece of comic writing that’s as good as anything I’ve ever read by him. (If you have a copy lying about, start it and end it there, as if it were a Wodehouse short story.) What’s not so great about it is not so easy to convey, because so much of it relates—yes—to length, to the plot’s knotty ­overcomplications, stretched over hundreds and hundreds of pages. “Although I have not been wanting in industry, I have been wanting in invention,” Dickens wrote to Forster sadly, after the first couple of parts had already been published in magazine form, and, as a summation of what’s wrong with the book as a whole, that confession is hard to beat. It’s interesting, I think, that nothing in Our Mutual Friend has wandered out of the pages of the novel and into our lives. There’s no Artful Dodger, Uriah Heep, or ­Micawber, no Scrooge, no Gradgrind, no “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” no Miss ­Havisham, no Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. The closest we get is a minor character saying, a propos of another character’s gift for storytelling, that “He do the Police in different voices”—but ­Dickens needed a little help from Eliot for that particular stab at immortality. As far as I can tell, the novel has recovered from its poor reception, to the extent that it has become one of Dickens’s most studied books, but that, I’m afraid, is no testament to its worth: it has endless themes and images and things to say about greed and poverty and money—in other words, endless material for essays—but none of that makes it any easier to get through. He’ll be back in my life soon enough, but next time I might go for early Dickens, rather than late.

It now seems a very long time ago that I read Meg Wolitzer’s forthcoming novel, The Uncoupling, and Colum McCann’s National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, and trying to think about them now is like trying to look over a very high wall into somebody’s back garden. I know I enjoyed them, and they both seemed to slip by in a flash, but Dickens stomped his oversize boots all over them. I’m hoping that eventually they will spring back up in my mind, undamaged, like grass. McCann’s novel, as many of you probably know, is set in New York City in August 1974, the summer that Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope. Underneath him, and all touched in some way by ­Petit’s act of inspired insanity, lives ­McCann’s cast of priests and lawyers, prostitutes and grieving mothers. It’s a rich, warm, deeply felt and imagined book, destined, I think, to be loved for a long time. Regrettably, however, McCann makes a very small mistake relating to ­popular music ­toward the beginning, and, as has happened so many times before, I spent way too long muttering at both the novel and the author. I must stress, once again—because this has come up before—that my inability to forgive negligible errors of this kind is a disfiguring disease, and I am determined to find a cure for it; I mention it here merely to explain why a book I liked a lot has not become a book that I have bought over and over again, to press on anybody who happens to be passing by. And it would be unforgivably small-minded to go into it…. Ach. Donovan wasn’t an Irish folk singer, OK? He was a Scottish hippy, and I hate myself.

Meg Wolitzer, like Tom Perrotta, is an author who makes you wonder why more people don’t write ­perceptive, entertaining, unassuming novels about how and why ordinary people choose to make decisions about their lives. Take away the historical fiction, and the genre fiction, and the postmodern fiction, and the self-important attention-seeking fiction, and there really isn’t an awful lot left; the recent success, on both sides of the Atlantic, of David Nicholls’s lovely One Day ­demonstrates what an appetite there is for that rare ­combination of intelligence and recognizability. The ­Uncoupling is about what happens when all the couples in a New Jersey town stop having sex. (A magical wind, which springs up, not coincidentally, during rehearsals for a high-school production of Aristophanes’s sex-strike comedy Lysistrata, freezes the loins of all the postpubescent women.) It’s a novel that can’t help but make you think about your own relationship—about what it consists of, what would be left if sex were taken away, how far you’d be prepared to go in order to keep it in your life somewhere, and so on. I have written all the answers to these ­questions down on a piece of paper, but I have locked the ­paper away in a drawer, and I’m not showing it to you lot. You know how much I get paid for this column? Not enough, that’s how much.

The only thing I have read since Mr. and Mrs. John Harmon moved into Boffin the Golden Dustman’s splendid house—that’s an Our Mutual Friend spoiler, by the way, but I’m hoping I’ve spoiled it for you ­already—is Darin Strauss’s Half a Life, a book that, as far as I’m ­concerned, could easily be republished under the title The Opposite of Our Mutual Friend. It’s a short, ­simple piece of contemporary nonfiction, which in itself would be enough to make it look pretty good to me; it also happens to be precise, elegantly written, fresh, wise, and very sad. Strauss was still in high school when he killed a girl in an accident: Celine Zilke, then aged sixteen, and a student at the same high school, inexplicably veered across two lanes before riding her bike right across his Oldsmobile. She died later, in hospital. Strauss was completely exonerated by everybody concerned, but, for obvious human reasons, the accident came to define him, and Half a Life is a riveting attempt to articulate the definition.

Any moral or ethical objection you might have to Half a Life—what right has he got to produce a book out of this when that poor girl was the victim?—is dealt with very quickly, because, in part, Half a Life deals with the question of what right Strauss had to do anything at all.
Was it OK to go back to school, laugh, go to the movies, look at anyone, feel sorry for himself, go to ­Celine’s funeral, avoid her friends, talk to her parents, leave his bedroom? The author, a teenage boy, didn’t have the ­answers to any of these questions, and they continued to elude him until well into adulthood. You could describe Half a Life as an elevated study of self-consciousness, in all senses of the compound noun—a book about a man watching his younger self watching his own every move, thought, feeling, checking and rechecking them before allowing them to escape into a place where they can be watched by other people—at which point the checking and rechecking start all over again. It’s easy enough for us to say that what happened to Darin Strauss was a tragedy—not, of course, as big a tragedy as the one that befell Celine Zilke and her family, but a tragedy ­nonetheless. Easy enough for us to say, impossible for him to say—and therein lies Strauss’s rich and meaningful material, material he works into a memorable essay. “Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now,” Celine Zilke’s mother told him at the funeral. “Because you are living it for two people.” Most of us can’t live our lives well enough for one, but the care and thought that have gone into every line of Half a Life are indicative not only of a very talented writer, but of a proper human being.

And now Strauss has got me at it. I was going to end with a very good, if overcomplicated, joke about ­Dickens and a pair of broken Bose headphones, but I’m no longer sure it’s appropriate. So I’ll stop here.

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