The Best Books of 2013

It is quite possible that I sacrificed some of my best reading hours in 2013 wading through anything written by or having to do with James Joyce: all part of my slow yet methodical efforts to advance behind #77 in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.* I’ve been working on Joyce since November 20, 2012. It’s a healthy relationship. He cooks dinner. I wash the dishes. On pleasant days, we go for long walks together. Sometimes, we even cuddle. Reading Finnegans Wake at a near glacial pace has forced me to revisit Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses, which has summoned Richard Ellmann, Gordon Bowker, and Homer from the stacks and Frank Delaney through the earbuds. I have looked up endless esoteric references. I have met with Joyce acolytes in secret dens. I have spent many late nights contemplating everything from Vico’s New Science to back issues of Tit-Bits published around 1904. All this will be written about in depth — hopefully sometime in 2014, when I reach the mighty “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” wending its cyclical posterior back to “riverrun.”

Despite all this, I did manage to read 125 books in 2013. The fifteen titles below all popped out like scandalous performers exploding from a giant birthday cake. I also started Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a wise and breathtaking autobiographical novel that chronicles the pains and pleasures of existence. I didn’t include My Struggle on my list because, as marvelous as it is, I really need to see how it ends. (There are six volumes in total. Only the first two have been translated into English, with the third due in May.) But I am fairly certain that Knausgaard will make the cut in the future, once the extraordinarily capable Don Bartlett concludes his fine translation work on this quite important contribution to literature.

Here are my fifteen favorite books from 2013, in alphabetical order. I was able to interview many of these writers for The Bat Segundo Show and Follow Your Ears and have provided links to the shows.

mattbellMatt Bell, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: It remains my belief that bears are among the most underrated animals in fiction. Not enough novelists use them. When bears do show up in narratives, they are often found in trite poems written by addled hipsters who are more concerned with courting shallow attention than writing real literature. Bell’s debut novel not only contains a bear. It includes a whole universe of squids and “fingerlings” that could be fabulist creations or could originate from intricate grief. It uses minimalist designators (“the husband,” “the wife,” “the fingerling,” a fixed location seemingly in the middle of nowhere) to grow a maximalist universe, with endless rooms in the titular house propagating in direct proportion with complicated feelings. Language itself obscures and deepens seemingly simplistic sentiments. (It wasn’t a surprise to see the unadventurous reactionaries at the New York Times Book Review willfully misunderstand that last flourish, not kenning how Bell’s repetition and emphasis on physicality could be part of the puzzle.) After one too many wretched novels written by loathsome subjects of vapid Thought Catalog essays, it turned out that Bell’s book was the surreal corrective we needed all along. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

Eleanor CattonEleanor Catton, The Luminaries: What if you designed a 900 page novel around the dichotomy paradox, where each section was half the length of the previous section? What if you also attempted to work in the golden ratio? And just for the hell of it, what if you decided to set the action in 1865 and 1866, aligning the temperament of twelve characters to astrology? But let’s not stop there. What if you also injected this novel with slyly accurate historical detail and a shifting relationship between what is articulated to the reader and what is not? You’d have Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary second novel, which has been wrongfully trivialized in America as a mere Dickens pastiche. I’m sure that if you’re a joyless illiterate dope like Janet Maslin, this probably is a “critic’s nightmare.” But here’s the truth: I have not read a contemporary novel that has so adroitly manipulated massive strands of storytelling with an ambitious thematic structure since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There is much in this great book to chew on: what we know about people through facts and gossip, how wealth becomes fluid through avarice and want. Even the way in which narrative information is conveyed and reader assumptions is skillfully challenged, forming almost an alternative astrology beneath the apparent astrological structure. Catton is a novelist of the first rank. She absolutely deserved the Booker for this. And I urge all interested parties to read this massive novel when they have the chance. (Bat Segundo interview, 71 minutes)

duplexcoverKathryn Davis, Duplex: I must confess that I have a slight prejudice against novels that go out of their way to destroy the underlying structure every other chapter. Yet it is to Davis’s tremendous credit that I was not only won over by her remarkably inventive and deeply emotional novel, but that I found myself urging strangers in bookstores to buy it. This novel, with its robots, dogs, sorcerers, outlandish suburbs, tsunamis, and rabbits, is almost impossible to describe. But it offers its own unusual argument for the promising anarchism of life. When we stick to our conclusive guns, what do we give up in knowing people? Are there indeed duplexes we will discover when we’re not looking? I found myself greatly enjoying the fluidity of Davis’s universe, in part because of the novel’s descriptive precision (“The Woodard Estate used to be a brilliant jewel on the brow of the third of the three little green hills you come to upon leaving the schoolyard, after passing the water tower and crossing the old railroad bridge.”). You may very well enjoy meticulous geography as you experience it, but Davis’s provocative question involves knowing how to survive when it disappears tomorrow. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

elliottholtElliott Holt, You Are One of Them: It’s fascinating to me that two coruscating works of art in 2013 — Elliott Holt’s debut novel and the wonderful television series, The Americans — have involved revisiting the end of the Cold War. There’s a part of me that would like to think that the artists in question were preparing themselves for Edward Snowden’s extremely disturbing revelations about our surveillance state. But exploring defection, in both cases, reveals that pivotal tie between loyalty and memory. You Are One of Them starts with the most seemingly innocuous of premises: idealistic letters sent by two schoolgirls to Premier Andropov beseeching peace. One of the sisters gets an answer and a Samantha Smith-style invitation to visit the Soviet Union. Fame follows. So does death. Or does it? Years later, Sarah Zuckerman (the other schoolgirl) takes a trip to Russia. And her journey, intermingled with such exacting details expat nightclubs in Moscow, the Russian advertising world, and American cleanliness, is a painful unveiling of how to contend with the lies and deceits of other people as an adult while holding onto your dignity. (Bat Segundo interview, 65 minutes)

kieselaymonKiese Laymon, Long Division: While other writers squandered the sad scraps of their waning talent with inane books about zombies and poker, beckoning empty nostalgic calories to fulfill a book contract, Kiese Laymon — much like James McBride and Mitchell S. Jackson — had the vivacity and the stones to explore the uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in America, specifically Mississippi, through genre’s empowering possibilities. Long Division is a bold time-traveling saga unafraid to take risks, recalling the biting ire of a young Percival Everett. It includes daring comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust. It’s one of the few novels I read this year exploring how a community survives on throwaway book culture (“the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spence”), even as it stares down the influence of viral videos, teenage sex, and celebrity. In offering two versions of a 14-year-old boy named City Coldson, one in 1985 and one in 2013, Laymon confronts how black identity remains rooted in fragmentation, what he has identified in a separate essay as “the worst of white folks.” Long Division‘s original corporate publisher was too afraid to put out this book. Fortunately, the good folks at Agate Publishing allowed Kiese to be Kiese. Let us hope that more important voices like Laymons’s are allowed to storm the gates in 2014. (Bat Segundo interview, 54 minutes)

mailerJ. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer: A Double Life: It’s easy to dog on Norman Mailer. He stabbed his second wife Adele and didn’t suffer any consequences. He helped to get Jack Henry Abbott released from prison, only to see Abbott stab a waiter to death as he was loose on the streets. He stood against women’s liberation. There is an undeniably savage quality to Mailer as a writer and Mailer as a man. Indeed, I penned a vituperative obituary not long after Mailer kicked the bucket. (I had not read The Armies of the Night, arguably a Mailer masterpiece, at the time.) Lennon’s biography does a remarkable job at getting 21st century readers to understand that there was more to Mailer than his sins would lead us to believe. Lennon doesn’t flinch from many of Mailer’s indiscretions, nor is he diffident in pointing out just how crazy some of his arguments were. This biography makes such a persuasive case for Mailer that it actually compelled me to read all of Mind of an Outlaw (a big, carefully edited essay collection released by Random House this year), as well as other Mailer books. It turns out that Mailer’s spirit is strangely inspiring amid the turmoil of today. And one comes away from this book wondering whether any talent close to Mailer could flourish in today’s atmosphere of instant digital gratification. Perhaps within Mailer’s double life are some kernels of tomorrow’s possibilities. (Bat Segundo interview, 63 minutes)

messudClaire Messud, The Woman Upstairs: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins The Woman Upstairs. Nora Eldridge, the self-proclaimed “good girl” who narrates Messud’s latest novel, has the kind of anger that seethes just underneath the surface of American life, but that is rarely voiced in fiction and in public debate: in part because Nora is a woman and in part because she thinks and feels in ways we’re not expected to express anymore. Of course, none of these prohibitions stops Nora. As Nora tells us more about her life, we begin to wonder just how responsible she is for the place she’s in. Does cruelty from others beget more cruelty? Or are we all the victims of, quite literally, naked opportunism? Many literary tastemakers leaned toward Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which was a laudable portrait of 1970s radicalism. But, for me, Messud’s was the more slyly political and visceral novel. In an age where people are more determined to hide how they really feel, what’s more subversive than telling someone what’s really on your mind? (Bat Segundo interview, 51 minutes)

alissanuttingAlissa Nutting, Tampa: So Nutting’s controversial novel about a Florida middle-school teacher named Celeste Price who seduces and sexually abuses her students makes you uncomfortable? Cry me a fucking river. Life is uncomfortable. Like all great art, Tampa enters into dangerous territory. But it is brave, vivacious, and it has the courage to pursue its subject with a sense of humor. The people who have condemned this book have done so without actually engaging with the text. Earlier this year, at the Strand Bookstore, I observed an obnoxious and humorless freelance book critic, someone who has been published in several outlets, speak very loudly about how she couldn’t be bothered to make it past Page 50 because she was so offended by the book. She derided Tampa in the strongest possible terms, even though she had never finished it. I also got into an online argument with some illiterate nitwit who writes for Book Riot because she too had condemned the book as “unbelievable” even though she couldn’t cite a specific example when I challenged her. If you feel the need to condemn a book and you can cannot be bothered to read it or cite it, then you don’t have the right to venture an opinion. You are lazy, ignorant, and uninformed. No better than some Tea Party type holding the government hostage. More importantly, you’re missing out on one of the best books of 2013. (Bat Segundo interview, 75 minutes)

bleedingedgeThomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge: Several reviewers were needlessly hostile to Pynchon’s latest volume, blaming the famous recluse for not delivering another Gravity’s Rainbow. But Bleeding Edge is not only a very funny book stacked to the nines with references (meticulously documented by the good folks at Pynchon Wiki). It’s a loving and sometimes irreverent portrait of the end of the 20th century and perhaps the end of America’s soul, reading at times like a call and response to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition with its many simulacra, its worlds within worlds, and its fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, much like Cayce Pollard, trying to make sense of some digital plot tied in with organized crime as the very real factor of family comes increasingly closer into the picture.

roxanaorbinsonRoxana Robinson, Sparta: It’s absolutely criminal that Roxana Robinson’s carefully observed study of an Iraq War veteran returning home hasn’t received wider recognition. Perhaps some readers were too busy wasting their time blasting Jonathan Franzen over his latest grumbling or writing another installment in the meaningless snark vs. smarm war. Whatever the reason, it’s a poor excuse to ignore this honed, gut-wrenching novel revealing just what happens when you cannot return to the life you gave up, along with the psychological costs of being left for dead even after you escape a mortal fate on the battlefield. Like Messud, Robinson probes with wisdom and sensitivity into every anger-inducing quality of her protagonist, Conrad Farrell, who cannot even be solaced by his classics education. As we come to realize that not even a stable family is panacea for PTSD or returning home without a clearly defined role, we begin to understand how callous this nation has been to the men we asked to do the dirty work. And if the “hard, burnished carapace” of spent men hollowed out Sparta, what is it doing to our nation today? This is a vital and needlessly ignored work of fiction. (Bat Segundo interview, 55 minutes)

nucleartestEric Schlosser, Command and Control: Thirty-three years ago, the United States came very close to a nuclear holocaust in Damascus, Arkansas. In a Titan II silo, an overworked airman dropped a socket wrench, which pierced the skin on the missile’s fuel tank, causing poisonous oxidizer to permeate through the air. The W-53 nuclear warhead mounted at the top of the missile came very close to exploding. This is all documented in Command and Control, which also covers our reckless history of avoiding safety and taking shortcuts to maintain missiles. It’s a sobering and necessary reminder on how unsafe we have been in the past and how reckless we may be operating today, as other nations develop the same nuclear capabilities (and concomitant measures) that we once had. (Bat Segundo interview, 56 minutes)

sloukacloseMark Slouka, Brewster: I’m going to confess that when I first read Mark Slouka’s novel, I was a little suspicious of its narrative swagger. Here was a book told from the story of a teenager named Jon Mosher who seemed to talk just a little too tough. But as I read on, I realized that this was the point. If you’re not part of the panorama that other people insist is the one to watch, then aren’t you going to speak a little louder? Brewster describes life in the more blue-collar area of upstate New York, portraying teenagers who didn’t have the bread to attend Woodstock and who need friendship to make it past the hidden brutality of daily life. Slouka is smart enough to reveal Brewster as a town where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else. Jon Mosher, the book’s narrator, portrays Ray Cappicciano is a sleek bad boy who can skim his finger across any metal surface. But as the reader gets to know Ray Cap, we come to understand how not being known reveals hidden torrents of other people’s cruelty. (Bat Segundo interview, 61 minutes)

dukeellingtonTerry Teachout, Duke: Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington is arguably his smoothest and best-researched book. Longlisted for the National Book Awards, Duke demonstrates, like the best of arts-related biographies, that it is as much about chronicling the culture that allowed Ellington to flourish as it is about revealing the niceties of this titanic jazz figure. Thanks to Teachout, I spent large chunks of a weekend listening to all sorts of music, tracing, for example, Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” to Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah work on “All Along the Watchtower” after Teachout found a fascinating connection. I was happy to fall down this YouTube rabbit hole and follow the eventful ups and downs of a man who could be found dazzling audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival one minute and appearing with Herman’s Hermits on The Ed Sullivan Show the next. (Bat Segundo interview, 50 minutes)

rosaparksJeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Released at the beginning of the year, Theoharis’s meticulously researched volume of the woman who refused to give up her seat reveals a far more sophisticated and politically active figure than the one in the history books. This is a much needed replacement for such cheap hagiographies as David Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life that reveals everything that happened after the famous day in Montgomery. It exposes the sexism of Black Power, shows how numerous statesmen attempted to co-opt Parks to gain extra footing during their careers, and illustrates the costs and personal hardships of being a revolutionary. (Follow Your Ears #5, “Rosa Parks: Not Just a Meek Seamstress” radio segment at 47:16)

jesmynward3Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: Jesmyn Ward remains one of our most vital chroniclers of American life. This searing yet understated memoir examines why racism continues to flourish and why so many young black men continue to die. It looks into how five needless deaths, including West’s own brother, affected and informed her own life. It’s a deeply affecting book which points out how the deck is stacked against you if you’re a young African-American living in Mississippi. But it also reveals how stories allow us to live and understand and possibly break out of some of these vicious cycles. Maybe if we focus our attention into how other people live, we may just come up with a new way of storytelling that allows us to lob some stones at the incompetent political forces that would prefer to shut down our government than address our deepest needs and our greatest ills. (Bat Segundo interview, 42 minutes)

* I also started another reading project, The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge. I am presently reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance and will be writing about the volumes before this in the next few weeks.

Kathryn Davis (The Bat Segundo Show #519)

Kathryn Davis is most recently the author of Duplex.

Author: Kathryn Davis

Play

[PROGRAM NOTE: During this program, there is a moment in which Kathryn Davis and Our Correspondent blank out on the name of a religious studies professor who has been studying the intersection of robots and spirituality. That professor’s name is Noreen Herzfeld. And her book, Technology and Religion, examines how technology alters our approach to religion and spirituality. Our apologies to Professor Herzfeld!]

Subjects Discussed: Dogs and babies who occupy Central Park, Leibniz’s idea of the multiverse, the idea of gods forcing followers to believe in a false world, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, casual reading of quantum mechanics, how drawing from one’s own reality creates phantasmagorical realities, the influence of Alice in Wonderland, being declared the offspring of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll by Joy Press, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, fluidity of consciousness, when unfinished novels have greater moral standing and gravitas than finished novels, the human need for resolution, Davis’s love for murder mysteries, the 1967 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook film Bedazzled, Drimble Wedge & The Vegetations, the sin attached to destroying endings, the decline of mainstream nihilism, the museum scene in Batman, The Passenger, Eric Schlosser’s Command and Conquer, whether today is less traumatic than decades past, the edge of the world as a real place, when limitless realities involve soul searching, fluidity of time and fluidity of place and the commodification of the soul, questions of the animating spirit, essential essence buried in Duplex, castigating the unadventurous human spirit, when people value states more than having a soul, consumption vs. the spirit, the false notion of “having it all,” word origins of “aquanaut” and “robot,” the aquanaut and robot as spiritual ways of being human, whether the age of a word affect its usage, living in a pre-Snooki Jersey Shore, attempting to pin down how the concept of being out in the open air came to define living, viewing the word “monster” in a positive light, the etymology of “monster” (which has the same Latin root as “monitor”), writing someone off with a word, conquering fears by understanding the history of a word, having sympathy for monsters, when robots are fond of naming things, broadening interest in the Other, applying finite nouns in an infinite universe, how technology can generate its own creation myths, why Davis didn’t always explore the nature of religion in Duplex, developing the “rain of beads” parable, The Thin Place, approaching spirituality from a secular place, the tech crowd’s alignment with atheism, singularity, Noreen Herzfeld’s thoughts on the soul in the machine, Davis’s fondness of dachshunds, literary connections to dachshunds, Gary Shteyngart, Nabokov, babushka dancing, extremely geeky literary dog jokes, horse storytelling, Jane Smiley, writing for Significant Objects and incorporating the material in Duplex, Molly Peck’s remarkable video in response to Our Correspondent’s Significant Objects story, being an unapologetic magpie, how yellow bears helped to inform Davis’s sense of a sorcerer, the violent sexuality within Duplex, intimacy and pilfering space, the appalling horror of growing up, observations from Alizah Salario, how real women aren’t immune to time, gender roles and age, including an entire lifetime in a book, triangular sideburns, Charlie Sheen’s strange haircut in Major League, baseball players and facial hair, trading cards, the Cabbage Patch Dolls vs. the Garbage Pail Kids, negotiating difficult territory, Calvino’s “Body-without-Soul,” the hesitation when opening doors, how language provides a path forward in the novel, when writers force themselves to stay in a place where they are clearly bored, Kate Atkinson, and writing about what you want to know about.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This morning, I was reading this piece at Aeon Magazine by Andrew Crumey about how much of contemporary art is still wrestling with Leibniz’s ideas about the multiverse. Now Leibniz claimed that all possible worlds exist in the mind of God and that he ultimately chooses one universe made consistent by a principle of harmony. And of course, I was reading this and thinking, “Oh! This is absolutely what Kathryn’s doing with her book.” God is usually benevolent, but he wouldn’t make us believe in the reality of a false world, according to Leibniz. But your novel Duplex seems to be resisting this idea to some extent. Because you’re almost asking us to believe in a world that is almost post-reality. So I’m wondering, just to start off here, to what degree did Leibniz and the spirit of the multiverse inform the writing of this book? Just a minor little question like that.

Davis: An easy question. I would say that there was nothing so specific as something I read that informed the universe of the book. But the universe of the book is, in fact, the universe I dwell in. So that in a way, I feel like Duplex is as much a work of realism as Look Homeward Angel.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I don’t know why that occurred to me.

Correspondent: Especially since he writes very fat books. Thomas Wolfe.

Davis: That’s right. And I didn’t want this to be a thick book.

Correspondent: Are you claiming to be Eugene Gant in any way?

Davis: No. Not a bit. But I do feel like it’s my experience of the world that I was trying to replicate in the book. Now I, at one time, read an enormous amount of cosmology, got very interested in that without being at all trained as a scientist. So I got interested in the way that non-scientists do, taking a more metaphoric…

Correspondent: Quantum mechanics is lay reading basically.

Davis: Yeah. And that is true also of topology, which I’m attracted to without understanding anything about it really. And yet the idea that there are ways to think about the world we live in that stretch the logical mind into a shape that doesn’t resemble anything recognizable — that is very appealing to me.

Correspondent: So what I’m getting here is you’re drawing initially from your particular reality.

Davis: Yes.

Correspondent: Whether it be suburban, whether it be smaller city. And you’re using much of this additional reading to create the kind of fantastic and phantsmagorical experience. I’m wondering, aside from just how it subverts the experience, how language plays into this as well. Because that’s extremely curious. Why do you think you’re reading something along the lines of this gives your novel an edge? I mean, are you always resisting the prosaic or what here?

Davis: Well, I don’t know that I resist the prosaic. In fact, writing this book, I felt that, with my experience growing up on a suburban street in Philadelphia, I really wanted to replicate that, which was a very — in its own way — prosaic experience. And yet it was also clear to me that the prosaic had, if you unfolded it or untucked the edge…

Correspondent: Unboxed it.

Davis: Yes. There would be things much less prosaic going on, as, for example, a family of robots living on the street.

Correspondent: Which is clearly drawn from reality.

Davis: Absolutely!

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I won’t name the family, but there certainly was a family where the oddness of the family, as on any suburban street — I would say anyone. Ask anyone and they will say, “Oh yeah. There could have been a family of robots living on our street.” There could have been a sorcerer who came and messed around with the souls of the young people. That would be another way of describing a family that just didn’t seem like all the other families.

Correspondent: So what you’re basically doing is that you’re trying to, I suppose, avoid the prosaic or chronicle the prosaic by really tapping into all forms of perception.

Davis: Yes.

Correspondent: And, as a result, this is why this particular world in Duplex has no time, no space, has edges that are constantly shifting, has waves that are constantly intruding. To my mind, it seemed like you were challenging the reader to look at something typical. I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that anything typical can become magical simply by just tilting it any kind of direction.

Davis: Yeah. And when I was a kid, the book that my parents read to me, the book that I loved the most and that always seemed like the purest expression of the world I lived in, was Alice in Wonderland. I could not get enough of it. And it really described to me the world I grew up in, the house I grew up in, the people I spent my time with. So in a way, I’m doing nothing different in this book than I feel that Lewis Carroll was doing in Alice.

Correspondent: Well, I know Joy Press once said that you were the offspring of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll.

Davis: Right. I loved that!

Correspondent: Which has cropped up in a couple of interviews I’ve read. But that does bring to mind: would you say that you err more on the side of Carroll than Woolf? Or what?

Davis: Oh, I’d like to think I’m equal parts. I feel like what I learned from reading Virginia Woolf — and again it was the same kind of encounter with a book. In the case of Virginia Woolf, it was To the Lighthouse. And reading it, I couldn’t believe that someone had written that book that just so perfectly talked about the way I experienced the world, which is what you really want, I think, a book to do even if it takes you by surprise. Even if it’s talking about climbing Mount Everest or something, which you’ve never done. But it tells you something that you sort of knew, but in a way that you didn’t know you knew it. So the language of Virginia Woolf and the psychological realm that she so amazingly dwells in and describes: that is every bit as important to me as the perverse antic quality of Carroll’s prose and the world he describes.

Correspondent: So I guess the grounding in consciousness of Virginia Woolf, or even the fluidity of consciousness seen in something like Orlando, which is a favorite of mine…

Davis: I love that book too.

Correspondent: It can also be qualified as science fiction.

Davis: Oh, absolutely.

Correspondent: Why do you think so much of fiction just puts a border there when we’re talking about consciousness? It basically says, “No, you actually have to go ahead and adhere to this idea that life must be crammed into the valise of narrative.” You know what I mean?

Davis: I don’t know. I think it’s a more boring approach to the world of possibility when you’re writing. I certainly know that if I felt like I had to subscribe to a set of rules — if that’s what you had to do in order to be a writer of fiction, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a writer of fiction. I think my sense of not wanting to be a mathematician when I was much younger was because it just seemed like a whole bunch of rules. It turns out I was wrong about that. But the sense that you are being told you can only go this far and no further is of no interest to me.

Correspondent: Yeah. There was an essay in Bookforum — I believe in July. And I can’t remember who wrote it. But it was basically saying that the unfinished novel is of greater moral uplift than the finished novel. Because as you’re writing a novel, this essay said, you’re basically fighting against some kind of mortality. And that mortality is fresh and alive when it’s unfinished. How do you contend with this notion? Because resolutions in your books are not always neat, nor are they actually clear-cut. And I’m wondering. What are your thoughts on this idea of keeping that mortality alive in something that is both unfinished but, as it so happens in your case, is also finished?

Davis: That’s a great question. I’ll say that one of the forms that really appeals to me is the murder mystery.

Correspondent: Yes! I know that.

Davis: And I love everything about a murder mystery actually, except the ending.

Correspondent: Yes. Because you have to have resolution. When I found this out — I was doing research — I was going to ask you about that. Because, I mean, how could you love a form so much? What do you take away from it as a reading experience when you have the cop explain everything or the criminal say, “Here was my plan all along”? I mean, how do you wrestle with such a genre? Which I love, by the way. And actually I do happen to love some of those explanations myself. But what do you take away from it?

Davis: I too — I would hate to read a murder mystery. I would hate to read a P.D. James and not have a resolution. I would want to strangle her. Because the book is set up to give you that. But the form, the generative form, the form where something happens early on or something is said or there’s some sense of a mystery that is established very early on in the book — and part of your pleasure and job as a reader is to track down what’s happening — that feeling is one of my favorite feelings in life. I love not being given a piece of evidence or a clue. I mean, this all goes back, I’m sure, to the house I grew up in. Where nobody said anything outright and you were always trying to figure out what’s going on.

Correspondent: Ah! I see.

Davis: By reading between the lines and reading the clues.

Correspondent: So a constant life of mystery and a constant reading life of mystery.

Davis: Yes! And for my own part, I actually thought, “Well, you love reading these murder mysteries. Why don’t you just write one?” I believe firmly you should write what you love to read. It turns out that if you want to write a murder mystery, you really have to figure out an awful lot of stuff ahead of time in a way that I am just not interested in doing. It would be boring to do that. And I’ve written some books that seem to me, that feel to me to sort of make use of that genre. I felt like that was true of The Walking Tour, for example. But I didn’t want there to be the detective calling everybody into the drawing room and telling everyone what happened.

Correspondent: You must be a big fan of the Antonioni film L’Avventura.

Davis: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: In which the missing girl is never explained. It never actually is explained. I mean, Antonioni to me would seem to be your match for literature. Because there’s so much rich life. And even in his most narrative film, The Passenger, even there you don’t have a clean-cut resolution. You have Jack Nicholson disappear. And you’re still invited to witness this amazing display of life at the end of the picture. I guess the way to continue this conversation is to ask why this is something to be resisted. Why is this a strange underground attitude or set of sensibilities to inhabit in 2013?

Davis: That’s a great question. I mean, I guess…

[A baby cries in the background.]

Correspondent: That was a little critic walking past.

Davis: Sad at the idea of lack of completion.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I think it makes people very nervous. I think life makes people nervous. And part of what makes people nervous about life is not knowing what lies ahead, even though, if you knew what lay ahead, the idea of actually knowing what’s about to happen is so appalling to me that I don’t even want to think about it. But I also know that the human wish to feel contained and part of a logical system, one that isn’t going to pull the rug out from under you, that’s a very, very strong wish. And it’s probably some kind of a survival mechanism also.

Correspondent: It’s not just a survival mechanism. It makes me think of the joke in the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore movie Bedazzled. There’s one situation where Peter Cook is the Devil. It’s a marvelous movie.

Davis: I love that movie.

Correspondent: The remake is terrible, but this is a genius movie. And there’s one part where Peter Cook picks up mysteries and he’s ripping out the last..

Davis: Ripping out the last page!

Correspondent: Every single one! And the fact that that’s actually condemned as something demonic or something that only the Devil can do, I think says much about our need for resolution, right? (laughs)

Davis: Oh yeah. Well, I felt like the Devil in that movie, in many ways, was doing exactly what you would want…

Correspondent: What you would want to do!

Davis: What you would want to have done! When he scratches the records.

Correspondent: Yes. And, of course, the wonderful song, the terrible pop music song in that, which is hilarious.

Davis: Yes! Scratch that record! Yes, pull out those pages!

Correspondent: But it’s a rebellious act. It’s an act of nihilism. I mean, that’s the thing. Remember — now that we’re thinking cinematic here, it makes me think of Jack Nicholson again as the Joker in Batman, going into the museum and just throwing paint and destroying art. This used to actually be something we contended with in mainstream pictures, mainstream books, mainstream art. And now it’s fascinating to me that with the nihilism, now you have to go to a house like Graywolf in order to actually explore these questions. Why do you think that is?

Davis: Boy, that’s a big question, but I have an answer!

Correspondent: You do!

Davis: Yeah. I think that the timidity, the cultural timidity, has to do with the fact that the world is a frightening place. But is it more frightening now than it was, say, in 1960? No. I don’t think so. In fact, the threat of nuclear annihilation was so present in everybody’s mind.

Correspondent: But maybe it’s out of sight, out of mind. There’s an Eric Schlosser book called Command and Control, which deals with how fragile the entire nuclear infrastructure is.

Davis: But nobody talks about it.

Correspondent: Nobody talks about this. Just as people are accepting the NSA surveillance. People want to accept this kind of thing. Maybe they’re beaten down. Maybe we’re just putting on more blinders these days. Maybe we don’t want to actually open up the floodgates to every single problem. And maybe this is what you say. It’s about living life and accepting it in all of its hard knocks and all that.

Davis: But it is really true. And I’ve thought a lot about this. Because people don’t want you to write books that don’t end happily.

Correspondent: Unlikable characters, which has become a big issue this year.

Davis: Right. Movies. It is now the case where if you go to the movies, especially with the movies made in this country…

Correspondent: You have to go to television to get a gripping narrative.

Davis: And you’re not ever going to see something where there’s going to be an inconclusive or really, really unhappy ending. So I realize the suspense level is eradicated by the fact that, even when somebody’s clinging to the edge of a cliff and you’re thinking, “Oh my God! I hope he’s going to survive,” you know he’s going to. Because they don’t make movies where people drop off cliffs. Because he’s the hero.

Correspondent: So narrative is doomed to go for the default heroic state.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, cork27, danke, and GamingXSportXClub.)

The Bat Segundo Show #519: Kathryn Davis (Download MP3)

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