#tobyreads: Three Takes on Solitude


I’m probably stating the obvious here, but: solitude can yield impressive literary results. Samuel Beckett made stunning fiction from characters trapped in their own heads. Novels like Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life take similar approaches, taking the inner life of singular characters to a heightened level. There’s a certain school of nonfiction that places a narrator alone in a landscape and lets them work wonders with the scenery around them. And that, more or less, brings us to today.

I don’t quite know where to begin with Jeff Jackson’s novel Mira Corpora — the hallucinatory opening brought to mind fellow Two Dollar Radio author Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, but then the narrative shifted into something a bit more grounded, while still surreal. (Parts reminded me more than a little of Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation, both tonally and for certain plot elements.) The novel follows a young runaway, who appears to share a name with the author, through different stages of his life, building towards the search for a vanished cult rock legend and the narrator’s horrific entanglement with a wealthy man with a fondness for tranquilizers. Jackson’s ability to evoke the growing perceptions and shifting vantage of his narrator makes the episodic quality of Mira Corpora work especially well.

Something about isolation and wilderness makes for terrific memoirs — Anne Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between. And it’s into this category — and this class — that I’d put Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest, about the six months Tesson spent living in a cabin near Lake Baikal in the Russian taiga. Tonally speaking, Tesson is closer to Dillard: always in philosopher mode, pondering grand concepts, even as the world outside is confined to the sound of ice forming and cracking. There’s a sense of real pain here: at the time of this, Tesson was going through an estrangement in his own relationship, and that isolation atop his own geographic isolation can induce a crushingly sadness at times. Elsewhere, the pleasures of the few neighbors Tesson has — and the company of two puppies — enliven the narrative. It’s almost enough to make the reader want to spend six months in isolation. Almost.

Also in the “traveling accompanied by canines” category: John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. (Which I was reminded to pick up in part due to Jason’s article on poodles for Lapham’s Quarterly.) This was my first time reading Steinbeck’s nonfiction — and, hell, my first time reading Steinbeck in something like a year and a half. Which is weird, because whenever I read Steinbeck, I tend to be floored. This was no exception; over the course of the book, its tone shifts from jaunty and chipper to something more considered and ambiguous. (Towards the end of the book, Steinbeck enters the South, forcing the book to reckon with some of the more painful aspects of America circa 1960.) Needless to say, I’m hoping to read more from Steinbeck sooner than, like, 2015 — I just ordered a copy of Sweet Thursday from WORD.


In terms of magazines and journals I’m still making my way through the latest Yeti . I haven’t gotten to the Codeine oral history yet, but the interviews with Furxusa and (especially) the kickass artist/musician Genevieve Castree were both incredibly informative. And the latest Lucky Peach has a terrific series of profiles of restaurant delivery people from Mark Ibold, and Amelia Gray’s dispatch from several lunches at a Los Angeles strip club, which makes for a surreal, funny, slice of life.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.