#tobyreads: Deconstructing Intellectual Lives, With Humor


Getting laughs and pathos from the same work of fiction is a hard thing to do. Adam Wilson’s previous book, Flatscreen, did so regularly, with wry observations juxtaposed with a real sense of loss. As good as that book was, his new collection What’s Important is Feeling, is even better — bleak scenarios and economic anxiety coexist with awkward sex, failed relationships, and barely sublimated loathing. Wilson is excellent at finding the pathos of characters one wouldn’t normally find empathy for: a boorish, recently-laid-off investment banker, for instance. Wilson also mines that same boorishness (or, in other stories, awkwardness or blindness to class) for humor — but he’s also able to keep the inherent humanity of these characters, however flawed they might be. That’s not easy, and in these stories, Wilson pulls it off again and again.

It takes a little while for the shape of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation to become clear; it covers many years in the life of its protagonist and sometime narrator, and gradually, what had been the story of a writer struggling to live in the city becomes the story of a marriage, and then of a family (though the same elements of economic and artistic anxiety persist). The structure is fragmented, and at times recalls the work of Harry Mathews, David Markson, and — as Roxane Gay has pointed out — Renata Adler. And, to state the obvious, that’s not a bad place to be; Offill’s novel takes familiar elements and makes them new. She experiments with structure without losing sight of the harsh, sometimes raw emotions at the core of her narrative, and the result is a challenging, moving read.

It had been much too long since I last read anything by James Baldwin. And given Ta-Nehisi Coates making the case that he’s the best essayist in American letters and Jason Diamond’s piece on Baldwin’s continued vitality, I thought it might be time to pick up The Fire Next Time. And so I did; noting that a book by James Baldwin is excellent and remains essential reading is probably not going to be news to any of you. Nonetheless: this is work that remains searingly good, both for Baldwin’s observations on race in America and for the way he structures his work, covering large swaths of his own life and juxtaposing seemingly unrelated elements for what becomes a powerful denouement.

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