#tobyreads: Catching Up on Modern Classics, and Savoring Plot


I’m pretty sure that most serious readers have a list of books that they should have read by this point, but haven’t. It might be mental; it might be in a word processing document or scrawled in the back of a notebook or stored externally in a service like Goodreads. Maybe it’s some combination of all of those things. This week’s column involves a look at two of those; it also involves misdirection, fantasy trilogies, and the enjoyment that comes from watching long-gestating plots emerge.

I have a habit of amassing the British editions of Cormac McCarthy’s novels. The designer who opted for old typefaces at mammoth sizes on the covers nailed, for me, the appeal of McCarthy’s work: the starkness, the agelessness, and, above all else, the words. I’d picked up Child of God on a recent trip west; after reading Jason Diamond’s look at the best of Cormac McCarthy’s books, I pulled it down from the to-read pile in which it had sat, and delved in. For all that it’s a simple story, following one character’s descent from the fringes of society to something much more horrific, it’s also meticulously told, both getting inside the head of its protagonist to showing how others view him, on both an individual and a communal level. And while there’s a sensationalistic aspect to some of the actions described here, they are presented with the horror that one might expect.

A different kind of horror emerges in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Here, the central character is an intellectual, and perhaps a more consciously participant in the spiral that upends his life. I say “perhaps” because David Lurie, this novel’s central character, possesses a towering amount of self-delusion–enough to allow him, in the novel’s first third, to commit a terrible act, and then to blind himself to the consequences of it. Eventually, he leaves his home for the countryside, where he visits his daughter; there, he is witness to (and victim of) other terrible acts. In stark prose, Coetzee lays out questions of ethics, of changes in societies, and of fractures in familial and social bonds. It’s a haunting work.

And from there, I headed into Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy(Thanks to Molly Templeton for the recommendation.) This is full-on epic fantasy, though the way in which worldbuilding is accomplished is subtle and deeply rewarding: each book reveals more of the world (really, the continent) in which it’s set, but also reveals the world as a stranger and stranger place as it goes on. There’s also some nice moral ambiguity–the narrator is an assassin in the king’s service, and Hobb doesn’t shy away from the implications of that. And while there are fantastical elements, the plot is largely driven by political infighting, conspiracies, and decades-old slights.  It’s also compulsively readable, with a sharp knowledge of genre tropes and a willingness to upend them.


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