#tobyreads: Cities Gone Idiosyncratic


Cross-country flights often give me a chance to work through the larger side of my to-read pile. That’s how I came to read John Berger’s Selected Essays and T.J. Binyon’s Pushkin in the last week and change. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions ended up on my radar through WORD’s Classics book group. Initially, this was going to be what this week’s column would be about: Weighty Tomes, door-stoppers; books with a size suitable for comment.

Instead, I’m going with novels. Weird, idiosyncratic ones. Because that’s where my head is right now. It’s likely that giant nonfiction works will be discussed next week, alongside some very svelte essays. But for now: all fiction, all the time.

To the extent that I have literary resolutions for 2014, one of them would be “read more Denis Johnson.” Though my own experience of reading Johnson’s books finds them getting under my skin for years at a time: it’s been over a decade since I read Already Dead, and bits of it are still creeping me out. So it might behoove me to revisit Fiskadoro, which I read on my flight home, in early 2015, to see what the cumulative effect of its presence in my subconscious will be.

And there’s plenty to haunt in here. Set in Florida at an unspecified point in the near future, Fiskadoro follows a small community in relative isolation, awaiting the point (possibly decades in the future) at which a quarantine will be lifted. That this is a post-nuclear-war scenario is one of the few overtly science-fictional details in the book, which largely concerns itself with death, mortality, and the preservation of culture. The closest thing to a protagonist here, Mr. Cheung, is attempting to keep an appreciation of classical music alive. And though this is ostensibly set decades from now, the 1960s and 70s suffuse this book, from the remembered song lyrics that certain people cite to Mr. Cheung’s grandmother’s memories of the Vietnam War. it’s a very particular view of the future that sits alongside unsettling cults and religious revivalists. One thing that Fiskadoro captures perfectly is the sense of being overwhelmed by the outside world’s forces, which runs through a number of permutations before this brief, surreal work reaches its end.

Disorientation can just as easily come from within. Helen Oyeyemi’s White is For Witching tells the story of a family living in Dover. It opens dizzyingly, structurally positing questions, with responses coming from a handful of narrators, one of whom doesn’t seem to be human. The book then jumps back in time, finding its central characters reeling from a death in the family. There’s an old house that looms large here, the family’s home for generations, now in use as a bed and breakfast. And there are…strange things happening, a sense of wrongness that gradually extends beyond the realm of realism.

Oyeyemi keeps the uncanny just out of the range of the easily explained; there is no single trauma that can be undone to make things better, just the horrific weight of historical ugliness enduring and leaving its impact on the present day. Oyeyemi also, occasionally, pivots her narrators; in the text, a word will appear centered, and suddenly the tone changes. Its a deeply jarring way of shifting narrators, which seems to be the desired effect. Oyeyemi uses disorientation to her advantage here; the effect is dizzying.

I’d had Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater on my to-read shelf for a while now. Matthew Specktor’s essay on it from late 2012 was a significant impetus for my reading it, and it also goes into one of the central questions that arises when reading it. Mickey Sabbath, the novel’s protagonist, is…well, to call him “unlikable” would be understating matters significantly. I found myself cringing at some of his actions throughout the book; not only does he refuse any sort of redemption, but he actively lashes out at those that offer some sort of respite. Many of his actions in the book are reprehensible; at the same time, the downward spiral charted by the book is fascinating to read, with occasional moments of grace in between scenes of general turpitude. Add to that a fantastic first sentence and a pitch-perfect final one, and I’m left impressed.

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