It isn’t simply single books that have impacted my thinking, my writing, my thinking about writing, my writing about thinking, but singular artists and their respective oeuvres, each one’s so-called successes as inspiring as their so-called failures are instructive. So, what follows is a list of writers whose writing as a whole (and in some cases, their biographies, especially in regard to their work ethic, and other ethics), I consider to be important, important to me it should go without saying or writing, but likely isn’t “permitted” to go without saying in this age of having to self-effacingly preface one’s opinions with some kind of disclaimer or other.
You’ll find that my list privileges obsessive prose stylists. If a piece of writing doesn’t have this quality, I will probably have already forgotten it soon after I’ve likely given up reading it after the first few sentences I’ve had to suffer reading, while probably still remembering the writer, warning other readers to avoid his or her writing. You’ll also find me refusing to pitch my tent in either the so-called minimalist or so-called maximalist camps, or the so-called literary or so-called genre camps, refusing, in other words to think in cancelling-the-so-called-other dichotomies.
Also, I think of these writers’ writings less as literary “pillars,” than as doors or windows, of perception, yes, but also of possibility, of intelligence, of attentiveness, of innovation, of experimentation, from and through which I can enter or exit at will.
1. Djuna Barnes: Barnes’s Nightwood had been sitting on my shelf unread for a number of years, until I finally read it, late last year. I think I initially picked it up after hearing Samuel Delany, after a reading, call the book a “marvelous prose object,” saying that he’d read it dozens of times.
Some thoughts about the novel: First, there is an incredible surface density to the prose, which is rich with detail, imagery, color. With its indirectness, its encirclings, its shifts in focus, its prolixity and obliquity, the prose is reminiscent of late James, but, with all of its grotesqueries, it is James debauched.
2. John Barth: Another giant who has somehow been relegated to the kind of anonymity reserved only for the best.
Recommended: The Sot-Weed Factor; and Lost in the Funhouse
3. Donald Barthelme: At Unspeakable Practices V, the last of Robert Coover’s multi-day festivals of readings, music, and panels at Brown University, I had a chance to finally see some footage of John Hawkes reading. Another highlight was hearing a recording of Donald Barthelme, and I was surprised by the timbre of his voice, the drawl, the laconic pacing, all of which cast his writing in somewhat of a different light.
Recommended: Forty Stories and Sixty Stories
4. Samuel Beckett
5. Thomas Bernhard
6. Jorge Luis Borges:
Recommended: Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley; Selected Non-fictions, Edited by Eliot Weinberger; Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, by Richard Burgin; Borges on Writing, edited by Norman Thomas diGiovanni, Daniel Halpern, and Frank MacShane
7. Octavia E. Butler: Getting lost in stories is a feeling I sometimes miss having, and when I think of those kinds of stories that swept me into another world I think of Butler’s stories, where dystopias and other stranger than strange worlds afford Butler an opportunity to explore ideas about race and gender without falling into mere pedantry.
Recommended: Patternist series: Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, Survivor, Wild Seed, and Clay’s Ark; Lilith’s Brood (formerly the Xenogenesis trilogy): Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago; and Parable Series: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents
8. Italo Calvino:
Recommended: Invisible Cities; Cosmicomics; andSix Memos for the Next Millennium.
9. Mary Caponegro: Caponegro is a virtuoso. Her work is often baroque, expansively philosophical, and darkly comic, it is invitingly dense, filled with fabulist departures, and proves that she is a lover of elliptical digressions. It’s important to recognize that self-imposed constraints can become restraints, how stylistic traits can become their own straitjackets. With her most recent collection, All Fall Down, Caponegro has transitioned from stories that are incredibly digressive, with any number of fantastic departures, to stories that were still digressive but which were also, especially in comparison to her previous collections, more straightforward (but only in comparison to her own work, since her stories still run counter to mainstream mimetic fiction and also the reigning minimalist styles). I think she’s demonstrated how it’s possible to stay within a groove without falling into a rut.
I interviewed Mary Caponegro for Salt Hill Journal.
I reviewed All Fall Down for Open Letters Monthly.
The Star Café; Five Doubts; The Complexities of Intimacy; and All Fall Down
10. Joseph Conrad
11. Robert Coover: Like everyone else on the list, I will eventually read all everything that Coover has written. No other writer comes close to his virtuosity, his trespass of genre boundaries, his incisive humor, his ability to embed critique within compelling narratives.
I reviewed Coover’s Noir for The Brooklyn Rail:
12. Hart Crane: “Memory, committed to the page, broke,” writes Crane in “Passage.” It’s a line that might be read as a reflection on his own writing, its fractured phrasing, its odd juxtapositions, its acknowledgement that whatever is remembered is always misremembered, recalling “Forgetfulness,” a gem from Crane’s juvenilia, the last line of which reads: “I can remember much forgetfulness.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve puzzled over Crane’s lapidary puzzles.
Recommended: The Collected Poems of Hart Crane
13. Guy Davenport
14. Samuel R. Delany: One word best describes Delany, and it also serves as the title of a documentary about him, namely, “Polymath.”
Recommended: Dhalgren; About Writing; Silent Interviews; Return to Nevèrÿon (series); and Babel-17
15. Don DeLillo
16. Gilles Deleuze
17. Jacques Derrida
18. Emily Dickinson:
Recommended: Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson
19. Annie Dillard:
Another Seer Seeing: Some Reflections on Some Books by Annie Dillard
The question is not what you look at, but what you see.
—Henry David Thoreau
I once reached out to a writer after reading a fresh, expressive story of his. After a little “research,” that is, poking around on the internet, I found out that he’d completed a novel and that it had been sitting for years in some kind of limbo. It took him several months to write back to me. He told me he had given up writing fiction, given it up over ten years ago. I was sad when I read this, as if I had lost something, just like Minta who, in Virginia Woolf’s At the Lighthouse, “lost her grandmother’s brooch, the sole ornament she possessed—a weeping willow, it was (they must remember it) set in pearls. They have seen it, she said, with tears running down her cheeks, the brooch which her grandmother had fastened her cap with till the last day of her life. Now she had lost it. She would rather have lost anything than that.” A bit over the top you say? Overreacting? Maybe, but as I read his news my stomach felt like a reamed orange, like I really had lost something.
I wrote the writer back, telling him I was sorry to hear that he wasn’t writing fiction any longer, that the image of his manuscript languishing in an agent’s filing cabinet reminded me of something I’d read in Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction. In the book, she focuses primarily on writers who work against narrative conventions—authors whose fiction may be described as “metafiction,” “fabulation,” “Post-Modernist,” and the like. While the essays illuminate the myriad ways these kinds of writers have broadened notions of craft, technique, narrative, characterization, language, etc., it is Dillard’s inspired glosses on fiction’s relevance and meaning that captured my attention. In one sparkling passage, in a chapter entitled “Does the World Have Meaning?” she writes:
The most extreme, cheerful, and fantastic view of art to which I ever subscribe is one in which the art object requires no viewer or listener—no audience whatever—in order to do what it does, which is nothing less than to hold up the universe.
This is, fundamentally, an insane notion, but one which might have developed from an idea of Buckminster Fuller’s. Every so often I try to encourage other writers by telling them this cheerful set of thoughts; always they gaze at me appalled. Fuller’s assertion was roughly to this effect: the purpose of people on earth is to counteract the tide of entropy described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Physical things are falling apart at a terrific rate; people, on the other hand, put things together. People build bridges and cities and roads, they write music and novels and constitutions; they have ideas. That is why we are here; the universe needs somebody or something to keep it from falling apart.
Now, for a long time I have taken this notion of Fuller’s to mean something even he probably did not intend: that imaginative acts actually weigh in the balance of physical processes. Imaginative acts—even purely mental combinations, like the thought that a certain cloud resembles a top hat—carry real weight in the universe. A child who makes a pun, or a shepherd who looks at a bunch of stars and thinks, “That part is a throne and that part is a swan,” is doing something which counts in the universe’s reckoning of order and decay—which counts as much as those mighty explosions and strippings of electrons do inside those selfsame stars. This jolly view soothes the Puritan conscience; it gives the artist real work. With this thumb in the dike he or she is saving the universe. And the best part of it is he or she need not find a publisher, or a gallery, or a producer, or a symphony orchestra. Thoughts count. A completed novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order. It remakes its share of undoing. It counteracts the decaying of systems, the breakdown of stars and cultures and molecules, the fraying of forms. It works. (If an essentially mental order and an essentially physical one are equivalents, then all we need are conversion tables. With a little tinkering, Einstein’s formula might work for this. Perhaps a decent line in a decent sonnet weighs in the balance with a bonfire, say, or the force of a very high tide. Could a complex and ordered novel pull the stars from their courses?)
Dillard describes her thoughts of imaginative acts having direct impact on the universe’s forces as a “crackpot notion, a little ghosty story I never tire of telling myself.” While I would concur that much of what she wrote above is speculation, myth, fantasy, or what have you, and while I would love to hear George Carlin’s curmudgeonly take on its cosmic gobbledygookness, on the sheer hubris of the notion that the planet can be saved by us, the passage above does speak to and resonate for me on the inherent relevance, importance, and meaning of art. And while I certainly think it’s overstating the case to assert that art “counteracts the breakdown of stars and cultures and molecules,” I do agree that “thoughts count” and that we need not be affirmed, supported, acknowledged, recognized, remunerated, etc. for the work, the art, the art work, the work of art, the artwork, to matter.
I haven’t heard back yet from the writer who gave up. I hope it’s because he’s dusted off that old manuscript, or that perhaps he’s embarked on something new. We need more storytellers, especially ones whose writing is filled with stunning imagery, interesting language, and unique approaches to narrative construction. We can’t afford to lose one.
So we’re very fortunate to have Annie Dillard around to continue to inspire us. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, with its vivid series of images and metaphors, is itself a wonderful prose object. Observing monarch butterflies migrating, she writes, “A monarch at rest looks like a fleck of tiger, stilled and wide-eyed. A monarch in flight looks like an autumn leaf with a will, vitalized and cast upon the air from which it seems to suck some thin sugar of energy, some leaf-life or sap.” But really, you can take almost any paragraph at random, almost any sentence, and find fresh metaphoric language propelled by a unique, eccentric sensibility. I keep word logs, a list of a writer’s unusual word choices, and Dillard’s work is a treasure trove of words. Who else save Updike, Alexander Theroux, Gass, and sadly few other living writers, will fearlessly weave words like “sonant,” “surd,” “rufous,” and the like, in their work? Let me say that encountering a word I don’t know doesn’t slow me down, or take me away from what I was reading. I don’t feel like something has been interrupted, that the unspoken contract between writer and reader has been broken. In fact, the discovery resulting from racing to my beloved dictionary—but surely all writers love the dictionary?—brings me closer to the writing and to the mind of the writer, and perhaps even closer to understanding what, exactly, they mean. Isn’t that one of the reasons why we read, namely to commune with another mind?
Another distinguishing characteristic of Pilgrim is Dillard’s seamlessly weaving of quotations from naturalists, mystics, poets like Rimbaud and Gerald Manley Hopkins, philosophers, geologists, artists like de Chirico and van Gogh, etc. with her own discursive lyricism. Dillard’s quotation of Martin Buber provides a guiding principle for Dillard: “When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks from their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.” Her work admonishes us to slow down, be still, and see, and see again. Like Rilke’s Malte, in this suite of essays, she is teaching herself to see. But in contrast to Malte, who fails to bring together his observations, reflections, and insights into a poetic whole, Dillard succeeds in writing imaginatively about everything she sees and feels. Her wonderfully outrageous interactions with muskrats, her descriptions of a flood, an Osage orange tree, and everything from the play of lights and shadows, the landscape of clouds, all the bulbous frogs and frittering butterflies, to the antics of her annoying tomcat, red-winged blackbirds, and the countless creepy-crawlies, inspire me to take flight to the woods, the mountains, the sea.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a meditative work, a mystical work that at times reaches William Blake’s visionary heights. As I read through the book, Dillard’s language, her commitment, her persistence—and despite what I consider dead wrong conclusions, namely the belief in intelligent design, a Creator, in fact, who actually gives a damn about his creation—did light a holy fire in me, that unquenchable, unforgettable fire that burns up the chaff, through the static, the chatter, the noise, the fire of seeing deeply, through and beyond surfaces, to not only hear but listen, to taste and see that the world is good, and to allow, in the midst of a desensitizing world, all these things to bubble up inside me, to take things personally, and then write, write, write.
20. Stanley Elkin
21. Brian Evenson:
I interviewed Brian Evenson for Rain Taxi: http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2009winter/evenson.shtml
I reviewed Baby Leg for The Collagist:
I reviewed Fugue State for Open Letters Monthly: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/book-review-fugue-state-brian-evenson/
Recommended: Altmann’s Tongue; Dark Property: An Affliction; Baby Leg; and Fugue State.
22. William Faulkner
23. Thalia Field: I interviewed Field for The Believer.
Recommended: Point and Line; Incarnate: Story Material; Bird Lovers, Backyard
24. Leon Forrest
Recommended: There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden; The Bloodworth Orphans; Two Wings to Veil My Face; Relocations of the Spirit: Collected Essays; Divine Days; and Meteor in the Madhouse
25. William Gaddis
26. William Gass: About two years ago, I decided to read all of Gass’s books in chronological order. I’d already read about five or so of them, and so I happily read those again. In addition, I sought out and read all of the excerpts of his current novel-in-progress that have been published in Conjunctions over the years, as well as some other uncollected short stories and an assortment of uncollected essays. After finishing this reading adventure, I reached out to him about interviewing him. For me, it didn’t make sense to do it by telephone, so I flew out about a week ago to meet him in St. Louis (hard not to hear Judy Garland singing that refrain whenever I say or write that!) and to speak with him in his home over the course of two afternoons, and dinner (alas, unrecorded!), surrounded by over twenty thousand books; and thus had my mind completely blown away by his anecdotes (which includes reminiscences about Stanley Elkin, Robert Coover, Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, and others), his elaborations on his literary and philosophical theories, his thoughts on various forms of electronic media, as well as in-depth glosses on his unfinished novel (three more chapters to go!), as well as several other projects in the works.
Recommended: Omensetter’s Luck; In the Heart if the Heart of the Country; The Tunnel; and Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas.
27. John Haskell:
I reviewed Haskell’s Out of My Skin for The Rumpus.
Recommended: I Am Not Jackson Pollock; American Purgatorio, by John Haskell; Out of My Skin
28. John Hawkes: Since last September, I’ve been in the middle of a John Hawkes marathon. I’m almost finished. I’m loving it so much I might just do it all over again.
Recommended: The Cannibal; The Beetle Leg; The Goose on the Grave; The Owl; The Lime Twig; Second Skin; The Blood Oranges; Death, Sleep, and the Traveler; Travesty; The Passion Artist; and Virginie Her Two Lives
29. Amy Hempel
30. James Joyce: I sometimes think of Joyce as the literary Miles Davis in the sense that he had, during the course of his career, either reinvigorated dormant forms, like the short story, turning each of his fictive compactions into vehicles for lyrical revelation; and like the Kunstlerroman, ingeniously changing discourses in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; or contributed massive innovations, like Ulysses, his Olympian pre-Oulipian constraint-based novel-in-novellas, and Finnegans Wake, his comical, ouroboric, pre-Derridean, counter-logocentric text.
I wrote about Finnegans Wake for The Nervous Breakdown.
Recommended: Dubliners; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ulysses; and Finnegans Wake.
31. Henry James: Since December 2010, I’ve been in the middle of a Henry James marathon. I’m almost finished. I’m loving it so much I might just do it all over again.
Recommended: Watch and Ward; Roderick Hudson; The American; The Europeans; Confidence; Washington Square; The Portrait of a Lady; The Bostonians; The Princess Casamassima; The Reverberator; and The Golden Bowl
32. László Krasznahorkai: Written words, that is, their rhetorical devices, stylistic flourishes, their syntax, are rarely realized in cinema. Krasznahorkai’s post-industrial angst-suffused convolutions, however, finds its analogue in Béla Tarr’s gray cinematic epics.
33. Ursula K. Le Guin: I wrote my first fan letter to Le Guin. It was in the days of snail mail. She kindly answered it in kind.
34. Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte’s fictions are the perfect amalgam of Barry Hannah’s and Stanley Elkin’s, sans the former’s aggrieved, lapsed Christianity, with a protracted, though no less damaging, sense of the latter’s self-loathing secular Jewishness. There’s a certain kind of brutality to his fictions: each character is not only forced to dance on fiery coals but also made to stick those scalding rocks into their eyeholes.
Recommended: Venus Drive: Stories and The Ask.
35. Gordon Lish: I’m looking forward to the day when Lish’s true impact on American literature is properly assessed. Lish is responsible for either teaching, influencing, and/or championing many writers, including Jennifer Allen, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Harold Brodkey, Garth Buckner, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Will Eno, William Ferguson, Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Noy Holland, Raymond Kennedy, Michael Kimball, David Leavitt, Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, Cynthia Ozick, J. E. Pitts, Reynolds Price, Dawn Raffel, Victoria Redel, Mark Richard, Bruce Holland Rogers, Cooper Renner, Christine Schutt, Jason Schwartz, Jane Smiley, Dana Spiotta, William Tester, Lynne Tillman, Lily Tuck, Diane Williams, and Joy Williams. This list is nowhere near complete.
Recommended: Collected Fictions; Dear Mr. Capote; Peru; Zimzum; and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
36. Gary Lutz: Lutz’s fiction is an exemplar of what I have called “angular lyricism,” a narrative style composed of sentential singularities, that is, sentences attuned to the sonorities of language. His fictions also offer a peculiar vision of the human body and its relationship to its various others, significant and otherwise, but also to its environments, namely, office spaces, living rooms, bedrooms, and other incriminations by design.
I loved his work so much that I also read his book on grammar: Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference, confirming, in the process, that I love reading about style, grammar, punctuation, and usage.
I reviewed Partial List of People to Bleach for Word Riot:
I collected words from Divorcer:
Recommended: Everything, viz., Stories in the Worst Way; I Looked Alive; Partial List of People to Bleach;
37. Micheline Aharonian Marcom: I’ve read all of her books, save one, each one of those books a river of words, words limning consciousnesses as ill as they are illuminated,
I reviewed Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Mirror in the Well for Tarpaulin Sky.
I wrote about Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Daydreaming Boy for The Nervous Breakdown.
Recommended: Three Apples Fell from Heaven; The Daydreaming Boy; Draining the Sea; and The Mirror in the Well
38. Ben Marcus: Language is actually a fuzzy math, symbols slipping from their referent, and Ben Marcus, granitic cynic and cartographer of dystopic geographies, uses a sentential calculus betraying this deformation in form, artfully employing an angular poetics to send up the nuclear family and other abnormalities.
Recommended: The Age of Wire and String; Notable American Women; and The Flame Alphabet.
39. Carole Maso
40. Anne Michaels
41. Marianne Moore:
Recommended: Collected Poems of Marianne Moore
42. Vladimir Nabokov
43. Lance Olsen: Olsen’s career gives lie to the idea, Faulkner’s, that the “writer’s only responsibility is to his art,” that “he will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.” Faulkner was using hyperbole for effect, of course, but it’s still an ultimately stupid idea. Olsen, serves as an example, that a writer need not throw everything, namely, “honor, pride, decency, security, happiness,” away, “all, to get the book written.” Besides being an incredible writer of fiction and criticism, who has numerous published novels and short story collections, Olsen is an acclaimed teacher, serves as Chair of the Board of Directors at FC2, (a renowned progressive literary art community), and as Fiction Editor at Western Humanities Review. You don’t have to rob your mother, folks. You can have the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and any number of “old ladies.”
Recommended: Head in Flames; Calendar of Regrets; Rebel Yell: Writing Fiction; and Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing
44. Rainer Maria Rilke:
Recommended: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; New Poems; Duino Elegies; and Sonnets to Orpheus
45. Salman Rushdie:
On September 17, 2008, I went to see one of my favorite authors at my favorite bookstore: Salman Rushdie reading from The Enchantress of Florence, his latest novel, at the Strand in New York City. They held the event up in the Rare Books room—looking at all those wonderful signed first-editions collecting dust all around me, I reminded myself once again that wealth is wasted on the wealthy. Waiting for the talk, I buried my head in Rushdie’s first book of short stories East, West, a collection beginning with fairly straightforward dramas, but as the stories move in locality from East to West, worlds collide and things get stranger and stranger, like allusions to Star Trek, an examination of the fanatic impulses of collectors at an auction for Wizard of Oz memorabilia, and the like.
After reading from one of the novel’s sweeping battles scenes, Rushdie opened the floor to questions. Rushdie, as usual, was commanding, erudite, and droll. If you can find a recording of it, you can hear me hitting him with a barrage of questions, most of which he graciously answered. Jokingly, he said I wasn’t allowed ask any more questions, then turned to the audience and said, “Would someone please ask me my favorite color now?”
After the event, I hand-delivered a letter I’d written to him. He never responded.
Here it is, in full:
August 12, 2008
Dear Salman Rushdie,
With fingers nearly frostbitten by the seemingly arctic assault of the Queens Library’s central air-conditioning, I turned the final pages of the The Enchantress of Florence. The blood is just beginning to flow in my fingertips as I type out this letter in response. If this letter stalls at some points, we could blame it on my frozen fingertips, but if it gets lost along the way, let’s consider it an analogue to, or mirror of, if you like, how characters in The Enchantress are often lost in an undertow of memory.
While I was certainly engaged by the magic depicted throughout the novel it was the very loquacious voice of the narration, the “language upon a silvered tongue” that afforded “enchantment enough.” I found the following passage, discussing the division between reality and fantasy, striking and thought that it beautifully presented, albeit after a somewhat self-deprecatingly and sarcastically fashion, the power and responsibility of storytelling: “The creation of a real life from a dream was a superhuman act, usurping the prerogative of the gods. In those days Sikri was swarming with egotists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings…” I also liked the anarchic tone of the novel as a whole, perhaps flowering to fullness in this passage: “But what, then, of the voice within, that whispered every morning about harmony, not the foolish all-men-are-one nostrums of the mystics, but this stranger idea. That discord, difference, disobedience, disagreement, irreverence, iconoclasm, impudence, even insolence might be wellsprings of the good” (p 310). The characters, dialogue, narrative tone and structure, etc. in The Enchantress all point to this harmony welling up from a pool of chaos.
Always a sucker for stories within stories, I enjoyed how the novel’s numerous transitions, digressions, leaps through time and across space, etc. In the novel, we find a storyteller inebriated as much from the flow of his own mythmaking—telling his life’s story to save his life—as he is by the power of the response he receives. We also find women telling secrets intertwined with gossip and hearsay, myth and fable (which sometimes amounts to the same thing) to each other; and we also find a spy eavesdropping and reading the diary of Akbar’s closest advisor. Then there is the ever-present, nudge-nudge, wink-winking narrator throughout most of the stories within stories within stories. The self-reflexive moments sprinkled throughout the novel like, for instance, when Argalia, Machiavelli, and Vespucci recite “satanic verses” would serve as a study in itself. The study should be extended to how this ongoing intertextual dialogue is articulated throughout your work as a whole.
The way the story’s structured of course brings to mind The One Thousand and One Nights, Orlando Furioso, and Invisible Cities, but all that has already been commented upon ad nauseam. Yes, while the novel may be considered a container much like Chinese Boxes or a matryoshka doll, I also thought of it as an example of mise en abyme, in the sense of seeming to stand between two mirrors and seeing itself, the story, repeated endlessly. What would be the aural equivalent of this experience? Is there an infinite echo? An infinite song? There are so many mirrors in the story, namely, Angelica and her slave; Angelica’s daughter and Angelica; Argalia and Nicollò Vespucci; Jodha and Angelica; Jodha and Akbar; Akbar and the del Amore; Argalia and Nicollò; as well as the Memory Palace and the magic cloak, both receptacles of precious things, secrets, jewels, possibilities, answers, etc.
Akbar’s meditations on being (he is described as “not content with being” and as “striving to become”) and plurality were particularly evocative for me. His lack of contentment with being reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore. In it, the wizard Ged, while still powerful, is nevertheless fatigued and wishes for a simpler life. Sailing on the ocean, he tells Arren, his protégé of sorts, that traveling enabled him to become lost in fantasies of being free, free from the fetters of his own destiny. Ged admonishes Arren saying: “When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come to a time like this, between act and act, when you stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all you are.” I see Ged reconciling the ideas of freewill and fate. While things may appear to be predetermined, acts also dictate one’s future. And while he believes in a grand design he can’t help also believing in individual choice and agency.
Please don’t understand this to mean that I have reconciled these notions for myself, or that I even believe in notions of fate, design, etc., but what resonates for me is the idea that it’s so easy to spin in a whirl of activity and forget delighting in simply being. Akbar’s notions of plurality brought to mind Calvino’s chapter “Multiplicity” from his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, particularly this passage: “Perhaps this idea of the self-as-community was what it meant to be a being in the world, any being: such a being being, after all, inevitably a being among other beings, a part of the beingness of all things. Perhaps plurality was not exclusively a king’s prerogative, perhaps it was not, after all, his divine right.” The lives of many of the characters in The Enchantress are lives of fables and extremes. This idea is reflected in Akbar’s ideas about identity. The emperor looks for a singularity but is overwhelmed by his own multiplicity. He is a mirror in a hall of mirrors, repeated endlessly.
The meditation of the very real struggles of childhood expressed by Argalia as he presents his argument to Doria to save his life is also rendered beautifully. He says:
A “child” is a safe and pampered thing, cocooned from the truth of the world, allowed to waste years in mere play—a creature who believes that wisdom can be acquired in school. “Childhood” is a luxury I cannot afford, just as you could not. The truth about “childhood” lies hidden in the most untrue stories of the world. Children face monsters and demons and only survive if they are fearless. Children starve to death unless they free a magic fish who grants them their heart’s de-sires. Children are eaten alive by trolls unless they manage to delay the creatures until the sun rises, whereupon the vile things turn to stone. A child must learn how to cast beans to bind men and women to his will, and how to grow the beanstalk upon which such beans are found. An orphan is a child writ large. Our lives are lives of fables and extremes (168).
I have to quibble however with Argalia’s boast that children “waste years in mere play,” having Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art stilling bouncing about in my brain.
I wonder if Argalia’s tale: “once upon a time there were three oranges and inside each one a beautiful girl who would die if you didn’t give her water the moment she came out of the orange” is a metaphor for him and his childhood friends. Is it a mirror of the Memory Palace’s refrain? And speaking of the Memory Palace, one of my favorite passages in the novel is this one:
While you were anesthetized to the tragedy of your life you were able to survive. When clarity was returned to you, when it was painstakingly restored, it could drive you mad. Your reawakened memory could derange you, the memory of humiliation, of so much handling, of so many intrusions, the memory of men. Not a palace but a brothel of memories, and behind those memories the knowledge that those who loved you were dead, that there was no escape. Such knowledge could make you come to your feet, gather yourself, and run. If you run fast enough you might be able to escape your past and the memory that everything that had been done to you, and the future as well, the inescapable bleakness ahead. Were there brothers to rescue you? No, your brothers were dead. Perhaps the world itself is dead. Yes, it was. To be part of the dead world it was necessary that you die as well. It was necessary that you run as fast as possible until you reached the edge between the worlds and then you didn’t stop you ran across that border as if it wasn’t there as if glass was air and air was glass, the air shattering around you like glass as you fell. The air slicing you to pieces as if it were a blade. It was good to fall. It was good to fall out of life. It was good.
I found the various meditations on storytelling captivating like, for instance, this one:
The story was completely untrue, but the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service to the world, and it was tales of this sort—improvised versions of the endless streams of stories he had learned from his friend Ago Vespucci—that saved little Nino Argalia’s own neck after he was found hiding under a bunk in the forecastle of the flagship of Andrea Doria’s fleet.
Are the endless streams of stories in The Enchantress an echo of the “Ocean of Notions” in Haroun and the Sea of Stories? Argalia and Niccolo Vespucci are mirrors of Scheherazade. And here’s another funny and perhaps a self-deprecating aside: “‘A curse on all storytellers,’ said Akbar irritably, drinking deeply from a red and gold goblet of wine. ‘And a pox on your children too’” (206).
Water is another theme in the novel. The “water drinkers” and the emptying out of the golden lake at Sikri are just two examples that come to mind. And what a sad ending to the “sea of molten gold.” You write: “Without water, we are nothing. Even an emperor, denied water, would swiftly turn to dust. Water is the real monarch and we are its slaves.” Have you read Blue Gold? There’s also a frightening documentary entitled For the Love of Water, the viewing of which should make us all wake up.
Speaking of film, having recently finished your first five novels, going backwards, as it were, after reading The Enchantress, and upon discovering that you’ve written a screenplay for Midnight’s Children, marking your predilection for film references from both “Woods” (Hooray for Holly and Hello Bolly!), and unselfconscious use of cinematic techniques as plot devices, and also having heard you express, in a recent talk you gave at the New York Public Library—where some guy wants to make the lions on its steps show who’s King of the Forest—your admiration for Pedro Almodóvar and his technique as a filmmaker, I began musing on possible directors for your novels. For Grimus, I thought of Pasolini. But he’s not available, so then I thought of Kurosawa, but then there was the same problem of permanent unavailability. Abbas Kiarostami, maybe? Darren Aronofsky might make it work. Requiem for a Dream was excellent as was π, and if he had more money, then Fountain would have probably taken off as well. Lars Von Trier? Hmm, now we’re talking. Have you seen his take on Medea? Then again, the oneiric tonality of Grimus and its narrative fragmentation reminded me of David Lynch’s approach to filmmaking and of Inland Empire in particular, where you often find one door opening into another realm or one corridor leads to a different time or space.
Wes Anderson would handle Midnight’s Children. The anarchic spirit of his films, their devastating satirical tone, biting and sarcastic dialogue, and languid pace mark him as the best choice. His Darjeeling Limited perhaps seals it. Midnight should be filmed in a luminous black-and-white, having the shimmering quality of Ansel Adams landscapes—his sensitivity to light’s specificity and transience is what I’m thinking about here, but I also can’t help thinking about Robert Mapplethorpe’s unforgiving highly-stylized portraits. But like Mughal-e-Azam, the film should explode into oversaturated color for Saleem’s descent into the Sundarbans, the purgatorial jungle, its frightening evanescence, its quirks and quarks, the profound dislocations, the vegetation’s steamy lushness, the four daughters of the forest’s kaleidoscope eyes, choking the errant filmgoer’s eye. Perhaps Wong Kar Wai should direct this episode.
The jump-cutting multi-narratives of Satanic Verses is right up Alejandro González Iñárritu’s alley. I also think it’d be interesting to see what Michel Gondry with Charlie Kaufman would do with it. Then again, I think the Coen brothers might be able to properly manage its zig and zag, its tragic-comedy, duplicitous narration, and ultra-violence.
Shame, which I can’t help thinking of as a twisted riff on Jane Austen’s novels, should be directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Who else can manage the dark, brooding, and introspective tone of the main characters, balancing the menacing aspects of the Beast with the novel’s depiction of demagoguery and political intrigue, with nightmarish violations against human dignity as its backdrop? An aside: In Shame, you write that Pre-1971 Pakistan was a “fantastic bird of a place, two wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God.” When I read this, I thought of Amiri Baraka’s assault on American politics with his declaration, “Right wing, left wing: same bird.” I’d like to add, if I may, that said bird should be killed with one stone.
Terry Gilliam is the obvious choice for me for Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I really enjoyed the comparison of storytelling to juggling in the book. Haroun muses aloud to Blabbermouth: “You keep a lot of different tales in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you’re good you don’t drop any…” But then she proceeds to deflate any kind of certainty one may find in metaphor. As for The Enchantress of Florence, I thought immediately of Peter Greenaway. Come to think of it, he’s probably the only di-rector capable of translating all these novels into equally significant cinema.
I plan to attend your talk at Strand Bookstore and just in case I don’t have a chance, here are some questions I’d like to ask:
In The Enchantress, you highlight Akbar’s courtiers, his nine Navaratnas or Jewels that included a musician, two poets, a mystic, and the like. I wonder if given an opportunity to surround yourself with nine people, across history, time, space, and place, who would your Navaratnas would be?
In your essay, Out of Kansas, an homage to The Wizard of Oz, you reveal that it was this film that “made a writer out of” you. And it served as a critical influence on Haroun and the Sea of Stories. In the essay, you also recall watching a Hindi movie in Bombay at around the same time entitled Mughal-e-Azam, an epic about the Grand Mughal, the emperor Akbar, where you were first exposed to color cinematography and by “a dance at the court by the fabled Anarkali.” As Akbar figures largely in The Enchantress, I wonder if a film from your formative years once again inspired your choice of subject matter.
I’ve noticed that Ursula K. Le Guin has provided blurbs for some of your works including Grimus and now The Enchantress of Florence. I wonder what, if any, is your relationship to her and her work. And while Grimus is probably your only book that, not without some qualifications, may be described as fantasy and science fiction, I wonder what influence fantasy and science fiction writers like Le Guin, Delaney, Wolfe, Zelazny (particularly his Chronicles of Amber series), etc. have had on your work. And for that matter, has quantum mechanics and especially Hugh Everett’s “Many-worlds Interpretation” influenced your thinking and the universes your characters and stories inhabit?
Like saying music composition directly influenced Sterne’s writing of Tristram Shandy, comparing your narrative devices, technique, structuring, etc., with film techniques might be an overstatement, but I wonder, considering how many direct and indirect references to music, i.e., ghazals, rock and roll, filmi music, etc., can be found throughout your work, how much music has influenced your writing.
When I initially copied down the passage about the Memory Palace in The Enchantress David Foster Wallace had not yet hung himself to death. Reading the passage again, I can’t help thinking of him and whether his final act brought some measure of peace to him. What are your thoughts about Wallace, his rhetorical style, his work, his impact, his life, his death?
Lastly, I’ve learned that you’re a chess enthusiast. As such, what is your favorite opening for white and defense as black? Also, what are your thoughts about Viswanathan Anand, the current World Chess Champion? And, are you up for a game some time?
Thanks for reading. I hope to hear from you.
John Paul Madera
46. Christine Schutt
Recommended: Florida; Nightwork; A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer; and All Souls
47. W. G. Sebald: W. G. Sebald’s ambulatory fictions and the strategies employed to depict the traversal of uncertain topographies experienced through the lenses of uncertain narrators has been a major, though somewhat recent, inspiration for me. While his narrative strategies can, with some investigation, be definitively marked, some of those antecedents are themselves obscured in Sebald’s texts through various kinds of embedding, burial, and blur. While an argument can be made that Sebald’s project is certainly not unique in the porosity of its generic boundaries, viz., the fluidity in and through them, it is, however, singular in the ways that these genres are subsequently synthesized, the surface of which might arguably be called Benjaminian, these texts reflecting what remains immanent in experience, attending to a peculiar viscerality achieved through an equally peculiar synthesis of narrative strategies.
Recommended: Vertigo; The Emigrants; The Rings of Saturn; and Austerlitz.
48. William Shakespeare: Like the 1611 edition of the King James Bible, the Bard’s oeuvre was a collaborative work, and like that masterpiece of literature, is no less diminished by that fact.
Recommended: Everything, but especially the tragedies and the sonnets.
49. Gertrude Stein: Long before I’d ever read William Gass’s essays on Stein’s work, I’d read Tender Buttons, and enjoyed its musicality, its playfulness, its humor. Gass’s essays compelled me to explore more of her work and I’ve since enjoyed massive quantities of Stein’s insistently rhythmic, compellingly repetitive writing. Asked to explain the meaning of her famous line “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” Stein shared that “the poet has to work in the excitingness of pure being,” adding that it’s a given that one has “to put some strangeness, something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence.” It is this exacting “excitingness” that has been most impactful on my thinking and practice as a writer and reader.
Recommended: Tender Buttons; Three Lives; and Lectures in America
50. Wallace Stevens: I’ve read his Collected Poetry and Prose at least five times. I suspect I will be rereading it for the rest of my life.
I once wrote a sentence about a sentence I loved by Wallace Stevens: /
51. Alexander Theroux: I wish there were more writers like Theroux out there, that is, I wish there were more writers unlike other writers the way Theroux is. One of the harshest lessons I’ve learned from Theroux’s careet is that the more distinctive your writing is, the more distinct your style, the more likely you are to be ignored, ignored, that is, by the already generally ignorant, ignored by those who feast on sameness to the point where they think the same old thing packaged in a different package is actually different, meaning just about everyone.
I’ve read three out of his four novels and three out of his five nonfiction books. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of his oeuvre, especially his largely ignored Laura Warholic or, The Sexual Intellectual, which I expect to be brimming over with Theroux’s characteristic acidic wit and inimitable style.
I interviewed Theroux for Bookforum.
Recommended: Three Wogs; Darconville’s Cat; An Adultery; The Primary Colors; The Secondary Colors; and The Strange Case of Edward Gorey (revised, updated edition 2011)
52. David Foster Wallace: Reading Wallace, I often laugh aloud at his mordant descriptions, his perspicacious takedowns of consumer culture, his withering commentary on just about everything that hits any of his senses; and I often marvel at his numerous outrageous digressions, scathing self-scrutiny, daunting yet still paradoxically approachable erudition. Page after page, I can’t help feeling that Wallace had embodied Henry James’s admonishment “to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” (Actually, Wallace has a number of blind spots, but still far less than most us.) Wallace has incredible attack, but it’s tempered by what I would call compassion and understanding for his subject; and even when he gets mean, sometimes even petty, he’ll direct the scrutiny inward, often lacerating himself in the process.
Recommended: Girl with Curious Hair; Infinite Jest; A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; Oblivion: Stories; Consider the Lobster; and The Pale King
53. Diane Williams: While recently reading all of her books, I found myself enjoying the subtle shifts of intensity, focus, style, and form from collection to collection of her elliptical miniatures, each fiction characterized by ellipsis, whimsy, lust, and humor.
Recommended: This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate; Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear; The Stupefaction; Romancer Erector; It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature; and Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty
54. Virginia Woolf: My love for Virginia Woolf knows no bounds. My dream to read the entirety of The Waves aloud with five friends, each of us taking the part of one of the soliloquists, has yet to be realized. Soon, maybe?
Recommended: Jacob’s Room; Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse; and The Waves
A note about who is missing from this list: There are more than a few writers I’ve neglected to include here, like Haruki Murakami, despite having read most of his work; and I’m not sure why I’m not including him; missing, too, are Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, giants among giants; and other writers, like Jesse Ball, Noam Chomsky, E. M. Cioran, J. M. G. Le Clézio, Julio Cortázar, Stanley Crawford, Rikki Ducornet, Renee Gladman, Jaimy Gordon, Barry Hannah, Donna Haraway, Joanna Howard, Barry Hannah, Imre Kertész, Bhanu Kapil, Clarice Lispector, Thomas Pynchon, Avital Ronell, Juan José Saer, Eve Kosofsky, Sedgwick Robert Steiner, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Christa Wolf, all of whose work I’ve immensely enjoyed, are missing as well.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.