November, 2019: What I Read

Most of my reading in November took place by the window of a roach-haunted flat in Kuala Lumpur. On the horizon I could see clouds rolling between tall buildings. Mist by morning, smog by noon, rain by evening. This is what I read.

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

This is a novel about five Malaysians living away from home in Shanghai. Each pursues something more valuable than money (love, meaning, freedom, revenge) by attempting to change their relationship to money: getting it, abandoning it, squandering it, leveraging it. Swimming in the dreamy medium of Aw’s elegant and observant prose, they cross paths in a series of complicated coincidences. I thought I was reading a Dickensian plot machine, or else a Dumasian bear-trap. Instead, the story culminated in an abrupt ending of downbeat ambiguity.

This ending reflects what I take to be Aw’s central intuition about modern human life: the hollowness it hides beneath busyness and glitz. Full of the belief that the right moves can bring you wealth, honor, love, and fulfillment, most people harbor a secret emptiness, a hidden loneliness, or a private cruelty. These parasites on happiness bide their time. And then they intervene to ruin optimistic plans, like a plot juiced with authorial manipulation that suddenly liquefies into the sludge of real life.

Age of Anger, by Pankaj Mishra

This book traces the intellectual backstory of a project Mishra has been working on for years: an original account of modernity. Its publisher marketed it as a response to the 2016 news cycle, though that’s not what it is. Or not directly. The marketing seems to have worked. More people have reviewed and recommended it than any of Mishra’s other books, though it is not the easiest of them to read. It’s written in a curiously mandarin style, full of very long and complex sentences, unlike Mishra’s usual prose. Perhaps he has been reading Perry Anderson.

Mishra’s theory of modernity goes like this: During the enlightenment, philosophes invented an account of progress we now call “development.” It emphasizes the power of mimetic desire (envy, in other words), to motivate economic activity. By creating the conditions for anyone—theoretically—to enrich themselves, and by universalizing envy, societies can unshackle themselves for explosive growth.

But not everyone becomes wealthy in societies designed according to this pattern. Nor could they. Thus frustrated, mimetic desire curdles into disappointment. And that disappointment can become anger. Those who abandoned their traditions to chase a lie of opportunity return to those traditions, retooling them as ideologies of revenge. And so terrorism, nationalism, and fundamentalism don’t resurrect pre-modern forms of barbarism. They work out the very modern consequences of mimetic desire.

That is Mishra’s argument. He believes it illuminates American reactionary nationalism, political Islam, Hindu fundamentalism, even “incels.” His account parallels Marxist critiques of capitalism, but emphasizes modernity as an affective regime, the regime of mimetic desire, rather than a mode of production. Thus he implies (I think) that a solution to our biggest social problems should focus not on the quest for a more democratic mode of production, but on mastering desire itself.

The Sum of our Follies, by Shi-Li Kow

The indirect novelistic biography of a Kampung—that is, a Malaysian village—conveyed through interconnected narrations by two characters. One is an old Chinese man, the owner of a fruit canning factory. The other is an orphan, adopted by the Kampung from a Catholic all-girls orphanage. Their voices differ wonderfully: a retiree raconteur and a matter-of-fact girl. The incidents they recount range from lighthearted escapades to brutal accounts of violence. Sometimes that range is traversed in a single chapter, as when some awful tourists encounter a very large and carnivorous fish, turning a satire into a horror story.

Apparently, while the novel barely sold in Malaysia, it was a big success in France, where it was nominated for an award. The publisher/bookseller told me this, in the course of a very interesting and educational rant about Malaysian publishing.

The Gatekeeper, by Terry Eagleton

A memoir. It’s organized as a series of vignettes grouping personalities Eagleton has known by type, and obliquely providing the outlines of his own life, from the Irish Catholic world of his childhood to the adult contexts of university and left-wing activism.

A critic who entitles his memoir “The Gatekeeper” is either an officious turd or possessed of a sense of humor. Eagleton is funny. He is also evasive, providing nothing like a chronology or attempt to sketch the inner unity of his own personality. “Anti-autobiography,” he writes, “means not just not writing your autobiography, an astonishingly prevalent practice, but writing it in such a way as to outwit the prurience and immodesty of the genre by frustrating your own desire for self-display and the reader’s desire to enter your inner life.”

The Pensioner, by Adam Said

This novel enticed me to pick it up with its back-cover blurb. A bored retiree discovers the joys of reading, said the blurb, or something along those lines — I don’t have the book in front of me.

“Discovers the joys of reading” is my favorite trope. If you wanted invent a genre designed specifically for me, it would just show people discovering the joys of reading. So I began the book expecting something along the lines of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, or The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, or The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

While there is, indeed, a bit about reading at the beginning—the protagonist meets an old friend who gets him to fill his retirement-empty days with books—I was just settling in to enjoy a tale about discovering the joys of reading when the protagonist encountered a box of old newspapers. They trigger a memory cascade. The rest of the novel is an extended loop through his backstory as a civil servant and we don’t hear any more about reading. I was a little bored and more than a little disappointed.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong

Disturbing, fragmentary poetry about the personal consequences of the Vietnam War, homophobic violence, and psychological fragmentation. The most striking bits, to me, were lugubrious descriptions filtered through a consciousness that sees violence everywhere. “[T]he stars were always what we knew they were: the exit wounds of every misfired word.” “[A]pples thunder the earth with red hooves.” “His face between my hands, wet as a cut.”

Crowded (vols. 1-10), by Christopher Sebela and Ro Stein

This is an original comic about a near future America transformed by Reapr, a smartphone app for anonymously crowdsourcing assassinations. An obnoxious nobody goes viral on Reapr, so she hires a misanthropic bodyguard. The story centers more and more on their relationship and contrasting personalities. It’s a satire of the mob violence and gladiatorial bullshit of social media, but it’s also a compelling thriller on its own terms and appears to be slowly turning into a romance. (It’s not finished yet.)

We, the Survivors, by Tash Aw

More Tash Aw! I liked Five Star Billionaire so much that I got hold his latest work. An ex-convict is telling his life-story to a young woman who wants to write a book about him. We read the transcript, complete with her notations on his gestures as he tells the story. He grew up between Kampung and city. Then his slowly improving life was derailed when he murdered a refugee migrant worker. Post-imprisonment, he lives a quiet life devoted to a local church.

The transcripts of his monologues are interrupted by his observations of the writer observing him. This interpolation is characteristic of Tash Aw. It transforms the story into something strange, meta, and faintly creepy, and it sets up, yes, an ending of downbeat ambiguity.

Again I was struck by the relation between Aw’s deflationary narrative techniques and his subject matter. Both novels I read by him this month feature people who move from Kampung to city with big dreams, then fail spectacularly and move home chastened. His narrative structures, viewed from a distance, trace a similar course of ambition and defeat. A promised climax or resolution never quite arrives. In addition to feeling existentially accurate, I find this structure aesthetically satisfying. (Well, unsatisfying in a satisfying way.)

The novel does, however, suffer from a common problem: the narrator, ostensibly a blunt, under-educated ex-convict, is precise and attentive to detail in a very MFA-ish way. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that kind of poetic style. But it requires the hard-to-believe supposition that just about everyone is secretly, in their heart of hearts, a writer. This is the most annoying genre convention of contemporary realism, because it actually tends toward stifling the true diversity of real human voices.

Middlewest vols. 1-12, by Skottie Young and Jorge Corona

This original comic is an allegory about masculine anger. It’s set in a magical modern-day salvage-punk version of something like the American midwest. (The name is a nod to Middle Earth, as are many of the characters and situations.) I adore the twiggy illustrations and the romanticized, sunset-drenched portrayal of the plains. It achieved what I thought was impossible for me: it made me nostalgic for Iowa, where I went to college. Small towns with dingy bars, manufacturer-abandoned cities, agribusiness-blasted fields. The storytelling is trite. But the central problem of the main character—how to cope with a seemingly uncontrollable capacity for rage, which he sees and fears in his father and grandfather and worries he will inherit himself—is more thought-provoking than the doneé of most comics.

Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino

This essay collection bills itself as “reflections on self-delusion,” per its subtitle. But its more obvious unity lies in being a survey of Tolentino’s preoccupations: the internet, upper-middle-class femininity, middlebrow culture, and drug use.

Does self-delusion come into it? Yes; it comes up most strikingly in an essay about Tolentino’s part on a teen reality TV show. Watching the show for the first time, long after it was released, she discovers from video evidence that she’s been telling lies about her own actions for years, which leads her into some interesting reflections on her own capacity for self-delusion. Tolentino wonders whether her writerly persona—chill and frivolous off the page but painstaking and serious on it—is a kind of self-delusion like the editing and rewriting one does in memory. She also thinks social media lends itself to self-delusion; religion lends itself to self-delusion; gender lends itself to self-delusion; neoliberalism lends itself to self-delusion—that, in short, we live in a golden age of self-delusion.

I read the book despite my allergy to buzz. And this book had more buzz than I have ever seen for an essay collection. For a few weeks Tolentino—reviewed, interviewed, and profiled—was everywhere.

I wanted to see what she would say about the internet. It’s her great subject because it made her: without social media on which to build her brand, Gawker media to publish her early work, and internet culture as a subject, she might not be writing. Unfortunately, her ethical musings fell into the same unsatisfying patterns I noticed in Jenny Odell’s book last month. (In fact, she quotes Odell’s book several times.)

Tolentino thinks the effect of the internet, and of social media in particular, is bad. But she also subscribes to the notion that you can’t avoid it. Therefore your best hope is to use it differently. She has a hard time specifying that difference, beyond sonorous and vague prescriptions about conscientiousness and self-awareness.

The Other Malaysia, by Farish A. Noor

This book is a collection of newspaper columns by a political scientist about Malaysian politics circa the early 2000s.

A little over a year ago, I decided to stop reading takes. I find the predictable pistoning of the take-machine to be misleading and emotionally wasteful. These days I get my news by studying headlines. As far as editorializing goes, I restrict myself to reading long form arguments in less frequently published venues. By reading The Other Malaysia I was re-immersing myself in a genre I had sworn off of. But it’s different reading 20 year old takes about another country than hot takes about the news-cycle of your own.

Reading this book sent me often to the internet to look things up. That’s what I wanted. The context acquired in this way made me feel like I was beginning to understand Malaysia. Sometimes in the effort to learn about something new, it’s best to dive into the welter of its controversies. Dramatic stakes come pre-loaded. Research takes on the character of backstory.

Among the Believers, by V.S. Naipaul

This is one of the most controversial of Naipaul’s books of travel writing—or, as he called them, his books of travel inquiry. Generally he wrote them to illuminate a larger question. In this case, he journeyed through revolutionary Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia asking: what, concretely, does the aspiration to become a distinctively Islamic state mean?

He pursues this question with his usual mix of vivid and exact description, dramatic vignette, potted history, and philosophical generalization. Few writers have ever managed that synthesis so well. The prose is perfectly clear at all times, but also concrete and shapely: prose as pure oxygen. If I could choose to be influenced by the style of anyone, it would be Naipaul. (Alas—or perhaps luckily—one cannot so easily choose one’s influences.)

There is in this book the problem of Naipaul’s Islamophobia. He did not hate Islam for the ignorant reasons of the average Western bigot. He hated it due to a very specific grudge about the conquest of Hindu India. In his personal assessment of Islam, he refracts a world-historical reaction to events that preceded his life by hundreds of years. It leads him to ignore the dimensions of Islam that have been pluralist, syncretist, and constructive. He sees only obedience to arbitrary laws, an effort to replace institution-building with the tyranny of clerics and political thinking with the unity of faith.

Yet Naipaul’s faithfulness to particulars makes his writing about places and people profound despite him. His generalizations are harsh and pointed, but brief and artfully placed. The bulk of his travel writing is narrative and descriptive, and he is a genius at compressing and conveying history.

Autobiography of Death, by Kim Hyesoon

This collection is a cycle of 49 poems (plus a sort of addendum poem). They can be read as individual responses to moments when “death was near me,” as Hyesoon puts it in a long and elaborate post-script interview. Or they can be read as descriptions of the experiences of a spirit stuck in its decaying body until it is reincarnated. This period is traditionally 49 days in Korean shamanic lore.

I won’t pretend to have understood most of the poems. They are incantatory and full of cultural allusions and political intent I didn’t grasp. They are also full of body-horror. They’ll stick in my mind.

“In the morning, filthy flowers bloom inside your eyes! / They burrow through your black puils / Creepy pistils and stamen protrude from them!”

“The dead, gone forever, departed before you, pull amniotic sacs over their heads and get in line to be born again and say that they need to learn their mother tong all over again.”

“As you opened the door and stepped into the convenience store, something tugged at your ankle. A hand came up swiftly like a burp from a dark pit.”

Lirael, by Garth Nix

This is the second volume of Nix’s The Old Kingdom series. I am interested in how epic fantasy tells the story of a world through the story of its characters. This always implies a theory of history. You need the whole arc of the story to see that theory. But you can expect the second volume to deepen the connections between characters and world.

Lirael fits the mold. It takes place several decades after the first volume, and its protagonists are descendants of the first book’s protagonists. At first they appear to be filling the same roles: Abhorsen (anti-necromancer necromancer) and Clayr (seer). But then those roles are transgressed and remixed. The book also gives us a better sense of the world-problem. At the root of the Old Kingdom north of the wall is a constitutional arrangement that governs magic. The parties to this constitution disagree. The plot of the series concerns the consequences for humans of this disagreement among god-like beings. We will see how it all works out, and what theory of history is implied to govern the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre.

Eye Level: Poems, by Jenny Xie

This book is a collection of poems about feeling rootless, traveling, feeling uncomfortable as a traveler, looking at things that look back, trying to look better.

“The tourists curate vacation stories / days summed up in a few lines. […] / Their pleasure is shrill, I agree. / It knows little of how banality / accrues with no visible evidence.”

The poems toggle between observation and unabashed moralizing, like a mashup of William Carlos Williams and Francois de la Rochefoucauld.

“Inversely, to be unseen against one’s will is to be powerless. / To be denied a reflection and to be locked out of a self.”

Full of observations so precise they become not just real but surreal.

“There goes the moon, hardening on a hot skillet.”

The best poetry collection I’ve read in a long time. The only one in months that I immediately reread twice.

2 thoughts on “November, 2019: What I Read”

  1. Very interesting, as always. Filtering books through travel, reading them in situ, the books become richer.

    I enjoyed your thoughts about Naipaul. I’ve read so much about him, but never read him. The only book here I have read is the Vuong. Your description brings it back, not that I remember it well. I should look for the XIe book.

    1. The books become richer, but so does the travel. I’ve got to the point where I feel like I’m only skimming the surface of a place if I can’t people-watch with a memory of novels and short stories to draw upon in trying to imagine their backstories and inner lives.

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