Saturday, October 18, 2008

Death And All His Literary Friends

I've had a pretty good run of fiction reading of late, reading new authors whose books have sat neglected and forlorn on my shelves. It's not their fault that I haven't read them until recently. Reading takes time. And while I'm reading, I'm also impulsively checking Library shelves, Amazon's catalog or a bookstores latest display. I'm using my library or credit card and surrounding myself with more words then I can keep up with. That's just fine. I happily admit to my book fetish, to my conspicuous consumption of pulp, a love bordering on awe for finely chiseled sentences laid out one after another. No doubt part of that fetish is delayed gratification. What will I read next? What should I save for later?

There's something intensely gratifying about stockpiling a small library of unread books. Or maybe it's just the end result of something impulsive, this insatiable need to have an abundance of books around me. Or maybe it's just odd. Sometimes I'll pick one of those unread books off the shelf and leaf through it, pausing to read a passage at random. I adore the luxury of those books, their covers still uncreased. Choosing what to read next is made simple. All these unread books have already gone through the filters of my own bias, my own literary predispositions. They all look like they could be very, very good. The reviews I read certainly sold me. Or the other books I've read by that particular author were amazing. Or, why not? if it won the National Critics Award, the Pulitzer, the Booker Prize, I'll give it a try. Sometimes, rarely, I'm so shallow as to allow a books cover or publishing company or its prominent New York Times Book Review blurb to persuade me of its possible merit.

And lately, almost everything I've been choosing has been wonderful. And gummed up with death. At least, what's governed the narrative of the fiction I've read of late and given it a special urgency or a palpable air of melancholy can be directly attributed to deaths all encompassing thematic shrug. In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example, death is everywhere. In grisly basements scenes, burned out forests and most devastatingly of all, the novels heartbreaking end. In Jose Saramago's Blindness death is again in a grisly basement, lingering in the hallways of an overcrowded asylum and promising to snuff out all of humanity two opaque eyes at a time. In Colm Toibin's The Master, death intrudes on solitude and after much introspection becomes material for the novels of Henry James. (Sounds dull, but it's anything but.) And lastly, in the book I just finished reading, The Line of Beauty, because the protagonist is so young, so coked up and alive and surrounded by the pampered privelege of Thatcher's ruling Tories, death is nowhere. At least not until the very end. Then it intrudes and causes the rather spectacular downfall of our protagonist in the form of AIDS.

And now I've gone and picked up Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs because I need something autumnal, the fall equivalent of a good beach read. I've never read any of his other books, but I know Russo sets most of them in small towns. Bridge of Sighs, not surprisingly then, is set in upstate New York. I'm about 100 pages in and the jury is still out. Russo has something, enough of a command of his storytelling to keep me hooked if not consistently engaged. But death, nonetheless has already been introduced. 'Tis the season, I suppose.

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