Top 5 Video Games I Played in 2019

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This list will be more unburdened than the last as far as prolegomena go, but I would like to highlight one obvious thing: possible spoilers for all the games discussed below.

5. Celeste by Matt Makes Games

Celeste heartbreaks with its loveliness. It’s such a sweet, quiet, unpretentious story, painted in beautiful visuals, graced with phenomenal music. It’s also one of the best single-player platformers ever made, with capital P Perfect controls, godeye precise inertia/momentum, and a deeply satisfying, eminently doable difficulty curve. With Towerfall, Matt Makes Games created something I admired but couldn’t love. Here, with Celeste, they made something that’s even better mechanically, but has the heart and art to match.

4. Crusader Kings II by Paradox Development Studio

Everyone has a Crusader Kings II story. Mine is the tale of Dubchoblaig, the Spider Queen; I won’t recount her long and bitter life here, because if you’ve looked into CKII you’ve heard such tales before. CKII broke out of the Paradox clique and into a wider audience based (mainly) on this endless narrative fecundity. I can’t add a lot to the discourse except to confirm that, yeah, it really does create these epic (in the old, not the roflcopter sense) tales, spinning out characters, events, micro- and macrodramas, births and deaths of kings & kingdoms, desperate wars and overwhelming crusades for the entirety of your 60, 70, 80-hour playthrough. If you have any sort of imagination at all CKII will devour your life. It’s also free now (but buy the Way of Life expansion before your first game).

3. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice by FromSoftware

After crafting and honing a phenomenal melee combat system in the Souls games, FromSoft went on and made an even better one in Sekiro. No game, ever, captures the riverine poetry of a sword duel better than this one. Nearly every encounter comes at you with lethal threat, bare death, pushing you to incredible-feeling feats of awareness and reflex; key encounters end with you crowned Conqueror, adrenaline networking into hot wires and glorious burning fractals beneath your skin. As much as I love (most of) the Souls games, Sekiro makes me want to tell From: Never Look Back.

2. BattleTech by Harebrained Schemes

Soldier through the laborious, vague, lumpen, unhelpful tutorial and drab first mission. When BattleTech shifts into gear it becomes an engrossing tactics game that constantly presents you with crunchy, high-stakes battles. I can play engagements out over and over again in my mind, because the palimpsesting tactical considerations make them so tangibly there. And once you finish BattleTech‘s mostly superb campaign you can play again in Career Mode, living the unencumbered, de-training wheels’d life of a merc, cruising around a galaxy as wide and dangerous as a shark’s mouth, with a crew of lovable rogues and a hangar full of badass ‘Mechs.

1. Slay the Spire by Mega Crit Games

Slay the Spire is, to paraphrase Mary McCarthy, a creation of perfect beauty and symmetry. McCarthy was talking about Nabokov’s Pale Fire when she wrote that sentiment. Slay the Spire is objectively better than Pale Fire.

It’s a deckbuilding roguelite dungeon crawler that takes card game precepts, alloys them with the possibilities of a digital playspace, and creates something so good, so tight, so endlessly fresh and surprising that I feel like I could – and will – play it forever. I love each of the classes. I love the art. I love the enemies and bosses, even the ones that are fucking insufferable assholes. I don’t know if I love the music because I’ve never listened to it (update: it’s good but not great). Slay the Spire is so good the only complaints I have are requests: more classes, beta access on the Switch version or if not than at least cross-platform saves. For a certain type of person, Slay the Spire will be as primordial and eternal as chess.

Miscellaneous Awards:

Best Video Game Podcast: Cane and Rinse

The more I listen to Cane and Rinse, the more I appreciate just how good it is. A great cast of contributors with truly different viewpoints on the games provides refreshingly nuanced, multifaceted texture to the discussion. Cane and Rinse also provides an incredible amount of extras for its Patreon supporters while asking for so little in return. Go listen to them, and support them if you can.

Worst Game I Played This Year: Red Dead Redemption 2

It’s important to stress how shitty RDR2 is, both as a game and as one of the most visible representatives of ethics in the games industry. Kotaku’s report on the crunch culture at Rockstar gives an evenhanded account of what went into making this game. When a trendsetter like Rockstar creates a massive critical and commercial success despite reports like this, it gives the All Clear to other companies, signalling that nobody – not consumer nor critic – will take any action against unethically-produced games. Kotaku themselves reviewed the game, glowingly. This is the most insidious form of FOMO: nobody, no matter how moral, is willing to take a stance on something if it means even the possibility of missing out on something.

And RDR2‘s also a bad game. Yes, on a graphical level their vision of the West is (for now) superb, but with a titanic budget bouyed by meticulously extracted blood, sweat, and tears, how could it not be? Underneath the glamour the game is shambolic, infuriatingly conventional. From the flat-feeling gunplay to the non-operational survival systems, this game clanks and clatters under mechanics that are bland or worse. RDR2 has graphics from a year in the future but gameplay that was outdated 10 years ago. Rockstar also squandered the best character they’ve ever written with a story that rapidly devolves into the most drawn out, pewling instance of fan service I’ve ever seen in a video game.

 

Image Credit: Anailis Dorta

“Letters to Santa” from Little, Big by John Crowley

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Different families have different methods, at Christmas, of communicating their wishes to Santa. Many send letters, mailing them early and addressing them to the North Pole. These never arrive, postmasters having their own whimsical ways of dealing with them, none involving delivery.

Another method, which the Drinkwaters had always used though no one could remember how they had hit on it, was to burn their missives in the study fireplace, the tiled one whose blue scenes of skaters, windmills, trophies of the hunt seemed most appropriate, and whose chimney was the highest. The smoke then (the children always insisted on running out to see) vanished into the North, or at least into the atmosphere, for Santa to decipher. A complex procedure, but it seemed to work, and was always done on Christmas Eve when wishes were sharpest.

Secrecy was important, at least for the grown-ups’ letters; the kids could never resist telling everybody what they wanted and for Lily and Tacey the letters had to be written by others anyway, and they had to be reminded of the many wishes they’d had as Christmas neared but which had grown small in the interim and slipped through the coarse seine of young desire. Don’t you want a brother for Teddy (a bear)? Do you still want a shotgun like Grampa’s? Ice skates with double blades?

But the grown-ups could presumably decide these things for themselves.

In the expectant, crackling afternoon of that Eve of ice Daily Alice drew her knees up within a huge armchair and used a folded checkerboard resting on her knees for a desk. “Dear Santa,” she wrote, “please bring me a new hot-water bottle, any color but that pink that looks like boiled meat, a jade ring like the one great-aunt Cloud has, for the right middle finger.” She thought. She watched the snow fall on the gray world, still just visible as day died. “A quilted robe,” she wrote; “one that comes down to my feet. A pair of fuzzy slippers. I would like this baby to be easier than the other two to have. The other stuff is not so important if you could manage that. Ribbon candy is nice, and you can’t find it anywhere any more. Thanking you in advance, Alice Barnable (the older sister).” Since childhood she had always added that, to avoid confusion. She hesitated over the tiny blue notepaper nearly filled with these few desires. “P.S.,” she wrote. “If you could bring my sister and my husband back from wherever it is they’ve gone off together I would be more grateful than I could say. ADB.”

She folded this absently. Her father’s typewriter could be heard in the strange snow-silence. Cloud, cheek in hand, wrote with the stub of a pencil at the drum-table, her eyes moist, perhaps with tears, though her eyes often seemed bedimmed lately; old age only, probably. Alice rested her head back against the chair’s soft breast, looking upward.

Above her, Smoky charged with rum-tea sat down in the imaginary study to begin his letter. He spoiled one sheet because the rickety writing-table there rocked beneath his careful pen; he shimmed the leg with a matchbook and began again.

“My dear Santa, First of all it’s only right that I explain about last year’s wish. I won’t excuse myself by saying I was a little drunk, though I was, and I am (it’s getting to be a Christmas habit, as everything about Christmas gets to be a habit, but you know all about that). Anyway, if I shocked you or strained your powers by such a request I’m sorry; I meant only to be flip and let off a little steam. I know (I mean I assume) it’s not in your power to give one person to another, but the fact is my wish was granted. Maybe only because I wanted it more than anything, and what you want so much you’re just likely to get. So I don’t know whether to thank you or not. I mean I don’t know whether you’re responsible; and I don’t know whether I’m grateful.”

He chewed the end of his pen for a moment, thinking of last Christmas morning when he had gone into Sophie’s room to wake her, so early (Tacey wouldn’t wait) that blank nighttime still ruled the windows. He wondered if he should relate the story. He’d never told anyone else, and the deep privacy of this about-to-be-cremated letter tempted him to confidences. But no.

It was true that what Doc had said, that Christmas succeeds Christmas rather than the days it follows. That had become apparent to Smoky in the last few days. Not because of the repeated ritual, the tree sledded home, the antique ornaments lovingly brought out, the Druid greenery hung on the lintels. It was only since last Christmas that all that had become imbued for him with a dense emotion, an emotion having nothing to do with Yuletide, a day which for him as a child had had nothing like the fascination of Hallowe’en, when he went masked and recognizable (pirate, clown) in the burnt and smoky night. Yet he saw that it was an emotion that would cover him now, as with snow, each time this season came. She was the cause, not to whom he wrote.

“Anyway,” he began again, “my desires this year are a little clouded. I would like one of those instruments you use to sharpen the blades of an old-fashioned lawn mower. I would like the missing volume of Gibbon (Vol. II) which somebody’s apparently taken out to use as a doorstop or something and lost.” He thought of listing publisher and date, but a feeling of futility and silence came over him, drifting deep. “Santa,” he wrote, “I would like to be one person only, not a whole crowd of them, half of them always trying to turn their backs and run whenever somebody”—Sophie, he meant, Alice, Cloud, Doc, Mother; Alice most of all—”looks at me. I want to be brave and honest and shoulder my burdens. I don’t want to leave myself out while a bunch of slyboots figments do my living for me.” He stopped, seeing he was growing unintelligible. He hesitated over the complimentary close; he thought of using “Yours as ever,” but thought that might sound ironic or sneering, and at last wrote only “Yours &c.,” as his father always had, which then seemed ambiguous and cool; what the hell anyway; and he signed it: Evan S. Barnable.

Down in the study they had gathered with eggnog and their letters. Doc had his folded like true correspondence, its backside pimpled with hard-struck punctuation; Mother’s was torn from a brown bag, like a shopping list. The fire took them all, though—rejecting only Lily’s at first, who tried with a shriek to throw it in the fire’s mouth, you can’t really throw a piece of paper, she’d learn that as she grew in grace and wisdom—and Tacey insisted they go out to see. Smoky took her by the hand, and lifted Lily onto his shoulders, and they went out into the snowfall made spectral by the house’s lights to watch the smoke go away, melting the falling snowflakes as it rose.

When he received these communications, Santa drew the claws of his spectacles from behind his ears and pressed the sore place on the bridge of his nose with thumb and finger. What was it they expected him to do with these? A shotgun, a bear, snowshoes, some pretty things and some useful: well, all right. But for the rest of it. . .He just didn’t know what people were thinking anymore. But it was growing late; if they, or anyone else, were disappointed in him tomorrow, it wouldn’t be the first time. He took his furred hat from its peg and drew on his gloves. He went out, already unaccountably weary though the journey had not even begun, into the multicolored arctic waste beneath a decillion stars, whose near brilliance seemed to chime, even as the harness of his reindeer chimed when they raised their shaggy heads at his approach, and as the eternal snow chimed too when he trod it with his booted feet.

Image: The Magpie (1868-1869), by Claude Monet

Top 5 Books I Read in 2019

I’ll be doing a few Top Fives to wrap up 2019, starting, obviously, with books.

Before the list proper, here’s everything I read in 2019:

J R by William Gaddis

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Airships by Barry Hannah

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance

The Stand by Stephen King

The Green Pearl by Jack Vance

The Shining by Stephen King

The Croning by Laird Barron

Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart

Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson

I try to adhere to a 30 pages a day regimen in my reading. I settled on 30 pages because A) it’s a feasible fit-in with an obstructed modern life, and B) if observed, guarantees I’m able to finish nearly any book in about a month, which keeps things tidy on the mental calendar. I thought I fell short of that goal this year, but did better than expected. In total, I read 10,224 pages this year: about 28.01 pages/day.

Some observations about my readings:

Which two exceptions, everything I read this year was originally written in English.

With two exceptions, everything I read this year was fiction.

This is the first year in which I listened to audiobooks; three of them: The StandThe        Road, and A Game of Thrones (I read the first third, but switched to the audiobook).

Only two books this year were rereads.

I, and I cannot state this enough, do not like New Years’ Resolutions, but if I were to draw some possible guidelines for 2020’s reading based on what I did/didn’t do in 2019, they would be:

Read more literature in translation.

Keep audiobooks a key part of my regimen.

Read more nonfiction.

Keep the ratio between new reads and rereads approximately the same.

Oh and also: maintain a list of everything that I read somewhere because collating    between my blog and twitter account to make sure I found them all was a pain in the  ass.

FIVE FAVORITE BOOKS 2019

  1. Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

A winter surprise. Not super happy with my review of Urban, which I wrote right after finishing it and which fails to address the strange, elegant presence this book has continued to maintain inside my head. Superficially so straightforward, Urban teems with strong characterization, clean prose, and (a particular catnip) Heavy Midwestern Vibes. There are other things that I like about it, but don’t want to talk about for fear of spoiling them for others. Still don’t know who I’d recommend this one to; guess I’ll say that if you liked Silence by Shusaku Endo or the movie First Reformed, give Morte d’Urban a try.

 

  1. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

It was so strange and rewarding to return, after ten years, to the book that ignited all the literary drypowder in my skull and has always been a personal emblem to me of what books can achieve. Its place as fourth on this list speaks to the simple, obvious inability of a Top 5 to be authoritative in any way, or even ‘correct’; from lots of angles GR should be higher, and from any angle its place in my life is singular. But from a pure “reading for pleasure” point of view, for all that I admire GR (and there aren’t many books I admire as much), it is a lot. It was a fatiguing reread, and gave me full-on Epstein Brain three months before he was killed; I became paranoid to the point of exasperation, nearly to a point of despair. Not that either feeling was/is unwarranted.

 

  1. J R by William Gaddis

J R is a powerful book, angry and funny and beautiful; whereas The Recognitions can be a little too unvarnishedly angry to the point of unpleasing obviousness at times, with J R Gaddis struck perfectly the balance between anger and art. I mean, the book is still very obvious; there’s nothing subtle in Gaddis’s satire (with the exception of J R himself); but the eloquent vehemence of the attacks and their particular accuracy channel much vivid power. The characters are stronger in J R, too, and the whole thing is grounded in a more direct, tangible realism that I like; this is our world, in all its hot and cold ugliness, indicted in words on the page.

 

  1. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 is dark, arcane, driven by death and thoughts of death, death-obsessed; but also bravely makes the key leap and shows that engagement with death means engagement with life; and life, to Bolaño, isn’t a cheesy positivity, or some facile reconciliation with finiteness; instead, for Bolaño, life comes down finally to those few stretches of time in which we are steeped in art. Divided into five obliquely-related parts, what should feel like a congeries comes together like a cathedral. Highly excited to reread this one.

 

  1. Herzog by Saul Bellow

No surprise here, except for the first, eternal surprise that against all odds Herzog, most novely of novels (even the page count – 341 pages – is so fucking novely), stormed my heart and became my favorite book of the year. It hit me right in the red marrow. Herzog is magnificent.

A Couple Miscellaneous Awards

Best Audiobook: The Stand by Stephen King, read by Grover Gardner

I like Stephen King but he’s exasperating for me to read; I much prefer to listen to his novels; it somehow mitigates his excesses. The audiobook for The Stand is, hands down, the best audiobook I’ve ever heard. Grover Gardner seems totally in sync with the text, allocating the perfect voices to each of the (many) characters. This is one case where I can say that not only did the audiobook help me finish the book, it also actively made it better.

Worst Book I Read in 2019: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

It sucked.

Review: Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

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Published in 1962, Morte D’Urban is, in 2019, a pretty unsexy reading prospect. It concerns itself with Roman Catholic Priests. In Minnesota. In the 50s. Morte D’Urban should be a tough sell, and yet I read it in a compulsive rush, finishing the entire novel in less than a week.

Morte D’Urban chronicles a turbulent time in the life of Father Urban, a charismatic Catholic priest walking finely the line between ambitious, (relatively) progressive modern priest and Joel Osteen-esque huckster. Father Urban belongs to the Order of St. Clement, an obscure religious order terminal with mediocrity. Burdened by inertia in the upper ranks and boredom in the lower, the Order is a virtual non-entity in the guilded clockwork of the Roman Catholic Church. Urban, charismatic and ambitious, wants to change that: when we first meet him in Chicago, he’s been traveling, giving guest sermons at churches all over the region, speechifying, shmoozing, networking; hoping to gouge out, through sheer indefatigable enthusiasm, a higher place in the world for the Order and, yes, also for himself. But then Urban, on the cusp of triumph after bagging a major benefactor in the form of millionaire Billy Cosgrove, is sent by a jealous Father Provincial to a Minnesota backwater called Duesterhaus.

Powers’s depiction of Duesterhaus, both on a municipal and a personal level, is, initially, scathing. Pre-decrepit in that frigid way particular to small American towns, forgotten by the distant, metastasizing suburbs and distanter cities, Duesterhaus is dead; there’s one decent restaurant (located in the lone hotel), one train station, and just one taxi, owned and driven by the hardware store owner. The Order’s digs are dire as well: a decrepit mansion on the outskirts of Duesterhaus, its barn was the site of a grisly murder; the mansion itself became a poorhouse and then a sanitarium before it was acquired by the Clementines.

The opening chapters setting up Urban’s predicament also highlight one of the first major pleasures in book: its depiction of bureaucracy. Throughout the novel Powers shows Urban attempting to navigate an ecclesiastical minefield of petty, esoteric church politics. Every priest has a hobbyhorse and an axe to grind, and all the high-ranking monsignors nurtures inexplicable grudges about each other or capable underlings. The hoops Urban jumps through to get anything done are as dramatic as the power struggles that people (wrongly) imagine Game of Thrones to have, albeit on a more mundane scale; but the scope of the novel, filtered through the central consciousness and concerns of Father, give the nearly nonsensical wranglings a grandeur and drama that fuel propulsive reading; a late scene on a golf course has all the desperation and vertiginous stakes of a sword fight between mythic heroes.

For a goodly portion of the book Morte D’Urban comes across as a satire of small town America, and the strange, small-minded people you find there; there’s a dark, knowing lilt to Power’s prose that gives its humor an artistic edge but the tone is still fundamentally pleasant. It’s also genuinely funny. The most hilarious stretch occurs when we meet Father Wilf, rector of the Clementine outpost in Duesterhaus: a cheap, unselfconsciously pedantic know-it-all, Father Wilf is the kind of person who seems to have a single fact about every topic and is unable not to deliver that fact whenever the subject is brought up: an innocent, abominable pest. I laughed out loud at parts, and I don’t usually laugh much when reading.

There won’t be many illustrative quotes from Morte D’Urban, because it is, both in its comic and tragic effects, a novel of accretion: the prose is patient, rarely poetic, workmanlike in a distinguished way; Powers builds scenes and characters line by line, imbuing all with a solidity and convincingness that I found utterly compelling in its faithfulness to life; if, like me, you’re at all concerned with the ability of fiction to generate not just a world, but our world, then Morte D’Urban should appeal to you. Powers rarely lavishes many words on descriptive scenes, but he has a masterly grasp of Midwestern scenery, hitting on its essential character in a clean, compressed way:

“Chester stayed in the boat, bailing it out with a rusty coffee can, which, scraping the ribbed bottom and swallowing the dirty water, made a melancholy sound. The sun was leaving for the day, and when that happened that far north in September, there wasn’t much between you and the night. The lake, a light red wine before, was now black stout, and the air was suddenly dank.”

Jonathan Yardley says that Morte D’Urban, actually, is the great American novel of the workplace. I can see it. Urban’s unflagging devotion to his cause (and again, whether that cause is the Order, Christianity in general, or his own advancement is left somewhat up to interpretation) reflects classic American brain poison about being a Hard Worker and Getting Your Due. And for a long time you might think that Urban’s constant frustrations and the uphill battle he wages in inhospitable semi-rural Minnesota are set up just for gentle laughs, and will ultimately be rewarded.

Whether they are or not I won’t say, but as the novel progresses, events transpire and the novel metamorphoses into something different, darker. It becomes clear, even as the morality and purpose murkify, that there is a limit even to Urban’s seemingly inexhaustible energy. In this way the depiction of the American Drive Forward, if it was ever intended as such, exposes that drive as hollow, potentially damaging. The last five chapters are the strongest in the book and increasingly strange, almost mystic, oblique as a winter lake obscured by driving snow. The ambiguities it builds into the plot are masterful, so subtle that you can, in fact, miss them; so subtle that you can almost second-guess whether they’re there at all.

(They’re there).

A note on the subject matter: moral conservativism, religiosity, the Roman Catholic Church, the ignorance and defensive mediocrity endemic to America but particularly the American Midwest: in 2019, these are all known elements of incipient fascism and tools of control. Morte D’Urban concerns itself with a Catholic priest in Minnesota in the 50s; Father Urban cuts a striking, often sympathetic figure, but he’s also a fundamentally conservative man working in and for a fundamentally conservative system, amongst fundamentally conservative people, espousing fundamentally conservative values.

That’s a problem in this book, without a doubt. For some, the nonjudgmental, possibly even positive depiction of the Catholic Church may be a terminal turn off. In that way Morte D’Urbam reminds me of Silence by Shusaku Endo, another book I loved that concerned itself with subjects I do not love. I reconcile it thus: Morte D’Urban’s fundamental drive is to depict reality, not the Church; its focus is on revealing the desperate boring beauty of life as it is lived, to deliver an ironic delineation of the limits of our minds and hearts, to capture also the weird fluking mystery of being alive and striving and unhappy.

Powers was a Catholic, and obviously fixated on the Catholic world as a theme, and so the characters in his books are Catholics and hold Catholic views (although from what I understand he wasn’t entirely happy with the idea of being labeled a “Catholic Writer”); but the book itself doesn’t espouse an inherently (or at least exclusively) Catholic philosophy even if its characters do. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect reconciliation, and won’t be enough for many would-be readers, I’m sure; but it was enough for me.

So I finished Morte D’Urban and felt completely satisfied with it, nourished by its craft and quiet complexity. But I kept wondering if I would recommend it – or, more to the point, to whom the fuck would I recommend it to? There’s nothing sexy about this book, nothing immediately prepossessing; I loved the comic tone of the first half, loved the political maneuvering, the dramatization of petty bureaucracy, and I really loved the darker, ambiguous second half, but suffice to say I think a lot of folks will have a hard time looking past the inherent dowdiness of the subject matter and the surface-level blandness of the prose. Again, Powers is a gifted writer, but his mastery comes less from any one individual sentence than in the accretion and arrangement of all of them, so that unless you’re tuned in to this novel’s particular frequency it may fall entirely flat for you.

Or maybe not. Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963 after all, beating out stuff like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, perhaps its polar opposite in terms of execution. That’s a book that’s essentially a game, bedizened by rhinestone-encrusted prose that catches a lot of light but doesn’t illuminate much of anything; whereas Morte D’Urban, seemingly staid, is in fact the real deal, the true thing, an object of undeniable, if sometimes inscrutable or hard-to-articulate, maybe even hard to see, beauty. If anything about this review piqued your interest, pick up the book and give it a try. Maybe it’s for you. Maybe it’s for nearly everybody.

If you decide to buy Morte D’Urban on the strength of this review, please get it from an independent bookseller. It’s also available direct from NYRB Classics, who have kept it in print since 2000.

“The fire of fall was on them…” from Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass

 

Fall Wyeth

“The path took Henry Pimber past the slag across the meadow creek where his only hornbeam hardened slowly in the southern shadow of the ridge and the trees of the separating wood began in rows as the lean road in his dream began, narrowing to nothing in the blank horizon, for train rails narrow behind anybody’s journey; and he named them as he passed them: elm, oak, hazel and chestnut tree, as though he might have been the fallen Adam passing them and calling out their soft familiar names, as though familiar names might make some friends for him by being spoken to the unfamiliar and unfriendly world which he was told had been his paradise. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been? For he had hated every day he’d lived. Ash, birch, maple. Every day he thought would last forever, and the night forever, and the dawn drag eternally another long and empty day to light forever; yet they sped away, the day, the night clicked past as he walked by the creek by the hornbeam tree, the elders, sorrels, cedars and the fir; for as he named them, sounding their soft names in his lonely skull, the fire of fall was on them, and he named the days he’d lost. It was still sorrowful to die. Eternity, for them, had ended. And he would fall, when it came his time, like an unseen leaf, the bud that was the glory of his birth forgot before remembered. He named the aspen, beach, and willow, and he said aloud the locust when he saw it leafless like a battlefield. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been?”

andrew-wyeth-long-limb-1998

 

Images: Autumn by Andrew Wyeth, 1984; Long Limb by Andrew Wyeth, 1998

Dan

It was one of those strings of good weather days that are so rare here, absurd and surprising. The few clouds that had been grazing earlier were gone, vanished, blown away or drawn up into the deep unshifting blue of the sky. The clean high sunlight and clear air pulled out extra textures in everything: there were more leaves on the trees, more blades of grass (each one catching its identical, individual glaze of reflected sunlight), more ripples and glints on the lake’s rumpled surface, more submarine shifts below it.

I was coming around the lake, finishing the first lap of a walk. A guy was coming the other way, walking towards me, his dog moving back and forth in front of him at the end of a leash. He was in his late 20s or early 30s, of slightly below-average height, stocky and muscular, walking with the straddle-legged walk of short, muscular men, arms bowed out slightly. His nose was large but thin: a hatchet in miniature, a witch’s nose. His skin was slightly tan, and there was a day’s worth of stubble on his chin and mild acne along his jawline. His shirt had an image of the state of Ohio on it; across the image was the word “Ohio.” He was smiling and saying something to me.

“What?” I asked.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

He came nearer to me and stopped, pointed past my shoulder towards the sky. “D’you see it? Do you see it?”

“Where? What?”

“There was a seagull in front of it, but now – there. Do you see it. Or a hawk or something. Way up there.”

Way up, nearing the high central sky where the blue was heaviest, something small and white was moving, steadily, linearly: a cylindrical shape with a single fin on its back end.

“What is it?” I asked.

“See now you’ve seen it,” he said. “My wife and I saw one on the way here.” He looked around for a moment, as if for his wife to confirm his story.

“Yeah…” I said.

“We saw one on the way here, and I’ve seen them before. It can’t be a plane, it’s not leaving a trail behind it.”

“Yeah, I dunno…”

“What do you think it is?”

“Yeah I dunno, it’s definitely not leaving a vapor trail…”

“I’ve seen them all over.”

“Maybe a reconnaissance drone?” I said and laughed. “I dunno.”

“Looks like a little Pez dispenser shape. Yep, now you’ve seen it.”

I was still looking up into the blue sky: burdenless, unsmudged, faultless as a new chalkboard, the sun burning out all the blackness of space and all the other besmirching stars, so that all that remained was the unechoing cathedralized blue, falling up and up. I couldn’t see the flying thing anymore.

“They’re all over,” he said. He shook his head. “It can’t be a reconnaissance drone,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.

“Wow, yeah, I dunno…” I said.

“Well now you’ve seen it too,” he said, and started to walk past me.

“Okay,” I said with a laugh, and started to walk away.

“Hey what’s your name?” he asked.

“Ben,” I said.

“Ben, I’m Dan,” he said, and looked back up into the sky. “I’m glad you saw it. Now you’ve seen them too!”

“Yup,” I said, laughing again.

“The little white, Tic Tac up in the sky!”

“Yup,” I said.

“Alright,” he said. “Thanks Ben!” And he walked off with his dog.

He had just started his walk, and I was only in the middle of mine. I would have to see him again.

A Short Note on William T. Vollmann

William_Vollmann-Self-Portrait-front.jpg

In my head I keep an ideal reading schedule, a schemata that runs to the end of the year and that, if followed exactly, will somehow allow me to cram in and finish every single book that is currently on orbit in my skull, drawing my interest and thoughts.

Books enter and fall out of these orbits all the time, so the schedule always changes; thus it doesn’t behoove me to articulate it here necessarily, but the next two months look like:

Late August-September

Read The Green Pearl and Madouc, thus completing Lyonesse.

All of October

Will be dedicated to reading Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons. Normally come October I like to widely roam the horror fiction landscape, dipping behind little autumnal hillocks, letting a haunted woods or two fold itself around me, take a shaky skiff across a dark lake’s grim mirror. But Carrion Comfort has been a perennial white whale, one of those novels I’ve started before and always intended to finish, and I’ve been good, generally, about completing this invisible, longstanding obligations in recent years, so I want to try and get it done in October.

So you can see that even to get through Halloween as envisioned will require a pretty studious devotion with not a ton of wiggle room. And yet, and yet, the book that has been eating up most of my reading time lately is William T. Vollmann’s massive, idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind Imperial.

If you don’t know, Imperial is a gigantic omnivorous 1300 page document about Imperial County, California, and the part of Mexico against which it abuts, bleeds into, is bled into from; evidently the region became a locus of obsession for Vollmann and lead to the creation of this book over the course of ten years.

I’ve known about Vollmann for years, of course; we all have, and we all know the standard line: massively prolific, incredibly ambitious, rarely read. I want to emphasize briefly that last point, because event though pretty much all ‘difficult’ writers are underread, Vollmann seems in particular to suffer from a circumscribed readership.

This hastily-typed post is not meant to analyze that neglect in any particular way; merely to point out that it took me 29 years to finally get around to reading Vollmann, and it has been an electrifying experience so far (about 130 pages into Imperial). Imperial is capacious and beautifully idiosyncratic in the way that all handmade things are; it reminds me a lot of Bishop Castle, or the House on the Rock, or any other truly great roadside attraction: a creation of patience, obsession, focus, and a profound commitment, on the creator’s part, to realizing his particular – so particular – vision in every detail, even at the risk of alienating the world’s every other human heart in that realization.

That statement risks being interpreted as condescending, and I don’t mean it to be. Vollmann’s book is definitely weird, but it’s not just weird. It’s funny, informative, sometimes beautiful, never less than engrossing so far. I would quote from it but my copy is lying across the room and I don’t feel like going to get it. But you would probably like it, actually.

My enthusiasm for Imperial, both as object and as reading experience, has lead me to the cusp of a possible Extended Vollmann Vacation. I secured a copy of Fathers and Crows, which looks to be just as singular and weird and fun as Imperial. I want to start the Seven Dreams cycle, and don’t mind jumping in at volume 2, but if I can find a copy of The Ice-Shirt soon I might try and squeeze it in somewhere soon, and read Fathers and Crows around Thanksgiving.

Or, it may all come to nothing, another vaporous readerly intention dismantled by time’s incessant breeze. But I don’t think Vollmann is going anywhere now, as a presence in my head.

Image Credit: Self Portrait by William T. Vollmann