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Top Ten

The Year in Books

Uli Loskot

Top Ten 2006

The Year in News Republican rule was supposed to be good for Maryland, tightening up the fiscal scene and challenging... | By Van Smith

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The Year in Books David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest first appeared 10 years ago. And, apparently, the 10th annivers...

Posted 12/13/2006

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest first appeared 10 years ago. And, apparently, the 10th anniversary of that fact is worth celebrating. A new $10 paperback edition of the novel appeared last month, with a Dave Eggers introduction trumpeting both the novel's significance and the necessity to read it. Eggers' essay also appeared in LA Weekly last month--although the so-called literary blogosphere is alight in Eggers scrutiny, since his new essay is a complete reversal from his 1996 castigation of the novel in the San Francisco Chronicle, but, you know, having a cool media profile is a hell of a drug--and The Village Voice and Time magazine also ran essays commemorating the novel's debut.

Jest, or so it is being argued, ushered in the 1990s' "big idea" novels that championed complexity, prolixity, ambitious vocabularies, sprawling paragraphs, and hefty shelf real estate--viz., Don DeLillo's Underworld, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, et al. And while it's nice to regard the then-33-year-old Wallace as a belletristic wunderkind pushing the narrative and page-number envelope, such a view overlooks the healthy American lineage of such novels--the one-man page armies of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, David Markson, William T. Vollmann, John Barth, etc.--and the rigorous output of post-war European novelists (see: Halldor Laxness, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, ad infinitum).

To say nothing that Jest is, at the end of its more than 1,000 pages, merely--and being generous here--OK, not great. As a piece of modest sci-fi satire it is both fun and funny--the renegade arsenal of Québécois wheelchair assassins is hilarious, and tennis academy smooth operator Michael Pemulis remains Wallace's greatest creation. And it was nice to see a young writer aim for something as overwhelmingly sad as Jest is at its core. But it is not the greatest American novel of the past 10 years, the 1990s, or even 1996. All Wallace and Jest did encapsulate is the triumph of literary marketing forces that are now as fervid and hype-happy as the art world, movies, and music.

Yes, we now have literary rock stars once again. And even the most discerning of readers is prone to such influences. City Paper's Top 10 books of 2006 includes some expected heavyweights (Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott, Pynchon), modestly underground cool cats (Alison Bechdel, Ian Svenonius, Alan Moore), and the latest in the names you need to have on your bookshelf to show that you're paying attention (José Saramago, Michael Pollan). Too early to tell if any of these may eventually warrant a 10th anniversary edition, and absolutely no idea who might be tapped to pen the requisite mellifluous introduction. Not that it matters one bit. Ten years is long enough for today's cantankerous cranks to become tomorrow's effervescent whores. Who says there are no second acts in America? (Bret McCabe)

Cormac McCarthy The Road (Knopf) The man behind the most nihilistic gore sump in American letters, Blood Meridian, delivers an apocalyptic vision with a heart, albeit a haunted, leaden one. The Road's nameless narrator and his 10-year-old son pick their way through a post-nuclear Southeast, scrounging for canned food and trying to stay warm while avoiding barbaric armies and roving cannibals. More troublesome, however, are the inward uncertainties they face: Is just surviving worth living for? What will I do with him? What will I do without him? In the years since Blood Meridian, McCarthy's prose has gotten both more skeletal and more muscular; he's never balanced the propulsive and the ruminative better than he does here. (Lee Gardner)

Alice McDermott After This (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) Alice McDermott spares no detail in this lovely novel centered on one Long Island family, yet her unflinching look at the Keanes remains uncluttered by sentimentality or rosy passages of love and family that fictionalize the pain of marriage and children under the sometimes cruel umbrella of Irish-Catholic stoicism and guilt. Marrying later in life, and right after WWII, John and Mary begin a family of two boys and two girls at the beginning of the novel; Vietnam and the ensuing sexual revolution flavor the novel's end. McDermott allows her characters self-examination, usually without reward, and room to be so honest as to express even their ugliest emotions. One particularly memorable vignette takes place on a chilly beach where each parent reflects on their elder but weak son and his younger but dominant brother; you hope the children can't read minds. (Wendy Ward)

Michael Pollan The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press) Veteran journalist Michael Pollan is a gastronomical and agronomical Dante on this tour of food heaven and hell. And like the Divine Comedy, the book is presented in three sections: Corn, Grass, and Forest--or, if you prefer to think in terms of meals, the industrial, the organic, and the foraged. On Pollan's wide-ranging adventures, we learn how many products are created from corn, why large-scale hog operations cut off pigs' tails, and how you can raise tens of thousands of pounds of food from 100 acres and sunlight. Pollan comes off as an everyman who is repelled and amazed by the horrors and wonders he sees--and this is the power of his persuasive appeal to change our food system. (Scott Carlson)

José Saramago Seeing (Harcourt) José Saramago's Seeing is about one-10th the book that is his Blindness, which isn't an insult, given that in the latter case we may just be talking about the best novel of the last 15 years. Blindness' shattering prose described a sudden epidemic of "white blindness" that beset an urban population, followed by repressive governmental measures taken to try to contain the outbreak. Seeing slowly, deliciously reveals itself as a sequel; when an overwhelming majority of voters casts blank ballots on Election Day, the government suspects a conspiracy--and begins to question the only woman in the city who didn't succumb to the plague of blindness. A very fine allegorical novel that beautifully exemplifies Saramago's densely constructed but smoothly flowing and compulsively readable style. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Alison Bechdel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin) Bruce Bechdel loved antiques, literature, underage boys, and sometimes his family. The day he stepped in front of a moving truck--maybe accidentally, maybe not--he left his daughter Alison a contradictory and conflicted history to unravel. Alison, who later met fame as the creator of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, explores the never-broached connection between herself and her closeted father in this plain-spoken, funny, and tenderly painful graphic memoir. (Violet Glaze)

Margaret Atwood The Tent (Nan A. Talese) Margaret Atwood's dazzling array of 35 short (short!) stories thrums with energy. Here, you read the madcap fables "Chicken Little Goes Too Far" and "Our Cat Enters Heaven"; there, you read Atwood's irreverent homage to Hamlet in "Horatio's Version." Nearby lie the poem-shaped "Bring Back Mom: An Invocation," alternately sidesplitting, loving, and wistful, and "The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins," which rather describes itself. The crowning achievement is the title story, which gives breathless voice to a writer's greatest fears--that the wolves are inches away; that only feverish, incessant, manic writing will keep one from madness and death. (Stephen Peterson)

Ian Svenonius The Psychic Soviet (Drag City) Vampirism, the Cold War, Scientology, Seinfeld--no cultural or political juggernaut is safe from Ian Svenonius' rampaging historical revisionism. Svenonius--a Washington, D.C.-based vocalist who led Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up and heads Weird War today--spends some 300 pages convincingly waxing crack pipe about assorted conspiracies; the supposed rock vs. religion dialectic; how by drinking beer or coffee the consumer is unwittingly taking part in a perpetual, decades-long cycle of exploitation; and other such complete nonsense. Soviet's diminutive size allows it to be carried in a back pocket, alongside your flask of absinthe. Svenonius suggests sharing his insights with strangers encountered on the street; disregard, unless you want to be committed. (Raymond Cummings)

David Mitchell Black Swan Green: A Novel (Random House) Novelists enjoy writing about childhood, it's been said, because childhood was the only time they weren't consumed by writing. To superpower his own coming-of-age tale, Booker Prize finalist David Mitchell craftily imbues his 13-year-old protagonist, Jason Taylor, with an extraordinarily fine vocabulary, plausibly developed to mitigate a socially deadly stammer. And so, even though Taylor inhabits a sleepy circa-1982 English hamlet that is the book's namesake, his narrative shimmers with a particularly well-articulated prepubescent--and Harry Potter-esque--sense of wonder and dread. The intimidating creatures he must face down are class bullies, estranged parents, and paralyzingly pretty girls. (Joab Jackson)

Thomas Pynchon Against the Day (The Penguin Press) On the surface Pynchon's sixth novel is his stock and trade: serpentine, word-drunk prose, firecracker names, and enough plots and characters in which to drown. Once you get past the first 200 pages, though, and get lost in Day's wake--and its cast of adventuring boy balloonists, anarchists, mad scientists, magicians, mathematicians, and other folk in late 1890s through the late teens in America and across Europe and other places far and wide--you discover something far more accessible: Pynchon doing something of a phantasmagoric pulp adventure epic. It's no Mason and Dixon--few things are--but it more than tickles that peculiar funny bone that only he can reach. (BM)

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie Lost Girls (Top Shelf Productions) Children's literature gets turned into something even more sexed-up than Phoebe Zeit-Geist or Barbarella in this mammoth three-volume treasure trove of wild imagination and flat-out pornography. Writer Alan Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie take a trio of childhood favorites--Alice Fairchild (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), Wendy Darling (Peter Pan), and Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)--and make them lusty, bisexual, polyamorous, and morally adventurous. Decadent, geeky, and kinky--three great things that go great together. (BM)

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.

The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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