1. Stoner (1965, John Williams): 7/29-8/2
Difficult to accurately judge just how much this is colored by my absurd absence from reading for these past few years, but this is almost impossibly expansive and moving, covering such an expanse of time (almost cradle-to-grave) in both expanses and skips. Williams’s sense of conveying the almost compartmentalized nature of Stoner’s existence is so cannily divided into focusing on different characters and the events that transpire with them, and yet his approach can’t be reduced to as simple a statement as that. Characters are introduced and then reappear in a startling different context – Finch rather unexpectedly becomes perhaps the fifth most important character, Katharine is introduced in an almost curt manner – and throughout it is apparent that all involved in Stoner’s life are intertwined, perhaps in the most subconscious and buried ways. Stoner’s parents are (to the best of my recollection) not mentioned past the halfway point, and yet the indelible impression that their decaying, dirt-caked lives made on their son and the reader endures. And through it all, art is couched as both salvation and damnation, altering Stoner’s life (for better and worse) at every turn, defining his way of existence while ensuring its continued state of quiet desperation. Stoner is at once devastating and fulfilling, tracking the development and sustained intellect of a singular mindset, observing as it ebbs and flows according to the rhythms of a life that is at once ordinary and extraordinary. Nothing short of revelatory.
2. Tropic Moon (1933, Georges Simenon): 8/8-8/23
Perhaps the most destabilizing element of Tropic Moon is Simenon’s preference for plunging the reader in media res at the start of more or less every chapter, then doubling back to give some context (necessary or not). This happens with regularity, true, but it never fails to dole out a few jolts. Indeed, this tendency is emblematic of the whole book’s careful, more than a little horrifying approach, taking as a given its sweltering setting and organizing an examination of both milieu and intruder. What most stuns is that Timar’s (and Adèle’s, and Bouillox’s) character never truly changes past his first introduction; rather, he deepens and becomes more complex as the heat forces his character to evolve to the atmosphere – that is, until he can’t bear it anymore. He is no coaster; where others survive, he falls.
3. Invisible Cities (1972, Italo Calvino): 9/7; 11/26-12/22
Invoked Hong’s “infinite worlds possible” maxim when raving about this magnificent book, and the comparison isn’t entirely inapposite: there is a certain quality that Calvino evokes here, founded upon the notion that each of this cities could all be real or all be false, all projections of Marco Polo’s native Venice or Kublai Khan’s fantasies about his empire or some combination or non-combination of the two, and it’s entirely to his credit that nothing is resolved. Like the men at its center, there is neither resolution nor total denial, instead a complete state of odd, often beautiful contentment and continual discovery. Invisible Cities‘s final exhortation is as close to a definitive, concrete statement as the book comes, yet it explicitly prescribes searching — a continual, never totally completable task — as the solution, which Calvino does with endless variation and complexity, while laying out his ideas for all to see.