Although it seems like I travel often enough, my trips of the past couple of years have been mostly for conferences, book festivals and other events where I read from Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, gamely hoping to connect with new readers.
Over the holidays, however, my partner and I took a “vacation,” that is, we traveled for the purpose of being purposeless, which is, I think, a very lucky and healthy thing to do. Part of the pleasure of the vacation had to do with reading new books (new to me), instead of re-reading books to teach.
But there was one hitch. I had to finish Philip Roth’s 1975 The Great American Novel before the fun could begin. I hadn’t read a Roth novel since the 1970s and I wasn’t looking forward to reading any more, but a student in my “Moby Dick and Intertextuality” course this past semester had informed me that he was referring to the Roth novel in his final paper, so I sighed and read (and sighed some more). As it turned out, my student was only referring to the novel’s prologue, but, suffering from a bad case of dutiful thoroughness, I was determined to finish this “slapstick comedy.” I read the last page as our plane touched down and I gratefully tossed the novel in the first trash bin there.
My partner was horrified that I was not recycling, but I did not want to run the risk of some unsuspecting reader picking the book up and thinking it was “literature.” It isn’t. It’s Roth at his most puerile and misogynistic. Perhaps someone reading this blog will say that I just don’t get Roth’s humor.
Next up was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), which is a fine “vacation” read, exactly what I needed. I was more interested in imagining Niffenegger’s study, and the charts and timelines she must have had to keep in order to control her novel’s structure, than I was in the story itself, but watching how other novelists do what they do is part of the act of reading for me.
Then I picked up Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. I had read, and enjoyed, a couple of earlier Barnes’ novels, and I am almost always happy with books that are nominated for, or win, the Booker Prize. This novel is written in lovely prose and deals with an interaction of concepts that interest me, as a teacher and as a writer: how does time shape memory, how does narrative shape memory, to what extent does narrative constitute the past? And certainly Barnes captures the fears that accompany us (and grow) as we get older. Thus, I am not unhappy to have spent time with this slender and thoughtful novel, but ultimately, for me, it seemed to have a hole in the center where a plot we actually believe in or care about should have been.
Finally, I came to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004). I am late to this party, I know, but I’m going to stay late, too. Cloud Atlas, with its palindromic structure, is smart, fun, unexpected, and then unexpected again. And again. I found myself chuckling and muttering to myself, “You didn’t!” with amazement and appreciation. And even when I got to the futuristic stuff, which is usually when I simply lose interest, I wanted to keep going, to see how and when I would get my next glimpse of how this Chutes and Ladders of a book worked. Better yet, each component of this multi-segmented novel had me intrigued, in the ideas, in the plot, and in the characters, which, given the emphasis on fragmentation and the instability of narrative, was pretty amazing. It is, in short, brilliantly constructed metafiction with a heart and a brain, and some great storytelling, to boot.
I finished Cloud Atlas the day after getting back from our two-week vacation. What a pleasure it had been. To read. Just for fun.