Editor’s Note: Marshall Walker Lee composed this wonderful post in time for our original summer solstice publication date. Please blame his editor (that would be me), and not him, for any wonky bits of (un)timeliness, and enjoy his lovely offerings. —Ashley David
I am always resolving to read more contemporary fiction. Then again, I’m always pledging to read more philosophy, more European novels from the inter-war years, the rest of Conrad, the next volume of Proust, the Paradiso, Burton’s 1001 Nights…
This summer I am giving up. Let the young fend for themselves, I know I do and I feel not entirely unloved. Summer is the season of long days and deep warm nights, when projects swell with light and air, creating unexpected contours, pockets, new centers of gravity. A year ago I wrote in praise of summer’s freaky physics, and I stick by my assertion that it is a season that “occults not only seasons but whole fields of feeling, worlds, words,” and I still believe that summer is the best time to run oneself ragged and declare war on your insecurities and succeed or fail spectacularly.
The stack of books beside my desk is now hip-high and apart from Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget (Knopf, 2010) and Douglas Lorain’s Backpacking Oregon: From Rugged Coast to Mountain Meadows (Wilderness Press, 2007) the most recent title of the bunch is Updike’s Rabbit is Rich (1979). In addition to Rabbit is Rich I’m planning to read the fourth and final volume of the Rabbit books, Rabbit at Rest, in which, as you probably know, Rabbit dies. Rabbit at Rest, written ten years after Rabbit is Rich, will probably represent my closest brush with contemporary fiction. However, I see Rabbit at Rest less as a single novel from the 80s than the culmination of a mega-novel begun in the 50s. It is in every sense a Big Book, and Big Books are my favorite summer reads.
This summer I am planning to plunge into Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Stephen King’s The Stand, and The Travel Journals of Marco Polo. All together they come to maybe 4,500 pages. It’s going to be a very good summer.
Beyond “literature,” I’m planning to read all about the movies, and the reason for my reading choices has to do, once again, with contemporary fiction. Recently, Matt Bell (contemporary author extraordinaire—go get his books!) made a comment about films and their relationship to contemporary fiction that made me sit up straight. Responding to a remark (where was it made? Salon? Ugh, how I loathe paraphrasing) about young writers being primarily inspired by one another’s work, rather than the classics, Bell offered the explanation that contemporary fiction employs the grammar of film (lots of discrete scenes; a narrative that moves primarily “forward” through a plot rather than following a voice as it veers to the left or right or “inward”) whereas the classics seem to operate according to an obsolete, or at the very least archaic, set of rules. Boring rules, I guess. For a generation of young writers raised on films, the books that make the most sense are the ones that work like movies.
If I were a different sort of person, Bell’s remark might have spurred me on to read more contemporary fiction, after all I love the movies and I understand their grammar and their language. Instead, it made me want to read about the movies, and so scattered throughout my stack of summer reading books I have titles like Picture by Lilian Ross, Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock, John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio, and Bruce Kawin’s How Movies Work. I also plan to watch a lot of movies. About a month ago I was given as birthday gift a digital projector and when I look out on the coming summer nights I see a cone of clear, bright light opening towards a screen and cutting through the silvery-black darkness all the way from here to Labor Day.
So where does that leave contemporary fiction? In other hands, I suppose. Maybe next year, or the year after, I will have a change of heart and catch up on the recent books I’ve skipped, but in the meantime the list of titles I’ve neglected keeps on growing. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land. There are more, many more. Of the four aforementioned titles I think that I’m likeliest to read Jacob de Zoet, then the Lerner, then Swamplandia, then the book by Mr. Joyce, an author previously unknown to me who’s written about 20 books for children and adults. But I’m likelier to read The Idiot, or Middlemarch, than the whole bunch put together.
As I get older I find myself growing on the one hand much more flexible, more resilient, more inclined to take risks, and yet at the same time I can feel my interests and affections calcifying. My taste is turning pathological. More of this and less of that, then the next year even more and even less until, I suppose, one day I will cut out that entirely and shutter myself inside stacks of this. By then there will be a new “contemporary” and I will be, in some sense, happily past tense.
Whoever said youth is wasted on the young was dead on.