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Books Read (And Not Read)

May 2024

I’m continuing to plow through the titles on the New York Times’s 2023 “100 Most Notable Books List,” though this month I realized that Daniel Clowes had released a 2017 effort that I had skipped, so I double–backed, and I’m glad I did. Those of you who also participate in Goodreads’s annual reading challenge know that (admit it!) graphic novels are a good way to pad your numbers, which is also why, like Snoopy in those Peanuts cartoons from the ’70s, I keep putting off thousand–page behemoths like Bleak House (not that I’d ever review Dickens, definitely in my pantheon, though who knows?).

As usual, the books are listed, more or less, in the order in which they were read. I only fibbed with one: the Clowes novels worked best as bookends, and Monica was a nice one to close out with.

book cover, Patience, by Daniel Clowes


Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics, 2017, 180 pages)

“Can’t let myself get too caught up in the personal stuff,” observes Jack Barlow, the “hero” of Daniel Clowes’s 2017 graphic novel, as he attempts to alter the destiny of the titular paragon, idealized in the manner of so many of her creator’s female protagonists. “Whatever happens with these assholes only pushes her into my arms, the way I see it.”
And so, Clowes lays plain the self–pitying narcissism common to many of his embittered male characters, a unifying theme his many ardent admirers suspiciously avoid addressing — swooning reviews anointing this a tale of sacrifice and undying devotion, what book were they reading?
Sure, Barlow takes measurable risks to prevent her mysterious murder, and in turn, that of their unborn child, by vaulting through time (via a chemical compound called “The Juice,” of which Clowes wisely and hilariously doesn't waste any time explaining “The Science”), but has no incentive to “save” Patience’s sister, who he knows will eventually be addicted to methamphetamine — it’s not in his self–interest.
Like so many of the protracted adolescents in Clowes’s stories, he mistakenly assumes innate passive–aggression makes him superior to the louts and brutes surrounding him, when in truth he’s as mired in toxic masculinity as they are, it’s just emotionally repressed. Deep down, he fears Patience’s trauma not only explains her questionable relationship choices, but also why she winds up with Barlow in the first place — an aimless sad sack with no future in the novel’s opening, he’s the low bar she accepts is her fate.
But as Barlow fails to change her past only to realize he’s actually its chief architect, Patience reveals herself to the reader to be not as an indifferent a participant in her own story as he assumes, an indictment of the “white knight syndrome” and the unwillingness of the would–be savior to allow women to have their own agency. And you thought Clowes’s old punching bag Dan Pussey was a withering critique of his audience — leaving you to wonder who the “hero” of this story really is. Finally, after years of wandering in the wilderness, his best since Ghost World. A
Grade: A
book cover, We Could Be So Good, by Cat Sebastian

We Could Be So Good: A Novel

Cat Sebastian (Avon, 2023, 384 pages)

Hey, I have nothing against LGBTQ–themed romance novels — garden variety romance novels, either. I wouldn't even look askance at a novel advertised as “Casey McQuinn meets The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo in [a] mid-century rom–dram about a scrappy reporter and a newspaper mogul’s son, perfect for Newsies shippers” (a head–scratcher of a blurb that necessitated a lot of stupid research to decipher). No, I save my snobbery for a more generalized menace: the flimsy, quickie paperback (please, no angry emails) (no really, sci-fans — no angry emails), especially one wishfully billed as a “historical romance,” albeit one set way back in, gosh, 1958.
Though author Sebastian pays obligatory attention to trivial details — a famous Village Voice article published in March of ‘59, a whisky first marketed around the same time — her indifferently–imagined leading men often act inconsistently for the time and context. One expects such rote genre staples as affectionately fixing the other’s tie or gingerly tending to a superficial wound, but would they really occur publicly, with one protagonist hypersensitive to office gossip and the other a tightly wound ball of sexual confusion?
Doubtful. This is a novel with less interest in honoring emotional or historical verisimilitude than in pandering to its well–meaning audience, as with the non–pejorative use of the word “queer,” an anachronism so forced and frequent you’d think the main characters were enrolled in a gender studies course.
Then we have wince–worthy passages like: “[The] city already had a dozen daily papers, not counting the weeklies, not counting the Black papers or those in other languages,” a snippet of internal monologue from Andy, the more sheltered of the pair — an insight unlikely to have popped into his head without his oh–so–enlightened modern day creator putting it there.
Yes, I know, every niche market deserves its own escapist fantasies. But no matter how much time you need to kill in that airport terminal, leave this in the Hudson News rack and wait for the inevitable Oxygen adaptation, even if that means missing chapter separations shaped like swimming spermatozoa, the best graphic design prank since that veined–cock spire on the VHS cover of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. C+
Grade: C+
book cover, Monsters, by Clare Dederer

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma

Clare Dederer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2023, 288 pages)

It’s Spring, 1993. I’m enrolled in English 177, N. Katherine Hayles’s postwar fiction survey at UCLA. After I privately spent two weeks shrugging off Kerouac and Kesey as tedious misogynists, we reached Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita.
On the first day of class discussion, a young woman sitting behind me, not especially awed by the “Annabel Lee” allusions I had pointed out to everyone a few seconds earlier, voiced her moral objection to the novel’s subject matter. Professor Hayles, who unquestionably had fielded this grievance before, noted Nabokov’s affection for literary puzzles, disdain for Freud, and penchant for parody, observing he wrote Lolita at a time some critics began divining a novel’s “subtext” by applying the “tools” of what Nabokov cynically nicknamed “The Viennese Delegation.”
Now I don’t know if those insights inspired my classmate to approach the novel differently, but at least Hayles armed her with enough context to do so on its own terms (as for myself, I did not post an article on The Literary Hub called "Women Explain Lolita To Me").
Which leads me to this book, essayist Dederer’s reckoning with art and artists that “fail” modern moral tests. Ecstatic to volley such buzz phrases such as “erasure” and “biographical fallacy” for the kiddies but not exactly inclined to any investigation that would require rising from her proverbial armchair, she falls into one of Nabokov’s favorite “traps,” taking the text purely at face value, something he delighted in mocking — her earnest conclusion that he “[ran] the risk of being thought of as an ordinary criminal so that he could tell this particular story” would have inspired his sardonic incredulity.
However, even if you dismiss debating the finer points of Nabokovia as my own idée fixe, how much effort would it have taken to engage with Michael Jackson’s catalog beyond "I Want You Back," especially when such superb–to–sucky artifacts as “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana” and “In the Closet” reveal so much more about his phobias, peculiarities, and peccadillos? Likewise, it would have taken a mouse click to discover the appalling 1969 routine in which Bill Cosby fantasizes about spiking his date’s drink with “Spanish Fly,” yet Dederer appears to know nothing about him outside of his unctuous ’80s sitcom.
And while I wouldn't necessarily chalk up her lack of insight in this area to racism (pointlessly indignant outrage is her department) she evinces far more familiarity with Scottish indie darlings Belle and Sebastian, mentioned off–handedly twice but whose whitewashed art direction would have made a far riskier point of discussion (I'll assume Dederer missed Sara Sahim’s superb “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie” in Pitchfork, but that doesn’t mean you should).
Granted, her Raymond Carver essay, which reconsiders the book’s earlier stances in the context of her struggles with alcoholism, is a small triumph, but elsewhere, her high–horse absolutism, half–assed research, and over–reliance on navel–gazing memoir rankles. If Roman Polanski, the person as opposed to the director, is really “beyond redemption,” what moves her to thank a prison abolition group in her afterword? Many incarcerated citizens seek absolution, or attempt to exorcise demons through art. I’m sure Dederer champions some of those people, as do I. So, what separates them from Polanski? Because she feels “guilty” for still enjoying Chinatown? B
Grade: B
book cover, Monica, by Daniel Clowes


Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics, 2023, 106 pages)

Since the surprise artistic and commercial success of his early 21st century breakout Ghost World, Daniel Clowes has endeavored to outdo himself with convoluted plots and formal experiments, often with mixed results. Because of that, I foolishly forestalled reading 2017’s Patience (reviewed above), which as it turns out takes our age’s most hackneyed literary conceit, the non–chronological narrative, and puts it in the service of an ironic and poignant time travel tale of stark power that for maximum emotional impact couldn’t have been structured any other way.
What’s more, he was just getting started. Like such personal touchstones as J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Clowes’s own Caricature (I swear, there’s a connection!), Monica is comprised of nine sections, all authored, we eventually come to assume, by the titular heroine: some functioning as memoir, some as fictions dealing with aspects of her life, others somewhere in–between, and none of which can be entirely trusted in terms of literal or spiritual “truth.”
All the themes that made Clowes a reluctant Gen–X hero are here, from the painful search for an absent parent to the distance that existentially damaged people put between themselves and others, but where in Ghost World, say, you always knew where Enid and Rebecca stood in relationship with everyone around them, Monica remains a conundrum even to the reader, to whom she is supposedly sharing her most intimate secrets.
As the narrative shifts from foxhole vignette to flower power reminiscence to Wicker Man homage and onward, you can never quite get a bead on to what degree she uses the startling power of her imagination to keep the outside world from penetrating her heavily guarded vulnerability, right down to the thrilling last panel, a veritable Pandora’s Box destined to generate debate on Reddit panels for years to come.
Like Clowes (and Mitchell), I’m a Nabokov guy, preferring literary puzzles to narrative closure — graphic novel or not, this has been the first book in quite some time I’ve been inspired to reread almost immediately, and though details continue to reveal themselves, this intricately constructed latticework of delights isn’t done with me yet. A+
Grade: A+

...and not read:

Kairos: A Novel

Jenny Erpenbeck (Penguin Verlag, 2021, translated by Michael Hofman into English from the original German for New Directions, 2023, 336 pages)

Put down after a hundred pages.