Ark volunteers pick and present their favourite reads of 2016.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Madness. Roberto Bolaño’s last and massive 900-page novel 2666 cannot, of course, be reduced to one word. But then again, why not? Does this one word not entail an implosion, the collapse of language into metonymic sliding, an utter failure of understanding that points towards the very void of meaning that is beyond language? This, in my opinion, is what is at stake in 2666. This is also, I think, what explains the American author Ben Lerner’s elusive and entirely-comprised-of-questions preface to the newest Picador edition. In many ways, 2666 raises far more questions than it deigns to answer.
What Madness? Femicides are at the centre of 2666, happening in or at the outskirts of the fictional city of Santa Teresa (a fictionalised version of the crime-ridden Mexican city Ciudad Juárez), 2666 epicentre. To be precise: 108 femicides are detailed in one of the novel’s five parts. Thus the reader must literally plough through 108 bodies, 108 different murders, in 300 pages. The novel’s other four parts include a group of European scholars and their fascination for an incredibly mysterious German author, a Mexican scholar and his daughter, and a vehement and veritable iconoclast who likes to piss on/near religious icons and then, blind with rage, destroys them. All of these things are somehow drawn towards the madness of the femicides in Santa Teresa. What is the connection? There are neither obvious nor complex answers readily available. Perhaps the law of gravitational pull towards incredible mass can explain things – at least, the metaphor works. But what does it mean?
I know very well that this is vague, but I hope at least it does some small justice to the word alluring. For 2666 is a well written and amazingly well-crafted thing that is well worth the time.
Nike by Caspar Eric
Rarely do I read poetry, and when I do, rarely do I laugh and cry, but Caspar Eric’s Nike is a rare and unexpected exception. Nike takes the form of an 88-pages long poem with concise sentences that flow into each other in a kind of (understandable) stream of consciousness that makes the narrative go along in sharp digressions. The point of departure is, stereotypically (as the narrator also comments upon in the poem), a break-up, but this event is unpacked in ways that connects it with the narrator’s feelings about being disabled, the particularities about being disabled in a neoliberal society that values the usefulness of the individual above all else, and about the everyday banalities that unavoidably occur in these constellations. These themes are addressed interchangeably and go effortlessly together in Eric’s straightforward use of the Danish language, which sometimes springs at you with a surprising combination of words that create new images of banal situations.
This book only exists in Danish for now, but I hope one day it will be translated, because it felt like an exact autopsy of the trivialities and terribleness of our time, in which individual thoughts and feelings are inevitably enveloped by a greater, global political whole, but whose envelopment, despite being viscerally felt, are impossible to dissect. Poetry is the only thing that comes close. However – know that I am a terrible literary critic and that, if you read Danish, you should definitely read this one for yourself. You’ll probably get something completely different out of it.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Reading I Love Dick by Chris Kraus confirmed me in my belief that theory can be a vital tool with which to understand how we live in the world. But more than this is that we can have fun while we are exploring it. These letters from Kraus and her husband, the theorist and Semiotext(e) founder Sylvère Lotringer, to the enigmatic cultural critic, Dick, spiral into obsessive desire, and in doing so reveal something of the illusory nature of so many of the assumptions that structure our culture. That being, that we are rational actors of knowable intention when in fact we are merely good at briefly assembling the appearances of such creatures.
Others have already mentioned elsewhere the important contributions of this novel from a feminist perspective, so here I would like to focus on something else, the mode of expression that Kraus has championed. On a micro-formal level, this book appears unremarkable. The prose, while totally of a piece with contemporary art/cultural theoretical writing and memoir, is relatively plain and straightforward. But the way in which the book blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, between essay and stream of consciousness, between sensation and its congealment as formal thought, resonates outward. From personal feelings of being out-of-joint and constriction, to the systemic structures of thought and relationships that limit our fields of possibility. And it does this while also being funny.
For all the appearance of transgression (a wife and her husband planning her “conceptual fuck” with another man), the strength of this book lies, for me, in that it seems to be a constructive project. Not in the banal sense of personal growth towards a pre-ordained idea of completion but, rather, in conjoining elements that don’t appear to sit well together at first but over time begin to blur into something far closer to my sensation of living in this world than any work that insists on the primacy of some singular ideal.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
When a couple of weeks ago someone at Ark asked me which was the best and the worst book I’ve read this year, I couldn’t help but wonder why I think I Love Dick is not only one of the best books I’ve read in 2016, but rather one of the best books I’ve read in my entire life. At first, I decided to freestyle with my thoughts, trying to justify my opinion with the first random ideas and emotions I could link to this piece. But after realising that I’m only good at freestyling when it comes to cooking, I made the classic top 5 list of favourite things from the book, which normally helps me in these kinds of situations. Still: too unspecific. I decided to force myself to think a bit deeper. What is it that Chris Kraus does in this piece that fascinated me so much from the first to the last page? Well, everything.
Kraus uses and develops the plot in a unique way. In my opinion, there is a plot which nevertheless is not a central part of the book. What we could generally consider the story (her [non-]relationship with Dick) is used as an excuse to let her writing and ideas flow and blossom: this way she introduces different discussions and topics, from Kierkegaard to the position of women in the art world, and even love itself.
Second, and possibly as a consequence of the above, this book represents a direct translation of the author’s perception of reality. The reader is able to fully immerse in the writer’s world but at the same time, the piece supposes an exercise of thought for the reader to consider such various topics as the ones mentioned before. In that way, Kraus’ excellent use of the first person narration and storytelling of personal experience is the way she constructs a voice both empathic and explorative.
Lastly, the mix of literary genres is almost a piece of handcraft and mastermind. The way she fusions genres seems to be impeccable and admirable. While reading this book, I completely forgot whether I was reading a novel, an essay, or a personal diary. I found myself completely and fully immersed in the story, a source of constant knowledge and creativity which I didn’t care what it was, but I only wanted to read more and more, and the more I read the more amazed I was by it. Yet it’s greatness lies not only in its quality but in its uniqueness. Looking at my bookshelf, or my friends’ bookshelves, or the ones at Ark Books I can’t help but think: I’ve never read a book like I Love Dick before.
See You in Paradise by J. Robert Lennon
See You in Paradise is a wicked and entertaining collection of short stories set in J. Robert Lennon’s surreal and twisted vision of American suburbia. Each story constructs a bizarre, parallel world in which reality is both painfully boring and yet darkly disturbing: the lady down the street is having a funeral for the very not-dead family dog, and the magic portal that a bored husband finds in his family’s new back yard quickly falls into disrepair when chores like gardening and painting the fence come to prioritise portal-maintenance. The stories deadpan sense of humour and dystopian tendencies never dampen their emotional effect. However, Lennon’s characters never cross the line into caricature; their lives may be absurd, pathetic or foolish, but the bored housewives and sexually frustrated husbands are not so much harshly judged as empathetically observed. These stories will linger in your mind long after reading.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest reminded me why I love literature so much. The book brought back the feeling I experience less and less frequently as I grow older, in fact so rarely that I had almost begun doubting the realness of the ever paler memories of it I have from back in the day. Wallace’s novel brought me back the pure joy of reading. This pleasure of engaging oneself in the lecture which becomes so intense that it turns physical; the one capable of bringing about the distinct tingling at the mere thought that when today ends I can take some time off and spend the entire evening, followed by a half of a night, reading. And tomorrow, do it again. And again. And again. Until I finish, only to realise that I want to go through it one more time. Not that it reads easily: there are (often pages long) moments when progressing through the dense pages feels straight out burdensome and exhausting. But even then, the book does not lessen its grip. It evinces the same tantalising power emanating from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, the one of inhuman imagination transposed with the pure ingenuity into the compelling, frenetic richness. Its fantastic scope and complexity, progressing through a (paradoxically!) coherent myriad of registers, voices, themes and cadences makes it one of the texts which is so much a whole of itself, it simply is so much what it is, that the only way to do its justice is to read it. And then do it again.