Saturday, July 24, 2010


Just today, I posted a solicitation for book recommendations as my Facebook status. I asked for fiction recs-- proscribing Stieg Larsson in advance -- and almost immediately received a host of literary endorsements from my many bibliophile friends (and, a pleasant surprise, from my students as well). I was happy to see that most of the suggestions were titles that were on my short list of must-read's anyway, confirming my longstanding suspicion that shared literary preferences make for good friendships. Even the recommendations that I knew I would ultimately reject for idiosyncratic reasons, like Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus or Jose Saramago's The Double*, still made sense to me as "good" recommendations. As the suggestions came pouring in, I tried to clarify my solicitation with the following: "I'm basically looking for something to knock my socks off like Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao did." To which one of my good friends, anotherpanacea (aka, Joshua Miller), replied: "Haven't read Oscar Wao: what's appealing about it that you'd like to replicate?"

That's a great question. And so very hard to answer. My first instinct is to say that anyone interested in surveying my literary tastes should consult my blog-post "Dr. J's Top 25 Books List," but the truth is that most of the books on that list are not fiction, so I'm not sure that it would be all that helpful in this case. After reviewing that list myself, I'm not even sure that the fiction pieces on that list are especially illustrative of what I like in fiction. So, I'm going to try to take on Anotherpanacea's question more directly here, and say what it was about The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that I found so appealing, and that I would like to replicate. (I mentioned to a friend recently that I would describe my current pleasure-reading phase as "post-Diaz," so using Oscar Wao as a kind of touchstone for my literary tastes is probably apropos.) There are a few preliminary caveats that I need to make first, including (1) that most of my non-fiction reading and research involves human rights violations and crimes against humanity, (2) that, against my better judgment, I am often drawn to fiction that replicates the same themes (like Oscar Wao, and The Reader and A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali), and (3) that, well, my professional life is that of a philosopher and, consequently, I'm partial to high-concept fiction.

Let me begin this way: I would list my favortie "contemporary" fiction authors as the following:
-- Philip Roth
-- Milan Kundera
-- J.M. Coetzee
-- Jonathan Safran Foer

Runner-ups to this list (by which I mean authors of whom I have only read one or two novels) are:
-- Ann Patchett
-- Jonathan Franzen
-- Junot Diaz

That said, here's what I loved about Oscar Wao and would like to see replicated:
(1) big, comprehensive, national and transnational political themes, situated as they are in a particular racial or ethnic history
(2) a stark, searing, and probative consideratation of human frailty
(3) a quick, piercing and true dialogue-driven plot
(4) the exposition and exposure of our collective weaknesses, told through the particular trials of a particular character's (universalizable) weaknessess-- on this score, Roth's The Human Stain rivals Oscar Wao for top billing-- and finally, perhaps obviously...
(5) PHILOSOPHY MASKED AS FICTION. (For my literary tastes, it must be philoosophical, and it must be masked.)

So, for those of you who are my FB friends, feel free to offer your suggestions there. For the rest of my blog-readers, here's your opportunity to contribute recommendations.

* I think one of signs of a mature literary sensibility is the ability-- and, more importantly, the willingness-- to admit what one doesn't like. Literary taste, like all tastes, can be a fickle and idiosyncratic thing. It took me a long, long time to get to the point where I could put a novel that I didn't like down without finishing it. At the risk of overgeneralization-- and there are always exceptions, of course-- I am at the point where I can say with some confidence that I don't especially enjoy the following: Latin American fiction (which includes a lot of magical realism), fiction by German writers or about German themes, Beat Generation lit or its stylistic and thematic heirs (among which I include Chuck Pahluniak), and sci-fi fiction. I can appreciate the literary value of many of the great works in each of these genres... it's just that I don't like to read them.


Jamey Findling said...

First off, I like the redesign. Much more appealing. As for my recommendation, I have to say that I couldn't stand Oscar Wao. I don't have a good explanation for why; then again, it makes sense that one would work harder to account for the books one LIKES than those one doesn't. My favorite authors would include Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. But, if you haven't already read it, I suspect you would really like Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. For something more recent, I have on my list two books that were the focus of a recent talk I attended, both of which sounded extraordinary: China Mieville's The City and the City, and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.

John said...

I have two questions, Dr. J.

(1) Can the philosopher in general (always concerned with truth or the question of truth) have something to say in the form of narrative, can the philosopher (as philosopher and not in another role) write fiction?

(2) If I may ask, do you write fiction? Or perhaps the better question would be: what would be the form of the fictional work you would write? Would it have the qualities you demand in reading, or would it be something else entirely?

Zora said...

Greetings! Much love to your literary interests, I just finished Philip Roth's American Pasteural and was blown away.
I'd highly, highly recommend Louis-Ferdinand celine's journey to the End of the Night. I daresay it fits your five criteria, coupled with a misanthropic-comic ... misanthropocomic? perspective. ... A few quotes. ...
"The biggest defeat in every department of life is to forget, especially the
things that have done you in, and to die without realizing how far people can go
in the way of crumminess. When the grave lies open before us, let's not try to
be witty, but on the other hand, let's not forget, but make it our business to
record the worst of the human viciousness we've seen without changing one word.
When that's done, we can curl up our toes and sink into the pit. That's work
enough for a lifetime."
"The old men from the charity
hospital next door would come jerking past our rooms, making useless, disjointed
leaps. They'd go from room to room, spitting out gossip between their decayed
teeth, purveying scraps of malignant, worn-out slander. Cloistered in their
official misery as in an oozing dungeon, those aged workers ruminated the layer
of shit that long years of servitude deposit on men's souls. Impotent hatreds
grown rancid in the pissy idleness of dormitories. They employed their last quavering energies in hurting each other a little more, in destroying what little pleasure and life they had left.
Their last remaining pleasure! Their shriveled carcasses contained not one
solitary atom that was not absolutely vicious!"
"Gradually, during this ordeal by humiliation, I felt my self-respect weakening,
weakening a little more, seeping away, and finally abandoning me completely,
officially as it were. Say what you please, that's a beautiful moment. After
that incident I became infinitely light and free, morally speaking of course.
Fear is probably, more often than not, the best means of getting you out of a
tight spot. Since that day I've never felt the need of any other weapons, or
virtues for that matter."