January 2022

I remember reading The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school and finding it all a bit dull. Why it would be the first novel I read this year, then, in a year in which my goal is to read and pick apart one hundred novels, is something of a mystery to me. I have been moved more by others, after all. But writers I respect a lot respect The Great Gatsby a lot, so I figured: why not.

It took me a day to read. Three or four hours. Everything Fitzgerald writes is a masterclass in prosody—I have long recognized this—but where The Great Gatsby shines, I now see, is in its structure. Every character exists for a reason. Daisy is a paragon of desire and desirability, but also of emptiness; Tom is Gatsby’s callous, established opposite. Even Myrtle and George Wilson can be nothing other than the incidental, tragicomic casualties they are if Fitzgerald’s disinterring of the despair of the ‘20s is to be as complete as it is. It left me aching and envious. This is what good books, very good books, do.

What also struck me was this: The Great Gatsby is the sort of novel I would like to write. And I don’t mean that in the way that every aspiring novelist means it. Rather, it’s that within the fiction I’ve written (particularly that of the last six months), the dominant theme is of being unreconciled with one’s past. I’ve told stories about people who did not act when they should have, or acted when it was  better to have not. I’ve talked about things breaking and never being fixed, things lost and forever unfound. Because this is what Gatsby is, more than anything else: a story about a man who lost the woman he loved, and then spent the rest of his life working to win her back, and was destroyed by what this work asked of him. And it’s the best example of this story that exists. I’m writing a novel right now about four friends stuck in a house haunted by a dead fifth. It’s about a lot of things, but it’s mostly about what Gatsby’s about. They’ve lost something, the four of them, in the years since the five of them were one. And they want this something back, and they find out that it’s impossible to get it back.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun was the first new book I read this year, and I wished I liked it more than I did. Part of this can be chalked up to a disenchantment with fantasy on my behalf—the last fantasy series I fully enjoyed was Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, and that was almost a decade ago. But I think most of my dislike arises from the story itself, which trades the genre’s signature scope for a plot that oscillates between two places and two times and does not stray. And even this would be okay, I think, if there was more (to either like or dislike) to either of the novel’s two main characters. But neither Serapio nor Xiala ever become quite real, and therefore the plot they are trapped in—despite its high body count—never feels like it quite has stakes. At this point, the only thing that could have saved the novel was an attention to and inventiveness with language on the level of Delany’s. And while Roanhorse’s prose is passable, it does little but the job she assigns it, which is to move the plot ahead.

Stephen King’s Apt Pupil and Anne River Siddons’s The House Next Door were both rereads. And I loved the former just as much as I did the first time I read it, and I loved the latter a little more. If Gatsby’s quest to recapture the past embodies a very specific type of story I’m committed to telling, King and Siddons here provide triumphant touchstones of the rest of this narrative space. Because what Gatsby and Todd Bowen (Apt Pupil’s protagonist, if we can call him that) and The House Next Door’s Colquitt Kennedy hold in common is this: they’re obsessed. Gatsby organizes his life around proving his worth to a woman who’s moved on. Bowen, after uncovering his neighbor’s identity as a Nazi in hiding, happily sends himself down a narrow, precipitous path. The titular house of The House Next Door, meanwhile, takes its time to consume Kennedy, but when it does it is no less complete, nor the implications of this devouring so bleak. 

Obsession—just as with other addictions—is a thing that feels like a choice. And in fact might be, at least at the start. Where the story becomes interesting, though, is the moment the control is lost, when the lock’s last tumbler clicks, when a plot’s arc tips undeniably toward its end. The quality I most admire about Apt Pupil and The House Next Door is how stark this moment is. In an instant, in a breadth of less than ten pages, every plot beat reaches its awful, inevitable conclusion. Everything comes crashing down. Only one path is left to both Bowen and Kennedy, and we can only watch as they follow it to its end.

The only book I read this month that wasn’t a novel was Daniel Sloss’s Everyone You Hate Is Going to Die. This was another one-day-er, and I enjoyed it. If you’ve watched any of Sloss’s stand-up, you already know what he has to say here: people are bad, mostly. It is mostly hard to be good. He talks about love and sex; family and friends; America and his native UK; death. The parts I found myself paying the most attention to were about relationships. Sloss, like me, is an articulate cynic; listening to him is like tuning into a funnier, much more confident version of myself. His thoughts on love—both the skeptical ones and the self-consciously starry-eyed—are my own. Early on, he writes, “I believe love should be the most inconvenient thing in the world. Falling in love should be like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” Because it is bullshit, mostly, and desperate, and sad—this is what his special Jigsaw is about—except for when it’s not. 

And when he gets to the chapter on his current relationship at the end of the book, I’m there for that, too. He writes that he’s turned into everything he hated. He writes that he’s loving it. He writes that all his years single have prepared him for this. He knows how to exist alone—but now he prefers not to. Because all those years have also taught him what he wants in a partner, and now he’s found it. 

Which is all to say this: I read only five books this month. I have written a fair number of words, but fewer than I hoped. And I am so happy it scares me.

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