As the new reviews editor, I guess it’s my job to introduce myself. Perhaps some of you want to know what on Earth Entropy’s up to, choosing this still-green writer with hardly any clips to his name, not even fresh out of grad school (got another year to go). Or perhaps—more likely—you are yourself affiliated with the magazine, a former or future contributor, even a loyal reader, and just trying to suss me out. Whatever your reason for being here, thank you. I’ll try not to disappoint. For my purposes, this welcome is, first and foremost, an occasion for me to think through my tenure here, which helps you as much as it does me; looking around my room now, with all the Barthes et al. strewn about, I’ve clearly relished the excuse to delve into my literary history (see Sylvia Chan’s series on the subject), starting with all the books I’m supposed to have read.
Is that a cheeky confession for an incoming reviews editor to make–that his reading habits aren’t great? If so, it also allows that such knowledge gaps, to borrow a line from Leonard Cohen, might just be where the light gets in, and there’s nothing quite like your own direct experience of text, however uninformed.
If not reading habits, I do have a truly great reading chair. The sunken suede, the arched dark-wood arms, the squat and sturdy legs standing always at attention, always inviting, all of it comprising by far the most sacred object in my little casita here in Tucson, and indeed it’s still one of my proudest purchases (from University Surplus) dating back to when I moved in some two years ago. But as any reader knows, it’s a dangerous game you’re playing in the evening, curling up in your favorite armchair, mug of tea steaming on the side table, as you tuck in…to a good book. The pleasure of sinking into someone else’s words is so close to sleep, I’m not always sure where one ends and the other begins, and no sooner am I imagining, say, Don Quixote, off in the woods doing cartwheels in the buff, than I find myself dreaming as much, yours truly the eponymous knight errant.
And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten with Cervantes, a major (so I’ve told people) influence of mine. Point is, the somnolence of reading, and the subsequent patchy memory of what’s read, needn’t be seen as deficiency—no, not a lack at all. Rather, in that position, hands open somewhere between an offer and a prayer, we might be showing the book a kind of reverence, akin perhaps to meditation, at least in the zazen tradition I’m familiar with, where whatever enters the mind is just passing through, what to do with but simply hold the space.
Of course, you don’t have to be well-read to read well, and you certainly needn’t read all of someone to fall irrevocably under their spell. Speaking of which: I believe in word magic, the power of words to operate on you unconsciously, or even with you consciously resisting, and now that I see Google tells me to spell (a word) and a spell (magic) share the same origin I’m not at all surprised. Not that I’m going to swear off spelling bees for fear of getting accidentally cursed, the peculiar kind of hypnosis of a precocious child’s quavering voice emitting letter after halting letter notwithstanding, but I do think there’s an element to this job that isn’t readily explained. I’m not—or not only—going to pick what I like, or what I find impressive, or what I feel is missing from the discourse, but also those submissions that just enchant, intoxicate, somehow or other put me under. Because, after all, I’d hope you’d do the same in choosing which books you want to review.
I was at a wedding recently where I happened to be the one officiating, fly-by-night minister though I may be (and so can you!). Of all the words I uttered, having first composed them with as pure a heart as I was capable of (it’s the only time I’ve ever cried at my writing desk, thinking of that couple’s love), the ones that shook me deep were not my own but rather those most recognizable: “By the power vested in me by the State of New York…” Not a great line by any stretch, not even a good one, and says nothing at all about the man and wife—and yet, sends chills through me even now, for it’s the kind of line where saying it makes it so. Is this not, in some measure, the very thing we come to books for: words come true?
These don’t by any means need to be books that changed your life. I have mine, and how precious few they are, so much so that perhaps it’s their quality of being rare that has me reading on, voraciously if sporadically, in feverish search of the next. I wonder: How many books have I read simply because Simon Gray wrote The Complete Smoking Diaries, and I read that first? (And here I’m tempted to generate a select list, but stop myself upon realizing how heavily curated it would be for this forum, how, frankly, untrue, given that Gray’s is the only book I’d want with me on a desert island, all thousand-some pages of its thinking out loud over the tragicomedy of a single life that ends when the book does.) But I suppose—to pick up the thread again—these should be books that changed—something.
I’ve already received, graciously, a number of good proposals. A few of them, more querie-like, ask whether a certain book wouldn’t be too old or far afield, or suggest a form of review too weird as a result, so as to threaten a rift in the book-review continuum…and thus are, on the whole, the best emails I’ve gotten (email@example.com). For it’s precisely those books for which criticism seems wrongheaded, risky, or otherwise ill-fitting that stand to be the most illuminated by critique, allow the most light in. Rilke says in his Letters to a Young Poet, “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism,” and I’m tempted to agree, while offering a next thought: that where criticism doesn’t touch art—that very gesture of reaching, of holding nothing but space—is where our reviews speak the loudest.
Perhaps, after all this, my ideal review is still the one I carry around in my head, unwritten. Perhaps, somewhat unwittingly, I’ve become just another of Sontag’s acolytes, pursuing what she calls an aesthetics of silence: art as not self-expression, the briny words of consciousness, but rather its opposite, its “antidote.”
One night, in my first year in the program, a bunch of us guys stayed late at a party, and once all the other MFAs (as we affectionately call ourselves) had emptied out of the house we found ourselves alone with only one thing on our minds: no, not that thing: But what of Thomas Pynchon? It was weird to have this our burning question in common, not least because we were half-sobering up with Los Betos (Tucson Weekly’s Best Crappy Burrito, 2016) and thus, one would think, liable to drop the high-brow discourse of earlier beers and cocktails, drop a few notches on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as we stuffed our gaping maws full of low-grade meats and cheeses. Really weird, though, because none of us wrote fiction.
There, slumped on the floor, was a memoirist, a poet, an essayist (your humble correspondent), and a physicist with a penchant for postmodernism. (There were also two women in the house, both poets, but as soon as they’d read the room they’d left.) So the four of us were left talking about Pynchon, and in particular The Crying of Lot 49, which I’d only just read, and the conversation turned to entropy—how it was not just part of the social commentary, a kind of quasi-empirical approach to ennui, but rather was enacted at the level of the sentence, where somehow the quality of regression to the chaotic mean, become primordial again (“from differentiation to sameness“), was the nature of his very prose…when I realized that I was the only one in the room who absolutely hated the book. Indeed, so caught up in the bleary-eyed discussion of early morning, I’d totally lost sight of my own aesthetic prejudice, even my own reading experience: this, our half-baked reflection, had replaced it.