Reagan's March 2023 pick
Kooky élan, unbridled fulfillment of the id, several consequential pots of tea, and a snappy turquoise cover: for your consideration, the dark quadrangle of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “Case Study.”
In 2019, a nameless biographer finds his study of the disgraced, doomed-to-the-back-catalogue psychotherapist A. Collins Braithwaite interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious parcel: within, a stack of journals chronicling an unnamed young woman’s visits to Braithwaite during the golden floruit of London’s swinging-60s antipsychiatry scene. The diarist, however, appears to have been motivated by something other than the new self-actualization: convinced that the rakish, permadrunk Braithwaite was responsible for her sister’s untimely death, the anonymous authoress resolves to insinuate herself into Braithwaite’s caseload in the guise of “Rebecca Smyth”--a nom de guerre whose film of nyloned glamour quite immediately shoots the diarist very, very far off course.
Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Burnet’s mad orchestra of found documents is a brilliant headfirst dive into the repulsive allure of identity and the cynical joy of destroying it. “Case Study” is immersive, depraved, and artfully researched: perfect for those who have recently considered or are considering a dramatic, out-of-character life decision.
Reagan's February 2023 pick
Fernando Pessoa was a Portuguese writer, poet, flâneur, and devoted birth chart draftsman: when he wasn’t busy orchestrating faked deaths (waterfalls, magicians), he was generally involved in defining his own life as a poetic conceit of total negation. In both his poetry and his life, Pessoa viewed himself as “nothing--just an abstract center of impersonal sensations”: the dimensionless place where an infinity of poetic heteronyms could generate, with the poet “Pessoa” as their mouthpiece.
“Fernando Pessoa & Co.” collects the best poetry from four of these characters: the guileless master “Alberto Caeiro,” the modernist naval engineer “Álvaro de Campos,” the classicist “Ricardo Reis,” and the elusive Pessoa himself (a personality with neither more nor less reality than his fellow heteronyms).
A bonus: “Fernando Pessoa & Co.” features a brilliant introduction by translator Richard Zenith, which (what other academic preface could say the same?) primes the reader with a kind of electric horror: Pessoa was a modern sibyl who succeeded completely in erasing himself for the sake of art, and one devours “Pessoa & Co.” with an eye to pinning him down (impossible). Succeed or fail--you’ll be glad for the company.
Reagan's January 2023 pick (1 of 2)
“Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them.”
“Child of God” is Cormac McCarthy’s great Appalachian ballet of paganism, dispossession, and cryptscuttling. Introduced to the reader in an alternating patchwork of mute vignettes and transcribed oral histories, the life of Lester Ballard--the novel’s spectral heathen--coalesces into the figure of a creature governed by craving, animal need, the rushing flux of accident, and living rage against the violence of indifferent Nature. Ballard is a “Child of God”: something made and ratified, equal to any of us, by the demiurgical heaven that McCarthy steadily forces the reader to credit. Evicted by bank auction from his bottomland hovel and freed from a brush with the law, Ballard retreats to the caves, finding in the primordial caverns of Tennessee the ideal staging ground for a lifeway that gluts him with prey and heals, after a fashion, his wounded sense of proprietorship.
“Child of God” is inimitably horrifying. Read it--every time you lose a possession, take what isn’t rightfully yours, dress yourself strangely, or find in the mirror something briefly separate from the familiar, you will fear yourself a Ballard. “Child of God” is the perfect introduction to McCarthy’s world (we’re all living in it), and will ruin your year.
Reagan's January 2023 pick (2 of 2)
Stream-of-consciousness narratives are not tractable literature, and writing them generally carries the same stakes as a palace coup in a rotting (but still salubriously vindictive) empire: succeed, and your record of everything dark and worthy in the chattering mind gains the rarefied pantheon of “Mrs. Dalloway” and “Ulysses”; fail, and your prose will be the butt of every joke in every bookstore, forever.
With his newly-translated “Septology,” Norwegian author and dramatist Jon Fosse takes the mammoth risk of opening the novel with a man watching paint dry: Asle, a widowed, devoutly Catholic artist, spends the spare, cold days of Advent painting; broadcasting waves of memory onto the snowblinded streets of coastal Norway; and sharing the first person perspective with Asle (also an artist), his doppelganger consumed by addiction and isolation. What results is a contemplation so beautiful as to resemble nothing at all--nothing in the punctuationless slog of would-be Woolfs, nothing anywhere in the repertoire of modern fiction. “Septology” is a return to something rare and mystic; it fits among, but does not rely on, the writing of Rilke and Weil; it comprehends something essential to art and alters the reader totally. A perfect choice for those who wish that Knausgaard had a soul.
Reagan's December 2022 pick
In "Getting Lost," Annie Ernaux–French author, Nobel laureate, and autosociologist–reproduces in raw state the text of her diary from 1988-1990, the year-and-a-half of her cataclysmic affair with a diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in Paris. In printing the total matter of the diary without (Ernaux testifies to its unalteredness) the rewoven latticeworks of truth and time that constitute a novel, Ernaux drives herself and her audience into “something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation”–a narrative all but adjacent to the experience of immediate reality, an uncanny lodgment in the present-past that exudes the immediate, desperate vitality of Ernaux at the instant of living. In prose Ernaux herself has described as “l’écriture platte”–“flat writing”–a personal ballad of death, love, and writing is set down in a manner so firmly declarative as to bleed, contrarily, a dark vulnerability.
"Getting Lost" is in a category of its own. Written without respect to an audience, its rhythm of admissions and denials produces a document of extreme disclosure–one that calls into question the role of readership, the art of self-description, and the entire nature of love. A great choice for readers of Patrick Modiano, Jean Rhys, or Anais Nin.
Reagan's September 2022 pick (1 of 2)
Second only to “Nancy’s Mysterious Letter” (Nancy Drew Mystery Stories No. 8), Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” is one of American literature’s greatest forays into the transgressive potential of mail fraud.
At the opening of Pynchon’s sophomore novel, 60s hausfrau Oedipa Maas--motivationally anaemic, generally contented proprietress of a modest surfeit of Tupperware--learns that her ex-boyfriend, California real-estate titan Pierce Inverarity, has both died and named Oedipa as executor (or executrix, or victim) of his sprawling will. Taking to the freeway, Oedipa lands in the almost exclusively Inverarity-owned hamlet of San Narciso, where the pursuit of her dead paramour’s financial interests soon devolves into a harrowing labyrinth of ancient grudge and philatelic cult violence. Desperate to get to the heart of the thing, Oedipa finds herself ragdolled into an investigation of “Tristero,” the formless postal entity at the center of a dark bureaucracy.
“The Crying of Lot 49” is a carnival of vanities, an orphic descent into the psychology of civic withdrawal, and a narrative vehicle for an implied Beatles spinoff band (they’re all George). Perfect for enjoyers of Dante, Jacobean revenge plays, or Carolyn Keene.
Reagan’s September 2022 pick (2 of 2)
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”
Olga, a homemaker and mother of two, survives only the first six words of Italian author Elena Ferrante’s sophomore novel before slipping terminally into the titular role: Olga is an abandoned woman, whose husband of fifteen years has left her unceremoniously and without (to Olga) any clearly apprehensible cause. Granted by the erstwhile husband neither conclusive evidence of betrayal nor opportunity to negotiate, Olga is left the solitary wardeness of their marital residue: remaining to her are her husband’s children; her husband’s dog; her husband’s apartment in Turin, overlooking the Po, which proves increasingly incompetent as shelter; the vacuum of her husband’s habits and the unscourable trace of his influence. Swearing to herself that she will not collapse into the anguish of the “poverella,” a Didoesque character from her childhood, Olga’s resolution to preserve self-discipline chutes her straight into a nether-hell of dissolving margins.
The Days of Abandonment is one of Ferrante’s best: a masterful portrayal of vertigo, fracture, betrayal, and one woman’s combat with fidgety door lock mechanisms. Abandonment is the spiritual precursor to the equally outstanding Neapolitan quartet; perfect for readers of Camus, Jean Rhys, or Virgil.
Reagan's August 2022 pick
“What a test that is: more than devotion, admiration, passion. If you long and long for someone’s company you love them.”
Charles Arrowby, eminent playwright and director of London’s postwar theatre scene, retires to the rugged, dignified isolation of the British seacoast. Free at last from the demands of life as a metropolitan creative, Arrowby promptly establishes the program for his twilight years: he will renovate Shruff End, his newly-purchased, primeval beach cottage, and curate his daily activities there to an Epicurean pitch; he will torment an ex-girlfriend with a few ambiguously-worded letters; he will devote the remainder of his waking life to the composition of his memoir. Arrowby’s isolation fails almost immediately: the histrionic progress of his memoir conjures up the living past. Guests arrive. A sea-monster (possibly a chemically-induced flashback) spirals up from the boiling sea-froth. Arrowby experiences desperate, apocalyptic craving, which is the same thing as love.
Published in 1978, Iris Murdoch’s Booker Prize-winning novel is a laboratory of ego—a theatric chronicle of obsession, vanity, and annihilation. Perfect for those who enjoyed The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Nabokov’s Lolita.
Reagan's July 2022 pick
To pilfer a quote from author Nick Dybek: “A quick scan of the morning paper showed no Magus news, so I threw it away. At lunch, my sandwich didn’t taste like Magus, so I spit it out.” Published in 1965, The Magus follows 25-year-old Nicholas Urfe, a recent Oxford graduate who moves to a remote Greek island for a teaching position at a boys’ secondary school. The shiftless and miserable Urfe is soon drawn into the orbit of Conchis, the island’s reclusive, Smerdyakovian millionaire; tormented by a craving for novelty or purpose in an otherwise deadened life, Urfe is persuaded to take part in a pantomime–a tacit “game”—whose rules and manipulations quickly begin to bleed through the fabric of his reality. The uninitiated will call Magus the novelization of Scooby Doo; wise readers will appreciate its unique horror and richness of allusion. The Magus is a nightmarish macrogame of Western-Canonical chess; an excellent read for those who enjoyed The Secret History and/or Borges’ Labyrinths.
Reagan's June 2022 pick
Autumn, 1995: 18-year-old Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives in Cambridge for her first semester at Harvard. Affixing herself to nothing in particular, Selin progresses composedly—anhedonically—through the muted Gogolian realm of elite secondary education. Selin’s obvious brilliance and total competence liberate her from the threat of academic failure, but never from the gutting dread of incoherence: the intractable fear that her life lacks and will forever lack a narrative. Selin falls in love via email with older mathematics student Ivan, which both 1) ruins her life and 2) could, maybe, liberate her from spiritual invertebration.
The Idiot is beautiful and consuming. Elif Batuman hews masterfully close to the real rhythm of thought—an exercise of cool intellectual command that will not, however, spare the reader from being eaten alive. Pulitzer-shortlisted, sherbet pink, full of torment: an excellent choice for readers of Moshfegh, Dostoevsky, or Chomsky (in his linguistics hat).
Reagan's May 2022 pick
The most iconic work in the Western literary canon deserves–and acquires, in this edition of “The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha”–a concomitantly extensive ripieno of historical and religious scholarship. The “New Oxford” is the Bible as literature: psalms, parables, and narratives are placed in context, elucidated, and revivified with comprehensive attention paid to the Good Book’s multimillenary web of cultural and spiritual substance. Like a theological thneed, the “New Oxford” admits of countless uses: enjoy as an academic text; an authorial encyclopedia; a Gnostic primer; a bedside brick. The aesthete will appreciate its tasteful binding, which, almost as though cognizant of its readers’ sensibilities, seamlessly unites the tactile virtues of glossy cover-appeal and stately portability. “The New Oxford” is a standing prerequisite for any close reading in philosophy, history, current affairs, or fiction (a much-abbreviated list). Plastic-wrapped for freshness.
Reagan's April 2022 pick
Wittgenstein puts it best: “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Known for the choleric verve of his public speaking engagements perhaps just as well as for the profusion of his output, Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek brings a professional lifetime of Hegelian scholarship to bear upon the prospect of the “wired brain”. Suppose the Neuralink (or any of its cousins) were to become the reality of the near future: to what extent would our ability to exist and communicate as free individuals be preserved? Zizek posits that such questions can’t be answered without centering philosophical reasoning—nor can their complications be airbrushed by Siliconian opportunists. As a literary product, Hegel in a Wired Brain boasts a spectrum of anecdote and a creativity of association worthy of Colette, Proust, or Roger Irrelevant. For all the gravity of its content, Hegel is a refreshing union of applied theory and idiosyncratic style. A great read for those who wish that Harari’s Sapiens had a few more jokes.
Reagan's March 2022 pick
The year is 1964: like a horse in lipstick, 24-year-old Eileen—the protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel—navigates her nameless New England hometown with a horrific grotesque of bestial edginess and distorted femininity. Fueled by aimless resentment and the occasional access of gallows pride, Eileen dreams of escape: from her job as a secretary at Moorhead, the local boys’ prison; from a mutually destructive relationship with her alcoholic father; from all the fleshy indignities of life in a human body. As Christmas approaches, however, Eileen’s blighted life is interrupted by the arrival of Rebecca Saint John, Moorhead’s beautiful, charismatic new prison counselor. Enchanted by Rebecca’s transcendent poise and pointed gestures of friendship, Eileen finds herself drawn into an alliance with a woman whose motives she does not understand. Why does Rebecca need Eileen? Eileen doesn’t know, and doesn’t really care—suspicion takes a backseat to the delirious glow of female friendship.
Eileen is a slasher, a ballad, and a car full of carbon monoxide. Eileen could be read as a moral tale, but this would be to the tragic exclusion of its total art--Moshfegh succeeds in establishing a character whose mind and experience are at once contradictory, deeply hideous, and uncomfortably close.
Reagan's February 2022 pick, 1 of 2
Woodcutters is the best and bitterest of Bernhard’s novels: in a barely fictional Vienna of the 1980s, the narrator—a violently reluctant party guest—joins an assembly of Viennese cultural elites as they await the arrival of their guest of honor. As he waits, the narrator settles into an armchair and unreels a lifetime of impotent hatred, lambasting everything from evening walks to Virginia Woolf impersonators. The victim of an extremely controversial defamation suit, Woodcutters was both cherished and vigorously cancelled in Austria for its brutal indictment of the contemporary Viennese cultural elite. In Woodcutters, Bernhard does what he does best: just as he rips through the sterility and hypocrisy of the art world like an Alpine fury, so too does he celebrate all the variety and neuroticism of the intractable human mind. A surprisingly touching read with lots of Teutonic hysteria.
Reagan's February 2022 pick, 2 of 2
Do you enjoy reading Kafka? Do you enjoy reading Vonnegut? Have you ever had a Panglossian nightmare taking place in an AP Microeconomics classroom and/or a Christie’s auction? If you have answered any of these questions in the affirmative, The Map and the Territory awaits you. Michel Houellebecq’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel chronicles the life of painter-photographer Jed Martin as he falls up the ladder of the Parisian art world, profiting naively yet abundantly from the soulless efficiencies of the art market. As Martin gets richer, however, life’s big questions begin to multiply in his previously untroubled brain: What does it mean to have a vocation in life? What comfort remains for those who have failed to preserve their integrity against the forces of economics? Why do rich people pay so much for paintings? Houellebecq writes himself into the story as a slightly more pathetic and doomed Houellebecq. A beautiful, frenetic, and hilarious story; for those who look left when the demand curve shifts right.
Reagan's January 2022 pick, 1 of 3
This collection of short stories and essays by Jorge Luis Borges might be best described as a haunted philosophical carnival; the greatest and most horrifying achievement in the genre of “Argentine-gothic-metaphysical-magical-realism.” Drawing on historical and literary influences as dense and diverse as the stories themselves, Borges undermines the commonplaces and securities of intellectual life, developing our most cherished contradictions to their most infinite and claustrophobic extremes. A good read for those who enjoy Umberto Eco or Gabriel Garcia Marquez; a terrible one for insomniacs.
Reagan's January 2022 pick, 2 of 3
Following from 2019’s Essays One, this recent release from Lydia Davis comprises a witty, diverse, and engaging history of the author’s fifty years of work as a producer of short fiction and translations, dealt out in a series of bright, cerebral essays. Davis’s essays reveal the painstaking creative work behind translation, elucidate the magic of language and syntax, and teach literature better than any university course. A great gift for writers, Flaubert readers, and/or hardcore grammarians.
Reagan's January 2022 pick, 3 of 3
The most enigmatic and least redemptive of Dostoevksy’s novels, Demons presents the story of a provincial Russian town that becomes the focus of young nihilist Pyotr Verkhovensky’s attempts to raise a revolution from scratch; aware of the fragility of his scheme, Verkhovensky seeks desperately to court the newly-returned aristocrat Stavrogin–unmoored, vast, and possessing an apparently preternatural influence over friends and townsfolk–as his revolutionary figurehead. Though ostensibly allegorical in its relation to the nihilist strain of Dostoevsky’s contemporary Russia, Demons’ depth of horror and spirals of feverish hilarity extend it far past the constraints of the “political novel”. In Demons, Dostoevsky writes people as they are: blind, stilted, mired in the isolation of the self, and crawling perilously towards redemption.