DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jun 17 2011

ShareReads: Between Fact and Fiction

by Jimmy L

ShareReads appears on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it. The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it. The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Remember: posting a response also counts as an activity for the Summer Reading for Adults program.

We here at the library love to categorize things, but some books work hard (and admirably) to resist them.  More specifically, I’ve been drawn recently to books that live between the spaces of fact and fiction, between the forms and norms of novel, essay, and poetry. I find these books captivating, precisely because their amoebic form eschews all readerly expectations. Like organic matter, they build their own structures as they go along and play by their own rules.

The first of these books is Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald.  Sebald has written four major “novels”, and the reason I put the word in quotes is because they feel more like long essays (with photographs).  In this book, the narrator walks along the coast of England.

That’s it.  Were you expecting more? But as he walks, he takes you on a tour inside his mind.  What he sees on his walk and the people he meets along the way inspires him to tell you stories both personal and historical—from a meditation on Thomas Browne’s writings to the history of the silk trade.  This meditative wandering is also surprisingly focused through the psyche of the narrator, who somehow ties these ideas together not with a neat bow (for there are no easy conclusions here) but with a fog of melancholy that barely hangs over what goes unsaid.

David Markson’s Vanishing Point takes a different route.  This “novel” is a fiction made out of facts… it reads like a mosaic composed of many bite-sized aphorisms, facts and figures, tid-bits about famous people, and well chosen quotes organized one after the other.  But order matters! And what arises from this collage-like approach is not what you would traditionally call a “novel” (noun), but perhaps you might call it “novel” (adjective).

Last but not least, a book by Geoff Dyer called Out of Sheer Rage.  This book is like a cross between a literary biography (about D.H. Lawrence), a memoir (with many creative liberties), and a travel book, all rolled into one.  The common element that ties it all together is Dyer’s voice which is  incredibly funny and self deprecatory.  Geoff Dyer’s other books, But Beautiful about jazz and The Ongoing Moment about photography, are also equally exciting genre-bending works.

Have you read any hard to categorize books lately?


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin T. June 17, 2011 at 4:27 PM

I recently read Reinaldo Arenas’ _Singing from the Well_. It is fiction. It has a magical-realism feel to it. Beyond that, I’m never really certain who is real and who is not, what is real and what is not, whether I enjoyed reading it or not. The protagonist and narrator is a child, composing and telling the story not with an expected child-like naivete but rather a child’s unbounded sophistication. In its own way, it’s the story of a child surviving an abusive household immersed in poverty in the only way a kid can – with an extraordinary imagination that can feel real as family members are murdered and brought back to life, moments of tenderness give hope (although may not actually exist), and an unrelenting perseverance through whatever life brings. Pieces of narration interrupted by a clean page with a scrawled “quote” followed by narration, insertion of one-act play of the same characters, jumps in time/space/reality – I’m not so sure how I’d categorize the book. BUT – it has made me think a lot more than most.

Doret June 17, 2011 at 10:18 PM

I have a lot of respect for authors who refuse to boxed into any one particular catergory. It’s its a very difficult thing to pull off and still make the book work. Mat Johnson’s newest PYM would is as close as I get to a novel that was hard to categorize recently

First let me say Pym was ridiculously good. When it come to satire Gary Shteygart has nothing on Mat Johnson. I got halfway through Super Sad True Love Story before I put it down.

But back to the question at hand, PYM is hard to label because it takes you everywhere at once. Beginning with a Black Professor who is denied tenure who is obsessed with Poe’s only novel.

Doret C June 17, 2011 at 10:21 PM

Forget to add my last initial. Will do that from now on.

Jimmy L June 20, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Erin: that book sounds really good! I think I have another book by that same author (Arenas) but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Doret: that sounds great. I’ve never heard of that book. I’ll have to put it on my ‘to read’ list. Thanks.

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