Thursday, June 08, 2006

Reader, can you help me?

Mike from Liquid Thoughts has these posts on Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, and they reminded me of how much I love that book and others like it. What I want your help with is giving me other examples of similar books, if you can. If you haven’t read Flaubert’s Parrot, it’s about this guy who’s obsessed with Flaubert and who’s trying to find the parrot that sat on Flaubert’s desk, but it’s also about Flaubert himself, his life and writing. It’s very playful; Mike calls it “Barnes’s intellectual game he calls a novel.” It’s really a combination essay and novel, although essay may be too serious a word for it. It’s got a couple different chronologies of Flaubert’s life that play around with the very idea of author chronologies, and it has a chapter about the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes.

I put Vladimir Nabokov’s book Pale Fire in the same category, although I don’t know what I’d call the category, exactly. But I love Pale Fire – a novel about a madman who’s obsessed with a poet. The novel’s form is experimental – it consists of a poem and commentary by the obsessed madman. The story takes place in the commentary itself, which is wildly inventive and funny and revealing. This guy is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The book is about reading itself – the writer/reader relationship, interpretation, imagination.

These two novels are experimental and postmodern, and I like that aspect of them, but I also love the passion in both of them – they are both about a love of literature, expressed in odd and quirky (and sometimes lethal) ways.

They remind of some nonfiction books, too, such as Mary McCarthy’s book Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, which I love. This book takes the form of fairly straightforward essays on McCarthy’s childhood, but interspersed between the essays are meditations on the process of writing the essays themselves, the way memory works and doesn’t work, what is left out, what McCarthy’s siblings remembered differently. She’s playing around with the memoir form, trying to make it more honest, perhaps, trying to make it do more than it usually does, although she does the “usual” memoir thing very beautifully.

Also, I’m reminded of Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, another memoir that is experimental in form and which I loved reading. It’s got a fairly sentimental story as its core, but it’s surrounded by a complicated apparatus – footnotes, revisions, very funny introductions and prefaces, and send-ups of acknowledgement and copyright pages. I think a lot of people thought all that was gimmicky, but I felt it was all part of the emotional current of the book, all part of Eggers’s attempt to capture the essence of his experience. Somehow all that “ironic” (he has a long section saying he’s not being ironic), postmodern stuff came across to me as part of a very earnest attempt to portray an awareness and self-consciousness about his life and his writing – a way to capture life more accurately.

And also, Nicholsen Baker’s book U and I, nonfiction, about Baker’s obsession with John Updike. I loved this book although I have a feeling that it’s the kind of book that in one mood is captivating and in another is annoying. It’s so over-the-top, both in Baker’s obsession with Updike and in the prose – it has some of the longest most complicated sentences with obscure vocabulary you’ll find just about anywhere. I found it irresistible; Baker makes you love Updike, even if you don’t. I don’t love Updike particularly, but I’m willing to because Baker does.

These are books I’m tempted to read again, just so I can have the fun of blogging about them while they are fresh in my mind. I would try to make you love them too. They all fit in one category for me, although I’m not sure what I’d call it – experimental, self-reflexive books that take literature and reading as their subjects, and do so with passion. Can you think of a label? Even more importantly, can you please give me more examples?