First, a quick reminder to be careful what you wish for:
In the first issue of 2013’s The Believer there is a fabulous article about allusion, the postmodern condition & literature. (Allusion: the “you are what you eat” of books.) I took to thinking about what I would list if I decided to create my own personal literary canon. (Doesn’t everyone have this question?) What are the most influential books/authors in my experience? The books I would & do recommend ad nauseum to people because they are formative & important?
First, I would like to note that I would remove Shakespeare from the canon. It is not because I do not believe him to be formative & glorious &, above all, important. No, I would do so because Shakespeare is so fabulous & interesting that he must be read entirely & only for pleasure. That is: people stress over old Billy S. His writing is emotional & affecting, but also full of violence & dick jokes to appeal to the masses. One should read him for the enjoyment of it & the humor, not to discover the greatest author of all Western literature. (That should dawn on them slowly.)
But the comic above comes into play very quickly. The body of Mr. Comeau’s work would be in this canon of mine. His webcomic text to his dirty stories to his novels & his film reviews. Possibly even his OkCupid profile. I’m convinced of the man’s genius & the value of what he has to offer.
So we have (in no particular order but the one to which they are coming to mind:)
1. Joey Comeau.
I look over at my book shelf, the books I keep near to my head as I sleep, too many are waiting to be read. But I think of the ones I want to return to and Raymond Carver’s book of short stories, named for the final one, Cathedral, springs immediately to mind. Of these stories, I want to rush forward & press your eyes against the pages of “Chef’s House”. I am at a loss, always, always to find an excerpt which is short enough to throw to people, yet which fully embodies what I adore about the sad awkward stories in this book. There is no way to pin point the majesty that emerges in the characters when you realize that they recognize the hopelessness of their endeavors, their meanness, & their smallness, & carry on regardless, trying, always striving, to find some small part of their best selves. It’s the most bittersweet of experiences. (I was told at one point, about his editor & the extent to which the editor affected the outcome of the writings, but I’m taking it as it’s given to me. The writing I want you to read will be found under “Carver, Raymond.”)
2. Raymond Carver.
While we’re looking at the stilted & the awkward, we’ll return to the contemporary. Nothing has given me the same kind of profound joy as Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel. It exists as some kind of bizarre hipster manifesto. It’s ridiculous, disenchanted, & definitely “ironic,” but it’s self-conscious in the way that saves everything. Underneath its blasé attitude & commitment to emotional absence (there is no punctuation beyond periods, & no matter how the sentence might have been inflected people only ever “said”). It’s a dutiful picture of an existence mired in posturing, an exercise in style that appears, at first, disdainful of substance, only to reveal some kind of lingering melancholy. When finished, you desperately go back to the beginning, looking for whatever it was that was lost, by the character, the author & finally whatever it was you lost, long before you came across these pages.
Luis sent Sam a link to a porno site. “I already masturbated, should I really do it again,” said Sam. I already masturbated today also,” said Luis. “If you need to I’ll go away.” “No, I’m just looking a little,” said Sam. “Masturbation is an escape from literature,” said Luis and emailed Sam a photo of a stripper.
3. Tao Lin.
Then there is Allen Ginsberg. Many a young person has had their lives changed by a beat poet or writer. The first time I read him, however, I had not even realized how much he meant, already. I read “A Supermarket in California,” in an English class, during our unit on Walt Whitman. It was excellent & affecting, & I told myself to make note of the poet, but forgot & never looked him up. I think it came about that I impulsively bought the Penguin re-release of On the Road: the Original Scroll, aka the version with all the names of all the people included for real this time, with extra stuff thrown in. I decided to sample some of the other beat writers & Howl changed my life. In my eagerness, I don’t give the book to people & urge them to read it. I sit them down & perform the poem, to the best of my ability, letting the ebb & flow of the lyrics take me on a journey… The closest I have ever come to understanding religion, that power that draws people together & lifts them up, is when I have been reading this poem.
4. Allen Ginsberg.
There are books we return to again & again, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, & they change & the meaning dawns on us slowly as we come to understand them. Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World was a repetition, until one day after I had lost a friendship properly & for real, destroyed something that had once been beautiful, I revisited it & cried, because it pierced my heart, suddenly become heavy with new knowledge of life. Every friendship lost or altered or simply left behind is defined by Clowes’ round lines & shaded in sickly green. The movie was terrible, it left out the ache & lost the bittersweet tension in translation. The narrative is weightless & spread thin between the chapters of the book, giving it a lingering quality, too familiar from the faded, apathetic manner of memory. I don’t know about the rest of his stuff, but Ghost World is a piece of magic.
5. Daniel Clowes’, Ghost World.
There are forcibly places where my canon the The Canon will overlap. Such is the case with Jame Joyce of whom I am so fond, I seek desperately an academic setting in which they will explain to me Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. As it stands, though I could scarcely tell you the locations in which it took place, or who, exactly, said what at which times… The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was exquisite. (My anecdote to illustrate the complexity of Joyce’s writing remains one of a conversation I had after finishing Portrait, where my English teacher asked me what I had thought of the ending scene on the beach, to which I replied, “There was a beach?” So, in case you were wondering, the final scene takes place on a beach.) Joyce’s writing feels like reading what I imagine the “light of God” feels like. There is a holiness, an otherworldly quality to it that leaves me breathless. Take this bit at the beginning of Chapter 3:
The dull light fell more faintly upon the page whereon another equation began to unfold itself slowly and spread abroad its widening tail. It was his own soul going forth to experience, unfolding itself sin by sin, spreading abroad the balefire of its burning stars and folding back upon itself, fading slowly, quenching its own lights and fires. They were quenched: and cold darkness filled chaos.
I can never find the words to express Joyce to others without using Joyce’s words because he is so far beyond anything my mind has ever conceived. I cannot, in good faith, recommend either of his most famous works, having read neither, because they are beyond what I can manage on my own. However, that same fiery, passionate, holy quality of his writing appears also in the racy, raunchy letters he wrote to his wife. Those remain well within the bounds of most of our understandings & imaginations, speaking, as they do, of earthly things. But rendered, as they are, in his glowing, divine prose… They take on some further quality, elevating them beyond mere pornography, an experience too unique to be explain; it can only be experienced.
6. James Joyce.
I leave you with these, for now. Because there are places to be & things to do (perhaps also there are things to be & places to do?). I wish you all the best & happy reading.