The Setting Sun (1947)
Last year nothing happened
The year before nothing happened
And the year before that nothing happened.
Something about Post-War Japanese literature really does it for me. I am attracted to the unyielding fatalism, the bleak depression, the moodiness, the surreal and erotic exoticisms, the grand artistic gestures, the existential despair and the heartache over a cultural sunset that in the past I’ve found in Mishima and now I’ve found in Osamu Dazai’s masterpiece, The Setting Sun. That these qualities exist in these books probably has something to do with the atomic bomb. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve finished a book in the span of a single day but today I did just that. It’s always such a breathtaking experience when a book enraptures you so much that you couldn’t put it down if you wanted to.
Leslie Marmon Silko
When it comes to selecting which book I am going to next read I follow a pretty simple guideline: avoid reading books by authors of similar origins more than a couple times in a row. I like to hop around a bit. Sort of how one wouldn’t go to the same restaurant all the time, moving instead from Thai to Italian to Lebanese to Indian to hamburgers, and so on. So Ceremony, by a Native American woman, seemed like just the sort of thing to break out a white male rut. I think the only book written by a woman that I’ve reviewed on this thing was The Piano Teacher and it really stunk. Tried to read a Virginia Woolf book too, and I thought it blew goats. Never finished it. But I liked this book a lot.
Little Children (1937)
Last summer I took a low level English class for the terminally moronic at the community college that in my mind resembles nothing so much as a minimum-security prison. Because I had to. For my GPA. For my future. The class was very good, very enjoyable, and the professor was a wonderful man. Probably the best professor I’ve ever had at community college. He was a funny, young Armenian from Fresno and he wrote his Master’s thesis on William Saroyan, probably the only writer of note to come from Fresno or anywhere else in the San Joaquin Valley. I was the only person in that class who had ever heard of William Saroyan, and when I mentioned that I was familiar the professor’s eyes lit up so brightly. Read The Human Comedy in high school. Once I went to a used bookstore with my father. I grabbed a Saroyan book off the shelves (I don’t remember the title) and when he paid we all marveled at how much all the books had cost. As it turned out the book I selected, without looking at the price, was a first edition, and cost forty-five dollars. My father made me return it, but I wish I hadn’t. Wasn’t as if my old man ever spent much money on me. I recall most of my classmates that summer were sub-literate Marines, struggling with the English language. The GI Bill or whatever makes them attend school year-round. The teacher really pushed us hard (and the school days are long during summer school, three hours or something) and I got an A. Of course I fucking did. I spent hours and hours on those essays, the best I’ve ever written.
Post Office (1971)
It began as a mistake.
I feel like I oughtta be drunk for this one, I oughtta just go get a six pack of High Life and down it, paragraph by paragraph, but I’ve been drinking too much lately and it gets me really bummed sometimes so I ain’t gonna. Charles Bukowski can just really put you in that MOOD, y’know? The mood that makes you want to get drunk and call people who don’t want to talk to you, from a payphone, with your last quarter. Call up an ex-lover and say hey, haven’t seen you in years. Slam the receiver, curse yourself, and walk down the filthy sidewalk with your hands in your pockets. Walk across town in the darkness, arm-in-arm with your regrets. Smoking cigarettes. Kicking empty cans.
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.
When I was nineteen I landed a terrible job at a department store and with my first paycheck went out and got a tattoo at well-regarded tattoo parlor downtown, around the corner from a vegan Mexican restaurant which is sort of a local nexus for punks and hipster types. The tattoo, the only one I have, is on my right bicep. It features an F-18 fighter jet and written in a halo like a sonic boom around it is a well-known phrase: THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. I remember the idea for it came to me like a lightning bolt when I was drunk at a party and I sat on it for a couple years until I finally bit the bullet and got it done. Hid it from my parents for at least three months. I don’t regret it one bit but I do regret that I got it in a place where on a warm day everyone can see. They give me some funny looks from time to time. The reason I got this tattoo done, and why I still love it dearly, is that I knew from a very young age that the struggle against fascism was the most important thing there is. I saw the forces that exclude and violate and knew with every ounce of my flesh that they were my enemy. They hurt and wounded me and I wanted (and still want) to prevent them from hurting and wounding others, even if only in the slightest way. If as in my wildest dreams a socialist revolution ever came to this country I would join it in a heartbeat. I would run to the hills and mountains here, which I imagine are much like the hills and mountains of Spain, to live and fight with partisans who hold the dream of common struggle and universal dignity in their hearts. Right at this moment I’m wearing a shirt that says “Industrial Workers of the World” and “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common” and in very tiny letters “unite!” My favorite shirt. A million holes. All the color has faded.
Jorge Luis Borges
Some things seem so insurmountable, so overpowering, that they may as well not even exist in our personal world, or are only appreciable from a distance, or are otherwise kept separate from us by their impressive mass. Like, I know for sure that I’m never going to climb Mount Everest, I’m never even going to see it outside of a photograph. Mount Everest may as well be on Mars. I’ve totally accepted that fact. Surely we all have something like that. So imagine my surprise when one of these imposing giants crashed through my window and loomed over my bed the other day and not only did I conquer it, but we got along swimmingly. I am of course speaking of the legendary Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, who was frequently praised so highly by my hero Roberto Bolaño (and by everyone, for that matter), a writer with so mighty a reputation that he practically dwelled in Valhalla, dispatching his stories to Midgard rolled up in a valkyrie’s fist.
The Melancholy of Resistance (1989)
At no point in history has man’s dominion over this planet been anything other than an utter farce: a hideous, ugly joke dreamed up by a species deeply invested, despite all evidence to the contrary, in it’s own inherent worth, in the value and permanence of ludicrous institutions, in the truth and infallibility of clumsy, manufactured assumptions, and in a truly contemptible belief in mental bowel movements such as ‘destiny’ and ‘meaning’. The situation would be hilarious if it didn’t ruin everyone’s life and signal a decline in the habitability of our planet. Our world has been in a tailspin ever since the first fleabag caveman hurled a spear at an exhausted gazelle. The only thing separating us from animals is that we can rationalize our capricious violence and brutality.
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964)
Phillip K. Dick
I was probably destined, or doomed, from birth to become a science-fiction nerd. One of my earliest and fondest memories is watching The Terminator with my father on some day when I didn’t have school. I was about five years old, and my old man was sick with the flu or something similar. It was on a Spanish language channel, but in English, with Spanish subtitles. A couple years later when the sequel came out my dad took me to see that too. We snuck in, and I think he told my mother that we were seeing Aladdin or something. Upon reflection The Terminator played a greater role in my growth and development as a young man—if that’s what you want to call it—than my father ever did. Since then I doubt a day goes by where I don’t wish that cyborgs, aliens, and time machines were real and that I was battling against them for the sake of humanity. Sometimes I like to imagine that I am also on the side of the cyborgs or the aliens because they represent whatever value I consider important at that moment. Daydreaming is my relief for when I have to go to work, drive somewhere I don’t particularly want to be, or find myself trapped in a confined space with another human being for an extended period of time. I’d sell everyone I know to the cannibals from Sirius V if it got me a berth on one of their flying saucers.
The Decay of the Angel (1972)