Three New Ones
by Weston Cutter
Collections of Nothing by William Davies King
This has to be one of the weirdest books I’ve read in awhile. The book’s ostebsibly about William Davies King’s collections of nothing—the packaging he’s saved from tins of tuna, the strange pieces of metal he found around campus as a student at Andover, the patterns on the inside of security envelopes (hello, book jacket) he’s clipped and affixed in books—yet what the book is actually about is William Davies King, and what his collecting says about him.
While what we collect (first editions and baseball cards, anyone?) certainly offers telling details, King’s collection of ‘nothing,’—ephemera, the already-forgotten/never-noticed stuff (tuna can packaging is one thing; how about the ‘place stamp here’ notes on the upper-right hand corner of return envelopes?)—is, to King, a matter to be studied with the hopes of divining what it says about him, and so the book is given maybe half over to not just autobiography, but psychoautobiography; there are long passages which feel less like constructed narrative and more like musings from a supine, couch-lying patient.
And so King wonders about how much his collecting has to do with his older, psychotic sister and the shaky family life he grew up a member of, and the psychoanalysis is where (for me) some of the annoying stuff comes in. Granted, the book is largely (until the end) in retrospect, but surely, you think, if King can recognize that his compulsive collecting of ‘nothing’ has something to do with his own self-image (the logic goes: by not collecting stuff, actual of-monetary-value stuff, King is removing himself from the whole striving game of collecting, has found what he calls a ‘zero-sum game’), he can just change, right?
He does, eventually, both realize that stuff and change. Somehow, in the process, he helps redirect a book that pointed, to this reader, for a long time in the direction of navel-gazing self-involvement, directs it instead—with a final chapter that’s got to be one of the most interestingly-written and bold things I’ve read anywhere ever (idle Q: how much courage does it take to introduce a first-person plural in the last chapter of an I-dominated book? (idle A: likely tons))—toward that last sacred space of good books (and likely good psychotherapy): resolution, for both subjects (collecting and WDK).
A Better Angel by Chris Adrian
If you’ve read Gob’s Grief or The Children’s Hospital than you already know much of what you need to re: Chris Adrian. For the uninitiated: Adrian’s one of those fuckers that can do everything better than you’ll ever be able to—I don’t have the history down, but he either is already or is training toward being a doctor and master of divinity (the degree, not some freaky self-appointed title), plus he writes circles around, well, most.
A friend has started wondering aloud what it takes for a person to be a good writer, and, stupidly, he keeps asking the question while those around him are drinking, so the answers are almost always nuts. What’s great is that Chris Adrian has, for my money, the most important skill to be a good writer (aside from grammar, obv), which is an overwhelming empathy and humanity. The young, angry kids and ethereal ghosts and sick people within A Better Angel are, all of them, real, feeling, felt characters, ideas that feel as three-dimensional as this chair I’m sitting on. This may seem a criticism, but it’s the highest compliment I can possibly give: Chris Adrian writest softly, forgivingly, with a concern that should, I think, make all of us want to live better.
A Supremely Bad Idea by Luke Dempsey
I mentioned this already here, but let me be as abundantly clear as possible: there will be no better or funnier book published this year. Luke Dempsey’s debut is simultaneously laugh-out-loud (really loud) hilarious and deeply felt/moving/humane. The shitty part for you, if you decide to read it because of this review, is that you’ll know walking into it how great it is; I can’t guess the amount of joy I felt while reading A Supremely Bad Idea simply due to surprise.
It’s a wonderfully simple premise: the book is about birding (birdwatching), about Dempsey falling in love with a subject he’ll admit early on is, well, um, not that cool (he compares it with trainwatching, giving birdwatching the upper hand by only a fraction). Woods’ review of Netherland began with Woods rhapsodizing about how O’Neill’s premise for the book—Dutch man in New York; Trinidadian cricket organizer—was the perfect vehicle for examining NY life post-9/11. I’d argue Dempsey’s in similar territory: through the (seemingly endlessly dorky) lens of birding, he touches on immigration, global warming, the grand struggle of all quests, plus his own, very simple and heartbreaking and human, hopes and fears and etc.
I don’t want to say too much more; whatever I have to say pales shamefully in comparison with what awaits you in Dempsey’s stellar, touching, wonderful book. I totally submit I’m a broken record in my constant urging, but seriously: buy and read this book. Write Dempsey a letter and congratulate him on a job very well done. And don’t be at all surprised if, as you finish the book, you suddenly have a greater wonder at all those birds singing around you, and this weird new need to find out what sort of singing has surrounded you this whole time.