Players by Don Delillo

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more than any of his others, PLAYERS pushes dialogue to meaninglessness, an experiment in how far afield our hip and close-quartered patois can go, how completely empty of sense. a combination of zen cases, wiseguy assholisms, and andy kaufman-rejected punchlines, delillo tirelessly (but we may tire) explores the idea of city people talking endless shit.

but this arguably slightest of delillos still’s got its morsels, not the least of which is its famous 1977 prophecy of terrorism’s intimate relationship with the world trade center.

it reminded me–maybe because of their equally still plots, maybe because of their protagonists’ essential isolation, maybe cuz i think of the two as his most experimental–of THE BODY ARTIST. there the characters were modern ascetics, holy people of personal art. here our players are devout cynics. …it was the first time it ever really registered with me (to make a generalization) the essentially religious nature of finance people, their worship not of money but the flow of it through specific, ritualized channels. in this book that appeared to me for the first time, not as some weak extended metaphor, of god as money, but a real truth: a worship–an ongoing worship–of a deified system.

it has very few pleasures, is nihilistic in its intentions. its characters are the worst of us, the emptiest and thus the worst. the enjoyment you do get is from his gravel-made, manly poetic word play. …but that’s enough for me…

and even delillo’s minor novels are pretty good. this one followed by the also-minor RUNNING DOG, then his best (so says I) THE NAMES. strikes me in two different ways: 1) it shows how consistent he actually is and somewhat opposingly that 2) within an authorial life, there’s more fortune than progress. of the latter, here’s a quote from a delillo interview that i always loved:

from: INTRODUCING DON DELILLO:
“I think one of the things I’ve learned from experience is that it isn’t enough to want to get back to work. The other thing I’ve learned is that no amount of experience can prevent you from making a major mistake. I think it can help you avoid the small mistakes. But the potential for a completely misconceived book still exists.”

 

Correction of Drift: A Novel in Stories by Pamela Ryder

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About the Crime of the Century! The Lindbergh Baby kidnapping! Aren’t you interested in the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping?!?

extremely beautiful and attentive writing in this short story collection (billed as “a novel in stories”) sometimes stilted due to the iconic nature of its subject, written around the kidnapping and murder of the then Most Famous Couple’s firstborn.

[which, maybe today, would be the equivalent of shiloh pitt. pause to imagine the parallel sound and fury.]

precise and sustained attention to detail. the opening chapter has the layered density of absalom absalom. what’s most cool is the atmosphere achieved of depression-era america. it’s in her verb choice. not just the repeating of archaic brand names and gone places, but those acts and habits that people used to do and now do no longer…

but part of the challenge i think of writing this type of historical novel is getting away from the textbook narrative. it’s the somewhat contradictory act of hanging your book on the peg of history but making a reader forget that this is capital H History and rendering a more lowercase h personal history… so i liked the stories best that dealt with the more minor characters–the maid, the wife of the kidnapper bruno hauptmann character–where there was room for the author to move outside the iconic. in these chapters Ryder allowed herself to imagine interior lives, pasts, and the narrative gets more momentum going. in fact the real pleasure of the book for me was simply in fully entering german-american immigrant life in 1930s nyc. in contrast, in the chapters devoted to lindbergh and his wife, the two are somewhat reduced to their roles of action hero and socialite, and we’re left, somewhat stalled, at the surface of history.

(plus, since roth’s THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA i’m sort of ruined, unable to really see lucky lindy as anything more than a fascist antisemite, a george W prototype–and this aspect of the guy interestingly comes up zilch in the book.)

still, an enormous care is taken with the writing, always elegant, never purple and truly gorgeous at times. one to watch.

Consume directly from FC2.

Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson by Jonathan Coe

didn’t finish it. but it did make me think a bit about johnson and the life of an experimental novelist… and, like pound sd to williams: “you don’t have to finish everything–don’t tell people i said so.”

skimmed though. and did check the index and read all the entries where beckett comes up. (he comes off rather well.)

one of the main conflicts in the book, introduced in full self-awareness in an early chapter, is coe’s conflict, his torturedness even, about the traps and hypocrisies of writing a literary biography. as well, and this is simplifying it a bit, but it felt like coe was also conflicted about his own method and proclivities as a novelist and the more transgressive tradition that b.s. johnson represents. it’s almost as if coe doesn’t want to admit the avant-garde, when it succeeds, is the only game in town. (or maybe better said: the advanced guard, when it survives, gets farther into the interior.) he has a hard time reconciling this fact with the more regular enjoyments he gets out of traditional narratives. it’s a real dilemma and somewhat enjoyable/educating/painful to watch it get worked out as he writes his book.

he has a nice digression, near the end, when he hesitates before writing about johnson’s death. very human and sad and dignifying.

because of the bio i took another look at ALBERT ANGELO and i thought a few things… i think i remembered johnson as a major minor writer… but then, thinking about that categorization, i thought it a weasley and probably wrongheaded bureaucratic-minded ranking… or–if it stands–that i *like* major minors. something about their failures and/or their often slightly off but great ambitions… anyway, looking at albert angelo, i remembered what i liked about it: the idea of the artist-as-a-young-man, someone hopeful but uncertain how to see his daily humiliations–as stations of the cross or the amassing proof of his ultimate unworthiness. the contender slogging through his days. …also, his portrayal of a school seemed, fifty years after and taking place in a foreign nation, very familiar to me.

(there’s a nice review by kermode, in the london review of book, of the bio and johnson. in his review, kermode has a terrific digression about literary risk-takers like johnson: “Many have argued that a book’s defiance of contemporary opinion and convention is itself an index of virtue, that some element of ‘estrangement’ or ‘defamiliarisation’ is a preservative, and that too easy a compliance with accepted norms is bound to result in oblivion. Literary transgressiveness, often reflecting radical social and political opposition, can thus be taken as a justification for rescue work. It may be, as Roman Jakobson believed, that its virtue lies in its power to protect us from ‘automatisation, from the rust threatening our formulae of love and hatred, of revolt and renunciation, of faith and negation’. Since the transgressive has this value it will be worth much effort to recover lost examples of it.”)

i love johnson for–this crystallized in the bio–his us versus them combative position. he called the majority of his contemporary novelists philistines for being mired in the techniques of the 19th century novel despite the examples of joyce and beckett. what can i say, even though this is kinduva schoolboy dichotomy of the barbarians and the keepers-of-the-flame, i sorta believe it. don’t tell anyone i said so.

…also i love him for his typographical rapscallionisms. prolly my favorite one is: in HOUSE MOTHER NORMAL, which takes place in an old folks’ home, he represents the senile with…blank pages! another, in albert angelo, he cut holes through several recto pages so a reader could, literally, see into the future. a human and very funny writer that b.s.

consume.

Newcomer Can’t Swim by Renee Gladman

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who’s aiming higher than Renee Gladman? her wrestling with the basic ideas of fiction–and its osmotic border with poetry–can lead to spectacular instances of art, passages at home in strangeness, maneuvering with uncanny grace in fields of indeterminacy and unknowing.

i knew her mainly from reading JUICE, a strong, sustained meditation where she stretched the connections that mended sentences’ semantic gaps to their limit… this latest, NEWCOMER CAN’T SWIM, is a collection of “installations” and i found myself taking a shine to some more than others. i liked those with a stronger narrative momentum than those that constellate various portraits or scenes (but it’s pretty radical stuff and i may be too poorly equipped to apprehend some of these seriously new approaches.) …in any case i thought “Untitled, Woman on Ground” was awesome, heartbreaking, and completely new. it might be a breakup story, it might be a story about rubbernecking around an accident. it repeats a theme of the book–the various ways we fail to communicate or only communicate in desperate and blunted ways. another favorite was “kingdom in three panels,” especially louie’s dog-mind…

some came up short nonetheless, where i both emotionally and intellectually couldn’t connect. but i did think what she’s going for is some incredible place that requires real inspiration each time. and it’s pretty hard to hit that every outing. people get blamed for that much ambition, and i’m not sure wrongly–but when she connects the transport’s pretty phenom.

consume directly from kelsey st press.

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald

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why sebald, with his perfectly balanced but unsexy sentences, achieves literary fame is a mystery to me. his world is slow to enter; its drama takes place by the revelation and connection of events told obliquely and without fanfare; his destroyed characters are almost entirely absent, save for the fractured shells that are the proof of their devastation… but somehow the world embraced him (beginning right before his eerily sebaldian death). crazy!

i too love him. i think he writes this incredible realism–despite the fact that these are constructed allegories (of? maybe historical processes). ‘all history is biography’ is one aphorism sebald takes up in this collection of emigrants destroyed by world war ii, but his biography isn’t the bulldozing narrative of false causes and effects, of specious psychological motivations. rather sebald’s biographies are documentations of the paradoxically essential detritus of these historical lives.

the photographs i think aren’t as much as they appear to be, just that their interruptions are a somewhat novel reminder of the falsifications of history. conceptually interesting, but i don’t think they’re why we read sebald. we read him for those sentences. how balanced and dignified they are! what beautiful ways his nested images flow into each other! how noble to choose the details that he chooses! how these sentences sag, like Ambros himself, under the depressive, massive weight of history–of existence!–but, again like Ambros, how they are duty-bound to stand as handsomely and as refined as their formidable talents allow.

passages i loved: finding dr selwyn in the garden, counting blades, the description of the tennis court. the idea of the perfect german country school teacher in paul bereyter, how he’d look through the windows, how music brought him to tears–and how he hid them. a sweltering lower east side summer where everyone slept out on the tenement balconies. max ferber’s studio. god, that studio! the heartbreaking description of a german-jewish family going about its high holy days’ rituals, hopelessly ignorant of how history would annihilate this scene in one short lifetime.

here’s sebald on america, more accurate and succinct than de tocqueville: “So I flew once more to New York and drove northwest along Highway 17 the same day, in a hired car, past various sprawling townships which, though some of their names were familiar, all seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Monroe, Monticello, Middletown, Wurtsboro, Wawarsing, Colchester and Cadosia, Deposit, Delhi, Neversink and Niniveh–I felt as if I and the car I sat in were being guided by remote control through an outsize toyland where the place names had been picked at random by some invisible giant child, from the ruins of another world long since abandoned” (p. 105).

consume.

Mopus by Oisin Curran

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one of the best, genuinely experimental novels i’ve read in a long time… a daring and ambitious book, successful in its narrative high-wire act, oddly grounded in the current moment of apocalypse-always while circumventing completely the self-aggrandizing disaster movie poses. a consistent and non-sugary feeling of nostalgia, of remembrance of time just and long lost, sustained throughout.

structurally, this book’s the shit. or, to say it differently, it’s got beautiful answers to the novel’s problems of character and plot. why have we spent time playing with mobius strips and contemplating klein bottles? because their strange topologies are not only uncanny in their impossible possibility–but because they are metaphors for (or doorways to) the collapsed multi-possibilities of each particular existence. curran has composed an equivalent in prose, where doubles and ghosts and doppelgangers and recursive loops and variations on themes are all used to profound effect.

it’s a bit unsettling to not know where you are, which happens a fair amount, especially in the beginning, but the book slowly unfolds itself… and then refolds upon itself over and over… great books are worth reading again, but this one almost requires the second time through.

a close relative to two similarly slim, similarly cult-classic-y, dense episodic novels: david ohle’s MOTORMAN and jaimy gordon’s SHAMP OF THE CITY SOLO… but while i love those two books, MOPUS’ style, for better or worse, is less aggressive and confrontational than MOTORMAN’s and less pyrotechnic look-at-me than SHAMP. MOPUS is more straight-up lyrical, with rich and graceful passages describing place and nature. one downside: while in the midst of the book’s whirlwind, the characters’ emotional lives are rendered fairly straightforwardly, more surface-level observations and depictions than the deeper interiors one might expect…

but pretty damn great book. oh, and: after donald harington’s WITH and way better than auster’s silly TIMBUKTU–it’s got the best description of dog-mind i’ve ever.

consume directly from counterpath press.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

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underneath the cleverness and the copulating mirrors and the labyrinth architecture–of which there’s admirably much–there’s a melancholic source to all these odyssey-reflecting tales (victor of last year’s penultimate starcherone fiction contest). all its revelations–the gods’ winner’s blues, the existential angst of the ancients, the mundane provenance of legends–are told with a wistful and appropriately epic heaviness.

how he wrings from the original more and more and more… and yet the world isn’t exactly enlarged or reduced… i don’t know exactly how to describe it, but the accomplishment is something like adding (seemingly) infinite perspectives to an unchanging object… calvino’s invisible cities and queneau’s exercises in style are close kin.

its main accomplishment? how it shows us we are, even within our mortal limits, inexhaustible. its main drawback? for me, that it goes on a touch too long and lets the (illusion of) inexhastible-ness falter at the end. but that’s a quibble. try it mikey you might like it.

[somewhat expanded version of the above published here.]

Consume directly from Starcherone Press.

Partial List of People to Bleach by Gary Lutz

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unlike the poetry-prose amalgams of someone like renee gladman, who is arguably equally as painstaking with her sentences, lutz writes a kind of extreme non-poetic prose. while gladman can approach the sentence with habits associated with contemporary poetry–e.g. ashbery-like slippages between clauses, shifting subjectivity, broken signifiers–a lutz sentence is extremely parseable. and unlike a prose-writer like diane williams (whose stories are also made up of, at least grammatically, generally traditional sentences), lutz isn’t a master of indeterminacy and suggestiveness… what i think makes lutz unique (and so attractive to imitators) is his taking of sentences’ normative grammar and subverting and transcending (but not breaking) its rules. the singular result is a clearly identifiable style that is simultaneously emotionally clamped and devastating.

the size of this chapbook was also for me just the right amount of lutz. he’s pretty intense to be with for much longer. but maybe one can evolve to him. i kept wondering what a lutz novel would be like.

or maybe the story collections are what a novel would be like. for in each story, there’s just enough plot to ground the language–usually we’re dealing with aborted love and/or aging. characterization is also minimal, at least the broad strokes kind. instead we have recordings of instances of personality–too far in close up to make a character–or a kind of everyperson abjectness. so that, maybe the novel would just be this, a carefully sustained and perfectly familiar heartache, rendered in deviously straitjacketed prose that would go impossibly on and on.

consume.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

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i just finished the first section… what a book! this is the hottest book i’ve read in a long time. very very sexy. whatever your orientation, i think this book would steam you up… to be a young thing around town! …and the writing is so natural… he makes it seem so easy. so far it reminds in a way of frederick ted castle’s ANTICIPATION, not too similar except that fast fast momentum of being young and everything happening at once, the gush to speak. the immediately-recognizable genius *and* likeability of someone like brautigan, though with a much longer, more sustained development. sprawling like a wong-kar-wai film (and i think i think that not just cuz 2666 sounds like 2046) but the coolness and the beautiful men and women, the youth-cult and moral wideness to speak credibly and generously while also truthfully about pimps and crime and prostitution and drugs, the ability to flow the whole mix all together. the underlying (glamourous) sadness. but really he stands alone and apart from all these, unique.

the idea of poetry in it, like how bunuel would speak about the surrealists as being governed by an invincible and strict moral code. an unstateable moral code but one governed by the laws of poetry!

let’s see how section two goes…
___________________

…now reporting from the middle of the middle. i thought that the middle would sprawl too much, but it doesn’t. a long but comfortable narrative, once you’re in it. slowly the story of ulises and arturo becomes revealed. an amazing (and actually: sweet) bit of autobiographical fiction.

constantly reflective about literature, how to live a life of one, its mechanics, the people, the gossip, the magazines, the rejections, the attitude.

to wet yer whistle, to remind you of how yours was once wet… here’s a bit i liked, from p. 184, from the POV of an older professor-type:

“There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And there are books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you’re desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write. A serious mistake, as we’ll soon see. Let’s take for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you’re calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That’s how I see it. I hope I’m not offending anyone. Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. …the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search for Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain ( a paradigm of calm, serene complete literature, in my humble opinion)… Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall.”

________________________

finished it. man–what a book! bradford morrow says, truly, about coleman dowell’s ISLAND PEOPLE, “The kind of novel that can change a reader’s life,”–and this one too! fantastic! it changed my life!

consume.

The Last Novel by David Markson

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this is a little strange: i saw markson read a month ago at the 92nd Y. i’ve loved him for a long time, partly out of a romanticized notion that these books portray of the long-suffering and isolated genius. i was a little surprised to see not someone who was particularly cranky, but someone almost describable as cheery… something struck me: that the protag of these books is definitely a character, perhaps an exaggeration (vonnegut evidently called up markson after the last one, concerned about markson’s ‘mental condition’) but definitely something markson *uses* (as he may also don, of course, some role when reading out in the public) — but my sense was that these characters are more just that, characters, than works of autobiographical fiction. …on the other hand, the *rest* of the book is intensely autobiographical, the detritus and gems — the graph, the mark — of a reading life. so i discovered that markson is both more and less artificial than i had assumed…

i also realized *how much* he is editing and sequencing, even more than i’d thought — they gave out a page of his heavily marked up manuscript — to create his music(al) of the artist’s life.

(i also had the thought, easily wrong and maybe silly to mention, that markson was not, had not been, at least in this last decade, critically or socially or financially ignored. at least not as much as i’d assumed. but that invitations to the right parties and publications (though maybe not grants) had indeed come his way, and that maybe out of stubbornness but more out of some form of integrity, he had refused them. and done so in some kind of shoulder-shrugging automatic way–kind of like how bunuel describes the morality of the surrealist, i.e. impossible to describe but very judging and very exact.)

reading THE LAST NOVEL has all kinds of pleasures: the stumbling on the familiar, the echoes of course, feelings of smugness and admiration for what respectively you knew and what markson knows, the terrible (and yet somehow expectedly so) difficulties of being an artist and of aging both. it goes by fast and can be happily reread.

(here’s something: i’d once thought up a personal category of experience i dubbed the ‘trivially profound’ and had placed there things like sunsets and mountains, those experiences of the ineffable that are deep but with which you can do nothing. those experiences just are, almost impossible to even comment upon. then i realized maybe the word ‘trivially’ was both redundant and misleading. all profundity is un-useable in this way — thus perhaps trivial, but still of course vital, foundational, basic… markson’s work might be like this for me.) (what, of course, auden means too when he says poetry makes nothing happen.)

he said he had vowed after the last one not to do another–but did somehow anyway… that he had one more, at least, in him.

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In Sicily by Elio Vittorini

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a beautiful and opaque book… both more and less than it impresses to be… more, because it *is* a fugue–vittorini actually thought of it more as an opera, but in any case: a beautiful music of characters and basic desires and hopes. less, because its mystery is partly the result of some functional opacity–to hide from fascist censors–so its mystery is somewhat generated by utility rather than an inherent and natural profound ineffable-ness. the result may look the same so it’s eye of the beholder stuff whether that makes a diff to you. …except for the fact that the allegory has no clear signified, a very beautiful allegorical novel.

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Simply Separate People by Lynn Crawford

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i absolutely loved this one… the sentences seem thought thinking in this one, clever but not ostentatious. character is created by language rather than by event. though, that said, there might, if not for events and circumstance, be only one character. but i loved that character. she was smart and curious and acknowledging of pain and conscious of privledge. an unexpected sincere pleasure.

consume via amazon.

Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

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so far my favorite of his, which, i’ve to space them out.

consume via amazon.

My Friends by Emmanuel Bove

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a roving down and out. and perhaps the most beautiful title for a novel.

consume via amazon.

Anticipation by Frederick Ted Castle

when youre 20 and want to say everything at once… like how it was supposedly done in ON THE ROAD when they stayed up for two nights and talked and talked and talked and then ate pie. exhaustive and beautiful and heartbreaking. rumor has it that the original title was “no anticipation allowed.”

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Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

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best new fiction i’ve read in a loooong time. hidden within its seemingly conventional narrative, is a sprawling style of heartache barely held together by the integrity and personality of the writing. honest and dark.

Island People by Coleman Dowell

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a strung together series of short stories a novel makes, this time. the best book ever. in death-defying sentences and in a tremendous organic and complex structure, this book is an autobiography of the best kind, made completely of true lies, which rewards you with basic insights into the human condish, a now deceased nyc artworld, and one spectacular case-history of schizophrenia.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

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i’d tried years ago and couldn’t get through it. but this time, with my wife’s help, did. a beautifully sustained dreamworld slash alternative reality your choice. a massive accomplishment. i read it after NEVER LET ME GO, which i thought was a similar project, but the latter lost steam i thought as it tried to explain itself after the first third. ishiguro’s always in control though, which is admirable. in this book he lets the dream be its own explanation, which is a purer effort though probably more likely to frustrate. in this one he has some beautiful ruminations on the nature of art and celebrity from the voice and POV of the narrator, a famous pianist.

The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq

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I understand the desire to dismiss this book and this author–but he’s too good a novelist for it. Theo Tait has a great take on him in the London Review of Books here, which also has some juicy biography bits:
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n03/tait01_.html
He isn’t always as honest as he purports himself to be, is probably the worst thing you can say about him. His vileness is just there, condemnable, what else to say about it other than maybe it’s simultaneously repulsive and titillating. But the weight, development, momentum he can put into a book is very impressive.

The Street of Crocodiles By Bruno Schulz

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from what i can tell from the intro–though i might be reading this wrong–it’s a collection of love letters. by that: a collection of stories sent to a beloved. with that in mind, there something a little circumscribed about where the stories will go, as if it doesn’t want to reveal too much darkness or allow for bitter feelings–for why advertise *that* to a potential lover?

different from what i expected, which i guess was some kind of collection of kafkaesque stories. instead a very concentrated poetic language. a portrait of a father as dreamer and house-prisoner. nothing happens, more so than kafka, and the proust comparison on the cover is maybe more apt. the description of seasons and his varieties of sunlight are very beautiful.

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