In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
Substance: Inside New Order
New Order and Joy Division bassist Peter Hook finishes his autobiographical trilogy with Substance: Inside New Order, adding another 700-plus pages to his life story. He’s saved the juiciest bits for last, which makes sense: Joy Division never got big while they were still together, while New Order—of which Hook was a member from 1980 until 2007, when he departed acrimoniously—is the opposite. So the absurd excess of the rock ’n’ roll life is on full display here: Hook, who basically reinvented the sound of the bass guitar, lived those years in typical celebrity fashion, having tons of random sex, taking lots and lots of drugs, and generally causing trouble. I guess it’s slightly more surprising coming from an indie figure like Hook than someone like Mötley Crüe, but apparently fame and money have the same effects on many musicians. That said, it’s a page-turner, and Hook spends more time reflecting on the actual music he made with New Order than he did in his Joy Division book. Granted, he could spend a bit less time complaining about New Order singer Bernard Sumner, still the object of his ire after all this time. For fans of either band, though, it’s a fun read.
The Rules Do Not Apply
Ariel Levy’s new memoir has a fairly rote title, The Rules Do Not Apply, that implies it might be something more trite or basic than it actually is. But I’m relishing how alternately poetic and spiky Levy’s book is. If you’ve read her devastating New Yorker essay, “Thanksgiving In Mongolia,” you know at least some of the story. When Levy was five months pregnant, she took an assignment and traveled to Mongolia, where she had a miscarriage. Here, she both elaborates on her tale of personal crisis, and weaves a generational narrative about habits and love. She writes about her familial legacy of infidelity, and her own marriage. The text is brisk, and Levy, an excellent reporter, trains her powerful observational eye on her own life, refusing to let herself or her failings off the hook. I turned to The Rules Do Not Apply for a brutal dose of realism after finishing a lengthy fantasy novel, and it’s sort of like taking a shower that’s just slightly too hot. On one hand, it’s cleansing; on the other, it burns just slightly.
I’ve been picking away at Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories for the better part of a year, and recently picked it up again for another spate. We’ll see how long I last with it this time. The stories aren’t difficult to read like, say, a Pynchon novel, dense with allusions to astrophysics and literary arcana, nor are they difficult to read in the moral sense, despite the unfathomable darkness they’re often centered around. O’Connor’s 31 short stories are difficult, instead, for their sheer richness: for the crystalline perfection of each sentence and the complexity with which she can convey a character’s entire inner life with an almost tossed-off aside. I spend at least half of my time reading Flannery O’Connor short stories re-reading them, poring over individual sentences and then staring out of the window and blinking.
The stories are notorious for their bleakness and for the sudden, monstrous moments of violence that rear up with gravitational force, but they’re also always shot through with a dark wit. You can see it in famous lines like, “She would have been a good woman if there had been somebody to shoot her every day of her life,” or, “Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.” I tend to read the stories in quick, shocked gasps—a single sitting, if possible—and, after another half-dozen, I put the collection down and move on to something else. I’ll probably continue cycling through the book periodically, gleaning from it what I can, over and over—or at least until some simple-minded drifter drags me screaming into the woods and murders me as an allegory for original sin, as O’Connor has made me convinced is an eventuality.