This weekend I gave a copy of James Wood's novel The Book Against God to a friend for his 40th birthday. I haven't yet read the book, which makes it a risky gift, though less so than giving away copies of a book that's "changed your life." It seemed worthwhile, because I'm entirely charmed by Wood's criticism. But then I consider how much I enjoy the criticism of Martin Amis, and how little I enjoy his fiction.
(If you haven't yet read any Martin Amis fiction, here's a quick exercise to save you time. Take any novel by Amis, open a page and randomly pick a paragraph. Read it out loud. You can't help but be impressed by the stinging, accumulative impact of that paragraph. They're all crafted like that. Unfortunately, when you add them up it usually makes for a joyless, if not repulsive, experience. Too bad, that.)
I've always disliked the canard, "Those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, critique." Here's hoping Wood amounts to something of a renaissance man. I fully intend to read his novel, and I'm hoping the adulation of the chattering class has been honest, and not a defensive response to the articulate and frequently damning insights of his essays. More than that, I'm desperately hoping it's a book that will stick to my ribs, because I recently came to a discomfiting realization: here I am approaching the close of my 30s, and I have yet to encounter a novel that speaks to me with the depth of so many of the books I read in my 20s.
There are plenty of cheerful reasons for this somewhat sobering epiphany, the best being the accumulation of age and experience. The truly "novel" is fast disappearing - is, in fact, something I'm increasingly disinclined to seek out. So while I've read some memorable novels in the last ten years - Fight Club, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Poisonwood Bible - they didn't quite penetrate deeply enough to achieve importance. A few did - The Road Home, Underworld (DeLillo seemingly scorched his wings with that one, and I love him for it), American Pastoral - but none of them hit me as hard as any of the greats from my 20s.
I hardly know where to begin with that decade. I have to skip over everything I encountered in my undergrad degree, for starters (Chekov, Hemingway, Austen – so many incontestable greats). After that we're dealing with dynamics that are in seriously weird flux: Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Coupland, and always Frank Miller. Still, I have no difficulty naming the novel that lodged itself in the heart of my 20s (a sentiment shared by more than a few friends who received copies from me): Moon Palace, by Paul Auster.
That book, ostensibly the narrative of a man recounting his 20s, is immediate enough to grip a young reader, yet is richly loaded with a perspective that comes long after that decade has been survived. Its chief concern is identity. Who are you once you are removed from your family? How does an environment as alienating as New York City affect your sense of self? How does your self-concept change as you discover more about your parents and their parents before them? Auster's narrative circulates around fathers and sons; lost history restored in fragments; insanity and recovery; and the ever-present wilderness. It is an artful and trenchant encapsulation of the fears and consolations I experienced as a young adult. If we read to know we are not alone, that was the book that most reassured me.
The closest I've come to such a phenomenon for my 30s is probably Annie Dillard's For The Time Being - not a novel at all, but an extended meditation on death, birth, and the geography of clouds (all of which make imminent sense when you witness the birth of your daughters, and the death of friends and family members). Perhaps my error lies in avoiding the ever-popular Life of Pi? I've got four months left, dear reader: if you have any recommendations, make them now!