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May 11, 2015

Matthew Thomas on Five (Plus!) Books that Inspired Him in his 20s

Posted by emily

Matthew Thomas’ debut novel, WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, was acclaimed by critics and readers alike when it pubbed last summer. Budget-conscious 20somethings will be happy to know that its paperback release is imminent --- June 2nd, if we’re getting specific. To tide us over until then, Matthew was kind enough to share the top five books he read in his 20s that influenced his thinking and writing; compounded with a dazzling list of honorable mentions, his picks are a literary lover’s dream come true.

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Matthew Thomas:
This titanic achievement hardly requires cheerleading from me, but one remarkable aspect of it that I think deserves special attention is the fact that although it is enormous in its capturing of an entire society and a time, it is also a minute character study. No great book that is as all-encompassing as this one is is as closely focused (with the exception perhaps of ULYSSES, which takes for its context the circumscribed temporal space of a 24-hour period). The ambition here is as huge as that found in any of Tolstoy’s large-canvas works, but the minor key Dostoyevsky works in is bracing and forward-looking, anticipating the exercises in consciousness that would come a couple of generations later with high modernists like Woolf, Joyce and Beckett. We are in radically modern territory as we follow the psychic unraveling of Raskolnikov as he grapples with the consequences of an act of murder that he consciously thinks he performs for abstract, theoretical reasons, but that we see is motivated by far more unconscious impulses than he can ever be aware of, including the need to care for his family in his father’s absence and the Oedipal confusion that results from taking his father’s place in his mother’s life. The psychological portraiture in this book is almost impossibly fine-grained, as Dostoyevsky sees everything Raskolnikov might possibly see, so much so that it unsettles us how successfully he slips into the mind of a killer. This discomfort the reader feels is part of Dostoyevsky’s artistic triumph; rather than keeping the diabolical figure at arms’ length, Dostoyevsky does the far harder, and riskier, work of getting inside his troubled head and seeing the world through his eyes.

MT: Reading this book carefully a number of times in my 20s yielded an entire education in how to tell an affecting story within the limited confines of an individual family and a single apartment. It hardly matters that Gregor Samsa is transformed into an enormous bug, because other than that essential fact, the novella is an exercise in scrupulous realism. Our sympathies are always with Gregor, who is so preoccupied with doing his duty and getting to work on time in order to support his family that he hardly pauses to notice his wriggling limbs. Kafka writes the fantastical so effectively by playing it straight throughout. The Samsa family provides the evidence for their own guilty verdict by the end of the book, and the reader is borne along on a righteous fact-finding mission to defend the rights of the disenfranchised Gregor. And then Kafka does something mysterious and almost miraculous at the end. This exercise in empathy for Gregor turns its attention at the last minute to the other members of the family, and we feel a strange sympathy with their lifted burden as he dies. The atmosphere in the family changes, and Kafka never renders the verdict as ringingly as we had been hoping and expecting him to throughout the story. These villains are revealed at the end for what they are: human, flawed, unexceptional. Not villains, but limited people. Members of an ordinary family, with an ordinary inability to see past their own perspectives. The tragedy of this book, and part of its astonishing complexity and ambiguity, is how ordinary this story of a family ultimately is.

MRS. BRIDGE by Evan S. Connell
Evan S. Connell is an extraordinary crafter of sentences, and it’s impossible to read a single paragraph of MRS. BRIDGE and not feel oneself in the presence of an artist working the language like a musical instrument. But the remarkable thing about Connell’s prose style is that no matter how beautiful the language is, it’s always in the service of furthering the story and advancing characterization. Richard Yates, John Williams and Paula Fox come to mind alongside Connell as writers whose sentences overwhelm the reader one after another with their eloquence, but never trumpet their presence on the page. Connell is also remarkably good at applying a certain careful scrutiny to a character, but stopping short of satire. In another, less generous writer’s hands, India Bridge might have been burned by such scarifying attention to her flaws. The magic of Connell is that he sees all of those flaws, but also forgives them. He anatomizes Mrs. Bridge’s bourgeois impulses, while situating them in the context of a time and a place. She was never given a chance to explore her own agency in life, and by the end of the book whatever critical distance we might have kept from Mrs. Bridge at various intervals in the book has been eliminated, and we feel a profound sympathy for this woman who has been shut up in her generation, in her lack of career, in her enforced dependency on her husband, in a cosseted mind that has never had a chance to thrive.

THE PLAGUE by Albert Camus
MT: An elegantly written exploration of ethics and morality in the context of a disastrous contagion that reshapes all of society, this precursor to the contemporary dystopian novel is a heady read for an aspiring writer in his or her early 20s, as it sets the bar high for what a writer should try to accomplish in a novel --- namely, nothing short of the examination of an entire civilization, with the added challenge that Camus performs this examination always through the lens of convincingly-drawn characters that are never mere mouthpieces for the author’s philosophy. It is bracing to track the individual responses to the plague and to see the entire range of human fears, ambitions, covenants and betrayals on display. What we do under the kind of pressure these characters are under defines us. What is left when nearly everything else is gone is what is essential to our humanity. One is moved deeply reading about people returning to the cafes in the throes of the worst of the plague. The implication is clear: We need each other’s company to stand a chance at the survival of what we cherish as human in us.

WHERE I’M CALLING FROM by Raymond Carver
MT: Rather than attempting to speak to the range of stories in this life-changing book that is a master class in empathy and tight control of voice, I’ll focus on one instead --- the last one Carver wrote, “Errand,” which (fittingly) imagines Chekhov’s dying hours.

The narrator secures instant authority by choosing a voice suggestive of a historical or biographical account. The first word of the story --- the first sentence --- is simply “Chekhov.” Carver is invoking not so much a muse as a phenomenon, that of Chekhov the public figure. The “phenomenal” nature of Chekhov is suppressed in the story, reflected obliquely in the passage recounting Tolstoy’s visit to the dying man. There is a great to-do surrounding the entrance of Tolstoy, the country’s most famous person, and Carver omits any corresponding fuss over Chekhov. The wonderful thing this accomplishes is to subtly convey something of Chekhov’s famous lack of pretension. (An errand boy is given an important place in this story of “great” men, which subtly encapsulates something so essential to Carver’s entire project as a writer, namely the granting of a voice to the silent, the disaffected, the marginalized. His life, the story seems to suggest, matters as much as Chekhov’s, which is an idea that would likely have appealed to Chekhov himself.)

There is a terrific tension in this story created by the juxtaposition of history and fiction. The reader knows that much of this story must be drawn from the facts of Carver’s research, but the reader cannot gather exactly how much has been drawn from biographical accounts, and how much has been invented. The reader must therefore trust Carver to be a reliable witness, inventing where need be and cleaving to fact where he can. 

There is nothing whimsical here, nothing archly metatextual, nothing winking at the reader about the illusion that is a created work. The stakes are high, and Carver sticks to essential details. It is as if fidelity to the truth --- the actual “truth” of Chekhov’s passing --- requires not an inflexible consultation of the historical record, but a careful recreation of the death through the act of empathetic imagining on Carver’s part. I trust the drinking of the Champagne to be an accurate rendering of the spirit of the last moments of Chekhov’s life, and the need for literal proof evaporates in the face of the undeniable authority of Carver’s recreation. 

The reader may know something of how Carver saw Chekhov as a spiritual and artistic guide, and there is an undeniable parallel between the two men in “Errand.” Carver would soon be dead himself, his work living in eternity. The story plays with this metatextual notion in a way that never feels cheap. Carver avoids a more academic treatment of metatextuality, but still ends up shining a light on the interesting tension between fiction and nonfiction. In the process he reveals the great power fiction holds to get at truth through oblique means. This story that comes at the end of his career, when he is free of the constraints of editorial control, reveals Carver in all his potency as a thinker.

INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison
LAST ORDERS by Graham Swift
LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov
IRONWEED by William Kennedy
MASON & DIXON by Thomas Pynchon
THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
MY LIFE AS A MAN by Philip Roth
SEIZE THE DAY by Saul Bellow
JUMPERS by Tom Stoppard
FICCIONES by Jorge Luis Borges
THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald