One of the nice things about running a literary magazine is that you get advance copies of many books, arriving for free at your doorstep. I have always taken full advantage of this gift. At the end of each workday, when I am in Berkeley, I habitually sit down in my most comfortable chair, a kir or a vodka tonic beside me, and read something for a couple of hours. It might be an old book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but more often it’s something new off the review shelves. This month, I was rewarded with two excellent books that are coming out soon.
One of them is not actually new, but a reissue—Geoff Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory, which came out in England in 1989 but has never before appeared here. Graywolf is putting it out in May, bound together in an ingenious manner with his second novel, The Search, a strange book which will delight those drawn to the offbeat progeny of a marriage between Raymond Chandler and Italo Calvino. I myself, though, vastly prefer the first novel, where we can already hear Dyer’s characteristic voice and—even more surprisingly—find references to many of his lifetime obsessions. Jazz, photography, slothfulness, travel, sport, drugs, drink, the English language, the effects of class, the pairings and conflicts of men and women: all these things he was eventually to write essays and sometimes whole books about are packed into this little first novel. But the great thing about it is its tone, which is neither snide nor wistful, but sharply contemplative, with the typical (and typically pleasing) Dyer humor underlying it all. That the book happens to be about a group of mainly unemployed London friends is neither here nor there—plot is always the least of Dyer’s concerns—but its closeness to his own youthful autobiography perhaps helps lend The Colour of Memory its strong air of truth.
The second book that gave me great pleasure this month might even be a masterpiece: Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude, which is due out from Random House any day now. I am a longtime fan of Li’s work and have read all her books, which to date include her first novel, The Vagrants, and her two books of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Though The Vagrants is a fine novel, I would have said, if asked any time before this past week, that she excelled at the short story. Now that I have read Kinder Than Solitude, however, I’ve changed my mind. It is a novel with the compression and psychological intensity of her stories, yet with an overarching structure—three central characters with different viewpoints on the same originating events—that is truly novelistic.
This is the kind of book you have to read slowly. I, who generally zoom through things, found myself going back and rereading individual sentences at the rate of about one per page. This is not because the sentences are beautifully poetic (though occasionally they are), but because they are actually expressing new ideas in word combinations that are unexpected, so you have to reread them to understand exactly what they mean. There is nothing ungrammatical or unidiomatic about this book—its English is perfect—and there is nothing blatantly “experimental” about its use of language. This is novelty carried on at the highest level, where experiences most of us have had in some form or other have been re-examined and re-described in ways that make them new. The book does have a plot, but any attempt to convey it would be a radical simplification. For instance, I thought of describing those three central characters as friends since high school, and then I realized that neither “friends” nor “high school” nor even “since” was quite the right word. You will have to read Kinder Than Solitude (great title, too!) to see what I mean, and you will be grateful to me, I know, for having recommended it.