This year’s reading theme is going to be rereads. In previous years, I’ve chosen themes expressly to get me to expand my reading and encounter new kinds of books. But my planned theme last year (long books) was such a failure that I decided I owe myself an easy one; I’m going to try to mostly read books I’ve already read, and that I know mean something to me. Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold, as they taught me in Girl Scouts.

This started with Stephen King’s The Running Man, which I was induced to re-read by Tom Scocca’s piece about the movie in his new publication, Indignity. I haven’t seen the movie, but based on what Tom wrote, the book is more political, or maybe just differently political. King wrote it in 1971 and it’s very much an early-’70s dystopia, a lot like Ursula LeGuin’s 1975 “The New Atlantis” (that link is to the full story, go read it, it’s amazing!) It’s not really a dystopia where the good guys beat the bad guys, it’s just kind of a world where everybody’s tired and nobody’s very good. The government is bad, the rich people are bad, the poor people are bad, the unions are bad, the only choices are to be bad or very beaten-down and tired. In LeGuin’s universe there is also the option to play violin and do math even though it won’t really change anything, while in King’s universe there is also the option to kill people and blow shit up even though it won’t really change anything.

The Running Man is one of “The Bachmann Books,” novels King published under the pen name Richard Bachmann to avoid saturating the ’80s paperback market with King product. I have them all in a bound volume, so I read another one, Rage; you can’t buy this anymore because it’s basically “What if school shooters…. had a point and were actually doing everyone a favor?” and you can’t really go around saying that now. What I never knew about this book is that King wrote it when he was actually in high school. I had always taken it to be King inhabiting the mind of a teen who wants to shoot up the school, the same way he inhabits Cujo, but no, I guess it was just … him. And it’s kind of remarkable how much the grown man’s prose style is already present in the high-school junior’s novel.

Though Rage also has a lot of borrowed vibe from The Catcher in the Rye, which I also reread, because CJ was reading it for school, just as I did in 10th grade. Loved it then, love it now. CJ’s take (and that of a lot of people now) is “I didn’t like Holden,” which, fair enough. But for me, so what? I like books, not people in books. Catcher in the Rye (I really didn’t know the “The” was in the title; it’s better without, isn’t it?) is thought of as a kid’s book now but, unlike S King, Salinger was not a kid when he wrote this, and reading it as an adult you can really see that. In fact, reading it as a parent gave it new meanings for me, since a parent is obviously what Holden is trying to learn how to be, all he really wants to be — to his little sister, to a random kid who needs her skates tied, whoever. The instinct to care, unmoored and flying around loose.

I thought Barrel Fever was the funniest thing I’d ever read when it came out in the early 90s but now I don’t get it.

Then again, I thought Janet Malcolm was the deepest thing I’d ever read when I started reading her around the same time, and I still basically think so? In the Freud Archives, the book I started with, isn’t as perfect as I’d remembered — there are sentences that feel dashed-off, like “the friendship of Jeffrey Masson and Eissler took off like a rocket,” followed closely by “the sixty-six-year-old analyst and the thirty-three-year-old candidate immediately hit it off.” But for most of this she’s already found her high style. As always, there is a perfect opening:

In the mid-seventies, a young man named Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson began to appear at psychoanalytic congresses and to draw a certain perplexed attention to himself.

Perplexed! So wonderfully exact, and so perfectly disorienting as it suddenly wrenches the point of view into contact with an emotion that comes from who knows where, much like the emotions one unexpectedly (indeed in a sense inappropriately) encounters on the analyst’s couch. Oh yeah, I learned reading this that Janet Malcolm is also where I learned to insert little parenthetical clauses like that. This book is full of them.

The long uninterrupted passages of monologue from Masson in here — amazing. They must be from tapes. But surely not exact transcripts — they’re too good! No one pins himself to the board that precisely when speaking impromptu.

I also reread my cousin Marilyn Sachs‘s book Matt’s Mitt, which she gave me as a present when I was five years old. It made me cry again.

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2 thoughts on “Rereads

  1. MA says:

    Re the long interrupted passages of monologue in In the Freud Archives: Janet Malcolm outraged some people when she wrote about this in 2020:

    “I had unapologetically, almost unthinkingly, used a literary device in In the Freud Archives that was commonplace at The New Yorker but that outside journalists—in the accusatory atmosphere following the Lipman article—saw as another violation of the reader’s good faith. The device was the uninterrupted monologue in which characters made preposterously long speeches in impossibly good English. Anyone could see that the speech had never taken place as such but was a compilation of what the character had said to the reporter over a period of time. Not everyone liked the convention, but no one thought it was deceptive, since its artificiality was so blatant.

    “I set my long monologue with Masson at the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where he and I ate lunch on the first day of my interviews with him. During the lunch he excitedly spoke of the events that had catapulted him from an impressive and well-paid position as director of the Freud Archives to his present condition of jobless humiliation and indignation. He spoke wildly and not always coherently. Over the next six months I spoke with him dozens of times on the phone and a few times in person, and was able to fill in the gaps of his account and, further, to inspire formulations that ever more imaginatively expressed his sense of having been wronged. I then wrote my monologue. It was like making a collage. It never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong by using scraps that had been acquired at different times.”

    I admit I am not really bothered by the technique in the context of this book – I take In the Freud Archives to mostly be a comedy piece compared to Malcolm’s more serious (and better) later work – but I’m also glad this sort of thing isn’t done so much any more.

  2. jackjohnson says:

    Just seconding the recommendation for LeGuin’s New Atlantis; it’s very moving.

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