Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. Woody Allen led me to Borges. I first learned of the Argentine's existence from a throwaway mention Woody planted in the mouth of Diane Keaton's character in Manhattan. Following up on the hint, I borrowed two volumes of stories from my public library (remember the days when libraries had books?) and was quickly hooked. "The Aleph," "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim," "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Library of Babel," "The Book of Sand," "The Circular Ruins," "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," "The Garden of Forking Paths," "Death and the Compass"-- amazing stories all. In Borges I found a miniaturist even more exquisite than Kafka, a writer capable of creating a country in a single sentence and whole universes in a short story. There is a sense, although perhaps not a terribly interesting one, in which Borges's perpetual subject is the act of reading itself, that seemingly magical process by which, as William Gass has written, "we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams" (Fiction and the Figures of Life). Borges's characters tend to mirror his readers, for in the act of reading Borges, we too find ourselves trapped in the labyrinthine ramifications of an infinite authorial imagination. We plunge through his pages into worlds of terror and death (for he's a Poe-man, too, this Senor Borges, like so many great non-American writers), worlds that often seem to pass asymptotically, and horrifyingly, close to the world outside our windows. If his stories be fantasy, they're fantasy with the teeth of wolves.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I kept putting off One Hundred Years of Solitude. I actually read Rushdie before Garcia Marquez. By the early 1990s, Gabo's book had lost its aura of revolution and come to seem more like required reading. It was a novel praised by U. S. politicians (surely a bad sign) and assigned to undergraduates (possibly worse). This envelope of official approval sealed the book off from me, and there was also the fact of its seeming ubiquity: since everyone else seems to have read it, I ill-reasoned, why should I add one more pair of eyes? So the book stood unread on my bookshelf for a decade while the United States invaded Haiti, financed 'drug wars' in Mexico and Columbia, played Le Carre-esque games with the Castro regime, and generally treated the southern half of the western hemisphere like a drunken uncle you hope doesn't show up at Thanksgiving. When I finally did get around to reading Solitude--in the summer of 2000, just before American foreign policy took a lurch toward the neoconservative worst--I was, needless to say, hypnotized by Gabo's voice, amazed by his blend of realism and surrealism, and repeatedly compelled to smack my forehead and exclaim aloud, "Why the fuck didn't I read this fantastic book ten years ago?!" I was also delighted to discover that One Hundred Years of Solitude was a brilliant political novel. It is in fact the Great Columbian Novel. And it's also a great leftist novel. Those American politicians--at least one of them very far right (Rand Paul)--who have publically expressed admiration for Gabo have surely never read his most famous book, because Solitude contains criticisms of American foreign policy (in its military-corporatist United Fruit Company manifestation) that are as strong as any in the works of Eduardo Galeano. If there is a single Great American Novel--and if we understand 'America,' as we must, to refer to the entire hemisphere--this is it.
(A few hours after writing the above, I remembered telling someone about Garcia Marquez in the mid-90s, so I must have read the book before 2000, I must have read it first in the early 1990s. This solecism shows yet again the untrustworthiness of memory; and it should remind you not to trust anything a writer of fiction says.)
Collected Poems by Allen Ginsberg. During the 1980s American culture tried very hard to forget the 1960s and 70s. The Fifties, far enough back to be only vaguely remembered as a time of tailfins and sock hops, were embraced as the lost golden age, the future back to which Moses Reagan promised to lead us, a more innocent, simpler, better time, back before the liberals and the hippies and the homos sent everything to hell in a handbasket. (Although clearly and cartoonishly naïve, not to mention bigoted and self-hating and reactionary, this is exactly the way many Americans still interpret the shape of our recent past.) As part of the general anathema Reaganite ideology pronounced upon the counterculture, the memory of the Beat movement was pushed so far toward oblivion that for a few years during the era of leveraged buyouts and Granadan invasions and constitutional subversion performed by guys who looked damn good in their uniforms (North, McFarlane, Poindexter), one of the most significant American artistic movements of the 20th century seemed almost lost. As a teenager during the 1980s, I heard and knew nothing, absolutely nothing, of Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs. It was as though someone had pressed backspace on a cultural computer and deleted them from the national consciousness. I was first exposed to Ginsberg in the late 1980s when I happened to find on the bargain books table at Waldenbooks (always the best place in the store for me) a large volume of interviews with 60s personalities. Allen was among the interviewees, and the snippets of quoted poetry left me wanting more, much more, so much more, in fact, that I returned to the book store and 'special ordered' a copy of Ginsberg's Collected Poems from the regional warehouse. (That's how we did it in those pre-Amazon days, and if the warehouse didn't have a copy, you were shit out of luck, pal.) Of course, they didn't keep a copy on the shelf; not enough demand for crazy queer poetry during the opening year of the poopy presidency of Poppy Bush. A week later, having paid my sixteen bucks, I returned from the mall, lay down on my bed, and dove into the big red book. Reader, it blew my fucking mind. I started with "Howl," the cadences of which will forever echo in my brain, moved on to "Kaddish" and its tragic repetitions, then traveled along with the Fall of America poems. This voice, while clearly Whitmanesque, was too new and original and fearless and dangerous to be subsumed into any tradition. Ginsberg did for American poetry in the middle of the twentieth century--in, let us note, the middle of that supposedly serene Leave it to Beaver decade so beloved of beaver-hating conservative ideologues--exactly what Whitman had done a century before. He set it free. I will never stop listening to him.
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Along with my collected Ginsberg, I ordered a copy of Naked Lunch. Of the three major Beats, I feel the strongest affinity with Ginsberg and the weakest, today, with Kerouac. (There was a time when I loved Jack, but that has passed.) The mugwumpy figure of William Seward Burroughs stands unsteadily somewhere in-between. That first reading of Naked Lunch was a predictably bizarre experience. The book seemed hyperactive to me, jumpy as a junkie excited to score. There were passages of great poetic beauty, pages of satirical brilliance, but there was also more than enough surrealistic overkill. Even the act of hanging people until they ejaculate in other people's mouths can get tired after a while. Admittedly, I liked most of this at the time (it impressed me less on subsequent readings), and I enjoyed and valued the book as a paramount example of literary extremity. Burroughs pushes right through the envelope and sprays semen all over the WPA mural on the post office wall. It's probably impossible to go further into transgression than Burroughs goes here, so the book remains valuable as a limit case. (And as a great argument against censorship: if Naked Lunch is permitted to be published, how can anything else be censored?) But the parts of Naked Lunch that still impress me today are the passages scattered throughout the work in which Burroughs creates images that are as close to the painted visions of Max Ernst or Salvador Dali as any writer has ever come. That's the indelible part of Burroughs.
The Trial by Franz Kafka. Is any authorial adjective more overused than 'Kafkaesque'? 'Joycean' is probably as common among literary types, but the Kafka-word has seeped (nay, flooded) into political discourse. There is not a corridor of the federal government that has not been referred to by someone as a "Kafkaesque bureaucracy." Any controversial cabinet nominee will at some point refer to his confirmation hearing as 'Kafkaesque'--although I don't recall any of them being bludgeoned to death with rocks at the end of the hearings. For Shelley Duvall's character in Annie Hall, sex with Woody Allen was "a Kafkaesque experience." As that last example shows, the word long ago came unmoored from its literary meanings; it has long been an empty piece of cultural capital, a word pronounced to advertise--or fake--erudition. (Yes, there once was a time when people considered erudition a thing worth faking...but even those weren't the days.) This ubiquitous word, and the need to understand it, led me to read The Trial in my early twenties. I eventually arrived at a definition quite different from the self-serving one implied by Clarence Thomas's usage at his confirmation hearing. The shocking eruption of unexplained strangeness within a context of familiarity, an expressionistic scream echoing through the overstuffed rooms of naturalistic fiction--that's what 'Kafkaesque' means to me. It's a meaning akin to the defining characteristic of a literary tendency Kafka decisively influenced, Latin American magic realism. The Latin Americans, from Borges on, added a highball of Faulkner to a tumbler of Kafka, stirred well, poured on a quart of tequila, and set it all aflame. The only thing more ubiquitous than the misuse of Kafka's adjective is his literary influence. This unknown Austro-Hungarian bureaucrat seems to turn up everywhere, influencing both Grass and Murakami, both Borges and Philip Roth, both Updike and Burroughs, both Nabokov and Erica Jong, both Calvino and Rushdie, both Sebald and Ellison (Ralph and Harlan both). Whatever else 20th-century literature might have been, it was certainly Kafkaesque.