Right now on my shelf, waiting to be read, I have a copy of Thomas Frank’s much-ballyhooed “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” which attempts to explain how Democrats lost the plot in the so-called red states. Immediately after Election Day, this book seemed like compulsory reading for anyone trying to make sense of a country that made the insane decision to renew George W. Bush’s contract. I picked it up with the best of intentions, but there it sits, unread.
I really want to read these books badly, but in deference to my conscience, I’ve resisted picking them up. Looking back on how I’ve spent my free time since baseball came to its 2004 conclusion in October, I realize that I’ve been very productive without the sport’s nightly entreaties to television watching. It’s liberating to live in the off-season, without the compulsion to see every mechanical micro-event of game after game. It would seem to be a waste of my time to choose to indulge in the sport now, before the 2005 season begins and practically demands my attention.
If I could find the time, I would devour these books quickly, because non-fiction — politics, sports, whatever — has become like comic books to me (even better when it’s non-fiction about comic books). I enjoy the quick immersion in a world outside of my own experience, and I devour them quickly and painlessly. There’s also the satisfaction that, to varying degrees, I’m adding to my knowledge of the world.
It’s different with fiction. As I get older, I find it harder and harder to suspend disbelief when reading a novel, always feeling skeptical about the viability of a novelist’s conceits. And not only do I require these immaculate sorts of constructions, but I also demand a high level of aesthetic expertise, a gracefulness with language that makes me swoon. I haven’t really had this sensation — the feeling of being floored by a sustained barrage of unprecedented and uncannily descriptive word combinations — when reading a novel since first being introduced to Denis Johnson’s work in college.
I’m not disparaging fiction, though, by any means. I have a high respect for it, and I think it’s a sign of a maturity and keenness in a person if he or she can appreciate the intricacies of literature avidly and continually — it’s one of those socially desirable bona fides that strikes me as inarguable. So, remembering this, and realizing that it’s literally been years since I gave fiction a decent shot, I made a concerted effort to try and read some fiction again last December. On a tip from my girlfriend, I picked up Ann Patchett’s prize-winning “Bel Canto.”
Based on Real Events
This is a fictionalization of the 1996 hostage crisis in Peru in which fourteen soldiers took seventy-two people hostage, an incident that I remember following loosely in the news as it happened. I never read any detailed accounts of what actually took place inside the Japanese embassy in Lima, where the hostage-takers established themselves for four months, so I have no idea if what Patchett has created in this book resembles the incident in more than a passing manner. As a work of fiction though, the book is a gorgeous portrait of personalities evolving under the duress of circumstance, politics, human nature and the presence of machine guns.
For an account of terrorism, it is remarkably calm and endearing, and yet it creates an almost unbearable undercurrent of tension. I’m not sure I’ve cared for the characters in a book like this since reading “The Great Gatsby,” but I’m paralyzed with fear that some of them will, inevitably, reach grisly ends. Also, I’m extremely frustrated that I can’t seem to find the time to sit down and finish the last hundred pages.