Madness, milk, and the sea: my best reads of 2021
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Madness, milk, and the sea: my best reads of 2021

I have a couple of essays planned – one about the Mountain Goats' Beat the Champ and what it says about embodiment and work, and one about my newfound mania for live classical music – but I've been on a big editing deadline for the past several weeks, so we're getting a book roundup.

2021 was an awful year for reading, quantitywise. I spent a lot of it burnt out, and a significant portion of it overmedicated and struggling with concentration; I've also been hyperfixating about polar exploration, and let me tell you, you need to chew through a lot of tapioca to get at those good polar exploration facts. However, there have still been some spectacular finds this year, among them:

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

The spoiler is that Red Pill – which presents itself as an ambiguous story about either conspiracy or paranoia – is about both, which is to say it's about the prodrome and first manifestation of a man's schizophrenia during the far right's worldwide rise to power. One way to know you're a marginalized person is when your identity is used as a book's big reveal, and counts as a spoiler. This is frustrating, but the real difficulty is that Kunzru drags his otherwise principled and well-researched portrayal of mental illness into thematic harness, allowing it to become the novel's final gag: its nameless narrator is correct about his powerful enemies, and the "mentally well" people around him are wrong. All this is much too cute. The experience of mental illness deserves the dignity of being portrayed for itself, on its own terms, rather than becoming a yardstick for the rationality of society.

It is also, to me, the only real flaw with Red Pill, which otherwise is something very close to a perfect novel: a black highway to oblivion, exitless, rain-flooded, along which the reader has no choice but to drive forward. Although there's little obvious in common between them, this reminded me powerfully of a 2020 favorite, Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, which has a similar sense of gravitational force and deep monochromatic dread. I read the fuck out of this.

I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford

I only read two polar books this year with any kind of literary credibility – the other one was Alfred Lansing's Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, a deeply researched but lightly cited midcentury banger along the lines of A Night to Remember – but the Spufford is frankly a masterpiece, singlehandedly bringing up the average of 2021's polar books to "very good" (and I read a biography of Francis Crozier this year, so that's really saying something). Spufford combines stunning archival research, well-observed cultural history, novelistic prose, and rich character insight to illuminate a series of dense informational warrens: gender and the Arctic, the Romantic concept of the sublime, English interpretations of Inuit culture. Could he pay more attention to marginalized people's self-descriptions and inner lives, even as he remains solicitous towards them? Does this book move like congealing fudge? Yes! Is it the single polar book that I would recommend to anybody, from the casually interested to the deeply read? Yes!

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

I'm surprised that I had to rely on word of mouth to learn about the zeitgeisty Milk Fed, an extremely funny, cozy-melancholy, filthy romance about two struggling Jewish women. The narrator staggers through life, maintaining a complicated eating disorder and a miserable job at a talent agency; she meets a woman whose delight in food and comfort with her body seems placed on earth to torment her; they fall in love, but faith and society come between them. Broder nails her narrator's brittle, self-deprecating voice, and executes a precise pas de deux.

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke

My buddy's book, and it fucks! I read so many reviews of SPAT this year that begin with some variant of "I didn't expect to like this/it's a gimmick, and yet..." The thing is that Calvin is one of our preeminent gimmick authors. He makes a science-fictional extrapolation, not from a social or scientific idea, but from the core of a comedy bit. If a person can get sucked into his work Slack and trapped in there with Slackbot – who's determined to steal his body and his crush – then what are the emotional consequences of that for both robot and man? This commitment to taking the absurd seriously is why Calvin's book works, and why it consistently wins over the dubious, and why I personally find it rare and satisfying.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Like the Kunzru, I found that this stumbled on the dismount. Proulx's novel spends most of its runtime in a state of extreme tension between the cozy and the terrifying. There's an instability to her world's meaning that I found Dickensian – thickly drawn characters with audacious names, trying to make homes in a world where caricature, with all of its violence, is always at the door. It's difficult to describe this sense of moral-risk-as-caricature. I suppose what I mean is that the characters' emotions are described in a realist mode, but are also just slightly Roald Dahlified, such that you're always worried that someone will snap, and when they snap, they'll do something not only sadistic but cartoonish: throw their enemy like an Olympic hammer, turn them into a mouse, force-feed them a whole cake. It is an incredibly effective tone, and accompanied by a level of prose and observation that had me saying some variant of "oh, fucking hell" aloud every few pages.

In the last hundred pages, Proulx decides that the book will be cozy, in a way that sets the terrifying aside without actually placing it at bay. The effect is of greater terror, now that you can't see the terrifying and don't know where it is. Despite this tonal deviation, Proulx's book is magnificent, an overwhelming work of Lynchian seaside tragicomedy.

Darryl by Jackie Ess

This is a book about coming out, and specifically about the mess that comes with trying to figure out what to come out as. As time passes, I find that my favorite novels are masterpieces of form, not prose. Ess knows exactly how to bring off a complex emotional arc without tipping even the edge of her hand, and all while appearing to do very little. The ending has the inevitability of coming out, too – a sense that, panicked though the process has been, there is an answer, and it has the moral force of a religious conversion. It coalesces, it uncomplicates, it becomes whole.

In the Heart Of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

And this is simply a very nasty history of a very nasty event, absolutely not to be read late at night (although I did). The sinking of the Essex at the hands of a vengeful whale was part of the basis for Moby-Dick, but Moby-Dick – despite its pain and violence – was in no way as horrible as reality. This is a book about starvation-maddened men eating each other in open boats. Philbrick does something really next-level with this, however: he traces the specific tenor of the men's suffering back to the sociology of Nantucket, convincingly arguing (as does Melville) that the real whale attack/bitter taste of human flesh was capitalism all along.

Preview photo by mali maeder, via the free stock photo site Pexels