Some years ago I watched a truck drive over a coconut. The coconut exploded dramatically beneath the vehicle’s wheel, though the driver didn’t notice. (It was a large truck, and had probably mowed down many sizable objects in its lifetime.) I took a picture of the coconut — now a shattered nebula — as a reminder that paying attention to innocuous phenomena, such as loose coconuts, can pay huge dividends. What had caused my eye to land upon the ‘nut only nanoseconds before impact? Why was it so satisfying to witness?
The first question is unanswerable. The second is because the incident answered a query that, despite never having been formulated (“What would happen if a truck drove over a coconut?”), became retroactively intriguing at the moment of its resolution. You may be wondering where this anecdote is going, and I’ll tell you: The same jolt of contentment occurs when I read certain sentences in novels. These tend to be sentences that illuminate the psychology of a character that doesn’t correspond to anyone I’ve met in real life. As with the stricten coconut, an unimagined particle of reality becomes legible.
Below, a few books that contained coconuts for me — and perhaps might for you, too!
Like Emma Woodhouse, Rosamund Stacey is young, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and very little to “distress or vex” her … until (here’s where we depart from Jane Austen) she gets pregnant after a single coital experience. The father of the child is a guy named George, though his name his might as well be“??” for all that Rosamund knows about him.
Rosamund, who lives in swinging 1960s London, never affirmatively decides to have the baby, but she doesn’t decide not to have the baby either — and, given the course of nature, a baby ensues. The genius of the character Drabble has created is that she’s a lopsided woman: materially advantaged but socio-spiritually bereft. Rosamund’s family is absent; she has no reserves of purpose or love to draw upon. And no real friends, even. An arid way of putting it would be to say that Rosamund is the embodiment of Western urban secular values, and the question Drabble asks is : What and where does it get her?
In every copy of the book I’ve owned, I’ve underlined the first sentence: “My career has always been marked by a strange mixture of confidence and cowardice: almost, one might say, made by it.”
Read if you like: Doris Lessing, defiance, the Maurice Pialat film “À Nos Amours,” the David Leland film “Wish You Were Here”
Available from: Check the library or your used bookshop of choice (online or otherwise)
If you’re in the mood for a giant — 1,050 pages in my edition — book that will exert a gravitational pull whenever you spot it lurking on your bedside table, this Bud’s for you. It tells the story of Gary Gilmore, a guy who committed murder in Utah and then insisted on the death penalty. (Don’t get mad at me for “spoiling” it; this thing won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980, so the statute of limitations on spoiling has long expired. Also, that’s only a fraction of the story.)
Elizabeth Hardwick called the book “remarkable for the plainness, the anonymity of it.” This is true. There are sentences where you have to wonder whether Mailer was hypnagogic when he wrote them. (“She felt so nice she couldn’t believe some of the things she felt.”) The whole novel, in fact, reads as though Mailer hit “find and replace” for any scrap of verbiage that highlighted his presence as a stylist, which makes his presence as an arbiter all the more fascinating.
The story is based on factual events — Mailer called it a “true life” novel — and part of the reading experience involves trying to come up with an evaluative framework for a text that sucks you in while simultaneously worrying your moral antennae. Such conversations re-emerge like clockwork around any work that blitzes together conventions of fiction and journalism. (Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer,” the first season of the podcast “Serial,” a million others.) Mailer’s book isn’t the patient zero of those questions, but it is — for my money! — the most rewarding.
Read if you like: Crime and punishment, referring to teeth as “chompers,” Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line”
Available from: Grand Central