Top 10 Books in 2007: 5 and 6

5. Looking back, I read quite a bit of Joyce Carol Oates over the past year, including her novella The Corn Maiden: A Love Story (in Transgressions, ed. Ed McBain), short stories collected in High Lonesome: Selected Stories, 1966-2006, criticism in Uncensored: Views & Reviews, and one of her novels: You Must Remember This. JCO is a compelling storyteller whose writing extends an invitation into a world (worlds often set in upstate New York). But when one begins to map the Oatean world, one finds that it is a nihilistic world that is laced with violence (boxing appears constantly as a crystallization of this in her work, particularly in You Must Remember This). And I don't use "nihilistic" in an off-handed sense: I mean quite literally that Oates seems to not only see ubiquitious violence in the world; she inscribes it into its very structure--as the essential conditions of the world. (This, I've suggested before, might actually be where she differs from someone like Cormac McCarthy: while McCarthy's barren worlds are riddled with violence, I find in McCarthy a hint of hope that it might--that it could and ought--to be otherwise.) For instance, in You Must Remember This, Felix's violent and incestuous abuse of his niece Enid is the condition of possibility for her music, college success, yea her very sense of identity. I don't have the heart for such a Hegelian world.

However, the passge from the novel that sticks with me is a bit of a throw-away scene later in the story. Felix, the former boxing star and current town "player," poses a question to his brother, Lyle, a used furniture salesman eeking out an existence on the working side of town: "What's it like being a father?" Lyle, resisting his "first instinct" to "make a nervous joke," instead replied: "It depends. Sometimes it does seem to me I'm thinking about them constantly, obsessively, even when I'm not exactly aware of it." Recounting his worry over the children when they were younger, Lyle feels Felix's intense stare and concludes: "I suppose it's the crucial thing in my life. All Hannah and I have really done, you know? Because, well, what else is there...?"

I'm not sure if JCO is participating in a bourgeois mocking of this work-a-day vocation of raising a family, or whether she's giving voice to a sanctification of the ordinary. I found myself moved by Lyle's confession as a valorization of the "work" of domesticity, of family-making and child-rearing. It is perhaps especially poignant for those who have a kind of "public" life, whose professional work gets recognition and acclaim through other channels. But at the end of the day, I'm with Lyle: what more important work could there be? While I'm not at all inclined to the idolization of the family (as in a disordered "focus" on the nuclear family), I do think that the "domestic" work of family-formation trumps much of our "public" work. Indeed, in an era when the pursuit of self-interest translates into, at best, serial monogamy, there might be nothing more "counter-cultural" than the "work" of family. In fact Lyle's remark called to mind a centuries-old admonition to parents, Jacobus Koelman's 1679 The Duties of Parents, which he opens by reminding fathers and mothers that the vocation of parenting "is the most important duty God has put on your shoulders." So often the arts and literature see domesticity as a poison and threat to an "interesting" literary life; but right here in a "literary" novel we hear Lyle suggesting otherwise.

6. I continue to find myself going back to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. This is a book that has dug a deep well that this generation and the next will continue to drink from.