Shelf Defense: The Atrocity Exhibition, Flaubert’s Parrot

In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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J.G. BALLARD, THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (1970)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because it’s another leftover from the postmodernism class that never was (along with that ill-fated Kathy Acker).

THOUGHTS: Wow. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find here, but it certainly wasn’t an egg-headed demolition derby between ideas (car crashes, science v. pornography, spinal injury) and ’60s celebrities (JFK, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Nader). By page five I was intrigued; by page 20 I was bored; by page 50 outraged; and by page 150 I came back around for good. I should probably admit here that this is my first Ballard book. Are they all like this? Sometimes he’s bullshitting for literary effect, and sometimes he’s plain wrong. And sometimes the project just turns him defensive, especially in the recently added explanatory notes—“if the reader has been giving even a tenth of his attention to the text…”—which, by the way, I can’t imagine not being considered an integral part of the text from here on in, Waste Land-style. They’re a welcome dash of lucidity. It’s a book I may very well never recommend to another human. But it’s got way more meat on its bones than did Acker’s Don Quixote, and it (eventually) struck a real nerve.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep (for now).

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JULIAN BARNES, FLAUBERT’S PARROT (1984)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: No idea. I’d heard it was good.

THOUGHTS: So here’s something I’m learning about my tastes: I don’t really value breadth in fiction—what I care about is depth. I like novels that take one idea and then dig their heels in. Run that idea into the ground. Exhaust it. Who cares about panoramas? Why be a broom when you could be a drill? Most of my favourite novels are, I’m realizing, about obsession, be it in the form of whales or romances or some convoluted sense of social prestige. That’s why reading Flaubert’s Parrot was like taking a deep breath of mountain air. It’s a monomaniacal look at an author about whom I know basically zero, and Barnes’s sheer commitment to the task hooked me immediately. Yet it’s also in favour of multiplicity, and against capital-A answers. This is correct. And it doesn’t hurt that Barnes is so damn clever, or that the back-page blurb describes the book as “a massive lumber room of detail,” which for me is an automatic deal-sealer. A lumber room! It’s incredible. I’m entering Flaubert’s Parrot into my personal pantheon immediately.

(Still, the copy I read is severely beat up. If I can find a nice new one, I’ll snap it up right away. Hence the below equivocation.)

KEEP OR SELL: Keep (for now).

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