2020: Looking Back


2020 has been such a difficult, strange year that I often forget a book I wrote got published at the beginning of it. The publication of that book feels like it was a lifetime ago, something from a different world. And in many ways it was a different world, because the book was released just as we were becoming aware that COVID-19 might be something of a problem for the United States. A month after the book's publication, we knew things were serious. Two months after, the routines of the world had changed.

Trying to do a year in review post this year is especially difficult because the year felt so long and life was so upended that memory is both hazy and untrustworthy. This year, I didn't write a lot, but I read far more than I thought I had — once I started making a list in preparation for this post, I was surprised at just how much reading I did. This realization made me somewhat less depressed about how little success I've had this year at writing fiction or essays, because it suggests that what I needed was to absorb other people's words and imaginings rather than force out my own. 

Clearly, this year I needed to read freely, picking up and putting down by instinct and whim, and to read without smearing the experience with opinions and expectations. Part of the reason I didn't perceive myself as reading as much as usual was that I was just reading, not analyzing and judging, not trying to make my reading have a purpose beyond itself. Especially if, like me, your mind tends toward the analytical, it is important to step aside from the critical impulse whenever possible, because it so easily calcifies, so easily closes off possibilities rather than opening them up.

This post will be somewhat different from previous ones. It's not a diary of cultural consumption — much more is left out than put in. Instead, I decided that this year I would talk about 13 items or clusters of items. (13 because no other number feels right for 2020. If 2020 were a movie, it would be an installment of Friday the 13th: murderous, tasteless, confining, and feeling a lot longer than it actually is.)

Before going to the Things, though, a quick note on what I wrote this year, just so I have the information in one spot: Though I didn't publish anything other than the book, I did put on my website an essay: "Asterisks for Dead Astronauts", a fragmentary exploration of reading, grief, the end of the world, poetry, etc. It's part of what I've come to think of as the "Asterisks Project", an ongoing collage that I hope might add up to a book one day. I also published some items on my academic blog, Finite Eyes. The post that got the most attention this year was "The Value of the Public Good", a scream into the wilderness. A book, one essay, some blog posts. Aside from the book, it's less than usual, but plenty for a year like this.
 


1. Paul Celan

The most important publishing event this year for me as a reader was the release of Pierre Joris's translations of Paul Celan's first books of poetry and his unpublished/uncollected prose. I wrote about these at length a couple weeks ago, so will not say more here. Joris's accomplishment is extraordinary, and deserves celebration and acclaim.


2. An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World by Pankaj Mishra

I happened to have just started reading An End to Suffering when the pandemic lockdown began, and it was a good book to begin the lockdown with. It's a weird book, and I'm still not sure whether it's a brilliant mosaic or just terribly organized, but I appreciated a lot of it regardless. Partly, it's a history of the Buddha, partly it's a memoir of searching for meaning in life, and along the way there's some Indian political history, as well. This is not a book you can read with a goal, which is nice and Buddhist of it.

Philosophically, I'm basically a Zen atheist. Though my worldview fits quite comfortably with most forms of Buddhism, I don't believe in an afterlife or reincarnation or anything like that. Mishra's book actually presented an idea of reincarnation that almost fits with my worldview: "Rebirth will seem impossible only if you think of the self as a stable, enduring substantial entity instead of ... a series of mental and physical events — a conditioned stream of consciousness. According to the Buddha, death doesn't break the causal connectedness of these events. It breaks up only a particular pattern in which they occur. And such is the nature of causal connectedness that these events start forming another pattern as soon as rebirth takes place. The Buddha thus made rebirth somewhat plausible, even though this remains the one part of his teachings that requires a leap into faith." 

I'm not able to make the leap into faith, but I do think there is much to be said for the idea of how connectedness inflects the unstable, unenduring, insubstantial entity we call the self. If I say more, I'll write 10,000 words, and I don't need to do that here. I'll leave you to ponder.

I should also mention that I read What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse shortly after finishing An End to Suffering. Khyentse convinced me that though I am not a Buddhist, I am also not not a Buddhist. I am obviously not a Buddhist, because I do not practice any of the rituals of Buddhism, and I've never been successful at, and have little interest in, meditation. I do have a fair number of Buddhist friends, though, and most of them have suggested to me at one point or another that I'm not very good at not being a Buddhist. Which is true, somehow, and I've known it for a long time (I've been reading about Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism since I was in high school, maybe earlier — it's all J.D. Salinger and Ursula Le Guin's fault, but that's a story for another time). Khyentse is the first to really give me an idea of why.

Khyentse states a simple test. (Though just because it's simple does not mean it is likely to be uncontroversial. Plenty of Buddhists would disagree with him, I suspect. But I'm not going to ask them!) He says a person is a Buddhist if they accept all of the following four truths: 1.) All compounded things are impermanent; 2.) all emotions are pain; 3.) all things have no inherent existence; 4.) Nirvana is beyond concepts. (This is his [likely controversial] translation/interpretation of the Buddha's four seals, which I've more often seen as three seals, and rather differently translated.) I won't go into the details of these here (read the book!), but I will say that I have no problem fitting them into my own sense of being, and they get closer to my perception of the universe than any other brief outline would. Thus, I can say with confidence that, at least according to this definition, I am definitely not not a Buddhist. This realization gave me comfort this year. It's good to know what you are not, even if it's only what you are not not.


2a. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China trans. David Hinton, The Selected Poems of Tu Fu trans. David Hinton, The Mountain Poems of Stone House trans. Red Pine

I read these three books of poetry a lot this year, partly in connection with the books and ideas mentioned above, which is why I'm making this a subset of them rather than an item of its own. Here are a couple lines from Hinton's translation of Tu Fu, the end of a poem he calls "Madman":

About to fill some ditch, he is carefree, the madman
grown old laughing at his growing steadily madder

And some Stone House via Red Pine's translation:

East or west north or south then back again
by cart or horse on land by boat or water
the gate to fame and fortune is as far away as Heaven
yet people by the millions kill themselves to reach it

 

3. A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

I read hardly any novels this year, but of the few I read, I very much enjoyed Elizabeth Taylor's A Wreath of Roses, which I wrote a post about in March.

 

4. James Baldwin

Every year, I try to do a deep dive into one or two writers — sometimes writers I feel I should have read, but haven't; sometimes, as this year, writers I've read haphazardly. This year, those writers were James Baldwin and Oscar Wilde, both of whom I've been reading for most of my life, but here and there, bit by bit, without discipline. 

During the horrors of this summer, the only writer I could read at any length was Baldwin, first via one novel of his I had never read, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone. That was a real pleasure to get into, and it inspired me to seek out more about the later part of Baldwin's life, which I, like many people, had a tendency to dismiss as a time when his talent dissipated, his work suffered, he grew less relevant. (I began to challenge that assumption when Barry Jenkins' wonderful adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk was released, and I read the novel for the first time. I thought, "If this book is so good, maybe my dismissal of later Baldwin is in error," but didn't have time to follow up on that idea. And yes, my dismissal of later Baldwin was terribly in error. I've actually come to like his later fiction — post-Another Country — more than his earlier.) 

I also delved into the literature about Baldwin in a way I never had before, having only previously read David Leeming's biography. First, there's the treasure-trove that is the open-access James Baldwin Review. Too much academic work is locked behind paywalls, and it is a pleasure to see a serious journal on a major writer available to all. Lynn Orilla Scott's James Baldwin's Later Fiction is an eye-opener, one of the best works of nonfiction I read all year. Given all the attention to Baldwin in recent years, it's remarkable that Scott's book remains the only one (that I know of) to thoroughly work through the second half of Baldwin's career as a novelist. The forces she outlines in her first chapter as ones holding back the reputation of Baldwin's later novels are forces still very much at play, as my own false assumptions show. 


5. Oscar Wilde

After my deep plunge into Baldwin in the summer and early fall, I spent the rest of the year doing a deep dive into Oscar Wilde. This came about because I happened to watch the wonderful 1945 film of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I had somehow never even heard of before. (Under the constraints of its era, it is faithful as an adaptation generally, and it's perfectly cast — George Sanders is a marvelous choice for Lord Henry Wotton and Hurd Hatfield was born to play Dorian Gray. And there's a very young Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane!) I returned to the book, which I've read a few times before, and then suddenly I was deep in Wildeania — reading Lady Windermere's Fan, which I'd never bothered with before, and which I adored, then plunging into Wilde's letters, reading around here and there without any goal, and then suddenly appeared Tom Cardamone's article for Lambda Literary on Wilde books (with recommendations from various gay male writers), which alerted me to Thomas Wright's Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, a delightful and illuminating kind of biography, one that tells the tale of a life through books. But that led me to wonder if anybody had done good work on Wilde's biography since Richard Ellmann's famous biography of 1987, given how much significant scholarship has come out in the last 25 years (including on Ellmann's errors). I knew of some less comprehensive biographical studies (of Wilde's U.S. lecture tour, for instance), but wasn't sure what else had come out recently.

Indeed, I discovered there have been Wilde biographies since, quite a few, with the most detailed being Matthew Sturgis's Oscar: A Life, a book that corrects a lot of the factual problems with Ellmann's biography, but isn't nearly as pleasurable to read. It's a useful reference, especially for some of the historical context. I think Kate Hext nailed some of its drawbacks well in a review for the TLS, pointing out that "during the decades since Ellmann’s biography, the story of Wilde’s life has been retold over and over in numerous part-biog­raphies, while archival discoveries about his writings and their contexts have proliferated in monographs and journal articles. Hardly any of this scholarship features in Sturgis’s reading." More illuminating is Nicholas Frankel's Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentent Years, a remarkably well-researched account of Wilde's life after his conviction for "gross indecency". This is the period of Wilde's life that most fascinates me, the time when he was broken and a pariah, struggling and mostly failing to write anything new. Frankel offers a more nuanced approach to these years than previous biographers, and I found his portrait of Wilde convincing. And though I was far less convinced by it, I also enjoyed reading The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna, a whole book of speculation about Wilde's love life, providing a useful corrective to other biographies (including Sturgis's) that are too conservative in their assumptions about Wilde and sex. This is far from as trivial as it may sound, because with Wilde, his love life is an unavoidable topic, and one that has suffered an efflorescence of rumors and inaccuracies since even before Wilde ended up in the dock of the Old Bailey. It's true, though, that along with some good archival work (including trial testimony owned by a private collector and not otherwise available), McKenna sometimes overdoes it. His book is full of perhapses and could haves, and when he makes less hedged assertions, they're not always well sourced in the notes, so it can be difficult to know why he is so certain about one thing or another. But I'd honestly rather have that than the more buttoned-down biographers who insist that there must be incontrovertible evidence that Wilde had sex with person X, Y, or Z before such a thing can be proclaimed. Such evidence is rare for anyone, especially evidence of homosexual activity in late-Victorian England. And anyway, queerness is all about imagination and speculation. I'm glad at least one writer has been willing to be imaginative and speculative about Wilde. (And: See also Neil Bartlett's Who Was That Man? and Gary Schmidgall's The Stranger Wilde. I had forgotten about the latter until I did this research, but when I saw its cover, I realized it was The Book, the one that first got me really interested in Wilde back when I was in college in New York and found it in the library. It's a messy book, but one I am nonetheless fond of and, in fact, grateful to.)

What I'm surprised by in looking at all the books and articles about Wilde is how little has been written about how the idea of Wilde has been used through the years. Had I world enough and time, I would write a book called The Uses of Oscar Wilde or something like that (Using Oscar?) — a book about how from the moment he became famous, the idea of Wilde has been of use to various ideologies and purposes. There have been some things like the edited collection The Importance of Reinventing Oscar: Versions of Wilde During the Last 100 Years, but it seems to me that perhaps more important than Wilde himself, maybe even more important than his actual writings, is the icon of Wilde in various eras, the way the figure of Wilde is conjured for various political, social, and aesthetic projects. Wilde's name is not evoked (or invoked) in the way other major writers' are. His name and figure are always already an argument.

Aside from Wilde's own writings, the most enjoyable experiences with Wildeania were movies: The Happy Prince from 2018, which focuses on the last few years of Wilde's life (after his two years in prison, when he was exiled and a pariah) and Oscar, an utterly and unjustly forgotten 1985 mini-series from the BBC, which I discovered via John Coulthart's post about it, where links to the YouTube videos are provided. I hope YouTube doesn't take it down, because it is utterly (utterly utterly!) unavailable elsewhere. Michael Gambon makes a wonderful Wilde, and the portrayal of his life in prison is the best of any film I've seen (and I think I've seen every one except the 1960 Oscar Wilde with Robert Morley, though I plan to get to it one of these days). Writer-producer John Hawkesworth — creator of one of my all-time favorite tv series, the Granada Sherlock Holmes adaptations — did a fine job of mining the letters and reminiscences for material, creating a surprisingly accurate version of Wilde, given what information was available to the general public at the time, two years before Ellmann's biography and fifteen years before the most complete edition of the letters. Though Tim Hardy as Bosie isn't nearly as great as Jude Law in Wilde, and the show had a limited budget, it is otherwise equal and often superior in every way to the Stephen Fry biopic. 

 

6. Poor Queer Studies

The best academic book I read this year was Poor Queer Studies by Matt Brim, whose first book (James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination) was one I read some years ago while working on my Ph.D. I wrote at length about Poor Queer Studies at my academic blog, so won't say more about it here except that it's an important work for anybody interested in higher education, regardless of their interest in Queer Studies itself as a field. Queer Studies is used as a case study in the book, and though Brim is able to offer significant insights about the field through that case study, the greatest insights in the book are applicable to just about any field throughout academia.

 

7. Malcolm X

This year saw the release of two important biographical projects about Malcolm X: The documentary series Who Killed Malcolm X on Netlfix and the book The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by the late Les Payne and his daughter Tamara Payne, which quickly won multiple awards.

I expect a lot of people will want to set The Dead Are Arising against Manning Marable's earlier Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention — both books, interestingly, won the Pulitzer Prize, and neither Les Payne nor Manning Marable lived to see their book released (though Marable at least lived long enough to finish final edits; Payne's book was finished by Tamara Payne, who was his research assistant). However, rather than facing off in some sort of duel for definitiveness, the two books complement each other well. Payne's book is significantly better on Malcolm's early years, and generally tells the biographical story more clearly and grippingly. Marable is much better on Malcolm's politics and political development. (Consider: The main texts of the books are roughly the same length. 100 pages into Marable's, and we're already to 1952. 100 pages into Payne's, and we've only gotten to the late 1930s.) This makes sense, since Payne was a journalist and Marable was a political historian and professor of African-American Studies. They both did their jobs well. A reader new to Malcolm X would be well served by reading Payne's book first, then Marable's (and, of course, reading Malcolm X's autobiography, writings, and speeches). Both these biographies, though hardly beyond criticism, seem to me essential for understanding American history, and I feel lucky as a reader to have them both.

I watched Netflix's Who Killed Malcolm X shortly before Payne's biography was published. It's a good, compelling, and valuable documentary, though it also has some weirdnesses apparent to anyone who has followed the story of Malcolm X's assassination. For the sake of drama, the film makes it seem that we are watching Abdur-Rahman Muhammad as he puts the pieces together, but at least some of what we are shown is after the fact, because Muhammad worked with Manning Marable at least as far back as 2005, and for at least a decade now has made the claim that William Brady was the shooter whose bullet killed Malcolm, a claim that Marable used for his book (and which Les Payne also supports). You would never know from the film that the identity of the shooter has been known (or at least claimed) for a while now, because Who Killed Malcolm X? makes it seem like this is a brand new discovery. It's great for the drama, and it's certainly true that Muhammad deserves lots of credit for keeping on the case when just about everybody else wanted it buried, but it's all a bit weird if you aren't entering the film completely new to the story. Nonetheless, the documentary is still pretty true to the facts, feelings, and overall chronology. It's exciting to watch, Muhammad is a charismatic guide to the story, and the film has gained attention in a way even a prize-winning book doesn't these days, so the Manhattan District Attorney looked into re-opening the case. If you haven't seen it, it is definitely worth your time.

 

8. Zoom 

2020 was a unique year in that I spent at least as much time viewing my friends, colleagues, and family as I did viewing movies. The pandemic made Zoom into as familiar a techword as Google as it verbed its way into our everyday conversations. 

A year ago, I would not have believed that a human could survive 8 hours (or longer!) in Zoom meetings, but now not only do I know they can survive it ... I am one of the survivors. (I think the longest day of Zooming I had was about 11 hours.) And survive is the operative word. While I am grateful for being able to keep some connection with the world beyond, I cannot say that it is especially fun to be on Zoom for hours at a time. 

A few video-based things that were directly affected by or created because of the pandemic ended up being some of my greatest pleasures this year, first and foremost Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, which happened early-ish in the pandemic (late April) and was the first (maybe only) extended, remote event to bring me real joy. There were lots of highlights ("The Ladies Who Lunch" lit up the internet; "Someone in a Tree" was flat-out sublime), but it really was the whole experience of watching it live that I will remember, because late April was a pretty tough time, a time when we had to face the fact that this pandemic wasn't going away soon and our lives were going to be constricted (and threatened) for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, a few weeks before the Sondheim tribute, we got Thao & The Get Down Stay Down's video for "Phenom", the first really creative use of the Zoom aesthetic that I saw. I'll long remember the thrill I felt when the dancers all started working together. It was the thrill of seeing an entirely new artform explode from the most ancient forms. Perfume Genius took another approach to music videos in the pandemic, creating a competition for fans to pitch concepts for videos of the song "Without You" and then funding three of them. My favorite is Samantha Mitchell's, which is the most literal interpretation of the song for life in lockdown, but its simple beauty is especially powerful. (Perfume Genius also released some great videos of their own this year, including the wonderful, weird epic "Describe", which I really ought to categorize as one of my favorite films of the year, regardless of length. Definitely my favorite folk-horror apocalyptic dance movie of the year!)

 

9. Comfort

The most comforting tv shows I watched this year were all British series: The Repair Shop, The Great British Baking Show (of course), and GBBS's lesser-heralded cousin The Great Pottery Throw Down. GBBS is an old favorite, but The Repair Shop and The Great Pottery Throw Down were discoveries this year, and I adored them both. All three shows are quiet and gentle, even the two competition shows, and all three honor skillfulness and craft. In a world where so much is disposable, where cheap speed is valued over care and skill, these shows matter in a way that is far beyond their fun premises and pleasant personalities. They remind us of things that give texture and value to life, and they do not reduce that texture and value to spreadsheets and algorithms. 

 

10. Until the End of the World and Pain and Glory 

If I were forced to choose the favorite film I watched for the first time in 2020, it would be the first one I watched: the complete cut of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World. For my thoughts on it, see the review I wrote at Letterboxd. But right up there with it is Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, which I didn't write anything about because I found the film so overwhelmingly powerful that I didn't really have any words to express what it meant to me. I still don't, really, except to say that while I love a lot of Almodóvar's films, this one is easily my favorite, the one that most deeply synchs with my own concerns, passions, fears, joys.

(It also seems to me that these two films together give a good description of 2020 just in their titles.)

11. The True History of the Kelly Gang and His House

The movies released in 2020 that I have found myself recommending most frequently and fervently are The True History of the Kelly Gang and His House. (If for some weird reason you want to see all my favorites of 2020, you can check out my ratings and reviews at Letterboxd. I use Letterboxd to keep track of movies I've seen. It's hardly complete, because a lot of things I've felt indifferent to, I haven't bothered with, but most of the highs and lows are there. I use it as a notebook for myself, primarily.)

True History of the Kelly Gang appears to have slipped under the radar of everybody except John Waters, and while not without flaws, it's pretty great overall, with many individual moments of brilliance. I haven't read the Peter Carey novel it's based on, so perhaps devotees have things to be disappointed by (or not), but setting aside the question of adaptation, it is a visceral, surreal film, a kind of epic version of director Justin Kurzel's masterpiece Snowtown 

His House seems to me to be a perfect balance of the horror and social drama film, becoming in many ways a kind of ideal horror movie for me. It's also one of the scariest movies I've seen in a long time, and I am mostly immune to scariness in movies. It uses the supernatural horror elements to give an overwhelming power to situations of real life that are themselves truly and deeply horrifying. On one hand, I think everybody should see this movie because it is so well made and tackles such important topics ... but on the other hand, I worry about anybody with a heart condition... 

In any case, if someone asks me what I want from a horror movie, I now have an easy answer: His House.

 

12. Dark

I had very high expectations for the third and final season of Dark, one of my favorite shows of recent years, a true mindbender. I've watched the first two seasons twice now completely and certain episodes even more than that. The first season remains the gem, because there was no way for the later seasons to replicate the power of surprise in the first season. The second and third seasons are both overlong, but I enjoyed the characters and situations so much I didn't really care. 

The third season adds even more complexity to what is one of the most complex (or convoluted) shows ever made, which alone is impressive, because there was every chance and likelihood that it would pull a Lost and collapse under the weight of its own mysteries. It really does end up working something like clockwork, though, which is pretty remarkable. Satisfying? That's less clear. The ending is something of a nod to those shows like Lost that just blow up in their own faces, but it also manages something pretty impressive: it restores mystery to what became a closed loop. (And that closed loop proves to be key to the show's overall themes of how obsession, hatred, and secrecy reduce life's scope and empty it of value.) I didn't love the ending, but I didn't hate it, either, and I can't think of a significantly different and more satisfying way the show could have gotten out of the circumstances it set up. I will need to watch the third season again to get a real sense of how I feel about it all. But I can certainly say I have great admiration for the series as a whole, and it has stuck in my memory, imagination, and thoughts in a way few others have. During the anxieties of the pandemic, it was nice to have this puzzle to think through.

 


13. Barry Lopez

On Christmas day, Barry Lopez died. Twenty years ago, I had the good luck to spend a week in his workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and it changed my life. I truly don't know if I would have continued writing if not for that workshop, and I am quite certain that my writing would have been different. The discussions we had and exercises we did led directly to a lot of my stories, including the title story of my collection, far and away the most successful story I have published in terms of reader response. One of my earliest posts at this site was a brief look at Lopez's story "The Mappist", which remains among my all-time favorite short stories. Parts of my story "Mass" in Conjunctions 68 were written as explicit homage to Lopez's story, particularly the ending. I can find traces of his ideas and words throughout most of what I've written. 

Aside from one letter I wrote to thank him, and his gracious and thoughtful reply, we didn't keep in touch, so I can't say I was a friend of his or that he even remembered my name, which I'm sure he did not. But Barry Lopez made a huge difference in my life, I have great fondness for his writings, and his ideas continue to both challenge and comfort me.

To finish out this glimpse back at 2020, then, here are some online pieces by Barry Lopez that are well worth spending time with:

 

After a few moments I turned off the headlights and rolled down the window. I listened to the tires crushing gravel in the roadbed. The sound of it helped me hold the road, together with instinct and the memory of earlier having driven it.
—Barry Lopez, "The Mappist"

 


Northern spotted owl, near the McKenzie River, photo by USFS

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