Navel-gazing raised to an art

Five great contemporary books about self-consciousness.

Ann Beattie
June 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Reader's Block by David Markson

The character Reader contemplates writing a novel out of the flotsam and jetsam (provided) of civilization's so-called progress, to which Reader's own life seems to have moved in counterpoint. No one but Beckett can be quite as sad and funny at the same time as Markson can. This book is nearly an allegory, yet the shifting sands of time have left no clear model for its point of departure.

Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer

Dyer's tongue-in-cheek, heart-on-sleeve, disingenuously ingenuous account of trying and failing to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence really hit -- for this procrastinator -- where it hurt, persuading me that the unexamined life might well be the best thing one could hope for. This takes self-consciousness to a new level. A brilliant tour de force of life as a fishbowl.


The Magician's Wife by Brian Moore

In the spirit of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" -- which has influenced far more contemporary American fiction than critics seem to realize -- Moore presents the dawning consciousness of a young woman imagining she might be set free in conjunction with the story of her resolute magician husband, who has been pressed into the service of a cause he barely understands. The characters strain to understand, but the undertow of history is too great. The book raises interesting questions about how far one does or does not get in the process of self-reflection.

All Around Atlantis by Deborah Eisenberg

Among the most brilliant (and sneaky) of American short-story writers, Eisenberg creates characters who yearn to reach another level of consciousness, but who seem to doomed to implode. The story "Mermaids," and what it says about childhood, and what it says even about television screens, is particularly amazing. She gets the claustrophobia, and the self-consciousness, of adolescence all too perfectly.

Midair by Frank Conroy

The (forgive me) recovered memory of the title story is a true dazzler. But Conroy has let the reader in on the secret from the beginning, so the tension in the story has to do with our perspective on what the character himself does not have a perspective on. It's sad and funny and a great illustration of what Flannery O'Connor said was necessary: having something function on a literal, then a symbolic level. This elevator does.


Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie's most recent book is "Park City: New and Selected Stories."

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