Summer 2013 Focus on Anxiety: John Cheever, Rollo May, Goce Smilevski, Susanna Clarke, Carson McCullers

I’ve come across much discussion of anxiety lately in media, books: paranoia, fears, the existential questions that are the bane of our modern existence. I checked out all of the below selections independently of one another, yet there are connections. Each writer is able to tap into the inner struggles of the self, as the self rationalizes (or does not) its place in the world.

I’m finally returning The Stories of John Cheever to the library. I’m always intensely interested in his characters while reading–their emotions, complexity. His stories are rich and captivating. Yet, for many of them, the emotional resonance I initially feel dissipates after reading. I think something such as “What a bunch of whiny rich fops!” And, I don’t much care if the character dies at the end. This might just be an effect of reading a near 700-page Cheever collection, but it seems he does kill off a bunch of these whiny rich fops at the end. It’s a kind of crass despair for the world in which these malnourished souls circulate.

Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety might shed some light on the issues these Cheever people have, that all of us have on some level. My description of May’s book is nothing less than cliche: landmark, seminal, necessary. It is. Thank you, Bookslut, for recommending the read. A good portion of the beginning of the book focuses on modern interpretations of anxiety: in literature, in social studies, in politics, in philosophy, in theology, and in psychology. This first section of the book is an excellent analysis I think I’ll add to the optional reading list for my World Literature II course, for the mid-twentieth century unit. This book should be required reading for everyone–maybe everyone should have to read it at ages 18, 25, and 35, just to make sure they have some perspective at appropriate intervals.

For a completely different style and scope as compared to Cheever, yet continuing with this theme of anxiety, check out the more recent Freud’s Sister by Goce Smilevski. The small novel is incredibly poetic and tightly shaped by repetition, parallelism of themes, images, and language. The poetry of the prose makes me marvel at the ambitious work of translation, as the novel was originally penned in Macedonian. The novel won the European Union Prize for Literature. Amazon reviews for it are not stellar, but I believe these responses come from readers unable or unwilling to immerse themselves in the intense poetry of the prose, or perhaps the intensely singular point of view. Maybe the nature of translation has something to do with it, but it as if Smilevski is writing from another time.

Speaking of writing from another time, we could also consider the perfectly entertaining pastiche of Susanna Clarke’s alternative history, where magicians suffer immense anxiety over what has changed, what may be lost, what to do now. I started a re-read of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, though I’m not very far along. I just about suffered entry into a mid-life crisis when I realized it had almost been a DECADE since I read the book. It was originally released in 2004. Details have faded from memory, and left me with the dreaded “cocktail party trap” described in this recent New Yorker article: “The Curse of Reading and Forgetting”.

My excitement over the Collected Stories of Carson McCullers has not abated a bit. I nearly fell out after finishing The Member of the Wedding–if it’s not an intense focus on adolescent anxiety, then I don’t know what is. Also, if you love Welty or O’Connor, pick this book up. It has 19 stories, in addition to The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe.

If you’ve already clicked through and read the above New Yorker article, you should now be fairly anxious about forgetting what you’ve read and fearful of experiencing the “cocktail party trap.” I’d suggest picking a couple of your old favorites to re-read this summer. It might be a shame for a decade to have passed since that read, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you enjoy any of the above recommendations, please let me know.

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