[5 January 2009]
Introduction by Rodger Jacobs
We live in anxious times. Nowhere is that statement of indisputable fact better demonstrated than in the 23 outstanding books that grace this compelling but troubling Best Of list from our contributors. The opening line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book serves to best demonstrate the tension-fraught direction that this literary inventory clearly takes:
“There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.”
Troubled yet? You should be. The popularity of these 23 titles, and the overall critical consensus of their artistic worth and viability, represents nothing less than a collective reaction formation. In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defensive process whereby unacceptable emotions and impulses are countered and tempered by exaggerating the directly opposing tendency.
Reaction formation is more profound and primal than “say one thing and do another”, as explained by Calvin S. Hall in A Primer of Freudian Psychology (1954):
“… the ego may try to sidetrack the offending impulse by concentrating upon its opposite … when one of the instincts produces anxiety.”
When the ego cannot cope with the demands of desires and reality, anxiety takes over and anxiety, Freud tells us, is an unpleasant inner state that we seek to avoid at all costs. All 23 of the fictional works on this year’s list fall directly or indirectly into this mud patch of psychoanalytic theory.
A tendency to overindulge in the past indicates an anxiety toward and fear of the present and the future. Eight of the novels on this list, not surprising given our anxious present, are historical narratives, ranging from an epic adventure set against the backdrop of the 19th Century Calcutta Opium Wars (Sea of Poppies) to Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning The Enchantress of Florence, a lush fairy tale featuring a moody sultan and historical characters like Machiavelli in the faraway lands of Medici Florence and Mughal India.
Norman Mailer once said that it takes ten years for popular culture to absorb and process a major event, and that may be the reason why the great 9/11 novel has yet to be written, after stabs at the dubious subgenre by John Updike, Ian McEwan, and Jonathan Safron Foer. Deep down, each and every one of us knows that there’s something amiss in the tragic events of September 11, 2001, too many convenient truths such as the surviving passport of one of the hijackers found amid the debris on a Manhattan street after a fiery inferno with enough Satanic intensity to melt glass and steel; the knowledge that something is askew has crept into our collective subconscious but we don’t speak about it (except for the realm of conspiracy theorists) and the suppression creates anxiety; the literary reaction formation is yet three more novels confronting not the lingering questions and doubts, but the emotional trauma of 9/11 on New Yorkers: riddle-master Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (wherein the protagonist wakes up in a parallel world where 9/11 never happened), Joseph O’Neill’s best-seller Netherland, and The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt.
Reaction formation is on ample display in the dazzling debut novel of Joe McGinniss Jr., The Delivery Man, and Willy Vlautin’s second emotion-laden ballad of the underclass, Northline. Both books, by no small coincidence, are set in the anxiety-producing gambling meccas of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, and both works are populated by self-defeating American youth who make up for their lack of substance through Herculean efforts at self-defeat and self-annihilation.
By now you probably know how to take the psychoanalytic theory and apply it to this compilation of 2008 fiction releases. We could make the application title for title for you, but it probably wouldn’t be as much fun as making the leap for yourself. To paraphrase novelist and social anthropologist J.G. Ballard, human beings are not meant to be comfortable. We need tension, stress, and uncertainty. With this list we honor 22 authors who have constructed their own logical alternative universe to what they see as a poisoned realm, which just might be a reasonable and accurate description of the world today.
Note: Some titles included may have been originally published before 2008. They make this year’s Best Of list as a new paperback version or a reprint published in 2008.
All too often, contemporary novelists create works of polite and studied formal perfection, smoothly polished and sturdily built, widely praised and unspeakably dull. Such novels are the luxury condo developments of literature, constructed with fine materials and functional layouts, but devoid of character, significance, or soul. And if some books are condos, Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously-published masterpiece 2666 is an expansive, teeming city, chaotic and vibrant, beautiful but rough around the edges, home to both gleaming towers and squalid holes. For all the intellectual depth, dazzling range, and grand, fully-realized ambition on display in the book, it is ultimately Bolaño’s adamant compassion for his characters that makes 2666 so deeply involving and compelling. Although Bolaño frequently expressed doubts in his work about whether writers and literature possess the power to affect change in the world, with 2666 he has at the very least offered a towering testament to the novel’s ability to express the meaning and significance of human lives. Ryan Michael Williams
José Saramago’s 13-year-old classic would not have made this list without the assistance of Fernando Meirelles’ cinematic adaptation, one that the author resisted for years. While Saramago had particular demands—the city in which the action takes place should be unrecognizable; the canine at the end had to be a large dog—it was mostly because he thought the work too violent to be portrayed on film. Meirelles’ version was disturbing, but Saramago’s vision of what happens when a world goes blind with whiteness, leaving its inhabitants to their own devices for survival, has many things to teach us about human nature and relationships: most notably, how and when we use one another, as well as the ways in which this id-ridden act takes its tolls on the people and world around us. It is not a morality lesson—the atheist author has no inclinations toward theological speculations—but it does hold up a mirror to the best and worst of us, naked, raw, and powerful. Derek Beres
José Saramago has written perhaps one of the more inventive works of the year in Death with Interruptions. A novel of two parts, in the first, Death decides to go on strike in an unnamed country. Initially, the citizens are thrilled but as time goes on, seven months to be precise, the country’s denizens become less and less enamored of the idea. Saramago’s critique of capitalism is poignant, in the demise of institutions of power as we know it with the end of Death. Funeral homes and insurance agencies go bankrupt. Instead of dying, people languish in their current state of senility, disfigurement, or dilapidation. By the time we reach the second part of the novel, Saramago begins to offer clues to the puzzle of Lady Death’s refusal to kill anyone – she has fallen in love with a cellist. And he is no cellist of particular fame or significance but one member of a multi-person orchestra who refuses to accept her letter which announces his own death. This novel is striking because it asks and attempts to answer questions that pertain to life, death, and the human condition. A writer of many a great parable, Saramago created a tiny treasure this year with Death with Interruptions. Courtney Young
Chase, a 25-year-old art school graduate, returns from college to his hometown and through a series of elaborate self-defeating moves finds himself hopelessly embroiled in a job as a “delivery man” (driver and protector) for a ring of teenage outcall hookers working from the Versailles Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Chase’s childhood friend, Michele, a beautiful Salvadoran immigrant with whom he shares an extraordinarily tragic past, runs the business for mutual friend Bailey, another foolish underachiever whose business skills are too limited even for the sex trade. A harrowing journey set in the suburbs and exurbs of Las Vegas, this debut novel by Joe McGinniss, Jr. provides a snapshot from hell of a contemporary youth culture in full cardiac arrest, children forced to become adults all too soon, compelled to absorb childhood traumas and adolescent catastrophes in a quiet and understated way until the whole bloody mess comes boiling to the surface in anarchic, anti-social behavior. Stephen King has nothing on Joe McGinniss, Jr. with this single line of dialogue on page 265 guaranteed to send chills up the spine of any warm-blooded mammal: “Oh, dude, you’re so fucked.” Rodger Jacobs
There is a sub-genre that is on the upswing in the world of book publishing. That would be the superhero novel. The themes and concepts typically found in the four-colored world of comic books have made their way in the decidedly un-graphic pages of books. Now, the superhero novel has received its standard bearer, the one novel all others in the sub-genre will be compared to. That novel is Devil’s Cape by Rob Rogers. The key to success in any novel, but especially genre fiction, is to create a believable world with realistic characters. The situations can be fantastic, but there has to be an element of truth there. Devil’s Cape is a town in Louisiana, just a few miles away from New Orleans. The town was founded by pirates and, today, the bad guys rule in Devil’s Cape. Pity any superhero who dares try to fight them. If they can’t kill you, they’ll kill your family. If you don’t have a family, they’ll find someone close to you to kill, whatever it takes for them to keep their power over you – and the city. Rogers creates a vivid and vibrant world from whole cloth which seems like it truly can exist right outside your window. And that is what makes this book so successful. Devil’s Cape is a quick read in the best sense of the word. It is truly difficult to put down. It proudly deserves a place next to Tom Clancy and Stephen King as a sterling example of the best of genre fiction. Even if you don’t like superheroes, you are bound to be captivated by Devil’s Cape. William Gatevackes
Chuck Klosterman’s first piece of published fiction was the meandering, dull, semi-autobiographical coda to Chuck Klosterman IV, which seemed like it was tacked on simply to bump the book up to a respectable length. It comes as no small relief, then, that Downtown Owl shares few of the weaknesses of its predecessor. This isn’t to say that Klosterman abandons his distinctive voice. He simply puts that voice to use describing the lives of other people—specifically, the football-playing teenager Mitch, the 20-something Julia, and the elderly Horace. The three have little in common—they all live in the small town of Owl, North Dakota, but otherwise have little interaction—but by weaving their three stories around each other, Klosterman constructs a touching, incisive, and (of course) funny snapshot of small-town America circa 1984. And if the story occasionally falters or takes off on tangents, who cares? It’s all tremendously fun to read. Kyle Deas
Mary Doria Russell’s briskly-paced novel gets itself past a rather elaborate and hard-to-believe setup with aplomb, and everything that follows after that is worth that initial vault of suspending disbelief. Agnes Shanklin is an Ohio teacher of calm and modest bearing (bordering on spinsterhood) whose existence is upended when she loses her entire family to the 1919 flu epidemic. Shorn of much of her care about the old life, and newly possessed of monies and introductions to important people in the Middle East (via her sister’s missionary work), Agnes ends up traveling to Egypt. This just so happens to be the perfect setting for Russell to have her character get chummy with the likes of Winston Churchill (funny and rude, obsessed with painting) and T. E. Lawrence (mysterious and droll) just as the British are getting set to reshape the entire region for the coming century. Between the cocktail parties, spies, and the momentous backdrop of events, Russell’s novel almost tilts into a pastiche of historical fiction, but is saved by her crystal-clear writing and a shocking denouement that turns everything upside down. Prescient, sharp-tongued, and funny, with a tart warning for the future. Chris Barsanti
There’s an operatic over-stuffedness to this multigenerational fairytale. The story winds from Medici Florence to Mughal India to the darkest jungles of the new world, crossing barren wastes with a Djinni’s instantaneous insouciance. In this 1001 Nights-ish world, the main characters are baroquely fictional – a mood-ridden Sultan who invents a wife out of thin air; a yellow-haired wanderer who claims royal Mughal blood, a skeletal prostitute; a long-lost princess – though historical characters like Machiavelli, Andrea Doria and Amerigo Vespucci inhabit the margins. There is nothing minimal about the writing – why use one word when a florid list will do? – but Rushdie piles on the descriptive embellishments like dishes at a ravishing feast. Inside baroque flourishes and embellishments, however, you’ll find disarmingly simple themes: the world-bending powers of the storyteller, the dizzying transience of love. The story is fantastical, enchanting and tipped to its very top with cacophonous imagery. Jennifer Kelly
That Berlinski is the main character in his own novel is the first thing one notices about Fieldwork, but hardly the only thing one takes away. Having followed his girlfriend to Thailand, the fictional Berlinski soon hears of an American anthropologist who turns up dead in the Thai prison where she’s serving a life sentence. To provide anything beyond this rudimentary summery would do both the novel and its potential readers a disservice. Simply listing the plot details can only begin to suggest the depths of creativity on display here. Likewise, to approach Fieldwork with foreknowledge of major plot points would diminish the experience. Berlinski himself worked as a journalist in Thailand, and his experiences have surely helped shape his writing. That Fieldwork is impeccably researched is beyond question, but Berlinski doesn’t flaunt his erudition needlessly. Instead, the information he’s accumulated provides a steady foundation, allowing him to write with an earned authority that never fails to convince. One need not harbor any particular interest in the minutia of Christian missionary work or the eponymous anthropological fieldwork to appreciate his accomplishment. This is clearly the work of a superior intellect, but one that doesn’t shy away from juicy plot twists or exciting set pieces, fashioning a story that thrills without condescension. Nav Purewal
Neil Gaiman likes to write children’s books from time to time, but he’s not much good at it—or rather, he’s so good at it that it hardly seems like he’s written a children’s book at all. Coraline (2002) was, truth be told, one of the most chilling books I’ve ever read, and if The Graveyard Book isn’t quite as creepy, its certainly no less macabre. Loosely based on its namesake The Jungle Book, this is the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, who is raised by a group of ghosts after his parents are brutally murdered. The story progresses much the same as The Jungle Book, but what makes this such a joy isn’t the plot but the prose. Gaiman never panders to his intended audience, in style or in content. Instead he plays around with the constraints of the young-adult genre, keeping his writing simple without ever sacrificing its beauty. “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”, reads the first sentence, and The Tale of Two Cities aside, I’ll be damned if I can think of a better opening line off the top of my head. I certainly wouldn’t hand this to just any child—or adult, for that matter—but for those young ones mature enough to handle it (and the rest of us, of course), this is a magical, touching book, and it ranks among Gaiman’s best. Kyle Deas
Marilynne Robinson has established herself to be somewhat of a national treasure. Both of her prior novels Housekeeping and Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) received well-deserved scholarly and public attention. Her newest novel, Home, is a continuation of literary excellence and an extension of Gilead from the perspective of the 38-year-old Glory Boughton. Home is a tableau of relationships along the backdrop of 1950s puritanical Gilead, Iowa. Glory, the eldest of her father Robert Boughton’s eight children, returns home to care for him after her fiancé dumps her. The narration is further complicated by the return home of her mercurial brother Jack Boughton, who has had a child with a black woman and wants to ascertain if Gilead would be a proper place to bring his interracial family. But most importantly, he returns to Gilead to find peace, something which has managed to eclipse each character in the novel. The book is full of sin and redemption with a beauty that melts onto the pages like butter. It’s a healing, evocative work that is truly one of the greatest books to make its entry this year. Courtney Young
This is Stephen King’s first short story collection since the National Book Foundation honored him with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Awards in 2003, which also makes it his first collection as a literary author as opposed to a popular author. (It’s the mask of respectability that makes all the difference.) Long-term King Reader’s needn’t worry, though. Sure, maybe the packaging has changed, but that doesn’t mean that the product is any different. In fact, the 13 stories that make up Just After Sunset are classic King: ghosts who learn belatedly that they’re dead; a young woman, abducted by a serial killer, must outwit – and outrun – her captor; a timid author summons his pseudonymous hard-boiled alter-ego to avoid a nasty scrape at an out-of-the-way rest stop; and an overweight artist takes a trip to the Twilight Zone on his stationary bike. These are dark, suspenseful, comic, tragic, and even romantic stories. Just After Sunset holds some of the best King stories we’ve been offered in quite a while. Read this collection and you will be scared—but you will be scared in a more sophisticated manner than you were from King’s stories of earlier years. Steven T. Boltz
While Last Last Chance is recommended for the simple reason that it’s a fantastic book, it is also worth celebrating as an introductory statement from a young writer we should expect a great deal from going forward. Last Last Chance is part romance, part road story; it’s hilarious and it’s sad. Mostly, it’s a whip-smart treatise from the trenches, chronicling the increasingly desperate attempts of a young woman to connect with an increasingly insane world. While a considerable amount of her grief is self-induced, that is part of her charm. Besides, who can blame her for wanting to escape, by any means necessary, from a country that might be on the brink of apocalypse? One particularly tired cliché about a moving work of art is that it can cause you to laugh as well as cry; when you actually encounter the rare effort that accomplishes this, it’s something to shout about. Sean Murphy
Paul Auster’s metaphysical literary journey continues in the form of August Brill in his newest novel Man in the Dark. The book retains many of the classic Auster staples—literal or metaphorically geriatric men who are plagued by some sort of calamity in an urban setting. Our protagonist, August Brill, is a 72-year-old retired book editor of some prestige who is besieged with a procession of miseries in a relatively short period of time. His leg is mangled as a result of a particularly horrible car accident that also claimed the life of his wife. His granddaughter is mourning the murder of her boyfriend and his daughter is deeply depressed over her failed marriage. His anguish prevents him from sleep and in one particularly sleepless night, he lays in bed and invents a series of tales. The main tale features a 29-year-old married man from Brooklyn named Owen Brick, who has chosen to put an end to an epic war in America between the blue states (succeeding from the union in outrage as a result of the leadership of George W. Bush) and the red states (backed by the federal government). More specifically, Brick is to assassinate August Brill, the creator of the war (as he is the inventor of the tale and the sole reason it continues), all with the assistance of his high school sweetheart. The shifting narratives and protagonists make for an interesting dance in what is one of the more enjoyable reads of the year. Courtney Young
Relegating The Man Who Was Thursday to the company of swashbuckling pap and Robinson Crusoe knockoffs is tragically sinful. Yes, there are law officers in the novel and some action, but these features certainly cannot be categorically damning of their works to the ranks of Young Adult Fiction. After all, we do not throw The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at our children’s feet and tell them to go. Pearls before swine. So very much of the dynamic theological and ethical concerns which The Man Who Was Thursday entertains would be missed by a “young adult” that the novel would be an entirely different affair. And yes, I am keenly aware that similar entities such as the Narnia saga or Shrek operate on a sliding scale and encourage revisitation as one matures to find entirely new dimensions to their childhood favorites. However, The Man Who Was Thursday’s conflict of mytho-philosophy is not simply another strata of the book’s meaning, this wrestling with angels is the book—absolutely. With the utmost care and exemplary craft, this story transitions seamlessly between rather quotidian adventure and intoxicating and unnerving conflations of myth and philosophy. Erik Hinton
The weight of a Toni Morrison novel, in the figurative sense, is particularly spectacular. In 2006, a motley of writers and critics voted Beloved the best book of the last 25 years in the New York Times Book Review. Song of Solomon is often touted as a classic work but Morrison prefers Jazz to all her novels to date. This year, Morrison released her latest novel, A Mercy, a continuation of her unofficial role as gatekeeper of the riches and evils of American history. Considered by some to be a prequel to Beloved, A Mercy examines American slavery in the 1680s that was predicated not so much by race but economics. Central to the narrative are four women: Florens, the narrative center, who is sold by her mother in payment of her master’s debt; Lina, a Native American servant and survivor of a smallpox outbreak; Sorrow, a peculiar servant child with a wild streak; and Rebekkah, their European mistress. A Mercy may not be as poetic as Jazz, as monumental as Beloved, or as magical as Song of Solomon but it is the continuation of a tradition that brings to a head the sins and omissions in American history through the literary lens. A Mercy is a hymn of a novel, just a tad longer than a novella but nonetheless a beautiful accompaniment to Morrison’s prior works. Courtney Young
Hillary Jordan’s book won the Bellwether Publication Prize, an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver for novels dealing with social issues. If Kingsolver’s imprimateur isn’t enough to get you reading this book, well, what is? World War II has just ended, bringing war heroes Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson back to their farming families in the Mississippi Delta. McAllan, white, joins his older brother Henry, himself a veteran of World War I, Henry’s bride Laura, and Pappy, their racist, son-of-a-bitch father, on Henry’s recently purchased farm. Henry loves the land and is overjoyed to be growing cotton in the rural Delta mud. Laura, uprooted from genteel city life and her family, is unhappy and resentful, reduced to living in a shack lacking plumbing or electricity and tending to Pappy’s endless demands. Jordan makes her characters likable despite their failings, so we understand Laura’s narrowmindedness, Henry’s chauvinsism, Jamie’s ultimately killing weaknesses. Only Pappy and his buddies are thoroughly despicable. If only they weren’t so reminiscent of more recent events: it is impossible to read Mudbound without images of the Ninth Ward flooding one’s inner eye, or recalling the remarks made about its residents by former First Lady Barbara Bush. Diane Leach
Although sold as a post-9/11 novel, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is really more an examination of emotional stasis triggered by trauma. Hans, a mild-mannered Dutch investment analyst finds himself adrift in Manhattan after his wife returns to London with their child, leaving him with only a loose-formed Staten Island cricket team and a varied cast of similarly drifting immigrants for company. The sole thin thread keeping Hans from spinning out of control completely is his friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricketer, operator, possible criminal, and full-blown force of verbal nature. Chuck’s rambling monologues, delivered to a protagonist nearly supine with grief and dislocation, give the novel much of its juice. But what really sets Netherland apart is how O’Neill manages to use Hans and Chuck’s peculiar friendship as a lens through which to see the marvels of New York in a whole new light. Chris Barsanti
Willy Vlautin’s heroes are the downtrodden characters who inhabit the less than hospitable land of Nevada; his Beckett-esque creations pass their cursed time in life in dive bars, broken-down casinos, and bleak roadside motels where the neon signs never stop blinking. The world is an unstable place, the imaginary Paul Newman advises Allison, the emotionally wounded and self-destructive protagonist, and the sooner one seizes that reality, the clearer the road to recovery becomes: “Remember, kid, there ain’t no place you can escape to. There’s no place where there aren’t weirdos and death and change and new people.” Keep running, he tells her, and “you’ll run into yourself.” No author writes about the deep yearning inside the hearts of the marginalized and displaced in contemporary society with a more unerring and sympathetic eye than Vlautin. Northline is brutal and nakedly honest but in the end it is also a tender and touching love story, albeit one built on the concept that the human longing for stability is a deception based upon an illusion. Rodger Jacobs
This lavish and adventurous romance is set in and around Calcutta circa 1839, where a varied cast of characters await the arrival of a ship taking coolie labor to Mauritius. Among those populating Ghosh’s incident-choked narrative are Deeti, married to a hopeless addict who works in the British opium factory, and Raja Neel Rattan, a landowner on the verge of having his vast estates repossessed by the British. Like in any grand tale of this sort, there are loves that risk everything by breaking convention, particularly in the case of the love Kalua, a low-caste laborer, feels for the higher-born Deeti. Almost as thrilling, though, is Ghosh’s language, a stew of pidgin, Indian-inflected English that fairly drowns the reader in atmosphere. The action-packed plot vaults past melodrama (mistaken identities, thrilling chases) into something truly grand. Sea of Poppies is supposedly the first part of a trilogy, which helps remove the sting of a seemingly premature conclusion for readers who’ve been hooked by Ghosh’s thrilling writing and are desperate to know what happens next. Chris Barsanti
This is a novel of secrets and ghosts: Lars’ ghosts, which follow him back to Minnesota after his service in World War II; Erik, divorced, lonely, plagued by a patient’s suicide; the widowed Inga, who learns her husband, famous writer Max Blaustein, led a secret life during their tumultuous marriage. Even Sonia, Inga’s 18-year-old daughter, carries painful burdens, including what she saw from her schoolroom window on September 11, 2001. In a lesser writer’s hands, this glut of thematic material could wind a novel into a hopeless knot. Hustvedt’s facility is such that instead, we are lead through the inseparable interactions of mind and body as her characters move through the story. The effect is exhilarating rather than jarring, as events urge us forward, each secret offering up a truth that in turn unlocks another door. The Sorrows of an American concludes thoughtfully, all secrets confessed, the characters, to greater or lesser extents, healed enough to move beyond their individual traumas into, we hope, happier futures. Diane Leach
Helen Garner’s return to fiction after 15 years is barely fictitious. Instead, she’s drawn heavily on her own experience of caring for a friend with a terminal illness to produce The Spare Room. Despite the bleak subject material, Garner manages to deliver a funny and touching exploration of a friendship in crisis By channelling her barely-contained rage into self-deprecating humour, Garner makes her narrator all too believable and sympathetic. Garner has a deft touch and real psychological insight—the product of deep self-awareness. Sitting down this holiday season to a book about cancer and death may not seem ideal, but The Spare Room is the rare book that balances heavy themes with a buoyant sense of joy and meaning. It’s not even gallows humour most of the time. The Spare Room is full of the laughter that friends share when they have nothing to prove. Existential literature can be brutally honest, but it’s rarely this much fun. David Pullar
Zachary Lazar’s Sway, the subject of glowing accolades in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, is one of those novels whose full power doesn’t quite reveal itself until you get to the end. Reading this book is like taking a ride on a dark, scary ghost train. Only in retrospect can you look back and see where you’ve been, what you’ve experienced, and how it all comes together. To make it even scarier, the ghosts, in this case, are real ones. It seems somehow beside the point to talk about the plot of Sway— it’s not that kind of novel. Better to think of it as the literary equivalent of a hand of tarot cards. Each card, as its face is revealed, represents another star in a constellation whose aura is definitely malign, and whose planet, Saturn, is in retrograde. Like Lucifer Rising, which was finally completed in 1972, Sway is less a narrative than a mood piece, a psychohistory of certain moments between the beginning of 1967 and the end of 1969—moments of malevolence, apathy, crisis, neurosis, and death. In charting this constellation of connected moments in space-time, Sway has something in common with From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic study of the 1888 murders in London, as well as David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, about the Yorkshire Ripper. Mikita Brottman