Last month I asked Kahn about what he was reading. His reply:
There are usually two books on my nightstand—one that’s fairly recent, the other much older. I tend to alternate between the two—a few chapters of one, then a few chapters of the other. Sometimes the pairings work quite well—Jane Austen happens to go nicely with Elmore Leonard, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness resonates with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.Visit Michael A. Kahn's website.
But my current pairing is hardly complementary. I am reading—or rather, wincing and occasionally skimming—About the Author by John Colapinto. It’s a clever, well-written novel featuring an unlikeable but somewhat sympathetic narrator named Cal Cunningham. Cal is a struggling wannabe author who, after two years, has yet to write a single word. He is shocked, and then angered, and then jealous to discover that his dull law school roommate has written a powerful novel based largely on Cal’s life. When the roommate dies in a traffic accident, Cal decides to have the novel published under his own name. “His” novel is a huge commercial and critical success. He’s on top of the world, and even marries the beautiful woman his dead roommate had loved. But then, alas, things start to go wrong—gradually, and then horribly, painfully, and eventually criminally, as in blackmail, mayhem, and murder. By then, I was wincing and skimming.
Fortunately, my other novel—Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens—is a delight on every level, from the language to the characters to the plot to the humor. It is a work of satire on the shortcomings of government and society. Much of Dickens's ire is focused upon the institution of debtors’ prison, where people were imprisoned until they repaid their debts.
One of Dickens’ most enjoyable talents is his ability to spoof government institutions. In Bleak House, my favorite of his novels, the target is the Court of Chancery, including all the lawyers and judges. In Little Dorrit, the target is government bureaucracy, as epitomized in the imaginary agency that Dickens brilliantly names the Circumlocution Office. In his recent tribute to the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (May 18, 2014), Salman Rushdie compares the magical realism of Garcia Márquez to the works of Charles Dickens:Dickens unending court case, Jarndyce v. Jarnydce in Bleak House, finds a relative in One Hundred Years of Solitude in the unending train that passes by Maconda for a week. Dickens and Garcia Márquez are both masters of comic hyperbole. Dicken’s Circumlocution Office, a government department that exists to do nothing, inhabits the same fictional reality as all the indolent, corrupt, authoritarian governors and tyrants in Garcia Márquez’s work.