Do you like to read every book by your favourite author? I don’t…and I do.
I discovered Marilynne Robinson in 2004, when her second novel, Gilead, came out. Narrated by John Ames, a small-town preacher, Gilead has an incomparable quiet humanity; I fell in love with the book immediately. It’s the kind of book that demands slow reading – not only to match the novel’s meditative pace, but also in order to savour the prose.
After finishing it, I had a dilemma. At the time, Robinson had written two novels and three non-fiction books. I wasn’t much interested in reading non-fiction, but the other novel – Housekeeping – appealed to me (Robinson would later write Home, a companion novel to Gilead). In fact, I was possessed of a great desire to get Housekeeping and read it immediately.
But something stopped me. I wasn’t ready to be done with Robinson: What if her lessons would suit me better later in life? How would I feel if there was nothing left to discover of her? She was no thriller writer, pumping out a book a year for my delectation. If I read Housekeeping, there’d be nothing until she wrote another novel.
It wasn’t until 2009, when I heard that Home had been published, that I finally read Housekeeping. I loved it: a slim book set in an American town called Fingerbone, which is as good a symbol of the novel’s delicate yet piercing nature as any. But I still haven’t dared to read Home. I’m still not ready to finish my relationship with Robinson. God knows if I’ll ever read that damn book.
Recently, I did an in conversation event with the acclaimed writer David Vann for the Melbourne Writers Festival. In preparation for our session, I picked up all of his books that I could find. I’d been meaning to read Legend of a Suicide and Caribou Island for a long time, and this was the perfect time to do so.
Vann’s fiction is strongly tied to his own experiences. His father committed suicide when he was young, and Legend of a Suicide presents fictional portraits of a man who seems to fail himself, and his family. His new novel, Dirt, is a Greek tragedy set on a Californian walnut farm; a young man who shares some of Vann’s early interests and qualities can’t get along with his mother. The writing in these books had a strange compulsive effect on me, quite apart from the festival work I knew I had to do. They seemed to illuminate the tragic points of a life: Vann has been frank in interviews about the possible depth of knowledge his family background can give a reader of his fiction.
Not as afraid of non-fiction as I used to be, I sought out his book Last Day on Earth: A Portrait of the NIU Shooter. Last Day on Earth is a deeply sad and affecting work of investigative writing by Vann, a self-described non-journalist, in which he researches the life of Steven Kazmierczak, who killed five people, shot many others, and finally committed suicide. Yet it is also a very personal work, explicitly twinning the early stages of his own life with Kazmierczak’s in an act of authorial empathy. It is probably one of my favourite of Vann’s books, and took me one step closer to being a rabid completist.
Of course, the word ‘completist’ means someone who devours everything created by the artist, regardless of quality, which isn’t an issue with the writers I love. But a similar all-consuming drive possesses me. For example, I was annoyed that Vann’s website lists two forthcoming books that will be published only in Spanish or ‘in other languages’. At this point, the only Vann book I haven’t read is A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea, a memoir of a failed sailing endeavour during which Vann almost drowned. I feel destined to read it, like it’s a necessary link or key to the rest of his work. The best way I can think to explain it is as the last shard to be placed in some broken vessel I’ve carefully put together, having found the pieces lying around.
Neither of these is the ‘correct’ approach. Robinson and Vann are very different authors, and I came to them for very different reasons. But it did make me think of the other authors whose work I am meting out to myself, book by book (David Sedaris, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace) and the authors whose full catalogues I pursue obsessively (Jane Austen, Isobelle Carmody, John Green). Are there other readers out there who do this, strange (non)-completists like me?
Estelle Tang is the outgoing Online Editor at Kill Your Darlings.