A Tom Stoppard play is a bit of a strange choice for my 2nd annual Best Book I Read post, being that I hardly even glance at plays, or even attend the theater much—certainly not as much as I’d like. But nothing I read this year bowled me over like Arcadia did. (Well, there was one other book, but we’ll get to that later…)
Arcadia takes place in the study of an English country house, both in the early 19th century and the present. In the past, the teenage genius daughter of the house, Thomasina Coverly, discusses thermodynamics and chaos theory with her tutor, Septimus Hodge, a caddish friend of Lord Byron. In the present, two scholars—one researching Byron, the other investigating a hermit who once lived on the estate—along with the estate’s current residents, work to uncover what happened in Thomasina’s time. It’s a romance about Romanticism, an intellectual detective story that needles intellectuals, and a sex comedy that explores the implications of mathematical theory.
There’s little I can say about Arcadia that hasn’t been said. It’s smart, funny, moving, yada, yada, yada. One thing: Stoppard has a gift for elegant simplicity, such as when Thomasina, stirring jam into rice pudding, begins to understand the basis of chaos theory. You also see it in the set design, the table that’s at the center of the study, accrues objects from both time periods, including a live tortoise. And another thing: as someone who almost exclusively writes about novels, I found myself struck by the imaginative space that Stoppard’s play leaves open. His directions often seem more like suggestions, so as you read, your mind drifts through all the potential ways the play could be expressed, and the play exists, then, not in the text, but not in the mind either—the play inhabits a sort of liminal space between you and the book in your hands. Good prose fiction should also leave room for the reader’s imagination, but I can’t think of a novel that asserts its imaginative space as forcefully as does Arcadia.
Since I can’t say more about Arcadia without regurgitation, just check out these videos—highlights from a 2011 production with Billy Crudup and an interview with Stoppard on Charlie Rose.
Finally, I should add, most of the year, I expecting to write about Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, which I read in January, and is excellent, of course. It’s as smart, funny, and moving as Arcadia, but two things edged it out: 1) Arcadia’s aforementioned imaginative space, and 2) I already wrote about Philip Roth here, albeit about a different book.
Also, if you were looking for my favorite book that was published in 2016, I already wrote about The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray; Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams; The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas; Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet; Ark by Julian Tepper; Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya; and Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge (TK). Of these, Cabo de Gata was my favorite.
And no book published this year made me laugh harder than Private Citizens, which I didn’t review, though I did interview Tony Tulathimutte.