My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
My son will be two in June, and his favorite books include The Paperbag Princess, Eloise, and any story starring that lovable mouse Maisy. This is no accident; since our son was born, my husband and I have made sure he’s exposed to books about boys and girls. We also always recite the author’s name along with the title so that he understands that books are made by humans, male and female, for humans, male and female. We are feminists raising a boy who will become a man, and (we hope) a feminist and (we pray) a reader. If he reads diversely, he will not only have access to a wider and more complex world, but he’ll also read a shitload of great books. Plus, if he reads a lot of lady writers, he will — if he wants it — get so much more pussy. Let’s face it: nothing’s hotter than a man with an Emily Books subscription.
I myself try to read books by men and women in equal numbers. Yes, it’s true, I keep track of stuff like this; how else to hold myself and my reading proclivities accountable? I admit, though, had Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Interestings been written by a dude, I might have waited for it to come out in paperback. It’s just so…long. Like other women readers I know, I’m a little sick of the big literary book written by the big literary man. And maybe I’m resentful. My editor wanted to me cut about 20,000 words for my forthcoming novel California, which I did because the criticism was spot-on, the book was longer than it needed to be; still, I couldn’t help but wonder (aloud and all the time) if Eugenides, Franzen, and Harbach had also been edited for length. Thankfully, Meg Wolitzer is a woman, and after reading her famous and astute New York Times essay, “The Second Shelf,” about the ways books by women are marketed and treated by readers, I was happy to support her ambitious and, yes, long book. Sing it, sister!
In some ways, The Interestings reminds me of Joanna Smith Rakoff’s captivating (and big) novel A Fortunate Age, also about a group of friends in New York over a period of many years. The Interestings, though, covers even more time, introducing us to its characters when they’re teenagers at an arts summer camp in the 1970s and following them into their 50s. Though told in a sweeping and shifting third-person point of view, the novel is anchored by Jules Jacobson, one of six friends who ironically (and not-so-ironically) call themselves The Interestings that first year together at summer camp, when they’re young and brilliant and the world is theirs for the taking; the book follows them through marriage, parenthood, and (for one) even death. It’s a book about how talent develops, or withers, as people grow up. It’s also about intimacy and loyalty — in families, between friends, between spouses — and about money, jealousy, and comparing yourself to others as well as to a past version of yourself. Like many big books, it’s about the cruelty and solace of time’s passage.
I’d say Wolitzer has written “a novel of ideas” if said novel weren’t so engaging. (In my household, the phrase, “a novel of ideas,” is followed by an eye-roll. Such books are made for humorless people who don’t like television, candy, and/or dancing.) I read the book in four days, hushing anyone who tried to speak to me as I finished a paragraph or chapter, and laughing aloud at various cafes (yeah, I became that person). The pure enjoyment of reading The Interestings belies its skill and craft. The narrative perspective, authorial yet also intimate, is so nimble. Wolitzer is able to pull off that rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick of offering wise and assured narration, and then narrowing into a particular consciousness, as she does here:
Julie Jacobson, at the start of that first night, had not yet transformed into the far better sounding Jules Jacobson, a change that would deftly happen a little while later. As Julie, she’d always felt all wrong; she was gangling, and her skin went pink and patchy at the least provocation: if she got embarrassed, if she ate hot soup, if she stepped into the sun for half a minute.
The book also occasionally fast-forwards in time, and does it so deftly that I didn’t even notice it was happening until I was already inside of a new moment. Here is one example, regarding the brilliant cartoonist Ethan Figman:
Once, as Ethan bent the flexible straw, he became aware of the tiny little creak it made upon bending, and he filed away the idea, straw sound, for some future endeavor. “Straw sound! Straw sound!” the character Wally Figman demanded of his mother, who’d given him a glass of chocolate milk a few months later in a flashback to early childhood in one of the short Figland films. The noisy, brash cartoon soundtrack came to a halt while Wally’s mother bent the straw for her son, and the straw made that unmistakeable and somehow pleasurable squeaking creak.
Once Figland hit primetime, stoners watching the show would soon say to one another, “Straw sound, straw sound!” And someone might go into a kitchen, or even run out to a store, and bring back a box of Circus Flexi-Straws and bend straw after straw to hear that specific, inimitable sound, finding it unaccountably hilarious.
The novel’s narrative style complements its multi-character cast, and, like other recent books of this kind (Jess Walters’ Beautiful Ruins and Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins come to mind), it offers a multifaceted yet deeply imagined rendering of experience.
But what, exactly, makes it so readable? The Interestings, after all, relies on large swaths of exposition and summary to cover so much time, and if a writer isn’t careful, shifting characters can often slow down a story. Furthermore, the book reveals the outcome of certain characters’ lives early on; the novel isn’t initially told chronologically, and a lot is “given away” in the first 30 pages. How come I kept reading then? Wolitzer’s unpredictable structure and her modes of narration reminded me, as a writer and teacher of writing, that telling can and does create narrative propulsion, provided that the telling is specific and thoughtful, sensual and fluid. Zipping through juicy, character-deepening summary is one of reading’s big pleasures, and Wolitzer gets that. What she does choose to withhold from the reader, to be revealed in-scene, is significant. She dramatizes the conflict that corrodes this group of friends, and that makes all the difference.
(Also, Wolitzer writes terrific sex scenes, and that will always keep my interest. The phrase “stingy little anus” is magnificent, don’t you think?)
The book’s second half isn’t as strong as the first, maybe because Wolitzer has such a gift for exposition. As the novel hurtled toward September 11, 2001, I felt a familiarity to the events, and an awful sense that these sections were obligatory though not central to the story’s arc. Jules, Ethan, and the rest of the group continued to live their lives, one day unspooling into the next; time’s passage felt believable and moving, and yet not as electric as the first half of the book. When, fairly late in the novel, Jules and her husband return to the arts camp, to run it themselves, I was less interested in this plot-line, for whatever reason. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of the book didn’t disappear. I remained captivated. As I read its final lines, declarative and profound and true, I felt mournful. The book — this book! — was over. I closed the novel and wondered if I could write a book this big, this ballsy. I imagined Ms. Wolitzer behind an imposing mahogany desk, quill in hand. “Why not?” she said to me, and smiled. Yes, why not?
Maybe one day, when my son is an adult, I’ll force him to be in an intermittent book club with me. When it’s my turn to pick something, I’ll choose The Interestings.
Unless, of course, he’s already read it.
Jean-Paul Sartre visited Montreal in the 1940s for a speaking engagement. In marked contrast to the socially progressive nature of much of Quebec today, Quebec then cowed under the unyielding hand of the Church. Hostile to Sartre’s visit, the media barons instructed their reporters – perhaps tacitly, perhaps not – to be as unwelcoming as possible to this existential antichrist, so that he’d turn on his heel and leave. They succeeded, and he left, but not before encountering a young journalist (and budding writer of fiction) who asked Sartre how much of himself was in his latest protagonist. Sartre, courteous and well-mannered, replied to the young Canadian woman (then writing fiction in secret): “You are in every character you write.” It should come as no surprise, then, that in the sixty odd years since her exchange with Jean-Paul Sartre, Mavis Gallant, now 85 and living in Paris since 1950, has populated her stories with characters who are intelligent and thoughtful, clever and complex. Ex-pats, émigrés, displaced persons, and transients – the moved, the removed, and those on-the-move – have all sprung from Gallant’s fertile imagination, arriving fully formed on the page, in stories that betray both a keen, unsentimental, journalist’s eye and a humane artistic vision. In From The Fifteenth District, an anthology of stories which were originally published in The New Yorker in the mid- to late 1970s, some characters are tethered by the thread of memory to people from the past, or simply to another time or another place. Other characters have managed to sweep the ghosts away. In the story “The Moslem Wife,” Netta Asher and Jack Ross, cousins whose ex-pat British families have run hotels in the south of France for decades, marry and begin to run the hotel, but are then estranged when Jack’s wanderlust leads him to America before the outbreak of the Second World War. Netta soldiers on as the impending war drives away those around her. Then there’s an evacuation, and upon Netta’s return, the Italian army has taken over sections of the hotel, reducing Netta to a squatter in her own home. Still later, long after the war has ended, Jack returns. Exchanging war stories, Netta contrasts Jack’s connection to the present with her own raging memory of the past. Gallant writes: Jack, closed to ghosts, deaf to their voices, was spared this… She envied him his imperviousness, his true, unhysterical laughter… I was always jealous. Not of women. Of his short memory, his comfortable imagination… I have a dark, an accurate, a deadly memory… Memory should at least keep you from saying yes twice to the same person.The Second World War casts its shadow over many of the stories in this collection. In “The Four Seasons,” thirteen-year-old Carmela serves as nanny to the Unwins, an ex-pat British family residing on the Ligurian coast. The Unwins and their fellow Britons living nearby remain naively convinced that neither Mussolini nor Hitler want war. For the Unwins, life in southern Europe is business as usual. Meanwhile, Carmela’s understanding of English is a detail that she has cleverly hidden from her employers: “Among the powerful and strange, she would be mute and watchful.” In “His Mother,” the émigré tale is flipped around, Gallant’s eye turning to the family left behind. A grandmother, living in Budapest, her son having long ago transplanted to Glasgow, receives frequent letters from her son, with photos of his new Scottish family. She and other mothers of émigrés engage in a sort of one-upmanship. Points to the mother of the son who has immigrated to the most idealized locale. Points for frequency of letters, for quantity and quality of the stamps. It’s a bittersweet story – she’s the ghost left behind, the memory which begins to fade. In the collection The Pegnitz Junction, Gallant places us in Europe, West Germany mainly, in the years and decades following the Second World War. The story “The Pegnitz Junction,” a novella really, takes place during one excruciatingly long day. In the final hours of a Paris getaway vacation, Germans Christine, her friend Herbert, and his young son little Bert have been summarily evicted from their lodgings at the crack of dawn. The story is essentially the train journey home, but this is a journey like no other. Christine is the central character, and we read not only her thoughts, but due to her ability to channel the thoughts of those around her, we hear their thoughts, we read their lives. Christine has no control over this phenomenon, she regards it as “interference” with her own thoughts. It’s an inventive conceit, as we eavesdrop on some very private thoughts, like those of a German girl, passing herself off as American in her own country, “ashamed of being thought German by other Germans.” We even get into Herbert’s own mind, and learn that his late mother had been arrested and put in a camp when he was a boy. Gallant writes: She had gone into captivity believing in virtue and learned she could steal. Went in loving the poor, came out afraid of them; went in for the hounded, came out a racist; went in generous, came out grudging; went in with God, came out alone.We’re in Paris, 1963, for “Ernst In Civilian Clothes,” a story from the same collection. Ernst and Willi are old friends. Ernst, part Austrian, part German, former soldier turned Legionnaire, is staying with Willi in Paris but is on the verge of being deported, trapped as he is in a bureaucratic cul-de-sac. And his memory is broken: Willi’s gas heater flames the whole day, because Ernst, as a civilian, is sensitive to weather. Ernst will let Willi pay the bill, and, with some iridescent memory of something once read, he will believe that Willi had free gas – and, who knows, perhaps free rent and light! – all winter long. When Ernst believes an idea suitable for the moment, it becomes true.For a third of the collection Across The Bridge, ex-pat Gallant looks back to mid-century Montreal, to the social-climbing Carette family. In “1933,” we meet Madame Carette, widowed at 27, with two young daughters: Marie and Berthe. By the time of “The Chosen Husband,” sixteen years later, another inheritance has allowed the family to move (again), each time rising in social standing. The Carettes are trying to marry off Marie. Though Marie is hopelessly in love with a Greek young man, the Carettes have other ideas: In the life of a penniless unmarried young woman, there was no room for a man merely in love. He ought to have presented himself as something: Marie’s future.So they orchestrate the arrival of Louis Driscoll: part French Canadian, part Irish Catholic. Acceptable. For every generation of Driscolls, (Louis told Madame Carette), there had to be a Louis, a Joseph, a Raymond. (Berthe and her mother exchanged a look. He wanted three sons.)The remaining two Carette stories bring us up to date with Marie in middle age, then Marie as a grandmother – her son transplanted to Florida. For most of this anthology, though, we’re back in Gallant’s adopted France. In the story “Forain,” we meet Blaise Forain, friend and publisher to a roster of émigré writers, shopping around Cold War stories to a post-1989 audience. One such writer, Adam Tremski, has just died, and was to be buried in the one good suit that he owned: He had never owned another, had shambled around Paris looking as though he slept under restaurant tables, on a bed of cigarette ashes and crumbs.There’s a wonderfully candid CBC Radio interview with Mavis Gallant, recorded recently by Eleanor Wachtel for her Writers & Company series. You can listen to by going here. Scroll down, and then follow the instructions for audio. And a 1988 interview for the Aurora journal can be read here. In both, she discusses the craft of the short story; in the audio interview she peppers the conversation with anecdotes about her childhood in Montreal, her exchange with Sartre, and her dealings, early in her career, with an evil, thieving agent who pocketed her payments from The New Yorker, telling the magazine that she had moved to Capri! Maybe some things are indeed best left forgotten. What most émigrés settled for now was the haphazard accuracy of a memory like Tremski’s. In the end it was always a poem that ran through the mind – not a string of dates.
Midway into Jonathan Dee’s new novel A Thousand Pardons, one begins to imagine a lunchtime scene at a fashionable eatery in Midtown Manhattan. Dee is seated at a linen-topped table with his agent and editor and maybe some publishing executives wanting to hang out with a guy who nearly won a Pulitzer with his last book. Drinks have been served, menus whisked away, and one of the publishing execs has just asked Dee what his new novel is about. If his jacket photo is any guide, Dee is a dapper-looking dude, all upswept silver hair and brainiac black-frame glasses, and one imagines him settling back, waiting for the table to quiet and then unfurling a sly, smirky smile. “This book,” he tells them, “is about an ordinary woman with just one extraordinary talent: she can make powerful men say they’re sorry.”
There is a silence around the table, just long enough for a few quick subterranean glances, and then, as one, they all breathe a great sigh of relief. Okay, cool, their beaming faces seem to say as they dive back into their midday martinis, this one’s in the bag.
I have no idea, of course, if that is how it went down with Dee’s much-anticipated follow-up to his 2010 Pulitzer-finalist novel The Privileges, but A Thousand Pardons certainly reads like a book sold on a really cool twenty-word sentence. The Privileges, one of the best books about haute New York City since Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis vanished down their separate rabbit holes in the 1990s, daringly failed to punish its morally corrupt private equity fund manager hero. The PE guy, Adam Morey, racks up millions in illicit profits through an insider-trading scam, not because he needs the cash, but just because he feels it is his due, and instead of being punished as any villain in a well-behaved modern novel should, he gets away with it. His daughter is a hot mess and his son is seriously weird, but Adam goes on to form a charitable foundation and bask in the glow of his accomplishments.
Dee didn’t seem to know quite what to do with a moral novel that doesn’t punish its morally bankrupt hero – the book sort of peters out at the end – but coming as it did on the heels of the financial crisis, The Privileges, which one begins to slowly realize is in fact an extremely devious and subtle satire, put its finger on how a very small segment of the richest of the rich New Yorkers see themselves as made heroic by the sheer monstrousness of their crimes.
One can’t help thinking that between that book and his new one, someone – maybe one of those publishing execs, maybe Dee himself – quietly suggested that maybe this time he should consider a more traditional, better-behaved dramatic structure. As a result, A Thousand Pardons, though a smart, fun, engaging read, never catches the zeitgeist in the way one might expect from its high-concept premise.
Part of the problem may be that Dee, a gifted stylist equipped with a finely calibrated emotional radar, isn’t particularly well suited to writing high-concept novels. To give his heroine, Helen Armstead, a chance to show off her extraordinary talents, Dee must first subject her to a series of unfortunate events of the kind that only happen in novels and on the front pages of cheap tabloid newspapers. Her husband Ben, catatonically bored with Helen and his life as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, embarks on an entirely one-sided love affair with “a short, blond, gregarious, almost comically well-built” summer intern. He rents a hotel room, whisks her up there, and asks her to take off all her clothes in exchange for not having to have sex with him. She does so, but on their way out of the hotel room Ben is beaten to a pulp by the girl’s boyfriend, who has followed them to the hotel, and Ben, after some drunken misadventures behind the wheel of his car, is charged with attempted sexual assault.
All this takes fewer than twenty pages, and though it is narrated with Dee’s characteristic deftness, it has the feel of a cable TV pilot, not the opening chapter of a literary novel. I even cast it in my mind, and became half-convinced that if I could just get Alison Janney to commit to play Helen, I could have it on HBO in time for the fall season. Meanwhile, I had the rest of a novel to read. Helen, who has been a willing doormat to Ben and their adopted daughter, Sara, through many years of marriage, is forced to look for work, and ends up, as luck and plot contrivance would have it, in the offices of a failing public relations firm, where Helen displays her undiscovered talent for getting arrogant men to apologize.
Perhaps you begin to see the problem here. In her daily life, Helen cannot stand up to anyone, not Ben, not her crabby teenage daughter, not even the transparently incompetent marital therapist she and Ben go to try to save their unsalvageable marriage. Helen is a wilted leaf carried upon the surface of the novel’s plot until all of a sudden there she is telling the angry owner of a Chinese restaurant facing an ugly labor dispute with his fresh-off-the-boat deliverymen that what he needs to do is apologize. “What will I say?” the understandably shocked owner asks.
“You will say that you are sorry, Mr. Chin,” Helen said. “Without getting into specifics, you will apologize, and ask your customers and the people of New York for their forgiveness. And they will give it to you. They want to. People are quick to judge, Mr. Chin, they are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive.”
Whah? Where was this cocky bulldozer of a woman with x-ray vision into the human psyche for the first 37 pages of this novel? That this may not be the best PR advice – you can see what a quick apology did for Eliot Spitzer, who may be free to run for public office again by, oh, 2413 – is less important than how little it seems to have to do with the character Dee seems to be writing about. Helen, the character, is a panicky, under-confident woman overwhelmed by the emotional mess that life has thrown her way. Helen, the character device, is but a mouthpiece for what appears to be an authorial riff on the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in which we all wanted someone to call the banking titans to account for driving the economy into a ditch and got instead the prosecution of poor, muddling Bernie Maddoff for his absurdly amateurish Ponzi scheme.
In truth, after a couple more of these speaking-truth-to-power moments, Dee loses interest in his high-concept premise and returns to his more natural turf of low-concept, emotionally resonant literary fiction. Helen is hired by “the sixth largest PR agency in the world” whose chairman, in a charmingly improbable scene, visits Helen’s tiny office to tell her she has “an extraordinary gift.” Anyone expecting a sort of middle-aged mom’s version of Spiderman, in which drab ex-housewife Helen Armstead dons a bespoke suit and browbeats America’s corporate villains into abject apology, will be disappointed to learn that by this point less than halfway through the book Helen has performed her last truly successful act of PR derring-do.
What the reader gets instead, in the interstices of Dee’s increasingly busy plot, are a series of brief but gorgeously rendered snapshots of daily life in New York in the early 2010s. Sara, Helen’s Chinese-born daughter, at sea in the roiling waters of a Manhattan middle school, hooks up with a wealthy, troubled black kid whose identity issues mirror her own. This subplot bears only the most tangential relation to the central one, but these scenes of two misbegotten kids in the process of inventing workable identities for themselves are in their quiet way some of the strongest in the book.
This question of identity – who are we without our stories of ourselves? – seems to be the true theme of not just A Thousand Pardons, but The Privileges as well. In that book, Adam Morey is not at all who he purports to be, but his success in life is not so much that he gets away with a great crime, but that he and his adoring wife manage to convince themselves that the outer lie is the truth. It’s not that they pretend to themselves that Adam has never stolen, but that by their twisted logic, so attuned to the pervasive morality of New York in the 2000s, a great crime if committed for the right reasons is itself virtuous.
In A Thousand Pardons, Dee has tried again to ride the zeitgeist, but unlike in The Privileges where character and theme worked hand-in-glove, Helen Armstead is too human to fit neatly into the plot he seems to have envisioned for her. The book is by no means a failure. While A Thousand Pardons tripped this reader’s bullshit detector more than once, it is also propulsively readable for long stretches at a time. But readers will have to wait for the book that does for New York in the 2010s that The Privileges did for the city in the 2000s.