I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
Death arrives in the first sentence of Ann Patchett’s sixth novel, State of Wonder. Deep in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian rainforest, a middle-aged drug researcher who was sent there on business but has no business being there succumbs to fever, and the secretive field scientists he’s with dash off a quick note to the States. It arrives “a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.” How terrible a weight these things still carry. Someone must tell his young family. Someone must pack up his office. And someone must be sent back up the river to recover his body and find out what the hell is going on.
When the Company in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness goes after its rogue and raging ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, it sends Marlow, a veteran boat captain; his mission is the river. When Vogel, Patchett’s invented pharmaceutical giant, goes after its rogue drug researcher, Annick Swenson, a brilliant doctor who has disappeared into the jungle with millions of Vogel’s dollars while developing a radical fertility drug, it sends Marina Singh, a mid-level lab scientist and former Swenson student; her mission is the body, the drug, and the aging Swenson herself. It’s no vacation, but Singh desperately needs a dose of something exotic. “She was forty-two. She was in love with a man”—Vogel’s CEO, twenty years her senior—“she did not leave the building with,” and April in Minnesota is bleak. “The crocuses she had seen only that morning, their yellow and purple heads straight up from the dirt, were now frozen as solid as carp in the lake.”
Patchett does not trade in weak women. (It’s the men, like Singh’s father, an Indian graduate student so absorbed in his studies that the family ate dinners on the floor, so as not to disturb his stacks of papers piled in the dining room, who are little more than shadows in Patchett’s work.) She subjects her women to terrible losses, and then lends them the strength to march forward in ways that are as heroic as they are practical. Singh is a winning narrator. Life has muddled her plans and substituted its own realities. An early marriage fizzled two years into her medical residency, so at thirty, she and her husband “bought their own divorce kit at an office supply store and amicably filled out the paperwork at the kitchen table.” A tragic accident at the hospital drove her from clinical medicine and sidelined her into a pharmacology PhD program. Having arrived, without intending to, alone at middle age, she might be permitted some bitterness. Instead, she wears her quiet self-composure like a charm, and if she suffers long nights of indecision about her mission to the Amazon, she doesn’t betray it. Feeling needed, she goes. Her boss and lover packs her off with a bundle of GPS technology and extra anti-malarials. He’s doesn’t want to stay in touch so much as he wants to keep her healthy and on a short digital leash. To borrow Wilde, to lose one employee is tragic—to lose two smacks of carelessness.
Minnesota bookends the novel, but Patchett has written a Brazilian adventure tale. When she arrives, Singh’s passport is a “booklet filled with empty pages,” and she’s welcomed to the country by the disappearance of her luggage. Suddenly, luxury is a toothbrush and shopping in the market is an obstacle course of language and custom. By the time she leaves, months later, she’ll be wearing entirely new skin. Patchett captures well the essential loneliness and boredom of traveling solo; the foreign becomes exhausting, the heat devastating. Dr. Swenson stays in the field for months on end, and her gatekeepers in the port town where Singh is waiting are a pair of blithe young bohemians—house sitters who collect the doctor’s mail, smoke dope in her apartment, and stonewall inquisitive journalists. (“She was such a pretty girl. It must be hard, Marina imagined, for her to have no place to go.”) There is little to do but wait. As the pages pass, and the odd trio go on one field trip after another, we begin to forget why Singh has come in the first place. Then, like apparition, Dr. Swenson is back in town. Finally, we’re headed “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” the throttle on the boat—and on the novel—open full.
History and art provide some useful examples of how things turn out when the white folks rush headlong into the wilderness, brimming with ambition and delusion, and Patchett slyly pays her dues. “Dr. Singh, I presume,” Marina is greeted when she arrives at the upriver research station. Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about dragging a steamship over a small Peruvian mountain, makes an appearance, as does Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel that invented Shangri-La. Dr. Swenson has been living among the remote Lakashi tribe for more than a decade, unlocking the secret to their astounding fertility, which allows women to bear children into their seventies. “Their eggs aren’t aging, do you get that?” an excited researcher asks Singh. “This is the ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting.” Now there’s an idea that only a male drug exec could love. And though the stakes—and potential profit margins—couldn’t be higher, we don’t feel the tension build until the human dramas begin to play out at the station.
Dr. Swenson is a tropical storm of genius and brio. She delights in adding exponents to the ethical equations at hand in the jungle. She preaches a gospel of absolute non-intervention— “They are an intractable race,” she lectures Singh on the Lakashi. “You might as well come down here to unbend the river”—even as she pricks their fingers, collects their spit, and swabs their vaginas. She issues demands, barks her thanks, and keeps her emotions stoppered in a test-tube. In perhaps their most tender moment, Singh visits an ailing Swenson in her quarters; the elder woman sends her away. “I know how to sleep, Dr. Singh. I don’t need you to watch me unless it is something you are trying to learn to do yourself.”
Patchett has set herself an ambitious task. She begins far from home—Nashville, where she lives and writes—and moves steadily away from the known world. Her prose, as she established with Bel Canto and earlier works, is full of tenderness and insight; she writes of sorrow and invasive medical procedures with equal ease. Her language shows devotion to how the sentence unfurls across the page. She has remarkable skill, as a storyteller, knowing precisely when to cut away from a scene. She doesn’t write dialogue; she writes conversations, full of human surprise, humor, and outrage, which act in service to the many Big Ideas she’s probing—about aging and fertility, children and careers, ethics and abuse. Heart of Darkness had a post-colonial mission, well ahead of its time, and Conrad was swinging for the fences. State of Wonder has some questions, none of them as urgent, but compelling still.
The jungle hides its secrets until the very last, threatening to swallow Singh altogether. The story is still roaring at full-throttle as she heads down the river, back to beautiful, mundane civilization and Minnesota’s summer raspberries. But escape is never so easy, and after what she’s seen, we doubt very much that her fevered dreams will leave her soon.
The streets of Boston call out for tales of explorers and settlers — especially the streets surrounding Harvard Square. Even though the cobblestones of the colonial era are now paved over, the promise of settlement and self-improvement is evident everywhere. The buildings set in copper-colored brick that manage to be both imposing and cozy and the pastoral setting within Harvard Yard carry with them the promise that education transforms environment. By entering the sacred ground of the university, you are entering a realm where books, information, can make the difference between a mediocre present and an extraordinary future. It’s interesting, therefore, with so much mythical promise in its most famous institution, that so few narratives about Harvard have ever been told from the non-elite, unassimilated experience.
Such a void is, finally and wonderfully, filled by Andre Aciman’s brilliant new novel. Harvard Squareis a novel of education and isolation, sad and funny and sure to provoke nostalgia for anyone’s college years. Though the narrative is framed in flashback, the majority of it takes place in the late 1970s, as our unnamed narrator, a Jew from Alexandria, struggles to complete his PhD in English literature at Harvard. (Aciman shares much of his narrator’s backstory.) He has already failed his graduate exams once, and though he wishes to complete his degree and become a professor in the States, he finds himself easily distracted by the lives around him, the neighbors he meets but dares not befriend, and the many beautiful young students to whom he’d never utter a word. While poring over his books at Café Algiers (a Middle-Eastern coffeehouse in Harvard Square, a real institution to both students and locals), he meets Kalaj (short for “Kalashnikov”), a hot-tempered, passionate cab driver from Tunis with a rapid-fire wit and temper, coming out in streams of French, Arabic, and English, depending on how much coffee or wine’s he’d had.
And what a figure to follow when you feel all alone: with Aciman’s florid descriptions and sharp, vivid dialogue, Kalaj quickly becomes the most compelling American cultural critic since Alex Perchov in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Kalaj criticizes everything about American culture, lambasting everyone for being “jumbo-ersatz,” all artificial, worthless, and consumed in bulk. And yet Kalaj is not a naysaying Bartleby, but rather possessing of a keen wit and a charisma that puts everyone around him to shame. The narrator is immediately drawn to Kalaj as his brother in unassimilated arms, except that Kalaj expresses himself in all the ways the narrator thinks he cannot. He may not have a degree, or even a full-time job, but he’s not a phony. “He was in-your-face; I waited till your back was turned. He stood for nothing, took no prisoners, lambasted everyone. I tolerated everybody without loving a single one.”
In a neighborhood of overeducated elites, Kalaj is the wise fool whose skills can’t be learned by going back to Widener library. Kalaj knows how to win arguments, find cheap booze whenever necessary, make a fun afternoon on a few dollars, and most importantly, how to bait women, to pick them as if in a game of penny poker. With Kalaj, “seduction was not pushing people into things they did not wish to do. Seduction was just keeping the pennies coming. If you ran out, then, like a magician, you twirled your fingers and pulled one out from behind her left ear and, with this touch of humor, brought laughter into the mix.” Kalaj scoffs at the lauded literary history of Massachusetts, the art of leaf peeping, the isolation of Walden Pond. He finds beauty, and pleasure, in engaging with his fellow immigrants, in debating at Café Algiers with the narrator about woman, music, wine, what makes a man a man. Café Algiers becomes, in Kalaj’s words, Chez Nous, a respite from the university just a few streets away. “It was not always easy to step out of Café Algiers after such an interlude in our imaginary Mediterranean café by the beach and walk over to Harvard,” the narrator recounts. “But, on those torrid mornings with the blinding sun in our eyes, it seemed constellations and light years away.”
And yet the narrator never gives back to his teacher Kalaj — for, like all students, the teacher is merely a footnote in the greater education. While Kalaj’s charisma drives the story, Aciman gives us almost no details about what Kalaj wants except to impart his own wisdom; we only know him by what he means to the narrator. Kalaj drives his cab around Boston, clearing enough money to keep the nights at Café Algiers going, yet he pursues nothing permanent — even after the narrator sets him up with an adjunct professor gig teaching French at Harvard, he eventually argues himself out of the position. All the while, the narrator fears being found out for clinging to Kalaj as a convenient friend, a fellow immigrant in a strange town, making “fallback fellowship in a fallback city filled with fallback lives.” The narrator switches codes constantly, between touting his Harvard pedigree to attract potential girlfriend, and committing Kalaj’s philosophies of seduction to memory. Kalaj’s curriculum cannot be reconciled with the narrator’s professional goals. After breaking up with a woman he’d just begun to love, the narrator wonders:
Why had I even started with her? To be with someone instead of no one? To be like [Kalaj]? Or had I already always been like him, but in so different a guise that it was just as easy to think us poles apart? The Arab and the Jew, the ill-tempered and the mild-mannered, the irascible and the forbearing, the this and the that. And yet, we came from the same mold, choked in the same way, and in the same way, lashed back, then ran away.
In this friendship, simpatico and yet fundamentally unequal, Aciman has built a bildungsroman on what a university education might mean: equal parts lazy-day reading on rooftops, fevered debates in crowded cafes, one-night stands and unkept promises, half-learned lessons in masculinity, both academic and anarchistic. It should be no surprise that the novel is not called “Harvard,” but instead takes its name from the slightly larger realm of the square itself, encompassing both the academy and its side alleys. And Aciman seems to understand this better than anyone: that wisdom might be sought anywhere, so long as the mind is impressionable and there are long, argumentative, passionate teachers to hold forth. I had plenty of terrific professors in college, but never one quite like Kalaj, and upon closing Harvard Square, I had to wonder if I was at fault for never seeking out the teachers whose office hours were harder to find.
Our household is in the middle of a paradigm shift—new city, new occupations. The timing of this transition worked so that I should have had approximately one month to do nothing but read novels, eat sardines on toast, and fan myself. Predictably, various things popped up. Having repressed the memories of past moves, I had forgotten that moving is never a two-day affair, but rather a weeks-long nightmare represented by a massive Venn diagram showing the things you need to do and the things you did, the middle part of which is very small. Add to these obligations the things that invariably happen when one has some free time (getting rashes, waiting for the bus, vacuuming the underside of rugs, panicking about money, breaking things that turn out to be important, misunderstanding the labels on cleaning products, accidentally working, having houseguests), and I realize that I do not actually have anything like the time I thought I had.
That’s life and I’m not complaining. I tell you all this so you will understand the circumstances in which I read David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I had half-open boxes all about me, a room full of upside-down rugs, two sneezing cats, and lots and lots to do. But I was yearning to read this book, so I left the apartment wild-eyed, dust-streaked, and sweat-soaked, and handed over a shocking twenty-eight dollars. Then I marched home with my long-anticipated booty, sat down amid boxes, and read until night. In the morning I woke up, put on my dirty clothes, and read until it was finished. And then I cried, and picked up my vacuum and went to work feeling sort of elevated and melancholy for the rest of the day.
It’s hard to imagine a better reading experience.
I read Wyatt Mason’s profile of David Mitchell in the New York Times, in which the journalist catalogued the bewildering list of authors to whom Mitchell has been compared. Basically, it’s a litany of the canonical writers, and it’s absurd. Mitchell is a phenomenal writer and a master mimic when he wants to be, and comparisons are the bread and butter of readers and reviewers. I think, though, that throwing out names like Nabokov, Melville, Twain, Sterne, Joyce, Tolstoy, shows a poverty of something, effort, maybe, though I don’t wish to impugn the various august readers who have weighed in on Mitchell’s work. But it’s hard for me not to imagine a reviewer in a nightcap with a hot cocoa and a Mitchell novel. He wiggles his toes at the pleasure of good fiction and thinks to himself, “This is a wow. You know who else was a wow?” I’m saying I think many of the comparisons have to do with the relative enthusiasm of the reader, rather than similarities in the authors’ respective styles. Because Mitchell is not like any of those writers, who are not like one another, except in that they are all artists, and much beloved.
At any rate, in this new work, Mitchell owes much to film and television. I am not the only reviewer to note (cf. James Wood) that this novel is highly cinematic. For one, it takes place (jarringly, I thought, until I got used to it) in the present tense, like a screenplay. Some scenes end almost with an audible “Dum dum dum . . . ” timpany flourish. Some scenes are pure visual slapstick. The gross scenes are excruciatingly gross, the kind where everyone in the theater groans. The first scene in which the titular De Zoet makes an appearance (Chapter 2, the trial of the waggish Snitker) is so camera-ready I pictured Russell Crowe in his Master and Commander outfit, or Leonardo DiCaprio reprising his accent from Blood Diamond.
Lest you think I bring up screen hunks to mitigate the power and style of Mitchell’s novel, I should say that this cinematic quality is one of the things I so enjoyed about the book, and why, I think, I read the thing almost in one sitting. You don’t watch a movie over days and days, no matter how long. Obviously books, like movies, can be absolutely vivid and transporting, but it’s rare to find a transporting book that doesn’t manage to embarrass you at some point with its prose. It’s rare also to find one that creates so much so well within a largely unplumbed historical context.
The historical context here is the closed Japanese Empire, circa 1799, specifically, a Dutch trading post off of Nagasaki, and the novel addresses the fortunes of the men and woman thereon and around. The novel is about a lot of things—love, of course, and trade, and medicine, and language, and religion, and country, and lost children. I didn’t realize until I finished the book, but there are so, so many lost children. I don’t wish to exhaust you with my rendering of the novel’s plot, which has been rendered elsewhere, better. It’s a lot of great storytelling, is what it is, set in a moment I imagine few people know much about.
In addition to enjoying his prodigious stylistic gifts, I find David Mitchell’s novels refreshing because they are in their way morally unambiguous. It’s usually not clear right away who the good guys are, and there are lots of bad guys disguised as good ones and good guys doing bad deeds. Nonetheless, Right and Wrong are things in Mitchell’s universe(s), and his work seems to have a lot invested in righting wrongs. I’ve read all of his novels but one (Number9Dream), and in each I have been surprised and touched by the author’s care for people.
This novel is no different; by the end, you know just who to root for. I don’t look for morality in my books, but it’s nice to read something outside of the young adult section that reminds us, just to be on the safe side, what’s what. It’s kind of retro, actually, considering the decades of post-war literature that told us there isn’t right or wrong, just our own confused, fucked-up feelings (man). Maybe I’m the victim of some haute post-modern joke, but Mitchell seems very earnest to me. To throw my own potentially bizarre comparison into the mix, David Mitchell is a little bit like Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars), writ large and writ for grownups.
Despite that fact that I’ve basically (I realize now) presented The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as a made-for-TV movie for a juvenile audience (starring Russell Crowe), I loved this book. It’s the best thing I read on what was supposed to be my summer vacation. If you have free time or can fashion some, you should read it too.
If demographic information matters, allow me to share mine. I am 22. I am a recent college graduate, and I have a degree in English literature. I am what the internet, sociologists, and The New York Times call a “Millennial.” I am occasionally tempted to believe that this is all unique, that I am truly individual. But the truth is that all this identifying information applies equally well to thousands and thousands of other 22-year-old girls who want to be writers and editors, and it was equally true of Marina Keegan, the Yale student who died in a car accident five days after her graduation in 2012 and whose last essay went viral in the following months. She was 22. She studied literature and creative writing. She wanted to be a writer. She didn’t seem to like the term “Millennial” very much. We were and are very similar. Except that, of course, we aren’t. Not really.
It’s maybe too easy to boil down Keegan’s posthumous collection of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness, to these kinds of biographical snapshots and broad generalizations. Many reviews of the book place an incredible emphasis on the youth of the writing, the way Keegan’s voice sounds 22 (which it is), and the way that her stories and essays capture the anxieties and ambiguities and joys of being young and alive and in college (which she was). Her characters text, they email, they go through each others’ Facebook albums. “This,” the critics seem to be saying, “is the future of literature. When the Millennials come of age, this is what they will all be writing.”
But the other focus, and the one that’s harder to shake, is on Keegan herself, on her promise and her tragedy. How terrible, the book seems to be saying, that such a girl should die so young. The blurbs on the back cover of the book are all elegies. “I will never stop mourning,” begins the first, from Harold Bloom. Another refers to the collection as “the writing Marina Keegan left behind.” The last begins “In her brief life…” and ends with “Though every sentence throbs with what might have been, this remarkable collection is ultimately joyful and inspiring, because it represents the wonder that she was.” All of which seem to undermine and contradict Anne Fadiman’s warning in her (elegiac, mournful) foreword: “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”
And she is. She’s very good. The collection, though uneven, is strong and varied. For the most part it isn’t student writing, and the first story is enough to disprove any concerns that Keegan is only being remembered for her death. In “Cold Pastoral” the young, female narrator’s boyfriend suddenly dies, and she is thrown together with both the ex he was still in love with and the full story of their long romance in the form of the dead boyfriend’s diary. The characters are complicated and believable, and it is here that all the strongest elements of Keegan’s writing are present. The students go to a house party; they talk about hooking up. They are young and in college and uncertain about how to process grief, the disappearance of one of their own, and also about how to define their relationships, how to structure and understand their own lives. The end is both surprising and satisfying. Every character acts both naturally and originally; I wouldn’t have made the same choices, were I in their places (largely due to my deep reverence for diaries), but I can see why they make the choices they do. The story was easily my favorite of the collection, and I thought about it long after I finished the book.
This particular story also exemplifies a somewhat eerie trend in Keegan’s writing – a lot of characters die, and many of the nonfiction pieces examine death and dying while making reference to Keegan’s own fears and losses. These are both thoughtful and extremely difficult to read. It’s as if Keegan herself won’t let you forget that she’s gone, that she’ll never get to eat the cheese pizza she requested for her death bed, that all her worries about premature cancer were for naught, that she won’t get to keep driving her grandmother’s 1990 Camry. The essays in the collection are, as a whole, not as strong as the fiction – they are shorter, slighter, and move almost too quickly from point to point, giving them a kind of frantic energy – but they are personal, and in this context that seems to count more than anything. Though rough, the nonfiction’s unpolished forms introduce the reader to Keegan more directly. We learn about her experience watching beached whales unhinge their jaws and breathe dying breaths; we have to admire her youthful honesty and bravado when she wishes she had thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway before Michael Cunningham. In “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology” Keegan worries about the death of the sun and the end of human culture. She doesn’t “want to let the universe down,” and though this is a melodramatic sentiment, it’s nevertheless charming in its sincerity. These writings are raw, and they make the reader ache as they get to know Keegan in greater and greater detail, as more and more of her personality is revealed and we realize how much has been lost.
This gradual recognition, though sobering, is addictive, and while the essays offer the sad pleasure of learning to mourn a someone, the fiction tempts readers to look for even more hints of Keegan in young characters, in situations and in settings. This is the constant danger of posthumous reading, or of any biographically motivated reading – that we look too hard, imagine hints of memoir where there is only fiction, and in so doing trample everything that makes fiction unique and powerful. This is doubly dangerous when reading The Opposite of Loneliness, where the drama of the collection stems in no small part from biographical tragedy.
Reading the collection’s stories as nonfiction is particularly tempting when the narrating characters resemble Keegan in age and situation. “Cold Pastoral” presents this possibility, as does the next story, “Winter Break.” Both feature narrators who resemble the persona Keegan assumes in her essays – all three are young women in college who are working out relationships with friends, family, and themselves. But then there are stories where one would really have to strain to see Keegan’s shadow – a series of emails from an engineer in Baghdad; a scientist trapped in a powerless deep-sea submarine – and these seem slightly clumsier, more like student writing and less grounded in experience and believable voice. They are flat, and lack the sparkle that sets her other writing apart from that of most other 22-year-old English majors. Part of this may be the inherent difficulty in imaging and representing full adult lives when one is 22, still straddling adolescence and adulthood. Part of this may be the reader grumbling that there is no great drama here, no personal details that can make us hurt for the loss of Keegan. To that reader (and to myself) I repeat Anne Fadiman: remember her because she’s good, not because she’s dead.
But how good is she, really? It’s difficult to say because it’s difficult to know who to compare her to. Outside of small literary magazines there aren’t many voices as young and modern as Keegan’s who are finding publications and readers, and even in those magazines there are few stories about being 19, 20, 21, about trying to grow up in an uncertain moment, in an uncertain generation. “Every generation thinks it’s special,” writes Keegan, but it’s difficult to say right now just how special ours is, much less how special we will be.
What I can say is that I have met and read many young writers who, like Keegan, are fascinated by social media and the new ways we communicate with each other. In my creative writing workshops I have read stories about searching for friends on Facebook, about discovering quinoa, about being a waitress in terrible restaurants during school breaks. I have read essays about the stress of marrying young and of staying single, about being uncertain about our jobs, about being uncertain about everything, about being afraid of dying, about wanting to be talented and original and a writer but feeling like we don’t really know how. YouTube videos are mentioned casually and relevant HBO shows are referenced. We go to house parties; we worry about our relationships; we keep detailed journals but we also write blogs. And this Millennial generation of writers can learn from Keegan in that she allowed herself to sound and to be fully 22, exactly who and what she was, to explore what that meant and to celebrate the value of a young perspective, no matter how uncertain, but never sounded like she was writing a generic think-piece on “What It’s Like to Be Young Today.” Her writing is marked by all the traits of modern youth but also tackles themes that have been present in great writing for centuries – love, fear, loss. That’s a balance I want us to achieve, what I think we should be working for, and if every young Millennial writer can strike it with the same authenticity of voice that she achieves then our literary generation will be one to watch. As Marina Keegan said, “Let’s make something happen to this world.”
More than once in Half of a Yellow Sun, the latest novel by the young Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a mother learns that her son has died. The causes are in plain sight and the deaths could not be a surprise. The novel is set during the brutal and lopsided civil war which rent Nigeria in the late 1960s, soon after independence from Britain, and it takes place in Biafra, the seceding state, which, we know from the start, does not appear on any map today. The Biafran soldiers fight in tattered clothes and practice with wooden guns carved on the home front. Nigerian fighters control the sky and relief planes can only land at night, without lights, on a darkened runway which is covered over with brush just before landing, and covered over again just after. Biafra’s position is precarious from the start, and while there are heady moments just after independence is declared, the nascent state descends into famine almost overnight.The novel begins, though, in brighter times, the early 1960s, in the afterglow of colonial independence, in the home of Odenigbo, a university intellectual with a taste for long dinner parties and revolutionary talk. Odenigbo has just taken in a houseboy named Ugwu, who comes from a rural village and is entranced upon arrival by the refrigerator, upholstered sofas, and the promise of eating meat everyday. Ugwu insists on calling his new master “sah,” but Odenigbo has an egalitarian streak, defined against the inequity of British rule, and asks that Ugwu call him by his name.Ugwu takes quickly to his new life, cooking pepper pot soup and scrubbing the marble floors, while also attending school and lingering around the political conversation which fires the house each night. He has just settled into a routine when Olanna moves into the house. She is Odenigbo’s lover and girlfriend, the daughter of a wealthy family from Lagos who has repudiated the oligarchic practices of her father. Ugwu is made jealous by the exclusive way Odenigbo looks into Olanna’s eyes and he is stirred by her beauty. At night he pads up to their bedroom door and listens to them make love.The novel alternates in time between the early 1960s and the domestic drama set around a pair of romances – Odenigbo’s with Olanna, and Olanna’s twin sister Kainene’s with a British expatriate named Richard – and the late 1960s when the Biafran war has shattered everything about the characters’ former lives. The two parts don’t harmonize, so much as accent each other. The descriptions of plenty in the early part of the decade, imported brandy and the latest lace from Europe, make the desolation of the war all the more stark and visceral. Soon after Biafra’s declaration of independence, Ugwu, Olanna and Odenigbo flee the advancing Nigerian army and find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation, as internal refugees in a starving land.Although Adichie devotes almost equal time to life before the war and life during it, it is the war narrative that drives the book and gives it a residual strength that I still feel more than week after finishing it. Her description of civilian suffering is so direct and real, that it’s hard to believe she never experienced it herself (Adichie is only 31, and learned about the civil war from her parents who survived it on the Biafran side). As the totality of the war grows on the page, the characters recede somewhat against the tableau of suffering. It’s not so much that they’re neglected, as they are overwhelmed by the events around them. Odenigbo, gregarious and charismatic before the war, draws in on himself as the depredations mount.Yet the net result of so much loss is not a catatonic state of unfeeling, as it often is in barren, dystopic stories like the recent movie Children of Men. Adichie does not offer the consolation of a flower sprouting amidst the rubble, but she does provide that even when we’d rather not, we cannot help but go on sensing, feeling, hurting. Late in the book, a neighbor of Olanna’s learns that her son has been killed in the army. It is just one of many such losses and when Biafran soldiers go off to fight, there is little reason to believe that they’ll come back. But when the mother hears the news, she throws herself to the ground and tosses around in a fit of anguish, cutting herself on the stones. It is a terrible moment, though also one filled with a strange kind of hope. At a time when war threatens to level everything into the ground, her suffering is vibrant.