There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
Joseph Skizzen, the main character of William Gass’s masterful new novel, constantly reconsiders and rewrites the above sentence, sometimes with slight modifications; other times, the sentence balloons to more than a page, but its despairing tone never changes. Gass would certainly sympathize with Joseph’s compulsion for revision. “Something gets on paper,” says Gass about his methods, “and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised.” Due in part to his obsessive rewriting process, Middle C took the author nearly 20 years to finish, and The Tunnel — a tome that has baffled critics and sustained a cult readership since its publication in 1995 — took Gass nearly three decades to complete.
Middle C begins in Austria, where Joseph’s father decides on a whim (“presto-chango”) to persuade the family to forgo their Catholic upbringing and assume Jewish origins instead. This way, the poverty-stricken family can access the underground organization that smuggles Jews to England and escape the trajectory of fascism that was beginning to take hold in Austria, one that Joseph’s father anticipates. In London, Yankel Fixel, Joseph’s father, once again sheds his name (and identity) for one more properly English: Raymond Scofield. It is as Raymond that the father suddenly stumbles into a great fortune that irrevocably changes him once more. He deserts the family without notice, leaving his wife and two kids to board a New World-bound ship to search in vain for him in America. Only much later on in life, still trying to make sense of his absence, does Joseph, in his rather bookish way, forgive his father: “…you wouldn’t arrest the actor who played Hamlet for the death of Polonius.”
But despite the appearances of its beginning, Middle C is not just another story of the immigrant struggle in America. The main struggle, as the central sentence of the novel alludes to, is the question of whether or not the human race, given its bloody history, deserves to go on, to survive.
Joseph’s a clipper: he cuts newspaper articles about the world’s atrocities and posts them on the walls of his attic, a collection he refers to as the “Inhumanity Museum,” a museum that will “remind its visitors of the vileness of mankind — not its nobility and triumphs.” He undertakes this task as if it were his life’s work. Professor Skizzen resembles more the thoughtful, melancholy professor-protagonists that inhabit Saul Bellow’s work than he does the rambling Professor Kohler of The Tunnel. While much of the book takes place inside the world of Skizzen’s mind, a dark, roving mind preoccupied with the future of humanity, the sections that depict his childhood (as Joey) are so precisely told with vivid details that they read less like reminiscence, and more like scenes unfolding before our eyes. Gass, who was briefly a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cornell, is a playful writer. And Wittgenstein’s theory that language creates its own reality is very much apparent in Middle C, not just in its absurd, enigmatic beginning, or its many language games — several words at the end of sentences intentionally rhyme — but with its questioning of identity and reality, notions that Gass constantly upends. For who cares if Skizzen (German for “Sketches”) fibs about his age, lies about his family’s past, and even concocts an imaginary career for himself as a music professor? He is, after all, an invention.
After leaving London, the Skizzens resettle in “The Heart of It All” — the middle C of the country, if you will — in fictional Woodbine, Ohio, a “tiny two-bus town” where Joseph and his older sister, Deborah, are raised by their husbandless mother. Joseph quickly loses himself in a love for the piano and eventually learns to play with some level of distinction, though not without great effort: “His approach to playing was like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks — his fingers were full of desperation…” The cast of grotesque characters that Joseph meets in Woodbine easily rivals those from Winesburg, Ohio (the comparisons are inevitable). There’s Mr. Kazan, proprietor of the High Note, the music store where Joseph works, “who brought his beard around every morning at ten when the store opened, if he remembered the key.” Madame Mieux, the bosomy community college French teacher who employs a fake French accent even when she speaks English and fails to seduce Joseph after she invites him over to her home decorated in piles and piles of pillows. The head librarian, known as the Major, not only gives Joseph employment, but also a place to live in the garage of her home, where the rooms overflow with puddles from house plants. Then there’s Hazel Hazlet, a black woman with a mullet who talks to her teddy bear and sells Joseph a beat-up car for under $50 (she also possesses an angelic singing voice). And those are just a few of the odd characters in a much larger cast, each of whom bursts with an eccentricity all his or her own, as if they’re trying to upstage one another in quirkiness.
For an author who’s nearly 90 years old, Gass writes remarkably well about what it’s like to be young. The reflective lyricism of the passages on youth throughout the book recall Rilke’s great coming-of-age novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a work Gass admits a fondness for in interviews. From Middle C:
When you’re young, time is a puzzle, like interlocking nails. You wonder what you ought to be doing or what the future holds or how things that don’t seem to have worked out will work out; and in such a mood, even when you are focused on the future because you are yet to get laid, to bloom, to beget, to find your way, to win a tournament, you nevertheless don’t detail far-off somedays in your head; you don’t feel your future as you feel a thigh…because the present is too intense, too sunny, brief as a sneeze, too higgledy-piggledy, too complete, too total, a drag already, whereas there is simply so much future, the future is flat as the sea three miles from your eye while the beach you are sitting on is aboil with sunshine and nakedness.
But unlike Rilke’s provincial Malte, Joseph never leaves his small town for the big city. For one thing, he doesn’t even have proper citizenship, an annoyance that surfaces just as he’s about to accept employment at a small library in Urichtown, or Whichstown — as the residents pronounce it, partly because it’s said to be haunted by witches. Despite the risk, Joseph makes a fake ID so he doesn’t have to confront his past, and gets the job. Gass plays with the notion that each person has many “selves” in a lifetime, not just the one filed on bureaucratic records.
Throughout the novel we see Joseph continue down a path of fabrication that his father had begun. He lies on his CV about advanced degrees acquired overseas in Vienna so that he can obtain a musicology professorship at nearby Whittlebauer College, where he calculatingly selects Schoenberg, the father of atonal music, as his area of emphasis. Although Joseph doesn’t even really care to listen to him, he’s such an “intimidating composer” nobody will question it.
The book ends on a note of astonishing suspense when Joseph’s fate is quite literally sealed in an envelope. The president of Whittlebauer College discovers that an imposter is among them, a professor “with an educational history that has proved false.” What unfolds proves that readers would do well to heed the book’s epigraph: “Remember me! remember me! / but ah! forget my fate.” For as loveable and harmless a creature as Professor Joseph Skizzen may be, especially in a world so cruel, his behavior during the faculty’s Ethics Committee meeting in the final pages leaves us terrified and shows us that he too is only human. We’re left, like the apocalyptic sentence he’s forever rewriting in the book, to reexamine all that we thought we knew about him, about our place in the world, and the philosophy of the so-called “self.”
Their young arms and legs were like twigs, not much more than bone and skin and whatever little life still flowed in choked veins. Their skin dug deep between their ribs. Incongruously, their stomachs were pregnant with hunger. Their hair, originally full and black, had thinned and turned brown, red, blonde, or gray.
This is kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition brought on by extreme protein deficiency. It afflicted many of the children of eastern Nigeria a little over forty years ago. The word originates in the Ga language of Ghana, and it means, tellingly, “the influence a child is said to be under when his mother becomes pregnant with her next child.”
From 1967 to 1970, the young state of Nigeria (which had just achieved its independence from England in 1960) fought a civil war against the separatist nation, the Republic of Biafra. The near total decimation – genocide by means of various and effective blockades – of Biafran citizens is among the clearest cases of what happens when a small nation, recognized by only a handful of relatively powerless states, is set against an alliance of international powers. While about a hundred thousand Nigerians died, over two million Biafrans – primarily civilians and disproportionately children – perished.
Biafra is now largely forgotten outside the region, but one of Africa’s best known authors has just published a book which he certainly hopes will bring it back to our collective consciousness.
Chinua Achebe’s seminal 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, follows the lives of the Igbo people as they’re first confronted by the arrival of British colonialists and missionaries. His new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, follows those people into 1967 – when they, confronted by economic marginalization, and, ultimately, physical attack by Nigeria, declared independence and called themselves Biafra.
This is not the first book about the war; Achebe travels along well-grooved trails. For how marginal it now remains in the public imagination, it was then something of a cause célèbre. It was a televised catastrophe, the first televised famine, which would inspire celebrities to undertake the Biafran cause. On November 25, 1969, John Lennon returned the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) which he was awarded in 1965 as a Beatle, and sent along with it a letter to the Queen. “I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing,” he wrote, “against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” The French philosopher and public intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, took a pro-Biafra stance as well. The Nobel Prize winning playwright, Wole Soyinka, went to a Nigerian prison for his outspoken support of Biafra and for his attempt to facilitate a cease-fire. “When he returned to Nigeria,” writes Achebe, “the authorities arrested him and accused him of assisting Biafra in the purchase of weapons of war.”
Bombarded by the images of human beings decimated by hunger and illness, Bernard Kouchner was inspired to found Médecins Sans Frontières – or Doctors Without Borders. Kurt Vonnegut found himself moved by the war as well. In Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, a collection of pieces on a range of topics, he included the essay, “Biafra: A People Betrayed.”
“Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing,” he writes.
I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.
Achebe writes about the media exposure:
The Nigeria-Biafra War was arguably the first fully televised conflict in history. It was the first time scenes and pictures – blood, guts, severed limbs – from the war front flooded into homes around the world through television sets, radios, newsprint, in real time. It probably gave television evening news its first chance to come into its own and invade without mercy the sanctity of people’s living rooms with horrifying scenes of children immiserated by modern war.
Everyone, it seems, felt something about the Nigeria-Biafra war. It was written about and commented on by the talking heads of the day. In 1969, while the war raged on, Frederick Forsyth published an excellent, impassioned, and deeply sympathetic book called The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend. But what makes Achebe’s new book momentous is that, though it is not the first to comprehensively tackle the war and its consequences, and though it is not the first to reveal to the world its atrocities, Achebe is Igbo and he knows the war directly and personally. The Igbo – the Biafran nation – is his story.
He worked, for instance, as a roving international ambassador for the nation. Achebe’s literary gifts even turned prophetic in the lead-up to the war and caused him personal turmoil. His novel, A Man of the People, which ends with a military coup upturning a corrupt government, was published days before the January 15, 1966 coup by largely Igbo soldiers. It was such a presciently accurate depiction of the coup that it drew considerable suspicion. “[S]ome military leaders believed that I must have had something to do with the coup,” writes Achebe, “and wanted to bring me in for questioning.” The coup gave the Nigerian government a pretext for reprisals against the Igbo people and, ultimately, it led to Biafra’s declaration of independence and to the civil war the next year.
“Victors write history,” writes Forsyth in an updated prologue to The Biafra Story, “and the Biafrans lost.” But Achebe, a Biafran, has now written history. He’s written a segment of history still avoided by many official Nigerian texts. It’s a personal history which seems to recognize that the stories we often hear of the past are shaped by those in power. It recognizes that we will need to hear the stories of the powerless – of the defeated – if we would like a fuller picture of reality.
It brings to mind Howard Zinn’s approach to history in his A People’s History of the United States. “I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements,” he wrote.
But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
But why the long delay? Why did it take Achebe so long to write such a book? He wrote quite a bit of poetry – “something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood” – during the war (some of which is included in the new book) but this is the first time he’s systematically discussed the conflict and devastation.
In a collection of his essays, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987, Achebe writes of his distance from the traditional Igbo religions, being the son of Christian converts, and how that distance helped him gain a deep understanding of them. What he writes appears to also justify the decades he’s taken to tackle the Biafran cause. “The distance becomes not a separation but a bringing together like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer may take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully.”
Many of the official documents detailing the war were only revealed afterwards. And, with time, perhaps Achebe has found a way to write directly and clearly, yet evenly and with composure. It may not have been possible for him to write passages like this one shortly after the war and after the attempted-genocide of his nation:
The Biafrans paid a great humanitarian price by ceding a great deal of territory to the Nigerians and employing this war strategy. The famine worsened as the war raged, as the traditional Igbo society of farmers could not plant their crops. Gowon [the Nigerian leader] had succeeded in cutting Biafra off from the sea, robbing its inhabitants of shipping ports to receive military and humanitarian supplies. The afflictions marasmus and kwashiorkor began to spread further, with the absence of protein in the diet, and they were compounded by outbreaks of other disease epidemics and diarrhea. The landscape was filled by an increasing number of those avian prognosticators of death as the famine worsened and the death toll mounted: vultures. By the beginning of the dry season of 1968, Biafran civilians and soldiers alike were starving. Bodies lay rotting under the hot sun by the roadside, and the flapping wings of scavengers could be seen circling, waiting, watching patiently nearby. Some estimates are that over a thousand Biafrans a day were perishing by this time, and at the height of Gowon’s economic blockade and “starve them into submission” policy, upward of fifty thousand Biafran civilians, most of them babies, children, and women, were dying every single month.
Biafra’s defeat was almost inevitable. The eastern region, which Biafra attempted to have separated from Nigeria, was oil-rich and Biafra’s attempt to maintain control over its resources did not go over too well with Nigeria and its chief economic partner, England.
“At first Biafra was successful and this alarmed Britain, the former colonial power,” writes Rick Fountain, in a report for the BBC, “anxious for its big oil holdings. It also interested the Soviet Union which saw a chance to increase its influence in West Africa. Both sent arms to boost the federal military government, under General Yakubu Gowon.”
Biafra, alone and cornered, certainly doomed: this is the fabric which unfolds in Achebe’s book. But, however wretched the circumstances and devastating the consequences, the Biafran story, as Achebe tells it, remains inspiring and continues to attest to the power of revolt. It echoes the words of Chris Hedges, who believes “that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures.”
When Vonnegut met the Biafran military leader, Ojukwu, the undaunted general made plain their increasingly beleaguered position. “If we go forward, we die. If we go backward, we die. So we go forward.”
Geoff Dyer is very good at being shallow. Like a dragonfly hovering above the surface of a pond, his criticism skims across a subject rather than diving in. Yet not every critic can incite so many ripples with such a light touch, and not every critic can show such tremendous intelligence while leaving things slighted. Dyer launched himself into critical prominence by refusing to order things neatly: Out of Sheer Rage, for example, proved that failing to finish a project could be as entertaining as the project itself. It’s OK not to finish things, or even to master things, Dyer seems to say, so long as you are moved by them. In his introduction to his newest collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, he says that it was exactly the “the unruly range of my concerns” that he wished to see compiled, “as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer finds himself drawn to material in a hodge-podge way, jumping from one subject to another, and gaining a kind of critical breadth along the way. “I came to relish the way that getting interested in one thing led to my becoming very interested in something else—so interested, in fact, that I often lost interest in whatever it was that, a little while previously, had transfixed me utterly. Out of this relay of awakened and abandoned interests a haphazard kind of narrative hopefully emerges in the pages that follow.”
In Dyer’s latest collection, we get to see how Dyer has cultivated that broadly drawn critical life, in pieces published over the last 20 years from publications including Esquire, Granta, The Guardian, and so on. The collection is broken into five parts—Visuals, Verbals, Musicals, Variables, and Personals—and each piece can be read not only as crafted criticism, but also as Dyer’s unexpressed thoughts on the purposes of writing, of creation, and of art. The greatest pleasure one can take away is having Dyer as a fellow audience member—what he occasionally lacks in critical authority, he more than compensates for in critical awareness. It’s freeing to read his perspective, partly because he does not assume himself to be a master artist: like a football star watching ballet, or an actress reading an economist, he can appreciate the work without trying to emulate it. And in each piece he writes, whether examining his susceptibility to a Miroslav Tichý photograph of a woman lounging on a lawn, or first hearing John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”, he keeps his experience as a consumer of culture in the forefront of his verdict. He makes himself a critic for the everyman, who when faced with a cultural experience not only asks “Is it good?” but also “Will I enjoy it?”
What Dyer enjoys isn’t so easy to predict. In his “Visuals” works, he can delve into a photograph and find that what engages him is the frippery around its edges, rather than the photograph’s main subject. He writes, “If you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question—even if that answer comes in the form of further questions. Well, whoever, she is, she’s beautiful. Actually, I can’t really tell if that’s true, for the simple reason that I can’t see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful for an equally simple reason: because I’m in love with her.” Dyer doesn’t have to recognize the subject matter to get close to it; on the contrary, the less he knows for certain, the more interesting his impressions of it become. He can relate to what rings true to him: examining a photograph of Robert Capa’s of a soldier and his girl walking home with their bikes in tow, he doesn’t go into a high-falutin’ analysis of war, but instead focuses on the details he can imagine. The landscape. The dust on the tires. What makes the photograph for him makes it for all viewers. “The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says: this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him.” So much more is going on, according to Dyer, beyond the frame of any given photograph—for all the meanings we bring to viewing, all our lived experience, is just as important as what our eyes capture.
Dyer’s reviews are at their best when they are interdisciplinary, and he’s at his strongest when he doesn’t have much critical background to reference. Though his forté is obviously literature, his reviews tend to rely too heavily on contextualizing the material. Sure, he has the authority to write the stuff, but then he doesn’t have to make the great interpretative leaps and connection of dots that he does in his other essays. He can become wonky, academic, and a little distant from the work. He often makes up for it by treating certain writers as compatriots: when he asks, “Was ever a writer so besotted by failure as F. Scott Fitzgerald?” it feels like a question he’d rhetorically pose at a roast of his good friend Francis. He can take some pleasure not in each work, but in the canon of literature and where he hopes it’s headed (he longs for a boom in literature on boxing, throwing little jabs at how every boxing story stands in Hemingway’s footsteps.) His writing is, throughout, touched with a modesty and humility that serves him well. “Whatever else might be said about my talents as a reader, my ability to quit is undisputed,” he says, in the course of reviewing Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. “I can give up on any book—and I never for a moment considered abandoning this one, even when it seemed to be going nowhere.” By confessing his own foibles, Dyer paves the way for a compliment that means something—praise in the face of inborn resistance. It is a little too easy to skim over his book reviews, and his likes and dislikes start to insinuate themselves in a slightly irrelevant manner. But he is consistently asking the right questions, of why someone is coming to a particular text, and what their expectations might be. He demands things of himself even in the midst of assessing someone else. With Susan Sontag, he asks “To what extent is it possible to be a great prose writer without being a great writer of fiction?” That question will send him into Sontag’s gifts as a storyteller, but it will also haunt each word he writes. Can a fiction writer be critiqued by anyone but an equal?
In his book reviews, Dyer can afford to act like his subjects’ peer, but in his “Musicals” essays, he turns right back into a fanboy, and the reader can’t help but lap it up. His essay on “My Favorite Things” is epic, gushing, and rhapsodic in ways that only true music fans can be. He falls in love with the vocalist Ramamani and becomes a pseudo-roadie for Def Leppard on tour (nothing less than pure hilarity.) And his essay entitled “Editions of Contemporary Me” should be handed out in freshman year orientation packets, bearing the giant disclaimer “Caution: Your tastes in four years will be dramatically different than they are now.” This essay is Dyer at his best because, ultimately, he’s a critic interested in how taste evolves, making many, many concessions for how one comes to love and hate a piece of art. How you discover things—as he examines in the “Variables”—is as important as what you come to think of them. Dyer sees a homeless man’s daily plight and the story of Vincent and Theo van Gogh as two parts of the same story of the blues—“The message of the blues is simple . . . It cannot heal but it can hold us, can lay a hand around a brother’s shoulder and say: You will find a home, if not in her arms, then here, in these blues.” These variables, too, are where Dyer’s personal opinions seep in—in hoping to escape London, “with its sky of sagging cloud, where all the beautiful women already have boyfriends,” Dyer flees to Algeria in search of Camus’ rhapsodies on poverty and sunlight, and the rain seems to follow him. “Even in Algiers, on this autumn morning, I open the shutters with trepidation and find an allotment sky, a sky catarrhed with cloud. A shadowless day of loitering rain.”
These aren’t quite pieces of cultural criticism, but more like meditations on a life in the midst of culture, and of all the expectations art can saddle us with. Nora Ephron once wrote, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, but shouldn’t it be the other way around?” This might be Dyer’s problem, too—when everything you see brings you back to art, it’s hard not to see art everywhere you go. And it’s hard to read his account of flying in a fighter jet without wondering if he was playing Top Gun in his head all the while. Nevertheless, the drama is real, and it emerges in Dyer’s impressionistic essays on the crisp white bathrobes in fancy hotels, or in the stark ghost bicycles peppering busy New York intersections. In his “Personals,” we get tiny glimpses at the developing life of the writer, the little influences along the way—the comics and what they do to adolescent boys; the limitations and freedoms of an only child; and so on. And perhaps Dyer’s true passions were discovered in childhood after all: “I loved arranging my things—whatever they were—and putting them into some kind of order.” Looking back on a photograph of himself on a London roof in the mid-1980s, he says, “it was an idyllic time and—such is the nature of idylls—it is now a vanished time… Destiny, I think, is not what lies in store for you; it’s what is already stored up inside you—and it’s patient as death.” He unpacks his library, his sense of adventure, and eventually, a great and serendipitously discovered love, and we get the sense of a person evolving through exposure to the great wide world.
Is there any truly fair way to review a critic? It seems like trying to see a telescope more clearly by gazing at it through a telescope…or perhaps it’s like the observation made by a prepubescent Sally Draper on this season’s Mad Men, talking about the Land O’Lakes butter box: “That Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her on it, holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?” You can scrutinize each choice until the criticisms are just blobs of words and empty space. But buried somewhere within each well-schooled critic is a hungry cultural neophyte, ready to consume and report on whatever material they can get. Dyer is not so untouchable yet; he can still be moved to enjoy, or disdain, something without prejudgment. And ultimately that’s part of his charm: he can be like his reader, as blank as a slate, and demand that each piece of art freshly persuade him, charm him, move him to give it praise.
Michelle Wildgen had established her reputation as the resident gourmand in Tin House’s New York office, where she was then managing editor, long before I set foot there in the mid-aughts. In need of obscure spices, olive oil, fresh mozzarella? Michelle would promptly send you up to 125th Street, down to Vinegar Hill, off to an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx. She regaled the office with English toffee before the winter holidays, showing her behind-the scenes-mastery of the candy thermometer. Rumor of an enigmatic past as a cheese reporter in Wisconsin trailed her. It became obvious, quickly, that for Michelle, food was central as a medium, as a subject, as a way of life. She gave me recipes for dishes I loved to eat but didn’t know the first thing about how to approach. Chana masala, for example, which at that point I ordered from an Indian joint in my neighborhood at least twice a week. Upon request, she also supplied me with a list of must-have cookbooks, which included Nigel Slater’s Appetite, the perennial classic Joy of Cooking, and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. Part of me still holds on to the idea of becoming a culinary goddess, but with each passing bout of inspiration I’ve learned that this desire to up the ante in the kitchen only lasts until I’m confronted by my own knives and cutting board and sink. This doesn’t diminish the pleasure I take in dining, of course, or overhearing an explicit description of a lavish feast. And so, for a while I lived vicariously while working with Michelle and listening to her mastery and enthusiasm for food, her robustness of detail. Those were hopeful years for me.
Food plays a central, steady, and rather predictable role in most of our lives. Three meals a day, coffee with breakfast, nightcap before bed. Or, if that’s not right, perhaps it’s coffee for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, dinner out, and a nip of dark chocolate after? To each her own. Continuing to consume is necessary to continue living but this ongoing cycle of hunger and feeding doesn’t usually incite a predicament in the way that narrative fiction requires.
And just how many meals do characters prepare? How many do they eat? Oh, there are significant meals. There are wedding banquets and funeral meats. The tears of longing that fall into the wedding cake batter in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate afflicts each wedding guest who has a piece. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus ends with a banquet where the guests are served a pie filled with meat cut from the bodies of Titus’s daughter’s assailants. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way is forever linked to the madeleine because of an ecstatic memory of a morsel of that small French cake. And that’s not Proust’s only paean to food in Swann’s Way. His description of the kitchen scullions at work and the rows of all things vegetables sent me into a deep hunger the first time I read it:
I would stop by the table, where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations of their white feet — still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed — with an iridescence that was not of this world.
Proust’s peas and asparagus evoke the 19th-century still lives of Édouard Manet, whose numerous depictions of kitchen stock and cuisine include a hare hung by the legs and a platter of raw oysters accompanied by lemon wedges. Consider also Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and its portraits of food. The rhythm and sound come together to convey the object’s essence, making Stein’s “Asparagus” a different stripe than Proust’s. But Stein’s cubist rendering also aspires to art: “Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.”
A chef knows how to stiffen the egg whites so that the soufflé stands; a fiction writer develops a sense of how to craft sentences and paragraphs to support the narrative and its central characters. There are prescriptive recipes for many types of writing just as there are for all kinds of dishes, and yet the ability to follow directions is more skill than art. It’s only after the procedures are internalized and diverged from that both cook and writer can pull off an original concoction.
Perhaps in this way, writing a novel is similar to planning a feast.
Wildgen’s depictions of food hew closer to Proust’s than Stein’s in that they are indulgent and languorous. And she’s as skilled at the mechanics of whipping up a well-crafted story as she is describing how to make a béarnaise. In her essay “Ode to an Egg” Wildgen confronts the egg, a character that is both pliable and stubborn: “Faced with gracelessness, an egg asserts itself…Just try skipping the tempering of beaten yolks with warm liquid before adding them to a béarnaise and watch the egg clench its proteins like fists. You will be no more successful with a chilly egg yanked from the fridge than you will with a date you have shoved into a swimming pool.” And yes, her fiction contains an abundance of edibles, too. In her first novel, You’re Not You, the narrator, Bec, is a young college student who takes a job as a caretaker for a woman afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The novel is peppered with vivid scenes of shopping in Madison’s farmer’s market, among the cascades of vegetables, cheeses, and meats. Wildgen’s second novel, But Not for Long, is set within a food co-op, and now, her latest, Bread and Butter, is nestled firmly in the restaurant industry as it follows three restaurateur brothers. Leo, the businessman, works in partnership with Britt, the charmer who oversees the front end of their well-established restaurant Winesap; and Harry, their upstart younger brother who wants to make his mark decides to open his own, edgier place, Stray.
Food is the true currency of Bread and Butter. Food is an art, a language of affection, of consolation, a way of life. The culinary imperative is present from the opening scene, where a young Harry buys a lamb’s tongue with his allowance. The long, lingering pass over the butcher’s case establishes the narrative eye as unflinching and artful:
Inside a butcher’s case, denuded rabbits curled pink and trusting in white bins, while the sheep’s heads appeared chagrined and surprised by the depth of their eyeballs, the narrow clamp of their own teeth. The display of calves’ brains and kidneys, livers and tripe, repulsed Britt, struck Leo as regrettable but unavoidable, and entranced Harry who was six.
The brothers’ reactions foretell much about their future adult selves, from Leo with the rational mind to Harry the adventure seeker. Their lives are defined in relation to food. This is true whether Leo and Brit worry about whether their warm chocolate cake has become outdated, or when the Harry argues for keeping a provocative dish on his menu: “you’ve also gotta give people something they haven’t tasted, something they can’t imagine and have to come in and try.” And, well, this scene also provides fair warning for readers who find so much meat unsavory, much like Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar whose the menu of which announces, “We do not serve vegetarian-friendly items.”
Human behavior is observed within the context of the rules of the trade (and the rules that are broken): don’t date coworkers; the staff is young, desirable, and often temperamental; key players in the kitchen will be lured and poached by other establishments; extreme focus is required during rushes, when on a good day the kitchen and wait staff merge into complimentary sides of a well-oiled machine. And the food! If nothing else (and there is plenty else), the novel revels in its cuisine. Sentences are peppered with exquisite dishes throughout and take detailed note of the textures and presentation and garnishes, allowing reader gorge. Dishes served include pig’s ear, hard salami, putty-colored lambs tongue, rabbit ragù with pappardelle, salted brittle, and sardines. An entire hog has been butchered and transformed into barbeque and charcuterie for a staff party. This physicality grounds the brothers’ struggles, caught up in assuring Winesap’s relevance as Stray establishes its name. When Britt first tastes Harry’s signature dish of lamb’s neck with Jerusalem artichokes he’s concerned that it’s too adventurous to lure small town diners. The same dish dazzles Leo and makes him worry he’s become too complacent. It’s the kind of conundrum that plagues the brothers, as well as all forms of art and commerce — the inspired dish won’t lure diners despite its brilliance, while the reliable dishes that sell are often staid.
Bread and Butter is a tremendous feast of a novel. Like a meal served at the streamlined Winesap, it adheres to a more classic ideal of what makes a book worth reading. It doesn’t aspire to rework the novel as form, nor does it attempt to. Instead, it achieves with excellence what it sets out to do, with its well-crafted characters and the subtle development of their entanglements, as it offers an insider’s view view of the restaurant industry, including the struggle to balance business and creativity, the intermingling of family and business, and of course, the cuisine. The food’s physicality is so palpable and inviting, and is rendered with precision and balance — this too is art. I’ll leave you with a morsel to whet your appetite, as Harry serves the lamb’s neck: “He drew something meaty and brown, dripping, from a braising pot and set it on a metal dish and slid it into the oven. Then he arranged some crisp root vegetables and broccoli rabe on a round white plate, placed the meat at the center, and scattered the whole thing with something golden and green and finely chopped. He placed this before Britt with the air of a cat delivering a freshly killed gopher.”