Best of lists for 2008 are already starting to pop up. Amazon recently posted its Top 100 of 2008. The surprise at the top of the list is The Northern Clemency, the Booker shortlisted novel by Philip Hensher. The year’s fiction phenomenon The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was fifth, and Millions favorites Neverland and 2666 land at 15 and 24 respectively.
There is no greater way to spend your summer than flat on your back on the hot sand or in a chaise lounge by a pool (preferably with nearby waiters serving adult beverages). So while you’re laid out and baking this season check out these books whose landscapes and characters are bone-dry, desolate, charred, or wasted. The relentless emptiness, absence of morality, and anesthetized and vacuous characters will provide a different kind of “trashy” beach read. The ennui will be a perfect complement to your cocktail.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Play It As It Lays follows the trajectory of Maria Wyeth, a burnt-out actress bouncing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert. The lovers, ex-husbands, and friends in Maria’s orbit take opiates and gin for menstrual cramps, rent apartments when the plumbing in their Beverly Hills mansion backs up, and wash up in motel rooms in the desert on the edge of movie sets.
Play It As It Lays is precise, highly controlled, and, at least on the surface, utterly devoid of emotion. Her narrators report, they do not emote. What distinguishes Didion’s work is the polarity of that highly controlled narrative voice set against the utter disarray — “disorder was its own point” — of the worlds her characters inhabit. In other words, Didion composes scenes of excess, disintegration, and violence using a voice utterly devoid of all three.
Polarities are Didion’s specialty — vulnerability and toughness, exposure and privacy, detachment and emotion, despair and hope — and her utilization of them injects her work with an extreme sense of pressure.
The emotional weariness of her characters and their sense of doomed fatalism belie not just a wicked survival instinct, but also a sense of hopefulness – albeit a hopefulness whose origins and presence they themselves do not understand. It is Maria, the infamously detached protagonist of Play It As It Lays who says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing. Why, [her friend] BZ would say. Why not, I say.”
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
Cassandra Edwards, a brilliant, intense Berkeley grad student, is hell-bent on sabotaging her twin sister Judith’s wedding, and returns to her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to do just that. Cassandra’s first person narration is utterly spellbinding and it takes no effort for the reader to understand how Judith falls for Cassandra’s manipulative charm over and over again once we so easily do the same (think verbal pyrotechnics).
Cassandra is at once conniving, self-aware, frantic, irrational, despondent, lucid, adoring, and shockingly sympathetic. Her neurotic attachment to her sister as some extension of herself, their lush-of-a-retired-philosophy-professor father, and their willfully oblivious grandmother make for a family story like none other. As Cassandra discovers that that her force of will is not enough to keep the people she loves in orbit around her, her sense of order and ties to reality begin to crumble.
Baker’s writing, like her protagonists, is vivacious and funny as hell and the dialog is as good as it gets. Cassandra is totally nuts and incredibly sympathetic — and you will be completely enraptured by her.
Another Country by James Baldwin
Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, Another Country centers around six people who are all, in some way, connected to Rufus Scott, a jazz drummer in New York City. Baldwin’s cast of characters leads us into the weeds of their lives, and we are privy to things that we should never see and won’t easily forget. Another Country is haunting and the pictures Baldwin conjures are searing.
Thematically, it touches on pretty much everything: race, sexuality, gender, class, passion, love, loss, grief, friendship. You name it, it’s in here. It’s a book about how we hurt and need each other in equal measure; the ways in which we entwine ourselves into the lives, and the bodies of the people we love. The things we pay for, and how we pay. The Washington Post dubbed this book, “An almost unbearable, tumultuous, blood-pounding experience.” And really that sums it up perfectly.
A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
Born to movie star parents in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the unnamed narrator of A Way of Life Like Any Other grew up in the (kitschy) lap of luxury on the family estate, Casa Fiesta. “Was there ever an ass so pampered as mine,” he wonders at the outset of the novel? But the glory days are over. His parents’ careers have disintegrated and their marriage has come apart. In the wake of his former life this man-child struggles to make a path forward for himself.
A deadpan, cutting, and catty comedy of manners, O’Brien uses a razor sharp and devastating wit to talk about the world and the family his narrator came up in. A surprisingly moving coming-of-age story laced with a healthy dose of glitter and camp.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The only book on this list that has a sort of cooling effect, The Summer Book is an unsentimental series of vignettes that opens a window onto the lives of six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother who are spending the summer on a small island in Finland after Sophia’s mother dies. Pretty much nothing happens in this book: attention is focused on minutiae and things are handled from an emotional remove that we’ve come to expect from the Swedes. The writing is crisp and somewhat distanced and experiences are observed rather than felt; to wit:
Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. The can of kerosene is brought up from the cellar and left in the hall, and the flashlight is hung on its peg beside the door.
According to The Independent (London),” The Summer Book manages to make you feel good as well as wise, without having to make too much effort… [it] says so much that we want to hear in such an accessible form, without ever really saying anything at all.” If that’s not the perfect summer read, I don’t know what is.
Image via Stewart Butterfield/Flickr
In 1699, at the age of 32, Jonathan Swift wrote a list of resolutions for himself that he titled “When I come to be old.” The first of these was, “Not to marry a young Woman.” Improbably, reading this Swiftian direction set me compiling a list of movies in which men and women disregard his advice. I can’t say it’s in any way particularly timely, or suited to the season – unless nothing says “summer” to you like a nymphet in a bikini and heart-shaped sunglasses or Dustin Hoffman in full diving gear at the bottom of a pool.The GraduateManhattan – oh, beauty and the beast: Mariel Hemingway in bed with Woody Allen. A great movie, and a beautiful movie (even if you find WA occasionally repulsive).Kubrick’s Lolita (1962)Lolita (1997) The Kubrick Lolita goes in more for the “humor” of Nabokov’s novel – a lot of slap-stick-y scenes with Peter Sellars as Clare Quilty. I prefer the remake because it goes in more for the tragedy. Jeremy Irons walks the monstrous/charming line superbly and Dominique Swain is more convincing that Sue Lyon as Lolita.Pretty Baby – Louis Malle’s beautiful and creepy film about the daughter of a prostitute in a New Orleans whore house. A too young Brooke Shields, with Keith Carradine and Susan Sarandon.The Professional – remember Natalie Portman singing “Like a Virgin” to a flabbergasted Jean Reno?Beautiful Girls – Portman again, reprising her “old-soul” girl-woman vibe from The Professional opposite Timothy Hutton. (not that surprising that Portman was offered the Lolita role for 1997 remake)Lawn Dogs – highly recommended: Young Sam Rockwell and very young Mischa Barton. The solace and dangers of friendship in a deeply creepy suburbia.Harold and Maud – for the series of staged suicide scenes and Cat Stevens soundtrack alone, this is worth a watch, but there’s so much more…Venus – The great Peter O’Toole playing, as far as I can tell, himself. And he is charming. Plus the enormously fat actor now of Harry Potter/Uncle Vernon fame (once of Withnail/Uncle Monty fame) as one of O’Toole’s pals (Richard Griffiths).Last Tango In Paris – Really old Marlon Brando and really young French hottie: borderline porn – kinda gross (not recommended to the faint of heart, or really anyone at all)Shopgirl – Steve Martin, Clare Danes, Jason Schwartzman, and Pete Sampras’ babe wifeLost in Translation – another former goofball (Bill Murray) makes good as a serious leading man opposite Scarlett JohanssonY Tu Mama Tambien – not the rollicking good time the previews suggested it to be: brace yourself.Notes on a Scandal – Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett at their finest.American Pie – the movie that brought us “milf”The Good Girl – Jennifer Aniston playing a downtrodden housewife and Jake Gyllenhall (whose character renames himself Holden Caulfield) as her co-worker paramour at the Retail Rodeo.Laurel Canyon – Francis McDormand and Alessandro Nivola are the May-December pair, ably supported by Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale, and Natasha McElhone. A good movie for repressed graduate students.
American book publishers have forever been on the lookout for the next hot young thing. In a country built by people who shucked the old world in favor of a new one they got to make up on the fly, this hunger for newness — in books and just about everything else — was probably an inevitable strain of the national character. And it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. A very cursory list of American writers who got published before they turned 25 includes Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Karen Russell, Gore Vidal, and David Foster Wallace. Not a single dog in that pack.
But for every hot young thing who went on to a long and venerable career, there are dozens, hundreds, who blazed briefly and then vanished. Moreover, publishing’s abiding obsession with fresh voices ignores a curious fact about our current literary scene: a startling number of the finest writers at work today are not twentysomethings; they’re eightysomethings. Yes, we’re witnessing the unlikely rise of the octogenarian hottie. (Fellow staff writer Sonya Chung explores and celebrates the work of later-in-life writers at our sister site, Bloom.) Here are sketches of a half-dozen members of this implausibly durable and prolific tribe.
At the age of 84, Gay Talese has just published his 14th work of non-fiction. As we have come to expect from one of our greatest living journalists, The Voyeur’s Motel is richly reported, elegantly written — and deeply disturbing. Above all, it’s a testament to the payoffs when a skilled reporter stays in for the long haul. Talese, who once wrote for and then wrote a book about our newspaper of record, calls himself “a man of record.” In bulging file cabinets in his subterranean bunker in New York City, he tucks away every scrap of research for possible use at a later date. He discards nothing because he understands that everything has the potential to become a story.
This obsessive collecting accounts for the existence of The Voyeur’s Motel. The titular character is Gerald Foos, who bought a motel near Denver in the 1960s for the express purpose of spying on his guests. He cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms, then installed fake vents that allowed him to climb into the attic and observe everything that happened in the rooms below. In 1980, Foos wrote an anonymous letter about his project to Talese, who was about to publish his best-seller about sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not just as some deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote, adding, “I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I have watched, and compiled interesting statistics on each…”
Intrigued, Talese eventually visited the Manor House Motel and accompanied Foos into his attic observatory for several voyeuristic sessions. But since Foos was not willing to reveal his identity — and since Talese insists on using real names — the notes went into Talese’s file cabinets, along with the copious journal entries Foos began to send. Foos insisted that his retrofitted motel was not the lair of “some pervert or Peeping Tom,” but rather “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state.” He saw himself as a “pioneering sex researcher” in a league with Masters and Johnson.
Foos’s journals chronicled every imaginable kind of participant in every imaginable scenario: sex between happily and unhappily married couples, group sex, swingers, cross-dressers, a nun, drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists, wounded Vietnam veterans, and one guy who had sex with a teddy bear. Foos even witnessed a murder. But since the voyeur remained unwilling to go on the record, Talese filed away the journal entries and eventually forgot about Gerald Foos.
Then in 2013 — 33 years after he first wrote to Talese, and several years after he sold his two motels — Foos called Talese to announce that he was finally willing to go public with his story. Talese was ready. He had everything he needed in chronological order in his file cabinets, including the fact that the voyeur’s experiment became a long slide into misanthropy. After decades of peeping, Foos concluded: “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest. They are part of a fantasy world of exaggerators, game players, tricksters, intriguers, thieves, and people in private who are never what they portray themselves as being in public.”
When Talese made one last research trip to Colorado in the summer of 2015, Foos took him to the site of the recently demolished Manor House Motel. Foos was hoping to find a souvenir in the fenced-in platter of dirt, but after a while he gave up. When his wife suggested they go home, he said, “Yes, I’ve seen enough.” There was to be one major hiccup. As the book was going to press, a Washington Post reporter dug up the fact that Gerald Foos had failed to tell Talese that he had sold his the Manor House Motel and then repurchased it in the 1980s — after the events recorded in The Voyeur’s Motel. Talese warned in the book that Foos could be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator,” adding, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.” Despite these clear caveats, Talese blurted to a Post reporter that his book’s credibility was “down the toilet” and he would not be promoting it. Happily, Talese quickly came to his senses and disavowed his disavowal, then vigorously set about promoting a book that only a “man of record” and a gifted journalist could have written.
At the age of 88 — “piano keys,” as she merrily puts it — Cynthia Ozick has just published her seventh volume of criticism, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the yin to the yang of her high-minded novels (read our interview with Ozick here). A self-proclaimed “fanatic” in the cause of literature, Ozick is not ashamed to be wistful about the passing of a time when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event.” In a sense, Ozick is a keeper of a guttering flame, but she presses on, living in the bedroom community of New Rochelle where she has lived since the 1960s, not far from her girlhood home in the Bronx. She rarely ventures beyond the neighborhood supermarket these days, and she still writes late into the night at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood.
One sign of greatness in a writer of fiction is the ability to make readers care about characters and worlds that would ordinarily be of no interest to them. I approached Ozick’s 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, with more than a little trepidation. It’s the story of a young woman named Rose Meadows who accepts a job as assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, an imposing scholar of a medieval Jewish heresy known as Karaism. The novel unfolds in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, amid an enclave of refugees from Europe’s gathering storm. Not exactly my kind of set-up, but my trepidation vanished before I reached the bottom of the first page. I was beguiled, swept away.
The publication of that novel also served as a reminder that Ozick can be funny in a brazen, Buster-Keaton kind of way. Thirty-eight years after publishing her first novel, Ozick got sent out on her first book tour to promote Heir, a form of exquisite torture and humiliation that she chronicled for the New York Times in a story that should be required reading for every aspiring novelist and every comedy writer. Yes, high literature may be all but dead in America, but it helps that a keeper of the flame is still able to make us laugh out loud.
Last year, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison, our only living Nobel laureate, published a slender novel called God Help the Child. Unlike her previous 10 novels, this one avoids large historical themes — particularly slavery and its unending repercussions — and instead tells a fable-like story of a well-off cosmetics executive named Bride living in modern-day California. The damage done to children has been an abiding preoccupation of Morrison’s, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which an 11-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped by her father. In God Help the Child the damage is less brutal but no less insidious. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, was instantly and forever appalled by her daughter’s dark skin: “It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.”
While God Help the Child is not Morrison’s finest work — how many novels rise to the level of Beloved? — it offers an insight into the sources of one writer’s late-career flowering. Arthritis has put Morrison in a wheelchair, and writing is not only a way out of physical pain, but a way to control her world. As she told The New York Times Magazine last year:
I know how to write forever. I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control… Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.
This fall, nearly two years after he died at the age of 87, the poet Philip Levine will posthumously publish a slim but sumptuous miscellany called My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. A former U.S. poet laureate who came up through the infernos of his native Detroit’s auto factories, Levine was productive right up to the end of his long life, producing the essays, speeches, journal entries and verse fragments that make up this welcome new collection. It is, in essence, the story of how one poet got made, and it’s best read in tandem with Levine’s only other book of prose, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, from 1994. The new book offers a lovely description of Levine’s very first poems, composed when he was a teenager, at night, in woods near his home in Detroit. He called them “secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” Years later, on a return visit to his hometown, Levine encounters an elderly black man who is scratching out a garden and an existence amid the city’s ruins. As the two men talk, life and poetry merge. As Levine put it: “There are those rare times in my life when I know that what I’m living is in a poem I’ve still to write.”
Now 81, Joan Didion has produced three fairly recent memoirs that prove beyond all doubt that she is a master stylist and one of our keenest social observers. The first of the three books, Where I Was From, is my favorite, a cold-eyed reassessment of the myths and assumptions Didion once held about her family and her native California, what she now scorns as “the local dreamtime.” The other two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are unflinching dissections of the grief Didion lived through after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Bravery, it turns out, is not the exclusive province of the young.
At the age of 97 — which makes him the only nonagenarian in this tribe — the poet, publisher and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shopping a new book called To the Lighthouse, a surrealistic blend of fiction and autobiography. Ferlinghetti, who has published some 50 volumes of poetry, including the million-copy-seller A Coney Island of the Mind, is still represented by his long-time literary agent Sterling Lord, who is a spry 95.
So why is it that some writers dry up while others keep producing good work deep into the twilight of their lives? There is no single reason for this late-career productivity, just as there is no single approach that unifies these writers. Talese and Ozick continue to plow the same furrows they’ve been plowing for decades, to great effect. For Morrison, writing is a way to escape physical pain and assert control. For Levine and Didion, the late years became a time of looking back, of revisiting origins and reassessing beliefs. For Ferlinghetti, it’s a chance to explore a new form. If their motivations and methods vary, it’s safe to say that all of these writers share Morrison’s need to write forever, that they’re in the grip of what the writer Roger Rosenblatt has called “the perpetually evolving yearning.” There will always be something new to say, maybe even some new way to say it.
In his posthumous collection of essays, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said contended that late-life work isn’t always a summing up, or a display of accumulated wisdom, or a reassessment; it can also be “a form of exile” marked by “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” Said cited Jean Genet and Ludwig von Beethoven, among others, as exemplars of this intransigence. Late style can also be a response to the breakdown of the body, as when Henri Matisse underwent colon surgery at age 71 and, no longer able to stand and work at an easel, gleefully embarked on what he called his “second life,” a 13-year flurry when he sat in a wheelchair and used simple scissors and sheets of colored paper to create the ebullient, child-like cutouts that would become the exclamation point of his long career. He kept at it until he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 84. The painter Chuck Close, who underwent a major stylistic shift of his own in his mid-70s, recently said, “The late stage can be very interesting. Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It omits countless octogenarians who are still doing fine work, as well as writers who were productive until they died in their 80s (and beyond), including: Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in 2014; the poet John Ashbery, still prolific at 89; Saul Bellow, who died at 89 in 2005; E.L. Doctorow, who died last year at 84 and will posthumously publish his Collected Stories next year; Elizabeth Hardwick, who died at 91 in 2007; Gabriel García Márquez, who died at 87 in 2014; the Canadian short story master and Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, still working at 85; Philip Roth, (who is currently in retirement but was productive into his 80s); James Salter, who died last year at 90; and Tom Wolfe (85).
As different as these writers are, they do have one thing in common: they were all in for the long haul, and they all found a way to keep up the good work.
Image: Wikipedia, Girolamo Nerli
In her essay In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, fellow staff writer Emily St. John Mandel writes about protagonists who behave badly, like the eponymous Marie in Marcy Dermansky’s frisky little novel, Bad Marie. It’s true, many readers want to actually like a book’s main character — they’d take them to lunch if they could — but true villains are a hoot, everyone knows that. Who doesn’t love to hate Dr. Claw and his menacing feline in Inspector Gadget?
The problem is, in a work of thoughtful fiction, most villains are given a modicum of humanity; it’s their hidden vulnerability, their tangled motivation, that makes a reader believe they are real people. Makes them less villainous, really. Dermansky’s Marie is “supremely conniving,” as Mandel puts it, but she isn’t a villain. She isn’t vile. It’s impossible to hate someone that shocking, that fun.
I’ve been thinking lately about the truly poisonous characters in fiction. The female ones, specifically. Because women are vilified every day for not doing or saying what they’re supposed to. Is it anti-feminist to write an evil woman? I hope not, because there are some truly fabulous cunts in fiction.
Here are just a few:
Edith Stoner in Stoner
John Williams’ quiet masterpiece about an unassuming English professor named William Stoner spans more than 45 years and depicts, with simplicity and compassion, the slow and important work of understanding the self — one’s passions and desires, one’s body, one’s flaws. A main source of conflict in the novel is Stoner’s wife, Edith. Like Stoner at the beginning of the novel, Edith doesn’t know who she is. At the start of their courtship, we learn:
Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand; yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life, nor could it have ever occurred to her that she might become responsible for the well-being of another.
Unlike her husband, though, who discovers his love of literature and commits himself to the study of it, Edith never finds or seriously seeks out true fulfillment. Her unhappiness is a weapon she uses in their marriage, and the above passage only hints at her capacity for viciousness. She usurps his home office, she pits their daughter against him. Oh, how she terrorizes Stoner! I recently led a discussion about this novel and midway into it a woman raised her hand and said something like, “What the hell is up with Edith?” This was followed by a flurry of nods and invectives from the rest of the class. It takes everything in me to summon up sympathy for Edith — to even comprehend the depth of her meanness. Though her role in Stoner’s narrative is complex, I’m sure that if she starred in her own novel, it would be a tedious, vacuous, and miserable read. Boo! Hiss!
The Wife in “Do Not Disturb“
“I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” says the push-over husband in my favorite story by A.M. Homes, “but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” Who would know what to do? In “Do Not Disturb” we witness a dysfunctional marriage turn even more toxic as the narrator’s wife, a surgeon who knows exactly how cancer can terrorize one’s body, undergoes a hysterectomy and chemo, all the while being nasty to her partner and saying things like, “I feel nothing. I am made of steel and wood.” The wife’s brief moments of vulnerability — for instance, when she farts and runs out of the room, embarrassed — redefine her vileness as nothing more than a defense mechanism in the face of a life-threatening disease. But when I reach out to sympathize with her, she bites my hand.
Cathy/Kate Ames in East of Eden
Some readers complain that Cathy — Cal and Aron’s mother in John Steinbeck’s classic novel — isn’t a believable or plausible character. That might be true, for her cruelty renders her inhuman. I’d diagnose her as a dangerous psychopath; she kills her parents in a house fire, shoots her husband, abandons her newborn children, and murders her brothel boss so that she may inherit the business — and does it all with a smirk. She feels no empathy, thinks only of herself. And, like some reality television villainess, she’s beautiful. Of course she is. Here is a description of her as a school girl:
Cathy grew more lovely all the time. The delicate blooming skin, the golden hair, the wide-set, modest, and yet promising eyes, the little mouth full of sweetness, caught attention and held it.
I love Cathy’s inner-monster almost as much as I love Steinbeck’s descriptions of her. With prose rhythm like that, I forgive this book for all of its flaws, for the way it demonizes a woman for using her sexuality to get what she wants.
Zenia in The Robber Bride
The three female protagonists of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride suffer at the hands of Zenia, the man-stealer (and man-eater), who isn’t so much a woman as non-gendered — she is without a verifiable past, she is almost mythic in her actions and in her ability to disappear and renew herself, and she does not suffer as the other women, or men, in the novel do. If she wants something (or someone), she uses her body to get it. But she uses something else, too, and that something remains a mystery to the characters. Zenia has large breasts but they aren’t real. She’s a home-wrecker and it’s fun to hate her.
I’d consider Margaret Atwood a feminist writer, meaning, I suppose, that her books pass the Bechdel test every time, and that she gives her characters, male or female, rich internal lives. Her novels are often about women and the issues that preoccupy them, from family to their bodies to friendships with other women. It’s funny, then, that when thinking of vile women in fiction, I thought not only of Zenia, but also of Serena Joy, the steely Commander’s wife in The Handmaid’s Tale, and of Cordelia, the manipulative Queen Bee from Cat’s Eye. With Zenia, though, her behavior seems motivated only by a need to lie, rather than by something more complex and sympathetic. I’d argue that the novel’s comic tone allows for Zenia’s larger-than-life, wonderfully vile presence in Atwood’s oeuvre. Atwood is a feminist writer because she writes flawed female characters who, like real people, judge one another. Evil is not gender-specific, though the way we vilify others often is.
There you have it, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Who are your favorite vile women in literature?
Because the ineffable deserves a voice that captures its curves and cracks.
The best American fiction about God is being written by women.
A few: Marilynne Robinson, Alice McDermott, Toni Morrison, Erin McGraw, Jamie Quatro, Joy Williams.
Many critics will contort themselves into knots in order to avoid finding God in works of fiction by secular literary saints, and yet there she/he/it is, everywhere.
“I believe that God is (and must be) a transcendent presence in any worthy work of art.” — Joy Williams.
“As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” — Proverbs 26:11.
I always thought the above quote best describes the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the Southern Catholic who skewered the literalists who surrounded her.
It is tempting to compare Williams to O’Connor. Some might even call it reductive.
They are not the same, but they have one important similarity.
Both Williams and O’Connor find God in the gross, the morbid, the sinners, the slobbering, the strange.
So did Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham Greene, Fanny Howe.
“The church has done tons of practical good for the poor, has managed to accept the maddest among us, has a huge margin for visions, and has handed along, through the strangeness of dissecting time, one set of gestures.” — Fanny Howe.
God is in those gestures. Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a sequence of those gestures.
If you have read even half a story by Williams, you know that she is God-saturated.
Her father was a Congregational minister.
Although I would place her more as an Episcopalian writer.
It is difficult — perhaps foolish — to conjecture the religious practices of a writer, even if that writer writes of God often, effusively, exclusively.
Writers are liars.
Yet it is helpful when writing about writers who include God in their fiction to see how they pivot. What language, what liturgy, what culture, what gestures.
Williams’s priests and parishes and parishioners hold an Episcopal aesthetic.
She writes of mystery and image, but she is not a Catholic writer (they include more bells and incense and guilt).
Ninety-Nine Stories of God is gorgeously written, sentence-to-sentence, and arrives in vignettes that are condensed but not constrained; tight but not dry.
These vignettes carry the accumulated weight of gesture, which allows them to exist beyond their truncated nature.
From Williams’s short story, “The Girls,” describing a family’s Episcopalian priest, who is staying at their home:
The priest spent most of his time in the garden wearing only a bright red banana sling, his flabby body turning a magnificent somber brown. The girls were certain their parents regretted inviting him for he was not at all amusing, the way he could be frequently, in the pulpit.
A prototypical Williams sentence teeters without toppling over.
Joy Williams wrote to the writer Lincoln Michel that two essential attributes of the short story form are that it contains “an anagogical level” and “sentences that can stand strikingly alone.”
In “The Girls,” Father Snow is depressed over the death of his lover. His sorrow almost becomes entertainment for the titular unnamed girls, who are 31 and 33 years-old. “The Girls” appears along with 45 other stories in The Visiting Privilege, Williams’s recent collection of new and selected fiction. Although best known for her novels The Quick and the Dead and The Changeling, her short work is her most unique.
Williams channels the gestures of “The Girls” in Ninety-Nine Stories of God, but these tales are chiseled out of even more eccentricity. His small prayers before cocktail hour were “merely one of his excruciatingly annoying habits.”
“Prayer is a means of getting rid of some of our own ignorance about ourselves, Father Snow had always said.”
Father Snow again says that he misses his lover, but the girls quip that Donny “was so typical,” and “had that high-water mark like on his teeth.” “The girls,” Williams writes, “found the ensuing awkward moment quite satisfying.”
The moment gets even more awkward as the sordid history of the girls’ parents is revealed — a particular sin revealed, of course, by the mischievous girls. The word “repent” is spoken.
It is Father Snow who transcends the moment, and not more than a page after Williams describes him annoyed by the girls and making a martini “without ceremony,” since “there were simply some situations which did not allow for the sacrilization of the ordinary which he otherwise made every effort to observe.”
I trust a writer who speaks of God and faith tongue-in-cheek rather than tongue stuck-out. The latter takes itself far too seriously.
(Perhaps J.F. Powers is a better comparison for Williams than O’Connor. But Williams, in the end, is without equal.)
Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a very smart and timely book. I have read it twice now and taken photographs of single pages and recited them as prayers, because prayers should be strange, and they should often sting.
It captures the spirit of fine stories like “The Girls” but its method and purpose are different. Since the book announces itself as an anthology, a sequence of stories, we have hope for her chosen form, and the book does deliver. I could not have read a dozen of these from most writers. I would read a hundred more from Williams. Each story is short, prose-poetic but focused, and opens toward ambiguity. Titles appear at the end; I call them titles because they appear in the table of contents, but they are sometimes better imagined as responses to the stories.
Responses from the congregation? Maybe.
There are few things more Episcopalian than a well-timed smirk at hypocrisy.
Some standout tales from the collection include “Aubade,” “Wet,” “Moms,” “This Is Not a Maze,” “And You Are,” “Abandon All Hope,” “Shaken,” “Naked Mind,” and “Inoculum.”
“Inoculum” begins: “The Lord was in line at the pharmacy counter waiting to get His shingles shot.”
I recently wrote an essay for “The Sewanee Review” titled “Does Belief Matter in Fiction,” in which I argue that there are tangible and important differences in the fiction of practicing versus culturally Catholic writers. While Catholic fiction is a particular case for several reasons, we might apply that argument to various denominations and faith beliefs. On the one hand, I understand that it feels biographically slippery to conjecture the faith of a writer unless that faith is stated. Perhaps even if that faith is stated. Yet to not ask the question—to plead that we can’t tether biography to fiction, that we can’t wonder if a writer’s wonder about God is fair game — feels like a conveniently secular critical escape. One that mistakes literature about God for devotional texts or tracts.
One that doesn’t account for writers like Ron Hansen, Flannery O’Connor, and Joy Williams.
I like that a story in this book is part of an instructional manual that includes specifications for a tarpaulin.
Joy Williams said she partially channeled Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories when writing Ninety-Nine Stories of God. The collection was originally published through Byliner as an e-book, but Williams, who has no “TV or Internet or air-conditioning,” has “never even seen how [the book] appears to others. They are as vapor to me.”
In another story, the main character is part of a marathon reading of Dante’s Inferno that began on Holy Thursday and extends to Good Friday.
“He liked his slot . . . His was the third ring of the Seventh Circle, the ring of burning sand which torments those who were violent against God, Art, and Nature.”
After the reading, someone driving a BMW cuts through the church’s parking lot.
The character’s response: “Without reflection, he put out his hand and extended the middle finger.”
If a writer believes that we are surrounded by the ineffable, she will choose a net whose mesh is small enough to capture the ordinary.
“I think the writer has to be responsible to signs and dreams. Receptive and responsible. If you don’t do anything with it, you lose it. You stop getting those omens.” — Joy Williams.