The 2018 Man Booker Shortlist has been revealed! In its 50th year, the Man Booker Prize continues to uphold its mission to "promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom." Wittled down from the 13-title longlist, the 6-book shortlist includes writers from the UK, US, and Canada—three, two, and one, respectively. With her debut novel, Johnson is the youngest writer to be shortlisted for the Man Booker at 27, and Edugyan is the only nominee this year to have been shortlisted before (Half-Blood Blues in 2011). Here's the 2018 Man Booker shortlist (which features many titles from our 2018 Great Book Preview) and applicable bonus links: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (Read our review) Everything Under by Daisy Johnson Washington Black by Esi Edugyan The Long Take by Robin Robertson The Overstory by Richard Powers Milkman by Anna Burns The Man Booker Prize will be awarded on October 16.
I dislike car culture so much, it's rare for me to actually agree to drive to anything when visiting Los Angeles. Except maybe for Roy Choi's Kogi tacos. And to visit Eso Won Books, a unique and charming bookstore in the historical Leimert Park neighborhood. The store recently made a cameo in an episode of HBO's Insecure, the L.A.-based series by creator and star Issa Rae, who comments, as her alter ego Issa Dee, “it's like my favorite place, ever. They support a lot of up-and-coming black writers.” At Eso Won I was greeted by the affable James Fugate, co-owner of the store with Tom Hamilton, who was behind the register. James had such a wide-ranging opinion of so many interesting reads, I ended up leaving with a pile of books—novels, nonfiction, children's books—as did some of the family members who accompanied me. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called Eso Won his favorite bookstore in the world—it has something for everyone, including the writer who has done the sad bookstore signing where barely anyone shows up: In 1995 they hosted a young writer with a new memoir, and only about eight people showed; they ended up moving the chairs into a campfire type circle and had a nice intimate chat with the author ... Barack Obama reading from his book Dreams from my Father. Obama and Bill Clinton have since done signings at the store (held at an off-site location, since the store is fairly small), as well as Maya Angelou, Misty Copeland, and a variety of local figures. "It was a good signing," James remembers. "[Then] in 2006 Obama told Random House that with the Audacity of Hope book he would only do our store." Although unfortunately, "It was a big event and our co-sponsors didn't have us listed anywhere or even on stage. Even now the Museum that it was held at says they hosted Obama, but no mention of Eso Won." Yet they go on. I asked them some questions about the store and The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store? Are you the original owners? James Fugate: We started in 1988, I was working as a bookstore manager for Compton College where I meant Tom Hamilton and third partner, and he’s moved to Maryland. Tom and Asamoa wanted to start a store and I met with them to talk about it. They passed on starting a store, as I thought it would be very hard to generate business, but as the manager of the Compton College Bookstore I had developed a great selection of Black books as general reading material for the students and I was being asked to come to various community functions to sell books on the weekends. The bookstore was run by Barnes and Noble’s college division and I felt very uncomfortable coming to Black community functions and representing Barnes and Noble. So I came up with the idea of selling on my own with Tom and Asamoa on the weekends. Tom and Asamoa had the seed money to start buying the books and I had the ordering knowledge to put the concept together. TM: What does Eso Won mean? JF: Eso Won means Water over Rocks. Asamoa and his wife had visited Aswan, Egypt, and the African name is said to be Eso Won. We had the saying for some time that as water flows over rocks, so does knowledge flow through books. TM: Who are your main clientele? JF: Our customers come from Central L.A. for the most part, mainly where most Black people live. But we also draw from all over the city. We were able to benefit from many many L.A. Times stories, plus amazing book signings. [millions_ad] TM: What do you like most about being a bookseller? What's the most surprising thing? JF: For me the most surprising thing about being a bookstore is meeting customers who love your suggestions. I love talking about books that really move me and seeing people respond to those. Seeing people respond to emails for new books that we like is another plus. There's a $200 signed Obama photo book coming this November and we’ve sold 20 just from our emails. It just blew me away. TM: Who are your best/worst customers? JF: The best customers are just the good people with pleasant attitudes. The worst are the many, many nutcases who come to our store and signings. Both Tom and I are just sick of them. I could write a book on the many incidents we’ve had over the year with customers and authors. I would write the book, but I need a co-writer. Trust me—we’ve had more than our share. TM: What are some of your recommendations? JF: Chokehold by Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler may be the best book on race I’ve read since The Psychopathic Racial Personality. As a college student I struggled to understand hate. Blacks, Jews, Asians, Indians and Latinos all seemed to be feared by far too many white people. Psychopathic helped me understand why. Chokehold is the first book I’ve read which gets racism today. Plus Paul has very workable ideas on solving issues related to mass incarceration and other issues. TM: Are you yourself a writer? JF: Tom, Sam (Tom's son), and I are not writers at all. I would like to be, but writing is hard work. I don’t have many favorites authors right now. Walter Mosley is one, but some of my favorite books are The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley, Chester Himes—all of his books, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.; Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean is outstanding, a roadmap to the insanity of the right. TM: I always ask the booksellers to recommend another bookstore. What's yours? JF: I love The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. Their motto is, "What are you waiting for? We won't be here forever." Just about any used store is a favorite. TM: Any last thoughts? JF: Last thing: Books have knowledge and reading books gives you knowledge and power.
When I seek lonely women in literature, I usually find them flocked by too many perfectly un-fun creeps. You know what I mean: those lonely boys who trail behind the lonely women to make it clear that true love with an equally lonely person is the cure for all ills. It usually works out so that a quirky, lonely woman finds her complementary quirky dude partner and a happy ending ensues. Alcy Leyva’s novel And Then There Were Crows succeeds at giving us a very weird, super isolated, lonely woman protagonist whose story is not sodden with a shoehorned love interest. Instead, Leyva’s lonely woman protagonist fulfills the role of the antisocial slayer who mostly just needs to make friends. Crows stars an agoraphobic Queens native named Amanda Grey whose combination of financial instability, neuroses, and family issues lead her to seek a Craigslist roommate. The search quickly goes awry: “When she inadvertently rents a room to a demon, Grey goes from a woman concentrated on her own personal demons to the woman responsible for recapturing the six Shades from Hell she’s unleashed upon the city.” Grey’s efforts to recapture all of the pesky Shades obligates her to go outside, talk to strangers, and assemble a ragtag group of friends (including a very shifty seraphim). Leyva pits Grey’s agoraphobia against the Shades’ desire to dominate New York City. Grey prefers to hide in her apartment, avoiding everything she hates: “Staying indoors was perfect for me and I never complained, never thought I was missing out in life. I only came out when necessary ... but every time it was like landing on an alien planet. People are weird, sick, creatures; mouth breathers.” Grey’s loneliness and total hermit status is as an addiction, a best friend, and a trap. She clings to solitude but feels deeply guilty when the Shades incite chaos and slaughter. As much as she longs to hide in her comfort zone, she also wants to clean up the mess she’s accidentally made. The text plays with this dichotomy between the safety of Grey’s apartment inside and the anxiety-inducing world outside. New York also plays a part in the novel; even though Grey abhors the mouth-breathers of the world, she begrudgingly admits that she values the hell out of Queens and resents the encroaching gentrification. When she visits Brooklyn, she notes the borough’s “assimilation limbo” with disgust. She’s protective of her fellow New Yorkers and resentful of “the young hipsters” who have “no idea what a piping hot two dollar chop-cheese with extra onions does for a person’s soul.” What Grey values about Queens, her neighbors, and other ungentrified pockets of New York reflects the best facets of her own personality, too. She likes the ultra-casual, I-plainly-do-not-give-a-fuck-ness of the super in her building, or the eclectic indifference of the Polish couple who run a greasy burger joint across the street from her apartment. Clearly, Grey respects a willingness to be funny and weird. This respect for quirkiness explains why she devotes so much time digressing from her quest to explain the terrible “ramen pop” recipe she crafted while holed up in her apartment. Digressions aside, when Grey lovingly describes the crazy idiosyncrasies of her neighborhood, it urges the reader to care more about whether or not demons overtake New York. Also, the whole business of protecting New York from pure evil could devolve into a depressing and torturous burden, but Leyva is willing to be funny about it all. The text respects hijinks—Grey, her wily seraphim, a good-natured neighbor who Just Wants to Help, the demon roommate, and Grey’s estranged sister all team up to vanquish the Shades in a series of very wacky plots. When Grey and her crew target a Shade who aspires to commandeer the local government, the novel twists into a Mission Impossible-meets-Scooby Doo ploy that involves a children’s programming host and a large bookstore full of riotous people. The whole thing is so wild that the seraphim refers to it as “the worst fucking plan I have ever heard in my life. And I’ve lived for several thousand centuries.” As mentioned, the text notably does not shove a lonely boy love story down the reader’s throat, nor does it decide that a heavily romantic subplot will cure all of Grey’s neuroses. The book provides a slight romantic interest in the form of the caring neighbor, but Grey’s transformation from total recluse to Shade slayer prioritizes her increasing ability to relate to other people and challenge her social anxiety and agoraphobia. The book avoids using their chemistry to engineer a simple, happy resolution. The final chapter is not romantic, nor quite of this world—but despite some serious turns, Grey retains her ability to make fun of just about everything. Even after learning of a bruising and supernatural betrayal, she decides to laugh it off: “I figured that’s where I should start—just straight up laughing at the whole thing.”
If you’re a slob, you’re a pig. If you’re sneaky, you’re a weasel. Cowards are chickens, and followers are sheep or lemmings. If you give bad loans, you’re a shark. If you’re fat, you’re a cow, or maybe a whale. If you’re lazy, you’re a sloth. Crazy folks are batty; people who talk shit are catty. Villains are snakes, women are bitches, and the lowest of low are dogs. The president of the United States of America recently said of undocumented immigrants, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.” In the English language, at least, being compared to an animal is rarely a compliment. (Even if you’re called a fox because you’re oh so sexy, there’s also the implication that you’re sly, tricky, and untrustworthy.) In fact, comparing people to animals isn’t just unflattering, but dangerous. According to Genocide Watch, equating members of an ethnic group with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases is the third stage of genocide, as this type of comparison “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.” During the Holocaust, Jews were called rats; during the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called cockroaches. This made them easier to kill: They weren’t humans. They were animals. They were less. But if you called Sy Montgomery a dog, she wouldn’t be insulted; she would be flattered. In Montgomery’s new book How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, the renowned nature writer best known for her book on eight-armed mollusks focuses her observant eye on her own life and the creatures that shaped her. “Though I’ve been blessed with some splendid classroom teachers—Mr. Clarkson, my high school journalism teacher, foremost among them,” Montgomery writes in the introduction, “most of my teachers have been animals.” In her memoir, Montgomery argues the point that not only should being compared to an animal be taken as a compliment, but we should be humbled in the presence of our fellow creatures. We have so much to learn from them. The first creature Montgomery introduces us to is, naturally, her beloved childhood dog, Molly. A strong-willed and independent Scottish Terrier, Molly seemed to be more of a roommate than a pet, and she enjoyed her days freely roaming the Brooklyn army base where Montgomery grew up. “She wouldn’t come in when we called her in at night,” writes Montgomery of Molly. “Eventually my parents figured out we could blink the front porch lights on and off to signal that we would like her to come home. It was merely a suggestion.” Perhaps because of the independent nature of Scotties, Montgomery never seemed to feel control or power over the dog—Montgomery was not Molly’s master, but her peer. “Many young girls worship their older sisters. I was no expectation,” writes Montgomery. “But my older sister was a dog, and I—standing there helplessly in the frilly dress and lacy socks in which my mother had dressed me—wanted to be just like her: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” Molly, in Montgomery’s eyes, wasn’t just a dog; she was a superhero. “I was entranced by Molly’s otherworldly powers,” writes Montgomery. “She could hear my father’s approaching staff car long before it arrived in the driveway. She could smell an opened can of Ken-L Ration from the moment my mother took it out of the refrigerator. She could see in the dark.” Dogs are so much more than cute fuzz balls to curl up with on the couch or toss a Frisbee to, Montgomery reminds us—they quite literally have superhuman abilities. No wonder Montgomery followed Molly around like, well, a puppy. The image of a little Montgomery in a muddied dress and Mary Janes chasing after her Scottie dog, in turn chasing after a rogue Brooklyn rabbit, is a charming visual. “Cute,” one might think. “She wants to be just like her dog. What a delightful phase.” But the thing with Montgomery is that this desire to emulate the animals in her life was not a phase. She has spent the past 60 years admiring animals and following them to some of the most obscure locations around the globe to study and write about them. “I was never, my mother told me, a ‘normal’ child,” writes Montgomery. It’s true: People—children, and especially adults—who obsess over animals are seen as odd. It’s okay to like animals; it’s okay even to love them, but not too much. It’s not “normal.” It is easy to dismiss Montgomery as one of those over-the-top animal people: She is a vegetarian, she lives on a farm in New Hampshire, she has had pet dogs, turtles, ferrets, parakeets, cockatiels, chickens, and even a pig named Christopher Hogwood (who not only gets his own chapter in How to Be a Good Creature but about whom Montgomery already wrote another entire book). She’s the crazy animal person who would hold a tarantula. It’s too much, right? It’s not. In the same way that we are told that being compared to an animal is an insult, people are taught to believe that it is unhealthy to be too fond of animals. It’s all social conditioning. “People aren’t born with a fear of spiders,” argues Montgomery. “You can quickly teach a young person or animal to fear anything, including a harmless flower,” she writes in her chapter on Clarabelle, a tarantula she came to know and love when doing research in French Guiana. Montgomery herself wasn’t too fond of spiders before going on this South American expedition with a biologist who specializes in studying Goliath birdeater tarantulas. But eventually, she found herself holding a tarantula when “something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal.” It’s all about changing your perspective. Montgomery was able to hold a tarantula after she learned that spiders rarely bite people and that, actually, encased in their exoskeletons, tarantulas are quite delicate. In this same way, Montgomery makes the point throughout her memoir that if you open your eyes to the complex beauty of the natural world, you can see that being called an animal is actually something extremely remarkable. It’s something to be proud of. If you’re called a pig, you’re super smart. If you’re called a weasel, you can hold on tight to the things you want. If you’re a chicken, you’re affectionate and have many friends. Animals have so many admirable qualities that we would be better humans if we worked harder to emulate our non-human friends. When President Donald Trump tweeted that Steve Bannon had been “dumped like a dog,” Jennifer Weiner wrote an essay for The New York Times called “What the President Doesn’t Get About Dogs.” According to how Trump uses “dog” to insult his enemies, “dogs are failures, dogs are unattractive, dogs are unworthy of faith,” writes Weiner. But anyone who has ever had a dog knows otherwise; if someone calls you a dog, it should be because you are loyal and kind. Trump is one of the only American presidents not to have a pet at the White House, and as Weiner writes, “It takes a lot to elicit sympathy for a man whose life goals seem to be deepening America’s divisions, lining his pockets and starting a third world war on Twitter, not necessarily in that order. But it’s hard not to be a little sad for anyone who won’t ever know the singular pleasure of a dog’s companionship.” Sy Montgomery’s latest book is all about the pleasure that comes from a life rich with many creatures. How to Be a Good Creature, though, is about more than appreciating animals: It is about learning from them. It is about how to be a good creature. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” writes Montgomery. There is something about animals that is pure. Animals are observant. Animals are loyal. Animals only attack when threatened. Animals respect the world they live in. Animals would never break up family groups into separate cages or discriminate against people for their religious affiliation or make a thinly veiled rape joke. Animals love homeless people and members of the 1 percent equally. Animals don’t care about your job or your power or your fame or your status. Animals value you for the content of your character. This is why we should follow Montgomery’s advice and be more like animals ourselves. While How to Be a Good Creature is Sy Montgomery’s memoir, it is actually much more about our current political climate than Fear or Fire and Fury or any of those “fuck Trump” books. What Montgomery seems to be saying, underneath her personal story, is that when our human leaders fail us as role models, we should look to animals. “I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or even eight; some with internal skeletons, some without,” writes Montgomery. “All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.” When you feel despair at the actions of your fellow humans, turn to other species for guidance.
Out this week: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan; The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina; Boomer1 by Daniel Torday (whom we interviewed); Heartland by Sarah Smarsh; Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files; The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka; These Truths by Jill Lepore; My Pet Serial Killer by Michael Seidlinger; Static Flux by Natasha Young; and Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini. Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
1. Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.” What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale. It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary. Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family. 2. Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia. Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation. Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations. Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood. The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself. Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child. None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.” Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations. 3. In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.” As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents. To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met. As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda. For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell. 4. Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia. If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared. But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there. Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
In Daniel Torday’s latest novel, Boomer1, ex-journalist, bluegrass musician, and failed academic Mark Brumfeld sparks an online movement against the economic tyranny of the baby boomers—all from the basement of his parents’ house. Told from the perspectives of Mark; his ex-girlfriend, Cassie, who is quickly rising through the ranks of an online media company after refusing Mark’s marriage proposal; and Mark’s mother, Julia, a former musician who has lost most of her hearing, the novel takes a probing look at what happens when our best-laid plans falter, our political debate falls apart, and we open doors that can’t be closed again. Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. I spoke with him over email about the baby boomers and millennials, Shakespeare, the purpose of fiction, and the political chaos threatening to swallow us all. The Millions: Why are the baby boomers the focus of Mark’s ire? In his situation—unemployed, living in his parents’ basement—I can imagine him veering far left and railing against capitalism or far right and becoming obsessed with keeping immigrants out. What’s so special about the boomers? Daniel Torday: Straight to the white-hot center of things! I like it. I guess I have two answers for this one. The first is the no-beating-around-the-bush fact that this is at heart a novel of contemporary politics. I’d had Occupy Wall Street in mind ever since that movement ultimately failed for not having a clear enough goal or leader. I wondered how to dramatize it. I’d also begun to feel itchy about how identity politics were at times coming to shut down conversation and being increasingly adopted by the political right, picking up on rhetoric that had long been roiling the left. And so the idea of letting Mark Brumfeld take on the baby boomers directly, from his standpoint as a millennial, just felt right. If there’s a clear limit to allowing one’s politics to come solely from identity it’s that there’s just no choice in the matter: In some way you’re always walled into certain aspects of the identity you’ve been given. And what's more intractable than one’s birthday? It also fit for my own vantage point—I’ve had the weird luck of not really being in a generation. I was born in 1978. So I’m not quite a Gen Xer, and they say millennial birthdays start in 1980, ’81, ’82. I feel like that liminal space—one foot in, one foot out—is the best place to be as a novelist. But probably the truer answer is that, apparent or not, Boomer1 is a loose retelling of Julius Caesar. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare for my last novel, and while reading Caesar, it occurred to me that there's something resonant, at least in the first two acts, with the way Cassius and Brutus talk about Caesar’s power—and the way millennials and boomers can be portrayed at odds with each other. So many lines just pointed in that direction. So the characters in Boomer1 map onto Shakespeare: Cassie is Cassius, Mark is Brutus, Julia is Julius. I went back and looked at the original Plutarch source material and it was a watershed. Plutarch’s book, while often read piecemeal, was called Parallel Lives—he was comparing biography from Rome to see how lives over the centuries paralleled each other. Which came to feel a lot like what I was after here, seeing how Julia in her 20s wasn’t all that different from Mark and Cassie. And it turned up all kinds of little flourishes I wouldn't otherwise have hit on myself: Joni Mitchell is quoting Caesar in the line “I am as constant as the northern star” (well it turns out she’s actually Leonard Cohen quoting it to her, but). Caesar was losing his hearing and that opened a door to Julia’s character for me. The FBI agents who come in late in the book get to have the names of Brutus’s conspirators. That kind of stuff. TM: Going off what you mentioned about the parallels between Cassie, Mark, and Julia, I’d like to ask you about the point of view of the novel. We get a third-person-limited POV that shifts between the three main characters, and they frequently describe their experiences of key moments in very different ways. Why show those incidents from multiple viewpoints? DT: Until this book, the third person has always shot me through with abject terror. It just seems so impossibly limitless in what you can do with it. My first two books were told all in first-person voices, which just feels much more natural to me. The boundaries are set. One question I always puzzle out with students is: How much do you want your fiction to sound like speech, and how much should it sound like writing? I think my favorite writers mostly play with aesthetics that sound much of the time like speech—Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Barthelme, even Kafka and Beckett in their own ways. But then Anna Karenina is probably my favorite novel and it’s just this kind of tennis-without-a-net free indirect narration. In the opening chapters we move between multiple characters and even briefly enter the head of Vronsky’s dog. So it felt like a challenge I was ready to take up. Then again, as you observe—all three narrators here are very close thirds, so the rules are mostly in place of what we have access to and what we don’t. I’ve actually been kind of pained in early reviews of the book to find some reviewers referring to it as “satirical”—which to me is way off. It’s a category error. I want this to be a funny book, and to reflect the world we live in, but none of the points of view are satirical. They’re just very close to the way three different humans actually think—if that sounds like exaggeration, maybe we’re not listening well. It’s my hope that Cassie sections still sound like Cassie thought, Mark sections like Mark thought. And I really try to avoid flashback, so it felt like by being very close to Julia in particular, we could get back to 1968, say, just by staying very close to her point of view. And it revealed all kinds of things to me—how you can use the third person to tell a story that still sounds like speech, keeping the language alive and vibrant, and accesses a character’s thoughts in a whole new way. TM: Let’s talk about Mark’s thoughts—does he have a realistic view of the world, or are the boomers just a scapegoat for his own personal failures? Or is the troublesome thing that it’s a mix of both? DT: So ... Mark spends a lot of time ranting about baby boomers on YouTube, and in the book it leads to a more or less open revolution of millennials attacking boomer icons. To some extent I just wanted to see what ranting on the page would look like. My dear friend, fiction writer Karen Russell, said to me over lunch once, “You’re such a good funny convincing ranter, you should rant in a book more.” So I had in the back of my mind that would be its own weirdly literary endeavor, getting that live language on the page. I think Mark is both completely right—and totally misguided—all at once. I’ve been thinking a ton lately about how maybe the biggest trouble our culture is in isn’t “fake news” but a version of its opposite. I don’t mean to minimize how awful actual fake news is, but we shouldn’t let it distract. More insidious and widespread is a kind of sophistry that overemphasizes the truth of any particular fact. We have access to so much information. From the pre-Socratics forward, Western culture’s great strength has been that we’ve always known relying too heavily on any single fact can lead us astray—that’s what sophistry is, and that’s why Plato and Aristotle created whole intricate lasting systems of thought to combat it. Our job is to view multiple facts, multiple viewpoints, and synthesize them. As Fitzgerald had it, “to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Right now we view so many things so quickly and with such vitriol that we've forgotten what nuance even sounds like. Did I just get ranty there? Sorry. Allow me to disagree with myself, then. To return to your question: The idea was to let Mark make his case as forcefully and rationally as possible, and then to let Cassie do the same, and Julia do the same, and then back away slowly and carefully. Chekhov has this amazing thing in his letters where he says something like, “It is not for writers of fiction to decide big questions. The writer’s job is simply to describe as accurately as possible people who have been speaking about big questions.” I teach a novel-writing class every spring, where we read like 13 novels in three months, and one realization I always have after all that reading is the extent to which great writers just let each scene, each sentence, do what it’s doing as loudly and convincingly as possible in the moment. When you do that, you can’t escape disagreeing with yourself. Presenting multiple viewpoints. Maybe even ranting! [millions_ad] TM: Mark's ranting on the internet takes him to some places online he's never known about before. And while he may give a dynamic performance in YouTube videos, his other online interactions, particularly with the group known as Silence, are a bit underwhelming for a would-be revolutionary. Where did that dynamic come from? DT: You know, I’m well into work on my fourth book, and I still feel like a novice each time I pick up a pen. I guess if I’ve worked out a bit of a process, it’s to let a character act and ramble for a while—and then to figure out what it looks like when their hopes and desires hit up against the reality of their world. So for Mark that meant setting him free to fuck up his life in Brooklyn, to rant, and then to see what that might mean. So I spent a bunch of time poking around the “dark web” and reading what I could about that world. There’s a Canadian researcher named Gabriella Coleman who's written a ton about Anonymous, and her books gave me a lot of background. I also did a bunch of research about what analogous examples could look like: the Boston Marathon bombers, Anwar al-Awlaki, the guy who founded Silk Road and then was arrested. Then I jumped back to the ’70’s and read a bunch about Patty Hearst, SDS, the Weather Underground. Then I jumped back and read a bunch about Emma Goldman. Then I jumped back to the 1850’s and read everything I could get my hands on about John Brown. You could say that’s my other instinct: jumping back, and back, and back. Which is a long-winded way of saying that once Mark had given what felt to me like convincing rants, when I let my imagination test them against the weird tricksters and hucksters—so, Americans—he would've encountered in the dark recesses of the web seven or eight years ago, I suspect it wouldn't have gone particularly well. He has some real, valid gripes, but I suspect most of the folks he would’ve excited would have been more of the burn-the-motherfucker-down crowd. And not to nerd out too hard, but again, that dynamic felt so in keeping with Marcus Brutus to me. He allows Cassius to convince him to lead Caesar’s assassination, and it’s basically a tragedy of errors from there, from Mark Antony’s famous “I come to bury Caesar, not praise him” speech forward. And shit, living through the last two years of politics feels a lot like that, too, doesn’t it? Well-intentioned people, and some very not-well-intentioned people, and their actions leading to all kinds of awful consequences, intended and otherwise. Tragedies of errors, piling up. TM: Right—no matter his intentions, Brutus has opened the door to political violence, and it’s a door that can’t be easily closed once it’s opened. That’s exactly where Mark’s headed, whether he’s realizing it or not. And with our political situation today, I’m thinking a lot about the doors that can’t be closed once they’re opened. It seemed like the Republicans in the Senate refusing to consider Merrick Garland was crossing a line in a pretty heinous way. Now I’m reading articles advocating for the Democrats to pack the Supreme Court to 15 members to reclaim a liberal majority and split California into six different states to tip the scales in their favor in the Senate. But then does the Supreme Court just keep growing and growing any time a single party controls the executive and legislative branches? It’s scary to play that out. Did writing about Mark, Cassie, and Julia give you any insight into the balance between no-holds-barred fighting it out and trusting in institutions in hope of better days? DT: Nicely put. Like most folks I know, I was pretty despondent after the election. I turned to one of my old mentors over email and he said, “Well, there will still be music, right?” I should say we've been discussing Boomer1 here as a “political novel,” and I'm OK with that, but I’m also tempted to argue that any novel that grants you access to character is political by nature. That’s what I take Chekhov to be saying in his letter, and maybe it’s the opposite of how a first read might take it—not that literary fiction doesn’t take up philosophical and topical material. But that the sheer act of saying, “Here’s the limited, complicated, flawed, emotional, deep, rich way people think, presented in words on the page. Now read it.” And in doing so, you’ll be engaged in a political act. Facile as it might sound, I still trust down deep that if any of the venal, corrupt, autocratically inclined folks in the current presidential administration were really to sit down with a work of art—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Marquez, Grace Paley—they’d come away less able to enact the evil they’re busy at now. Though, you know, good luck on both fronts. Which, I guess, is to say ... I have not one iota more sense of what’s ahead after writing this book. I feel like I hardly understand what’s behind. I did have the strange experience of finishing this book, selling it, and then having to look at it again after November 2016 and rethinking and retooling a whole lot of it. Things I thought were going to be implausible and inflammatory seemed weirdly tame. Things I thought were innocuous needed a new cast. I struggled a lot over whether it was problematic that the guys in Silence weren’t guided by the bigotry that's taken over much of the trollish web, but I think I settled on a feeling that back in 2010 or so, the Breitbart-ization of those musty corners hadn’t yet taken over or become inevitable. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, which I reread while writing, and I thought of the early 4chan guys as being way more like Coyote than anything. But then … Coyote would make a monumentally bad president. Somehow we live in a country where people would’ve voted for him. Poor Melville, not alive to see it. Or to take it one other direction: I felt excited in this book to have much of the revolutionary lens of boomers and millennials be focused on music. Literally, the music of the past 100 years in American life, from bluegrass to psychedelic rock to punk and forward. And that institution sure isn’t gonna fall. Punk rock isn't going to soften to an autocrat’s lies—it’s going to gain new edge. New relevance. I suspect art’s place will grow stronger, be more necessary, the uglier civic and political life gets. Not “content.” Not “vertically integrated media.” FUCKING ART. I think all the time about that great thing from Philip Roth after he returned from Communist Eastern Europe in the late ’70s: “In America everything goes and nothing matters, while in Europe nothing goes and everything matters.” It sure feels like a whole lot matters these days. TM: You share a lot of the same background as Mark: You were a magazine editor and a bluegrass musician—though you ended up with a job as a college professor. What was it like drawing from your own work experiences to put Mark on a path that ultimately led him back to the basement of his parents’ house? DT: Well, I haven't committed any acts of terrorism, domestic or otherwise. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. But you know I was in the middle of a long, complicated job search when I started writing Boomer1, details about which are too boring to get into here. So many of the emotions behind Mark’s character felt close for me. And I think as a novelist there’s always just that need for proper nouns and telling, specific details, and in putting Mark in a Brooklyn and a Baltimore I knew, I felt I could pull it off. Which is to say, with regrets to Flaubert: Sure, Mark Brumfeld, c’est moi. But then Cassie Black, c’est moi, and Julia Brumfeld, c’est moi, aussi. I think to really pull off characters with as close a third person as I've given them, for so many pages, for me at least, there has to be a real affinity there. Weirdly and unexpectedly, I think I came to feel the closest to Julia. There’s this joke I used to think would make a good first line for a memoir: I spent my 20s trying not to become my father and woke up at 30 to discover I'd become my mom. Funny because it’s true. So sitting with Julia's character, granting her an etiology that was kind of my teenage dream—opening for the Dead in San Francisco in the late ’60s, playing in that music scene I idealized when I was a kid—I got to live out a series of fantasies. I mean, in my imagination, imagining a middle-aged woman while sitting in my home office every day for a number of years. Weird wish to have fulfilled, I guess. But it definitely went from having Julia there as a foil, making a necessary counterargument about how millennials might feel about boomers, to her being on equal footing as a main character in the book. TM: Here's a lighter question to end things on: Was it fun to create the fictional media companies and literary journals (RazorWire, The Unified Theory, The Czolgosz Review) that exist in the novel? DT: Yes! Let’s remember that this is a funny book above all. And also let’s remember that I’m a book nerd. So in starting to imagine fictional version of magazines and websites, I had to leave it all out on the field. The Unified Theory was called Les Mots Justes in early drafts, but that didn’t work, so I just left it in there as a joke. And trying to get some little trails of revolutionary breadcrumbs in there felt important, too, with one like Czolgosz, which as we learn in the book was the name of an anarchist who assassinated a president. The RazorWire one was a little more complicated. I found myself sending Cassie on this upward trajectory, and that meant putting her in a kind of “new media” company. Just uttering that phrase, “new media,” hurts my teeth. She ends up fact checking “content” there, and now my whole body hurts. Content! What happened to art? Journalism? The essay! I worked as an editor at a big national magazine for years. For a long time we resisted having much online presence. It was one of the last magazines to publish original work online. There was this fear that doing so would kill print. But then the web really took over, and by the time I was gone, they had a web presence. Everyone did. They created “content” instead of articles, essays, stories. The New Republic bragged about becoming a “vertically integrated digital media company.” (Ahhhhccchchch!!!!) And for a while, a long while, all these moves and the encroachment of social media didn’t kill print. And now. Now here we are: Google Analytics directs us to what’s being read, and so what to read. Most folks I trust feel print will be more or less gone within a decade. Where has that all gotten us? Even the direst jeremiads in 2000 wouldn’t have said, “An autocratically inclined P.T. Barnum of a president.” And yet ... As a famous lyricist once said, “Nothing left to do but smile smile smile.”
One of the pleasures of reading critic and fiction writer Yahya Haqqi’s essays in Arabic is that I am always astonished by the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his experience, the nimbleness of his mind and his eloquence. In the collection Crying, Then Smiling, he has a number of eulogies, one of which is for his uncle, Mahmoud Taher Haqqi, who wrote the first Egyptian novel, The Maidens of Denshawi, about the tragedy of Denshawi in 1906 where British soldiers carelessly killed a villager while they were shooting pigeons—the incident ended tragically when villagers were rounded up and executed by the British. Haqqi points out that it was the first novel to focus on fellaheen, peasants, and their problems and opened the way for Mohamed Hussein Haykal’s novel, Zeyneb (1913). Haqqi wrote that his heart trembled when he read The Maidens of Denshawi—which is what good stories should bring about. Haqqi deserves a eulogy, much like the ones he so generously wrote for others, about his place in Egyptian literary heritage. This seems appropriate in light of the recent celebration of the classic black and white film Al-Bostagy, or The Postman, directed by Husayn Kamal (1968), featuring Shukry Sarhan, based on Haqqi’s novella. But one cannot write about this poignant film without mentioning Sabri Moussa, the talented novelist who translated the spirit of Yahya Haqqi’s novella into a suspenseful screenplay. (He also wrote the screenplay for Yahya Haqqi’s Om Hashem’s Lamp.) Sabri Moussa, who died recently, January 2018, deserves a eulogy as well for his film scripts, short fiction, and novels—the unusual sci-fi tale The Man Arrived from the Spinach Field, the mythic fable Seeds of Corruption, and Half-Meter Incident. Interior monologues so crucial to building a psychological portrait of a character in fiction have to be handled differently in film, another genre. Much of Yahya Haqqi’s novella The Postman relies upon the interior monologues of the male hero, the postman, Abbas, and the thoughts of Gameela, the young girl who has fallen in love with a young man named Khaleel who promises to marry her. The isolation of the postman is shown through the scenes where he is sitting alone in the dusty, decrepit house he is renting—steaming open the letters while alone drinking cheap booze and reading about the romance of Gameela and Khaleel, or even riding his donkey to deliver the mail. An educated Cairene, he cannot relate to the people in the village and feels he has been banished to Mars. Moussa also added certain scenes to the screenplay that were not present in the novel to augment dramatic tension linked to sexuality in a village in upper Egypt in the ’40s. For instance, the servant girl who is raped by Gameela’s father is taken away by her relatives and will certainly be killed. Abbas invites a Romani woman to his house and she is almost murdered by a mob. Both of these scenes foreshadow the murder of the young girl Gameela when her father discovers she is pregnant. At the end of the novel, Abbas hears the church bell toll for someone who has died, but Haqqi, the author, does not state explicitly that it is Gameela who has died—that is left ambiguous. However, in the screenplay, Moussa added a scene of the father carrying his daughter’s corpse through the village after he has killed her. The addition of this extra scene is reminiscent of King Lear carrying his daughter Cordelia in his arms: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all?” However, this is the antithesis of the scene in King Lear since Gameela’s father intended to kill her to save the family’s honor—the price is still dear. The mother trails behind, wailing. The Egyptian classic The Postman reminds me of the 1954 film thriller Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and featuring Grace Kelly and James Stewart. James Stewart plays a photographer with a broken leg who cannot move—he sits at his apartment window in New York City, watching his neighbors. At first, it is entertainment. The game becomes dangerous when the killer realizes he is being watched—and stalks the photographer and his lovely girlfriend. The lonely postman who resides in a village town in upper Egypt alleviates his boredom by reading the letters of the villagers and then stumbles upon the letters of two young lovers and their secrets. The photographer also stumbles upon a deadly secret: His neighbor has killed his wife, cut up her body, and crammed it into a trunk. Abbas in The Postman realizes that Gameela, the unmarried young girl, has committed herself too wholeheartedly to a feckless, immature lover. Pregnant, she is in danger of being killed for dishonoring the family, yet Abbas is helpless to save her. Both men are isolated bachelors who entertain themselves by spying on their neighbors. Despite the fact that one story is set in America in the ’50s, the other in an Egyptian village in the ’40s, they both focus on the universal themes of solitude, voyeurism, and disorientation. We may think we know our neighbors, but often are surprised. Unfortunately, the novels of many exceptional writers are not known to a wide audience unless their works are adapted to film. At the same time, the revival of The Postman on its Golden Jubilee recently in Cairo can inspire viewers to return to his written word.
And just like that book award season is back! The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award longlist this week on the New Yorker's Page Turner section. Each containing ten books, the five longlists are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people's literature, and, the newly minted, translated literature. The five-title shortlists will be announced on October 10th and the awards will be revealed in New York City (and streamed online) on November 14. Some fun facts about these nominees: The Fiction list only contains one previous nominee (Lauren Groff). All of the Nonfiction nominees are first-time contenders for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. The Poetry list include one previous winner (Terrance Hayes), one previous finalist (Rae Armantrout), and eight first-time nominees—three of which are for debut collections (Diana Khoi Nguyen, Justin Phillip Reed, and Jenny Xie). 2018 is the first year of the Translated Literature category so all nominees are first-time contenders for this award. Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories with bonus links where available: Fiction: A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (Our interview with Brinkley; Brinkley's 2017 Year in Reading) Gun Love by Jennifer Clement Florida by Lauren Groff (Our review; The Millions interview with Groff) The Boatbuilder by Daniel Gumbiner Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (Featured in our February Book Preview) An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Jones's 2017 Year in Reading) The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (Our interview with Makkai) The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (Nunez's 2010 Year in Reading) There There by Tommy Orange (Featured in our June Book Preview) Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Featured in our April Book Preview) Nonfiction: One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation by Colin G. Calloway Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Steve Coll Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic by Victoria Johnson The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh (Smarsh's 2017 Year in Reading) Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke by Jeffrey C. Stewart We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler Poetry: Wobble by Rae Armantrout feeld by Jos Charles (ft. in our August Must-Read Poetry preview) Be With by Forrest Gander American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Our review) Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed lo terciario / the tertiary by Raquel Salas Rivera Monument: Poems New and Selected by Natasha Trethewey Eye Level by Jenny Xie (ft. in our April Must-Read Poetry preview) Translated Literature: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi; translated by Tina Kover (Featured in our 2018 Great Book Preview) Comemadre by Roque Larraquy; translated by Heather Cleary (Featured in our Second-Half 2018 Great Book Preview) The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail; translated by Max Weiss and Dunya Mikhail One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan Love by Hanne Ørstavik; translated by Martin Aitken Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life by Gunnhild Øyehaug; translated by Kari Dickson Trick by Domenico Starnone; translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (An essay on learning new languages) The Emissary by Yoko Tawada; translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Tawada's 2017 Year in Reading) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; translated by Jennifer Croft (Our review; 2018 Man Booker International Prize) Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya; translated by Anya Migdal Young People's Literature: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (Our three-part conversation from 2009 with Anderson) We’ll Fly Away by Bryan Bliss The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam by Elizabeth Partridge What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper
“What is justice?” This is the inquiry around which Lauren Levin’s Justice Piece // Transmission orbits. Unflinching, dialectical, and curious to its core, Levin’s work grapples with the nature and practice of justice—what it is, what it isn’t, who defines and enforces it, how we learn or create it, and how its absolutes buckle under the weight of examination. Consisting of two prose poems, “Justice Piece” and “Transmission,” Levin’s explorations raise even more questions—about motherhood, illness, family, and whiteness—which form a tangled, poetic body of limbs, placental membranes, and beating hearts. At moments, Justice Piece // Transmission reads like text messages from a brilliant friend who starts conversations midstream without context, or who suddenly picks up a conversation from weeks ago with renewed vigor. Levin is often funny and cringingly honest: “I read articles, read commentaries, read reactions. / Feel frustrated with myself, white women, white feminists, myself. Or: When A was very small ... I walked around naked / in front of the windows / in front of my parents, there must have been something aggressive / about it / since everyone begged me to stop and I persisted.” Levin analyzes and draws material from copious sources, including political philosophy, art history, Rocky Horror, parenting blogs, and statistics about racial violence. Juxtaposed across paragraphs, and sometimes embedded in the same paragraph, you can’t always follow the connections, nor are you necessarily meant to. Meanings rub against each other, finding friction and sparking connections that sometimes only become apparent on the second or third read. Other lines continue to elude, referencing a “he” or “it” that cannot be definitively pinned down, yet holding space for infinite meaning and interpretation. Each of Levin’s inquiries is an entryway into fundamental questions about justice, care, and transformation. Each line is a mode of grasping at the truth. Even if you don’t understand, the book’s incessant current will keep pulling you by the throat. To understand justice, Levin asserts, we must understand what it isn’t. “Justice Piece” opens with Levin’s 2-year-old daughter after she stops nursing: “But now that a connection has been severed / She’s more affectionate, lies in my lap / head under my chin / sucking her thumb.” The rifts between their bodies creates a new kind of connection. As the poem continues, we realize the attempt to define justice is also an act of severance, separating it from what it is not. Channeling 18th-century painter Joshua Reynolds, Levin writes: ªIt’s the artist’s task to find this nothing that isn’t / and give it form in order that it may reject / everything that is.” Later, Levin is more explicit: “I try to imagine justice as the opposite / of whatever the police do. This process of distinction-marking is also the process of language-making: a word cannot exist without its opposite. How does language then help us in our search for justice? Curiosity isn’t justice. Empathy isn’t justice. Love isn’t justice. / Connections can’t be lived in all the time. / All the points at which empathy fails,” which begs the question, can we only know what justice isn’t, rather than the substance of what it actually is? And if so, how do we enact it? The real-world stakes of these inquiries ring loudly, as injustice is not an abstraction but a corporeal reality that plagues our national body. Levin raises urgent questions about the language we use to describe violence and its consequences. Alluding to the destructive headlines used by journalists and TV anchors, Levin addresses the McKinney, Texas pool party incident: A male was shoving someone’s face into the ground A cop was shoving a girl’s face into the ground A cop was shoving a black person’s face into the ground A white cop was shoving a young black girl’s face into the ground Officer Eric Casebolt was shoving a young black girl’s face into the ground Officer Eric Casebolt was shoving Dajerria’s face into the ground Eric was shoving Dajerria Becton’s face into the ground Every headline tells a story. When is there room for ambivalence, the ability for words to hold so much, and where is there only room for the particular? What does language reveal and elude? Who has the right to say what? As Levin makes evident, how we choose to tell stories of injustice contributes to whether justice can be procured. [millions_ad] Levin also grapples with the question of how we rediscover or recreate justice in a world in which injustice has so deeply penetrated how we think, feel, act, and relate to one another. And will it be a discovery or a creation? It’s a vital query, one which activist groups demanding racial and economic justice across the country have long been asking: How can we keep justice from becoming another commodity of those already in power? Levin calls this “the problem with imagining justice / As everything that doesn’t exist yet.” When the invisible does come into being, it will appear “formed around the axis that so many tiny imperceptible motions have shaped.” In one of the most riveting juxtapositions of the book, Levin applies the metaphor of the placenta: Political struggles are not fought on the surface of things but through how they are made The placenta that kept A alive grew from her cells, not mine Cells from the outer layer of the embryo burrowed into my uterine lining by pushing my cells out of the way destroying them with digestive enzymes or secreting substances that caused them to kill themselves These placental cells then drilled into 80 of my uterine blood vessels When the placenta was fully formed My whole blood supply flowed through it every 5 minutes The placenta, like justice, is the site of transformation. Where creator meets creation. Where creator yields creation, which yields even further creation. What is the body from which justice will grow? Everything has an origin and yet transformation is always possible. As visionary as we may be, Levin reminds us that transformation can also be a physical act, one that happens thousands of times a day without any fanfare: “I don’t think it’s an experience one can only have through pregnancy / childbirth or parenting but those experiences are the closest I have come / to realizing how different things can be because I became so different / so quickly.” Birth is a radical transformation from the inside out. Perhaps so is justice—though we, as Levin herself admits to, may have difficulty trusting this: “In spite of everything I still want to proceed / As though knowledge could protect me from the feeling of the world / As though it were something I could wear / Instead of something that reaches inside and shapes me.” In Levin’s work, the relationship between motherhood and justice is as messy and complicated as you would hope. “On the surface, an ethics based on maternal care sounds kind of great. But there’s no room / for the mother’s anger or ambivalence, that bothers me.” Yet in a chat message to a friend, Levin also makes explicit how her lived experiences of white privilege and mothering drive her investigation: “Socializing her makes me more aware of my whiteness, since I become more aware of everything I’m passing on to her, including my position in white culture.” In “Justice Piece,” there are no absolutes, no givens, no definitive answers, and sometimes there is nothing to say at all: “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say.” Governed by ambivalence, “Justice Piece” is nonetheless driven by the conviction that justice must be possible—and that the journey, as meandering and chaotic as it may be, is also necessary: “to go so far beyond the frame / as to risk getting entirely lost.” While Levin’s inquiries are rooted in her white body and set of experiences, her approach refuses to settle for a justice that excludes people of color, trans people, or gender nonconforming people. In the second part of the book, “Transmission,” Levin casts her incisive gaze on her own ancestral lineages. It’s ugly and Levin knows it: “The side of my family that started out poor is the more overtly racist / side ... My grandfather, the kindest and most giving one, says the worst things.” Here, Levin interrogates the prevailing assumption that white people are simply white and always have been. She digs into the mythologies of her multiple heritages, the contradictions and hypocrisies that hold belief systems in place, and the relationships with care—our desire, disgust, or disinterest about giving it, our (dis)comfort receiving it—that underlie our relationships with power: “Both my parents were partially raised by black women who they felt less ambivalently about than they did about their own parents.” We encounter members of Levin’s family across her four lineages, including the Jewish grandfather who justifies looking down on others because he raised himself up “and so should you”, the uncle from the “more overtly racist side of the family” who works as Beyonce’s accountant, and the New Orleans grandmother who tried to bribe Louisiana State University with money from her future estate into accepting her grandson for admission. We never linger too long with any one family member, which underscores the tangled quality of being a body brought into life by so many other bodies and the confusion of all that we inherit unconsciously and without choosing. Levin wisely recognizes that justice is not an abstraction about the “other,” or exclusively concerned with an idealized future: “As I talk [to my daughter A] I touch my navel, realizing I have some odd visceral belief that my umbilical cord connected me, not to my mom, but to A... But, reciprocity – care doesn’t work that way. It leads back – backwards.” For those of us who think of themselves as white, the journey into our ancestries is glaringly important—Levin’s collagic examination of her lineages prompts white readers to ask: How did your family lines learn to think of themselves as white? When did it happen, and how, and what was gained and lost? It is not usually comfortable—“Because I am a white, I feel it in me: Lee Circle in the background, the comfort of things that don’t change”—but Levin suggests our discomfort may be the barometer of how close we’re getting to the problem. In Levin’s work, justice is about embodiment; our bodies, our blood, our origins are not separate from ourselves: “I couldn’t sever myself from my family anymore than I could sever a limb. I mean, I could tell myself to cut off my hand if it offends me, but what is me?”