- William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
- Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
- Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
- We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
- I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
- When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
- “I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
- “Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
- Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
- He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
- We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
- Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
- Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
- He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
- His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
- He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
- He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
- In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
- Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
- What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
- What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
- “Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
- While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
- Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
- He left us with this book.
If you haven’t read Randa Jarrar, it’s time to. Jarrar’s debut novel, A Map of Home, introduced her as a smart and funny/not-so-funny writer. Jarrar grew up in Kuwait and Egypt, the daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and Palestinian father. She moved to the United States after the first Gulf War. A Map of Home is a coming of age story about Nidali, a girl with similar background to the author’s, who lands in Texas after migrating through various parts of the Middle East. Laced with family antics -- affectionate and keenly observed -- A Map of Home is an immigrant story with kick. Here’s Nidali, just off the plane in Texas: I looked out the car’s window, mesmerized by the highway. Cars stayed in their lanes. They stopped at traffic lights; here, those red and yellow and green circles were not mere suggestions or street decorations….A woman was crossing the street and no one appeared to offer her luscious love bone. We arrived at our new home, a long narrow house that was a little off the ground. You had to take three big steps to stand on its front porch. It was on a short dirt road…lined here and there, and here again, with cans of Lone Star. This must by the soda they drink here, I thought. Alia Malek’s A Country Called Amreeka uses nonfiction to tell the story of Arab immigration to America over the last century. Malek profiles a series of individuals -- an Alabama football player in the Jim Crow South, a politician giving voice to Arab American constituents, a gay man who has to navigate bi-culturally -- each an immigrant “success,” each quintessentially American. A Map of Home deploys fiction similarly; it offers a fresh lens on the immigrant experience so core to being American. In an interview with Beirut39, Jarrar said, “Texas kind of reminds me of an Arab country in America where everyone speaks Spanish instead of Arabic. I like the approximation in culture.” That approximation is deftly illustrated in her debut novel. If A Map of Home travels from Kuwait to Texas with humor and wit, Jarrar’s forthcoming short story collection, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, paints with an even broader brush. With compelling themes of displacement and reinvention, these stories push boundaries -- probing race, class, sexual identity, and family; the role of women in Arab and American culture; and much more. In this collection, mythology meets reality, and Jarrar’s palette spans the world. The stories are full of pithy asides. Describing a mentorship with an imperious and mesmerizing Egyptian feminist in “How Can I Be of Use to You?” the narrator wants to hitchhike “back to my family -- to their familiar oppression and their unspoken support.” In “Grace,” a heartbreaking story worthy of Borges, a seven-year-old girl is kidnapped from a Pathmark in Paramus, renamed Grace, and raised by a female commune. She plays with a doll that she convinces herself is a “still and shrunken Ida,” her little sister. She is never found. As an adult, however, she discovers that Ida has written a novel that precisely describes her captivity. It hurt me that Ida could have found me and not reached out to me. But I guessed we were even. Still I felt angry that she imagined me as a lonely old hag, still imprisoned…. Each night, before I go to sleep, I picture myself driving to our old house. I imagine Ida waiting for me by the staircase, still a child…. We run through the empty house, no one there but us, stopping in the vast, wooden den. And there Ida asks me where I’ve been, and I tell her: that I’d been taken away by those who wanted to share a life with me, that I’d been quickly kidnapped by love. There’s boy trouble and religion trouble. In “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers,” the narrator is thrown out of her home, pregnant and single: When you’re disowned, your mother becomes your secret lover, calling you from pay phones, visiting at odd hours and for short bits of time. And your lover becomes your mother, has to take care of you now that she’s gone. Despite her mother’s urging, the narrator is not interested in trying to convert the father of her child -- “He’ll be shitty Muslim and a shitty husband too.” She drives home with the drunken boyfriend after the birth, “a ton of shit going on inside my head.” This is it? I ask myself, hating the government and financial rules, my reproductive system, his big dick, and mostly, my God. Not just God, but the God, the one who wrote the book resting in the car-door pocket on my left, the book that my boyfriend erroneously skims from left to right, the book that provides Guilt big enough to make me want to marry this ape with several mental illnesses he does not plan on addressing any time soon. Politics are never far below the surface. “Testimony of Malik, Prisoner #287690” is written in the form of a report from Istanbul describing a kestrel named Malik Kareem Aziz El-Hajj Aamer Kan’un found in a “nearby village with Israeli tag on claw and placed under arrest…We believe the small falcon is a spy.” Interrogated by a series of Commanders, the kestrel says As a child, I saw the bodies of collaborators hung from the lines my kin and I used to hunt from. Their bodies swayed. The punishment for spying was always death. And death never appealed to me…. One day, while I was en route to the sea, I saw the bigger birds, the warplanes, hovering far above me. The plane urinated a white phosphorous that clouded the air I flew in, and soon I was in the sea. The kestrel is captured by university students in Tel Aviv, investigated, and tagged. “In Aqraba, everyone was angry with me for being captured by the Israelis.” He falls in love with a gull from Istanbul. “She said we could never breed, because I was not one of them.” The final transmission from Prisoner #287690’s recording chip is one of longing and displacement: "I am too elderly to fly home now. I want to return to Aqraba, to say goodbye, not to those who have shunned me, but to my land, to the olive trees, the earth, and the cicadas." (Are birds a current stand-in for grief and rage? Max Porter’s new novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, substitutes a crow for a nanny/grief counselor following the death of a young mother.) Jarrar’s title story opens with the death of the narrator’s father from a brain aneurysm “on the Metro-North train from White Plains to Grand Central; his fellow commuters didn’t notice until Scarsdale.” The narrator is the daughter of a transcontinental marriage between two journalists -- a Black American man and an Egyptian woman from Sydney -- who meet at the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire. After their engagement, my parents wrote their respective stories on the plane and filed them from Cairo, then took the Egypt Rail to Alexandria. My dad exaggeratedly said he was pissing out of his ass the entire ride over. In Alexandria, he was greeted as family, converted to Islam a week later, and married my mum in the front hall of her apartment building. She left my dad and moved back to Sydney before I turned one. I never knew why, but suspected…that he’d cheated on her. Everyone in Sydney treated me like an Egyptian kid. I looked like one of them, and nobody mentioned my Black dad. The narrator recalls being the victim of racist epithets, remarking that her Mom was good at hiding things. “The whole time she was my mother,” Jarrar writes, suggesting that the connection was temporary, “I assumed she never got laid or even dated, but I was mistaken.” Again, there is deracination, complex family relationships, and humor that telegraphs heartache. Jarrar channels Isaac Babel in “The Story of My Building” and in the final story covers territory reminiscent of Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden (about a centaur born to a Jewish family in Brazil). “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie” is the tale of a “half woman -- the upper half -- and half Transjordanian ibex.” If ever there was an allegory of an outsider, this is it. Ibex were once the supermodels of the Near East, where our fine likeness were painted on vases and water jugs, our horns curling back like shells. Sadly, I do not have horns…but I am horny. As you can imagine, though, I have been single for a while. Nowadays, when I go on dates, I drive my disability-equipped van, which allows me to accelerate with my hands and provides my lower body lots of room. But when I was younger, I used to show up at dates’ doors, carry them on my back, and gallop off to dinner. This was a problem because it created an intense and too-premature sense of intimacy. The thirteen stories in this collection blend humor with rage, wit with pathos. Jarrar presents an astonishing variety, each story as inventive as it is insightful. It's a book for this oppressive electoral season, where presidential politics are ugly and destructive, and demagoguery is endeavoring to trample a core American truth: Our country’s strength derives from open borders. Jarrar is here with a correction.
● ● ●
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel-in-stories is populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them. And if A Visit From the Goon Squad was a traditional story collection, Egan may have titled it Out of Body, after the 10th story-chapter; for we see these characters in blips over time, often muddling through an unsavory, perplexing present and looking back on youth from a vantage point both above and below ghosts of their former selves. The book, for example, opens with a one-night stand between two characters and ends with a fantasy revisitation, some years later: “Alex imagines walking into her apartment and finding himself still there – his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.” But Goon Squad is not a traditional story collection. Its form brings to mind Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a story cycle in which a minor character from each story becomes the protagonist of the story following (or is it that the protagonist of each story is plucked from the cast of minor characters in the previous story? A question of both process and intention, I suppose; thus the term “cycle.”) The difference is that Goon Quad is not so much a neat cycle (despite the return described above), as it is a 3-D ven diagram; with chapters/characters darting about both laterally and vertically in time, point of view, and detail. It is very much a New York City novel – six degrees of separation everywhere, more often two or three degrees, and not virtually, but in-the-flesh – and it is perhaps Egan’s most decidedly contemporary work, with its headlong dive into the convergence of media, product promotion, hyper-celebrity, and the atomization and gadgetization of our lives. Bennie and Scotty are high school friends in San Francisco who have a band called the Flaming Dildos. Rhea, Alice, and Jocelyn are their groupies. Scotty and Alice eventually marry, but then divorce. Jocelyn starts up an affair with an older man named Lou, who is a powerful music executive. Lou goes through two marriages, various girlfriends (and Jocelyn, too); his children are Charlene (“Charlie”) and Rolph, the latter of whom, emotionally troubled as he grows into adulthood, “doesn’t make it.” Later, Lou mentors Bennie, who himself discovers a band called the Conduits; the band hits it big, and Bennie founds a successful label in New York called Sow’s Ear Records. For 12 years, his assistant is Sasha (the woman in the opening chapter) – a kleptomaniac and multiple-suicide-attempt survivor whose college best friend Rob also attempts suicide (and also fails) and then drowns on Sasha’s then-boyfriend/eventual husband Drew’s watch. Bennie’s first wife Stephanie works for a PR grand dame named Dolly, and Stephanie’s brother Jules is a gossip journalist who’s just served five years in prison for attempting to sexually assault one of his subjects, a young starlet named Kitty Jackson. Later, as a jaded 28 year-old notorious in the tabloids for on-set tantrums, Kitty participates in a desperate, nearly fatal PR scheme to improve the image of a dictator – a scheme developed by Dolly, who is now persona non grata in the PR world because of a disastrous party she once threw in which an elaborate ceiling decoration went dangerously wrong (Dolly also does some prison time, six months for criminal negligence). Dolly’s daughter Lulu – 9 years old at the time of the Kitty Jackson scheme -- eventually becomes Bennie’s new assistant, post Sow’s Ear (and post-Stephanie) after Bennie’s gone back to producing indie musicians (and remarried to a young woman named Lupa). In the novel’s finale, Lulu teams up with Alex – Bennie’s new potential protégé, and Sasha’s one-night-stand from Chapter 1– to promote Scotty’s return to the music scene as an indie soloist. Phew. I drew a flow chart myself to sort it all out, which I found helpful. Take that, agents and editors who warn novelists against “too many characters.” And I haven’t even named here all the children. Ah, the children. The eponymous goon here may be time (“Time’s a goon,” the washed out, former lead singer of the Conduits says, as does Bennie later on) – time passes, time disorients, time wears and tears; and in no other universe does time trample on souls and bodies more ruthlessly than in that of entertainment – “This is the music business,” Sasha reminds Bennie. “Five years is five hundred years.” Egan’s eyes and ears for the world of appearances – glitz, glam, and all that is required to churn the celebrity machine – is acute (territory that Egan readers will recognize from her first story collection Emerald City and from her second novel Look At Me), and she does take particular interest in exploring the particular brand of ruin that befalls the formerly famous/pseudo-famous. But she’s also got her sights set on the future – on the children, on their particular experience of this same disorienting, media-fied and atomized world of experience-on-demand. How are they responding to all of it, and how are they being shaped? I’m not sure that Egan answers that question, as much as she asks it; but she does render child characters – and child flashbacks of adult characters -- with a striking reverence for both their genius and sensitivity. Lulu -- “Overhearing her daughter on the phone with her friends, Dolly was awed by her authority: she was stern when she needed to be, but also soft. Kind. Lulu was nine” – Rolph -- “At eleven years old, Rolph knows two clear things about himself: He belongs to his father. And his father belongs to him…Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He is in Africa with his father. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right” – Sasha at age 5 -- “...the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time, distracting them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she really was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life’s burdens to even mention them” – and Sasha’s daughter Allison and “slightly autistic” son Linc – these are the real stars of A Visit From the Goon Squad. And, to put a fine point on it, Egan gives us “Pure Language,” the final chapter: a futuristic glimpse into the inevitable creep of precociousness-meets-technology. In addition to the children themselves, I found the brother-sister relationships – and the portrayal of platonic love between male and female in general (between, for example, Bennie and Sasha, and Sasha and Robert) – moving and poignant. Chapter 12 is told from young Allison’s perspective, in “slide journal” form (a kind of poetic-diagrammatic Powerpoint), and provides for us a child’s view of her parents’ estrangement; which is at root the estrangement of her father from her beloved brother Linc, a mathematical/musical idiot savant, who intuits the goonishness of time even at his young age via his obsession with musical pauses: “[Linc’s] crying makes sounds like scraping / Hearing him cry makes me cry, too. / Dad tries to hug Lincoln but he flinches away and hunches his back into a ball. / Mom’s face is white and furious. / She leans close to Dad, and says very softly: / The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” Fans of Egan’s previous novels will be intrigued and excited, I think, to delve into her work in this new (for her) collage, time-shifty, polyphonic form. What the form does have in common with a traditional story collection, however, is that each chapter on some level stands on its own and thus the reader experiences the same unevenness as when reading a series of stories. “Safari,” in my opinion, is far and away the novel’s strongest chapter (having read it in the New Yorker, I was primed and jonzing for Goon Squad); but its characters are not as narratively central as others, and so its strength tips the work in a slightly disorienting way. Without revisiting Charlie or Rolph or even Mindy, Lou’s girlfriend at the time, in any substantial way, we’re left a bit dissatisfied. I was myself eager to see how the novel-in-stories form would serve and showcase Egan’s particular talents as a sharp observer of modern families and culture, along with her idea-driven approach to fiction. In the end, Goon Squad delivers on all the pleasures of Egan’s gifts as we’ve seen them displayed in the past – crisp and pulsing prose, extraordinary psychological insight, finely-specified characters seen from various points of view, a dark and yet vibrant wit, and off-the-charts observational intelligence. But the strain apparent in much of Egan’s work, i.e. the plotty feeling of her plots, is also still evident here, perhaps even more so given the myriad strands she pulls together in order to connect all of her dots (credible degrees of separation notwithstanding). Egan’s work often contains hard turns of the steering wheel (I am thinking here of Phoebe’s one-in-a-million run-in with Wolf in Munich in The Invisible Circus, and Egan’s puppeteer’s handling of the characters/meta-characters in The Keep), and readers will feel steered and handled in Goon Squad as well. But as a student of mine has put it, “It feels a little like she’s putting a fat kid in a tutu; but boy, that kid can dance.” And: “It feels like she’s moving furniture; but you’re sort of in awe of the fact that she has the balls to put the sofa in the kitchen.” In my own work, I find I am also less interested in story than idea or character, and have been known to make strategic (some might say liberal) use of the coincidence; so it's inspiring to see Egan careen and maneuver with a sure hand. A Visit From the Goon Squad ultimately secures Jennifer Egan’s place as a personal touchstone for me, and I would guess for many emerging novelists. Her work is (skillfully, decidedly) equal parts brainy and empathic, hyper-realist and fantastical, gritty and luminous; it is both so-damned-good and identifiably flawed. I teach her stories often and encourage my students (and myself) with her example: “Be brave; sometimes you just need to grab the reins and try stuff.”
Make no mistake. Super Sad True Love Story boasts two tormented but appealing protagonists locked in a deliciously tortuous love affair. It is indeed super sad, though thankfully untrue and difficult to imagine as prescient. The novel's excesses are also its weaknesses.
Lynn Steger Strong’s debut, Hold Still, joins a spate of recent novels that explores lost girls and their mothers. Some of these books feature tragic, deceased girls, while others feature heart-rending girls who though not physically lost, have lost themselves. Their mothers, all of them white, share certain characteristics around abandonment -- some have been abandoned by one or both parents, some become abandoners. Like their daughters, these mothers have a tendency to lose themselves. For the girls and mothers in these books, losing one’s way is signified by lightness/thinness. Hold Still's protagonist is 21-year-old Ellie, who suffers alcohol and drug abuse, along with what appears to be crippling depression. Ellie feels lost to her family, and far more consequentially, to herself. Alternating between 2013 and 2011 when a terrible event happened that overshadows the book, Hold Still unfolds through earlier flashbacks. Ellie has a younger brother and a father, but most prominent is Ellie’s mother, Maya Taylor, an English professor at Columbia. As a young girl, Maya was abandoned by her mother. Maya’s father, inadequate and inappropriate to the task, died while Maya was in her early 20s. A similar pattern emerges in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, to which Hold Still is compared on its book jacket. Ng’s novel opens with the death of 16-year-old Lydia and unfurls in lyrical, painstaking detail. Early on, Ng poses the question -- How had it begun? Like everything: With mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing... Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, was herself a lost girl, her father having abandoned the family. At Marilyn’s wedding to a man of Chinese descent, Marilyn’s mother makes unforgivable racist remarks. “That was the last time Marilyn saw her mother,” thus rendering Marilyn parentless. Long before she dies, Lydia loses herself trying to satisfy her parents’ projected desires. She fakes friendships to feed her father’s zeal for her popularity, while she fakes school to fulfill Marilyn’s thwarted dreams of a career in medicine. As the circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death grow more mysterious, one thing clarifies -- Marilyn’s temporary abandonment of her family is foundational to the drama. Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass also contains a lost girl and a thread of maternal abandonment. Girl Through Glass is narrated from the twin standpoints of adult and child by a former ballet student named Mira. When Mira is a tween, her mother abandons her, moving from New York to California. Mira’s father remains on hand, but he’s not paying attention. Yes, her mother was gone -- but, like a girl in the fairy tale, [Mira] has been given a substitute. Mira’s mother substitute is a shadowy 47-year-old man, who proves neither fairy godmother nor godfather. Mira loses the dream that is congruent with herself -- becoming a professional ballerina -- and thereby loses herself. Girl Through Glass is Mira’s adult struggle to embrace her past mistakes and forge a way forward. Consider Nancy Reisman’s stunning Trompe L’Oeil, which plumbs the aftermath of four-year-old Molly Murphy’s death in a traffic accident in Rome. Despite efforts to stay together -- the Murphys have two more children -- the family slowly unravels. Reisman writes with captivating musicality, masterfully exposing the innards of the disintegrating Murphy family. Molly’s mother, Nora, does not abandon the family. Instead, she remains at the center, growing lighter and lighter. She declines social invitations, because Nora could imagine herself on a small olive-shaped boat crossing the pool of a martini glass, but not at the cocktail party itself. Eventually Nora’s husband leaves her, prompting Another kind of winnowing, gradually becoming a yet-sparer Nora -- thinner, quicker. Nora’s lightness feels like an indispensable coping mechanism. Floating through life, she is able to bear with grace her evolving grief over her daughter, the loss of her husband, and her family’s endlessly mutating need for her. Perhaps it is no surprise that thinness wafts through Girl Through Glass; Mira is a rising ballet star, with the attendant fixation on body type. She and her fellow students “are being molded into the stick-thin hipless Balanchine ballerinas.” If there’s a fairy tale at work here, it’s “more like Hansel and Gretel.” Wilson pings the lost girls: A brittle finger bone, a threat of fire and oblivion, a trail of receding crumbs disappearing in the woods of a vanishing child-self. So too, lightness is a trope in Hold Still. Graduating Harvard, Ellie’s mother, Maya, “felt weightless, lost.” Ellie, frequently seen through her mother’s lens, is “perfect-looking” at age 12. At 17, Ellie is very thin. “Maya’s daughter’s hips jutted out from underneath the satin string that connected the front and back stretch of fabric that still covered her.” And Ellie’s own observation as she stands naked in front of the mirror: “Her hip bones jut out below her abdomen.” “Eating disorder memoirists love to fetishize hipbones,” Katy Waldman writes in a plea to reject anorexia’s false narratives and focus instead on its biologic causes. Noting that “starving silences who you really are,” Waldman puts Virginia Woolf and a host of literary luminaries (Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück) in the anorexia “clubhouse...a clique of brilliant madwomen bent on self-destruction.” In Hold Still, Maya is a Virginia Woolf scholar; she never goes anywhere without her copy of To the Lighthouse. “Virginia,” Maya says in praise of Woolf, is the “presence of the absence.” Maya has a strong dose of self-abnegation. She runs compulsively, leaving at 4:30 a.m. to run with her son; routinely running great distances from Brooklyn to Manhattan. And she has a self-punishing streak: There was something constantly off-putting about the ease with which her in-laws existed in the world...They...seemed to feel as if they had a right to all the pleasures they’d been given, while Maya sat most days waiting to be punished for all that she had somehow managed to acquire. Nevertheless, Hold Still is not an eating disorder memoir, and none of these books is about anorexia. What does jump out, however, is the undercurrent of lightness/thinness among these lost girls and their mothers. Earlier this year, Mattel tried shaking things up with three new Barbie body types -- one curvier, one taller, and one petite -- as well as a long overdue assortment of skin tones. According to The New York Times, “Mattel executives have struggled to rebrand Barbie as an aspirational figure, one not so closely identified with her unnatural body measurements.” Hate to break it to you, Mattel executives, aspiration is the problem. To what should girls aspire when an entire culture, including a culture of smart literary women, values them for how little of them there is? Intelligence and education were not enough for Marilyn in Everything I Never Told You. The birth of her first child permanently disrupted Marilyn’s Harvard (Radcliffe) education and her trajectory to medical school. Nor were they sufficient for Harvard educated Maya in Hold Still. Lightness/smallness in Hold Still seem to pertain not only to body size, but to a way to navigate through life. If you can slip through the cracks without engaging too much emotionally, you have the possibility of avoiding pain. Maya chose Virginia Woolf, in contrast to her friend Laura’s specialty -- “all those Frenchwomen and their feelings.” Feelings are dangerous when your mother abandoned you and your father only made it worse. At her Harvard graduation, Maya “waited for some feeling to come over her, and some sense of what might come next.” That divorce from feeling characterizes Maya’s daughter Ellie as well, and ultimately spells trouble. Ellie’s journey in Hold Still is a disturbing slide through aimlessness, moving inexorably toward more abusive sex and drugs, while her family looks on helplessly. No combination of psychotherapists and tough love seem to make a difference. Finally, her family sends Ellie to Florida to take care of Annie’s little son, Jack. Annie is an old friend of Maya’s, whom Maya mentored. In parallel with other women in these books, Annie says, “I reconciled myself to not having a mother a long time ago...Long before my actual mom died.” Ellie’s attachment to Annie’s son initially holds the promise of providing stability. Maya and Ellie stay in close touch, as if relieved to be sharing the mundane details of childcare rather than all the ways that Ellie has tripped up earlier in her life. Inevitably, however, life in Florida unleashes new dangers. Hold Still drills down on emotions, and the lack thereof. Throughout the novel, one emotion that Maya owns, and owns powerfully, is her love for Ellie. Mother and daughter are so conjoined that Maya’s carefully curated New York life falls apart in parallel with Ellie’s in Florida. (Spoilers prevent further elaboration.) Maya’s love for her daughter endures, the opposite of lightness and avoidance. On the contrary, it is anchoring, if fraught. Maya describes her feelings about Ellie in her journal: Sometimes I say out loud to myself or type it, the thing you did...I try to imagine a world in which I hate you. I try to see if I’m capable of letting you go...What makes me angrier than the thing you did is the impossibility of the idea of not loving you because of it. In Hold Still, that tortured, grounding love serves as the necessary glue between mother and daughter. And that, perhaps, is the bottom line.
● ● ●
● ● ●
In writing about a novel like The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, I find myself in a dilemma. The bare emotion of the story makes it hard reading at times, the edge of the page quivered in my white-knuckled grip, but it’s also finely crafted, technically precise and deftly structured. I loved it. I'm tempted to make a grand claim about this book, but which should I make? Benjamin is the youngest of four brothers in the small Nigerian town of Akure. When their father moves to another city for work, the strong, paternal family structure leaves with him. Feeling adrift and looking for adventure, the brothers get the idea to start fishing on the river. While it sounds harmless, the river is a forbidden place. It’s considered dirty and dangerous, especially for boys who are being given a Western education to become the kind of "civilized" men that their father imagines. When a neighbor catches the boys fishing and tells their mother, their life changes forever. But it’s the prophecy of a madman, shouted out as they run from the river, that seals their fate. Part parable, part retelling of the Cain and Abel story, what follows is the tragic tale of the brothers' undoing. The prophecy of the madman runs into the family’s mix of Igbo culture, Christian influences, and Western education in such a way that the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Ben is nine years old as the story opens and tells of the events as they unfold in front of his young eyes. An older, wiser Ben, interjects on occasion to add authority, “the way things always become clearer only after they have happened.” This double-edged narration gives momentum, but also deepens the layers of the story and it takes on the quality of a parable. Ben’s experience traces and explores the political upheaval of post-colonial Nigeria in the 1990s. Anyone familiar with the work of Chinua Achebe is probably noting similarities. This is where my dilemma as a writer starts. It's so easy to set the bait for a clickable headline: Obioma Is the Successor to Achebe. It is often said that Things Fall Apart is the most widely read book in modern African literature. Like Obioma, Achebe, who passed away in 2013, wrote in English. Both men are Igbo and write about how their language influences culture, how Igbo beliefs have intertwined with Christianity and Western culture. By weaving the pace and energy of the oral tradition into the novel form, Obioma’s work is as vibrant and alive as Achebe’s. Crowning Obioma as a successor is an easy claim to make, but The New York Times already beat me to it: “Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to Chinua Achebe.” The other problem is that I can’t quite make myself commit to it. When I read The Fishermen, I kept thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another try: The Fishermen Is the Americanah of 2015. One of the many brilliant things about Americanah is Adichie’s ability to take something ordinary, like the hair on your head, and show how it connects to the larger political climate. We get to go between the ears of the main character, test the tightness of a braid, and know how it feels. More, we come to understand the political and cultural meaning of that braid. Similarly, The Fishermen charges the simple act of fishing with meaning. The boys defiance of their father’s rules becomes a glimpse into how a belief system was lost in colonialism. Fishing is more than a rod and hook, it’s an elegy to a country. While it could be the Americanah of 2015, I can't quite commit to that claim either because as I read The Fishermen, I couldn’t stop thinking of NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names. Both novels make use a child’s voice in a similarly effective way. We Need New Names starts in a very different place, a shantytown in Zimbabwe. Darling, the 10-year-old narrator, is led by her senses. Through her young eyes, we taste the guava, smell the dirt, and feel the heat of the sun. Her young feelings lay a foundation for our understanding Darling’s later experiences in America, “like it's telling you, with its snow, that you should go back to where you came from.” The Fishermen opens with Ben at age nine. His rough and tumble life with his brothers, the experience of being the "children of a rich man" who get their copy of "Mortal Kombat" taken away, the scary stories about the forbidden river, all these are told through innocent eyes. It allows someone from another place to understand how and why Ben's life later uproots. For example, Ben is learning why a parent switches from Igbo to English when speaking about politics as we are -- English has the needed words like "administration." Or one brother doesn’t get the meaning of an Igbo expression, so his mother switches to English and Ben understands why, “our parents most often reverted to English when angry, because being angry, they didn’t want to have to explain whatever they said.” These are just a few examples of how Darling and Ben show us their inner lives without lengthy explanations. Which brings me back to my dilemma, should I call Obioma the next Bulawayo? Adichie or Achebe? He could be called all of these things, but The Fishermen is also none of these things. It is a novel that is all its own. And there is a quieter truth about all of these novels that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to headlines. They remind me of why I love reading: to be shown what it might be like inside another culture; to slip between someone else’s ears; to feel a life that I won’t get to live. This is a truly clickworthy thing. But, it doesn’t happen in a headline. It takes longer than a sentence. It is a feeling that only comes over the course of many sentences that are strung together to make up a book like The Fishermen.