So. How are we expected to begin these things? How can I write about reading in this year of all years, this Annus Horribilis of American authoritarianism, American division, American plague? There’s no judgement in that question – it’s genuine. Because to not state the obvious would be callous: at the time of this writing there have been a quarter of a million deaths that were largely preventable if there had only been a modicum of concern from both the government and the collective citizenry.
At the same time, to wallow in all of that misfortune, the pandemic death count rising, the spate of police murders of Black citizens, the brazen incitements to violence from the thankfully defeated president, could just be more fodder for doomscrolling (the term popularized by the journalist Karen K. Ho). No doubt you’re familiar with this activity, for the correct answer to the question of “What did you read this year?” would be “Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Comment sections. Comment sections. Comment sections.” If anything quite expressed the emotional tenor of this wicked reality for most of us, it was the feeling of being dead-eyed and exhausted, eyeballs vibrating in their sockets and blood straining in our temples, ensconced in the cold glow of the smart-phone screen as you endlessly stared at travesty after travesty. Androids with our Androids.
Being who I am, I’ve got an inclination to write about the triumph of reading, the warmth from pages expressing the ineffable separateness of these people whom we happen to share the world with, for a bit. The way in which literature acts as conduit for connection, the building of worlds with words, kingdoms of interiority claimed through the audacious act of writing, and so on. But do you know what I actually did with most of my free time? Doomscrolling. Just like you. How could it be otherwise? Companion to our worry, companion to our fear, companion to our free minutes. To endlessly scroll through our social media newsfeeds fed that demon of acedia nestled in each individual skull, simultaneously giving us the illusion of control, the strange pleasure of anxiety, and the empty calories that filled our bellies but did nothing to finally satiate our hunger.
Nothing new in this, what Daniel Defoe described of 1665 in his novel A Journal of the Plague Year, whereby the “apprehension of the people was likewise strangely increased… addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tale than ever they were before or since,” something to keep in mind as I endlessly refreshed Nate Silver. It reminded me of the childhood feeling that I used to have after hours of Nintendo; that shaky, bile-stomached emotion that I imagine senior citizens feeding quarters into Atlantic City slot machines must feel. Easier to pretend that this was a type of reading; knowing facts without reflection, horror without wisdom.
Yet I did read books this year. If I’m being honest, I didn’t read terribly widely or terribly deeply, and there is a distinct before and after as regards the plague, but I still forced myself to read even if it was at a glacial speed compared to normal, even if it was sometimes joyless. I did so because I felt that I had to, in the same way you white-knuckle it through flight turbulence by humming to yourself. I did it because I was scared that if I didn’t, I might forget how. And through that, I still had beautiful moments of reading, incandescent ones, transcendent ones. Books were still able to move me when two thousand people had died, or when two hundred thousand people had. Reading may sometimes feel like a frivolity, but it isn’t. All of that stuff I said in the second paragraph, the quasi-mocking tone about how I’m apt to argue that literature is about connection? Well, you knew I was setting that up rhetorically to knock it down. I don’t always feel that sentiment to be true, but you need not feel something to know it’s true (then again, I’ve always been a works instead of faith guy). Don’t fault me for being predictable.
This is the third year I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write one of these features for The Millions, and maybe it’s the English teacher in me, but I always have a need to tie together what I’ve read into some sort of cohesive syllabus. Summers past I used to actually theme my beach reading around subjects; one year I read novels according to the very specific criteria that they had to be about tremendous changes which happened in an instant (Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers; Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination); in another season, all of the works on my docket were contemporary novels of manners (Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot; Dean Bakopoulos’s My American Unhappiness). This season of pandemic, it seemed that the dominant subject of the novels which I read was family.
In all of their complexities, almost every novel which I pleasure-read in 2020 examined family in its multitudinous complexity. Happy families and broken families; families of fate and families of choice; tragic families and triumphant families. I couldn’t have known it on New Years Day, but there was something appropriate in this, for this year was – in all of its darkness – for many a year of family. In the elemental stillness of quarantine people got to know their families with a new intimacy (for good and bad); some broods found themselves broken, some made new again. Most crucially, and at the risk of being maudlin, the pandemic distilled to an immaculate purity the centrality of family. My family’s own year was divided by the beautiful caesura of welcoming our first child into this world, the miracle of new life deserving of every cliché that can be said about it, a grace and gift that all of the beautiful rhetoric I can muster would scarcely be worthy of.
If novels serve any purpose, it’s to act as engines of empathy (whether or not that makes the world a better place is a question for somebody of a higher pay grade), and so I was able to see a bit of myself in Jonathan Safran Foer’s description of being a new father from his door-stopper of a book Here I Am. Jacob Bloch reminisces on moments with his first son, “the smell of the back of his neck; how to collapse an umbrella stroller with one hand… the transparency of new eyelids… my own inability to forgive myself for the moments I looked away and something utter inconsequential happened, but happened.” While Jacob and I share a parents’ love and a District of Columbia mailing address, the Blochs of Cleveland Park live in a slightly different universe from my own, though one marked by similarly tumultuous global crises, a throwback to the great male mid-century novelist canon for our century, set against the backdrop of a potentially apocalyptic war in the Middle East.
The Blochs are an unhappy family. Jacob is petty, anxious, and narcissistic; his wife Julia is unfulfilled; his father Irv is opinionated and hypocritical; his grandfather Isaac is a suicidal Holocaust survivor; his children Sam, Max, and Benjy each have their fair share of neuroses for being so young, and his Israeli cousin Tamir is simultaneously boastful and sensitive, flashy and wise. Across the daily travails of the Bloch family, from the threat of a cancelled Bar Mitzvah, the indiscretions and infidelities, and the sufferings of a beloved elderly family dog (which lent itself to one of the most moving scenes I read this year), there is the omnipresent question of Judaism and its relation to Israel, played out in a world where antisemitism is very much not a past phenomenon. Envy has always made it difficult for me to appreciate Foer, but for its occasional indulgences, Here I Am is a novel of profound beauty – especially in its dialogue, though all writers should have some humility. When Jacob gets into a fight with Max about the respective influence of Roth versus Kanye West, his son responds about the former that “First of all, I’ve never even heard of that person.”
From Cleveland Park to Harlem, Imbolo Mbue imagines a very different family experience in Behold the Dreamers, though perhaps not such a very different family (for all parents want what is good for their children). Jende Jonga has overstayed his three-month visa, and has brought over from their native Cameroon his wife Neni and their young son. Working as a livery driver, Jenda’s cousin is able to get him a job as a private chauffeur for Clark Edwards, investment banker at Lehman Brothers in 2007. Mbue depicts the ways in which money and legal status effect two radically different groups of people during the last major economic collapse. Fundamentally a novel about the American Dream, which is to say a novel about money and the way it differentiates one man from another, Behold the Dreamers movingly and brilliantly tells the sort of New York story that can be so easy to overlook.
Immigration is at the core of Behold the Dreamers – what it means to forever fear deportation, the sort of hard work that puts a pain in the back and feet that require five Tylenol at a time, the crowding of a one-bedroom Uptown apartment with husband, wife, son, and newborn daughter. So triumphant are the dreams of immigrant aspiration, that there is a surreal beauty in a (c.2008) boast that “He will take us to a restaurant in the Trump Hotel… He will hire Donald Trump himself to cook steak for us,” so that the nativist is made to humbly genuflect before the very sort of people whom he has subsequently tortured. Mbue writes about her characters with a such a humane tenderness that even when they’re cruel, or shortsighted, or fearful, there is still a fundamental love which makes their full humanity apparent, so that by the conclusion a reader will even have some sympathy for the investment banker who is implicated in all that went wrong in 2008. With almost perfect pitch for how people talk to one another, Mbue moves from the kitchens of Harlem where Cameroonians prepare ekwang and ndole, to the gilded living rooms of Park Avenue and the spacious backyards of the Hamptons. “Why did you come to America if your town is so beautiful?” Clark asks his driver. “Jende laughed, a brief uneasy laugh. ‘But sir,’ he said. ‘America is America.’”
Both of these books came to me from the neighborhood mainstay of Capitol Hill Books, across the street from the red-bricked environs of the palatial nineteenth-century Eastern Market. The proprietors of the bookstore had an ingenious concept whereby readers would fill out a form about their reading preferences, and an upper limit on how much money they’d be willing to spend, and then they would compile a sealed grab-bag of mystery tomes which would be left in front of the store at an agreed upon time, like some sort of illicit literary handoff. My main method of finding totally new books, not pushed by algorithm or article, was precluded after the libraries closed, and so Capitol Hill Books’ invitation to take a literary leap into the unknown was a welcome diversion. Because the store is an amazing place, only a few blocks from the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court, with creased, underlined paperback volume crammed into every conceivable inch of the converted townhouse (including the bathroom), and because the coronavirus has demolished the economy and small business people received little of the relief which they were due from the federal government, I’m going to feature several other independent bookstores in Washington D.C. who deserve your money more than the website named after a South American rainforest. Please consider buying from them, or from any of the other bookstores I’m featuring – you don’t even have to live in the District (but of course I encourage you to buy from your own local independents – if you’re a fellow Pittsburgher I can attest to the glories of Classic Lines, Amazing Books & Records, and White Wale Bookstore).
Maybe save some of your lucre for the funky cool Solid State Books on H Street, in the neighborhood variously called NoMA or the Atlas District, depending on which gentrifying real estate agent you talk to. Solid State Books is the type of simultaneously sleek and cozy storefront that calls for you to wander after a dinner of Ethiopian or Caribbean food, coffee in hand, as you paw through the delicious tables of new novels. It embodies the sleek urbanity of bookstore wandering that’s become all too rare in mid-sized American cities, and though the pandemic makes that singular joy impossible right now, Solid State is available for curbside pickup. Consider purchasing Annie Liontas’s Let Me Explain You or Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes, two novels that share with Behold the Dreamers a sense of immigrant possibility (and failure, pain, and tribulation) in the greater New York metro area. If Mbue had a love for the city from Malcolm X Boulevard down to Washington Square Park, then Liontas looks across the Hudson to the great Jersey Purgatory of Meadowlands strip malls, oil refineries, and diners, all the way down I-95 to New York’s greatest suburb of Philadelphia. It’s there that Stavros Stavros Mavrakis owns the Gala Diner, and where following a series of prophetic intimations concerning his impending death, sends accusatory emails to his three daughters and his ex-wife. “I, Stavros Stavros, have ask God to erase the mistakes of my life; and God has answer, in a matter of speaking, That it is best to Start Over, which requires foremost that We End All that is Stavros Stavros. No, not with suicide. With Mercy.”
Liontas’ character is King Lear as filtered through Nikos Kazantzakis, and in her main character’s incorrigibility – his yearning, his toxicity, and his potential for grace – she writes a tragi-comic parable about the American Dream. Let Me Explain You is a fractured fairy tale recounted by Stavros Stavros, and his broken, suffering, and triumphant daughters Stavroula, Litza, and Ruby. The Gala’s proprietor is one of the most distinctive voices since, well, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Ukrainian narrator Alex in Everything Is Illuminated, and Stavros Stavros hilarious and moving exposition marks Liontas as a major talent. Within Let Me Explain You there is an excavation of the layers of pride and woundedness, success and failure, which marks much of the immigrant experience, a digging deep into the strata of its characters’ histories. Liontas goes beyond the smudged and laminated menus of the Gala – the plates of crispy gyro meat smothered in tzatziki; pork roll, egg and cheese sandwiches; the disco fries covered in gravy; and the flimsy blue-and-white cups of cheap coffee with their ersatz meander design – to demonstrate that Shakespearean drama can happen even in Camden County.
Keane’s Ask Again, Yes takes place in points farther north, along the section of the Acela corridor immediately north of New York, as the upwardly mobile suburbs of Westchester stretch onward from outside the Bronx to leafy Connecticut, in communities like New Rochelle, Scarsdale, and Gillam. The last place is where two NYPD rookies – Francis Gleason and Brian Stanhope – who worked the same beat together in the 1970s Death Wish era of urban blight, coincidentally find themselves as neighbors, both following a suburban dream of fenced in lawns, Fourth of July grilling, and strip mall supermarkets. Like both Stavros Stavros and Jende, Francis is also an immigrant, this time from the west of Ireland. “One minute he’d been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic,” Kean writes, “and the next thing he knew he was a cop. In America. In the worst neighborhood of the best known city in the world.”
A reserved man, Francis isn’t particularly fond of Brian’s American volume, or of the latter’s erratic wife Anne Stanhope, who like Gleason was also Irish-born. Despite Francis’ reservations about the Stanhopes, their children – young Kate Gleason and Peter Stanhope – develop an intense adolescent romance that spans decades and has combustible implications for the families. The story features a single instance of incredible violence, the trauma of which alters both the Gleasons and the Stanhopes, forcing them to ask how life is lived after such a rupture. Keane’s novel is that rare thing in our contemporary era, where the culture industry has for too long been obsessed with anti-heroes and gentle nihilism – it’s a narrative of genuine moral significance, that’s just as concerned with redemption as damnation, that takes contrition as seriously as that which gets you to the point where grace is even necessary.
If you still haven’t gotten New York City out of your system, and if pandemic restrictions have you missing colleges and universities (as Zoom instruction is inevitably so much more anemic), then consider picking up a copy of James Gregor’s campus novel Going Dutch from East City Bookshop. A charming Capitol Hill mainstay that’s half descended into a basement right on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the string of restaurants and shops known as Barracks Row, East City Bookshop has excellent sections of history, politics, and contemporary novels, and is the sort of place where you can get twee mugs produced by the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild. It’s the sort of bookstore that if it were in the Village, could predictably be perused by Gregor’s characters Richard and Anne, two New York University comparative literature grad students who enter into a strange psychosexual affair. Both are working on their dissertations in medieval Italian literature, but only Anne can be said to have any preternatural talent in her scholarship, which Richard is more than happy to exploit in his own research. While Richard unsuccessfully flits through Grindr, he and Anne fall closer and closer together, the two eventually agreeing to a relationship that is equal parts sex and plagiarism. “Part of him found her annoying,” Gregor writes of Richard’s feelings towards Anne, “another part was curious to observe her. There was something both needling and captivating about her that he couldn’t explain… emitting waves of musky, indeterminately foreign glamor… [he] found himself strangely excited by her presence in the classroom. It wasn’t attraction exactly, but he felt the blurred outlines of that category.” Anne is a very particular type of paradoxically worldly ingenue, a spinster with an edge, and Richard and her relationship falls deeper and deeper into pathology and the pathetic.
Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are some 2,654 miles apart, but a visit to Dupont Circle’s classic Kramer’s (because of the coffee bar it features it is now officially known as Kramer Books and Afterwords) can bestow upon you sunny California in novel form, with three titles that feature the Golden State in all of its seedy resplendence – Tracy Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard, Patrick Coleman’s The Churchgoer, and The Millions’ staff writer Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17. District hullabaloo had it that the storied Kramer’s was potentially going to leave its Dupont Circle location, making the neighborhood infinitely poorer, but luckily the owners opted to continue their lease on the storied storefront where Monica Lewinsky once purchased a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for Bill Clinton. Once our plague year has ended, shoppers will still be able to stop into the Connecticut Avenue location in this neighborhood of embassies and gay bars, and pick up any of the aforementioned California titles (in the meantime, consider ordering them online).
For pure folkloric Americana, Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard is an equally beautiful and brutal novel, immaculate in its consummate weirdness. Chevalier recounts tale of Robert Goodenough, son of Ohio apple growers James and Sadie Goodenough, who in the decade before the Civil War searches for tree saplings in northern California on behalf of a British naturalist who sells them to his countrymen that have the unusual desire to grow sequoias and redwoods on the grounds of English country estates. While traipsing through the hills north of San Francisco, humbled by the forest cathedrals of the redwoods, Robert relives the traumas of the unspeakable domestic violence in the frontier country which left him an orphan. “Though grafted at the same time, they had grown up to be different sizes; it always surprised James that the tree could turn out as varied as his children.” Chevalier’s novel examines the ways that human motivations can be unpredictable as the route that branching roots might take, pruning back the exigencies of an individual human life to an elemental, almost folkloric essence, and testing the soil of myth and memory to write a luminescent novel that’s part fairy-tale, part parable, part Greek tragedy, and part Western.
A different American myth is explored in Coleman’s The Churchgoer, a brilliant neo-noir that true to that venerable genre’s greatest of conventions places its seedy subject matter of sex and criminality in the estimably pleasant and sunny- forever-75-degrees of southern California. Mark Haines is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, a night watch security guard, a San Diego beach bum, and a former youth pastor who has lost any faith in the God that failed him. He becomes embroiled in the affairs of a mysterious and beautiful young runaway (as one does) named Cindy Liu, a woman who comes from the same world of evangelical platitudes and megachurch hypocrisies as he does, and when she goes missing and his night watch partner is murdered (perhaps connected?) Haines embarks on an investigation every bit worthy of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Reflecting on a former parishioner who may be involved in sundry affairs, Mark notes that “I didn’t like any of this. I didn’t like being questioned… If they wanted to know what he was afraid of when he was seventeen, what he asked for prayers about, how many times a week on average he committed the sin of self-pollution against his better intentions, I could dig all that out from somewhere in my brain… [but] Confession usually pulled up well short of the deeper truth.” The true pleasure of Coleman’s novel isn’t plot (though the speed of pages turned would recommend it for that alone), but rather language, which is always true of the best noir books. The Churchgoer tastes like a gulp of cold black coffee at an AA meeting which a cigarette has been cashed into, it sounds like the static of a television left on until 3a.m. and the hum of a neon light in the bar window of an Oceanside dive, it feels like insomnia and paranoia.
Lepucki makes great use of the oppressive sunlight of California in her Hitchcockian domestic tragicomedy Woman No. 17. Her second novel after the excellent post-apocalyptic California, Lepucki explores the sultry side of Hollywood Hills, where wealthy writer Lady Daniels hires a college student as a live-in nanny to care for her young son while the former finishes an experimental memoir, made possible off of alimony from her still-close film producer ex-husband. “It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt… I preferred to stay at home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer,” Lady says. Alternating between Lady and S., the art student whom she hires without a proper vetting, Woman No. 17 explores the intersections of obsession and sexuality, transgression and performance, in recounting how S. becomes increasingly unhinged in an “art project” which involves imitating her alcoholic mother and seducing Lady’s mute, adolescent, older son. As At the Edge of the Orchard explores the traumas of family, and The Churchgoer examines what it means to both be rejected by family and to construct a new family of your own volition, so too does Lepucki interrogate the illusions of intimacy and the way in which the mask we choose to wear can quickly become our face.
As the final two novels I’m writing about take as their subject the very soul of the nation, I recommend that you put in an order to buy Nell Zink’s Doxology and Kathleen Alcott’s America was Hard to Find at the District of Columbia literary institution of Politics and Prose. Perhaps the most foundational of bookstores in the D.C. literary ecosystem, Politics and Prose shares a Cleveland Park setting (or at least half-of-one) with Zink’s much anticipated novel, while Alcott’s America Was Hard to Find ranges over the entire continent, and the surface of the moon as well. Drawing its title from a poem by the radical priest and anti-Vietnam War activist Father Daniel Berrigan, Alcott’s novel is a bildungsroman for the American century. Audaciously reimagining the last fifty years of history, America is Hard to Find tells the story of the brief liaison of Air Force pilot Vincent Kahn and bartender Fay Fern, which results in the birth of their illegitimate son Wright. Kahn goes on to become the first man to walk on the moon, and Fay a domestic terrorist in a far-left group similar to the Weather Underground or the Symbionese Liberation Army. Easy to imagine the two as proxies for a type of Manichean struggle in the American spirit – the square astronaut and the radical hippie. Yet Alcott is far too brilliant of an author to pen simple allegory or didactic parable, for America Was Hard to Find is the sort of novel where mystery and the fundamental unknowability of both the national psyche and those of the people condemned to populate it are expressed in shining prose on every page.
The moon was everything he had loved about the high desert,” Alcott writes of Kahn’s first sojourn on that celestial body, “where nothing was obscured, available to you as far as you wished to look, but cast in tones that better fit the experience, the grays that ran from sooty to metallic, the pits dark as cellars. Most astonishing was the sky, a black he had never seen before, dynamic and exuberant. With a grin he realized the only apt comparison. It was glossy like a baby girl’s church shoes – like patent leather.
Alcott’s prose is so lyrical, so gorgeous, that it can be almost excruciating to read (I mean this as a compliment), a work that is so perfectly poetic that a highlighter would run out of ink before you’re a tenth of the way through the novel. There are scenes of arresting, heart-breaking beauty, none more so than the doomed life of Wright, a gay man who perishes in our country’s last plague. “There is a kind of understanding that occurs just after,” writes Alcott, “If we are lucky, we catch it at the door on our way out, watch it enter the rooms we have left. It is not always possible to tell the exact moment you have separated from the earth. So much of what we know for certain is irrelevant by the time we know it.”
True to its title, there is something almost sacramental in Zink’s Doxology, with its poignant ruminations on both ecology and aesthetics as told througha generation-spanning story focused on Pam and Daniel Svoboda and their precocious daughter Flora. Originally 2/3rds of a Lower East Side 80s and 90s rock band situated somewhere on the spectrum between post-punk and grunge, the final member of their trio is Joe, a gentle musical genius with undiagnosed Williams Syndrome who was the only one to go onto any type of success before overdosing on September 11, 2001. Split between New York City and the Washington D.C. of Pam’s Fugazi-listening-Adams-Morgan-Clubbing youth, Doxology is an ultimately uncategorizable book about the connections of family forged in hardship and the transcendent power of creation. Zink’s narration is refreshingly Victorian, having no problem dwelling in exposition and displaying the full omniscience we require of our third-person narrators (though her Author as God has a sense of humor). Daniel “was an eighties hipster. But that can be forgiven, because he was the child of born-again Christian dairy-farm workers from Racine, Wisconsin” or that Joe’s “father was a professor of American history at Columbia, his mother had been a forever-young party girl in permanent overdrive who could drink all night, sing any song and fake the piano accompaniment, and talk to anybody about anything. In 1976 she died.”
Contrary to the order in which I’ve recounted this syllabus, I read Doxology in January, and as with Lauren Groff’s excellent speculative epic Arcadia, Zink’s novel moves into the near future from the time of its publication date in 2019. Recounting the effect that historical events like Desert Storm, 9/11, and the financial collapse of 2008 have on the Sveboldas, not to mention the election of Donald J. Trump, Doxology ends in the summer of 2020, a year after it was written and half a year after I read it. Flora lives in Washington, having been effectively raised by her grandparents, and in our infernal year as imagined by Zink she is a wounded environmental activist living in the Trumpian twilight. “On the last Wednesday in July, Washington was bathed in an acrid mist. The roses and marble facades stood sweating in air that stank of uncertainty. It was a smell that ought to be rising from burning trash, not falling from the sky as fawn-colored haze.”
Some sort of ecological catastrophe has befallen the United States – perhaps a meltdown at a nuclear power plant – and the burnt ochre sun struggling through pink overcast skies speaks to the omnipresence of death. The Trump administration, of course, denies any knowledge, telling people that they should simply live their lives, and FOX News runs exposes about noodle thickness rather than the radioactive plume which seems to be spreading over the east coast. With the uncanny prescience that can only be imparted to us by a brilliant writer, I remember finishing Zink’s novel and wondering what awaited us in the months ahead. Unnerving to think of it now, but when I read Doxology I’d yet to have worn a face mask outside, or heard of “social distancing.” I’d yet to have felt the itchy anxiety that compels one to continually use hand-sanitizer, or to flinch from whenever you hear a cough during the few minutes a day when your dog’s bladder compels you to leave your apartment. When I read Doxology, already fearful for the year ahead, not a single American had yet died of this new disease, and I hadn’t yet heard the word coronavirus.
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