Autofiction and its attendant criticism having perhaps reached a saturation point, I decided to map out new avenues for autofiction writers to explore and new variants for autofiction critics to classify: a handy manual that doubles as my year in reading.
1. Umlaut-o-Fiction: Any work taking place in, or obliquely mentioning, Germany. Jennifer Hofmann’s The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures is a metaphysical spy thriller, an expansive novel set in the claustrophobic world of the East German Republic. An ailing Stasi officer confesses his life story to a young waitress, from writing his magnum opus (the titular Standardization of Demoralization Procedures) to his interrogation of a quantum physicist who vanished under mysterious circumstances. The superannuated officer is obsessed with “ordung” even as the regime collapses and mysterious events (“spooky action at a distance” in quantum mechanical terms) occur that do not obey the iron laws of authoritarianism.
2. Autoerotic fiction: This category, somewhat counterintuitively, has two entries. The first is The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, whose brash narrator proclaims early on: “And I don’t mean to offend you Dr. Seligman, especially now that you have your head between my legs, but don’t you think that there is something kinky about genocide?” Just what Dr. Seligman’s head is doing between the narrator’s legs—honi soit qui mal y pense—is one aspect of the drama, though the true spectacle is in Volckmer’s discomfiting provocations (including masturbatory fantasies about the Führer). The intense monologue captures what it feels like to be a stranger in one’s own land, and skin.
The second novel poses a hypothetical scenario: What if, instead of doling out cocaine to his Viennese patients, Freud served up cocktails at a Brooklyn bar? In Hysteria, Jessica Gross’s heroine, a daughter of shrinks who exhibits compulsive sexual behavior, conjures up just such a hipster Golden Siggie. In this gripping conversion narrative, shame cedes to a liberating faith in the talking cure.
3. AutOnetti fiction: A narrow but rich category. This year, Archipelago Books came out with Juan Carlos Onetti’s collected stories A Dream Come True, which span half a century and were translated by Katherine Silver. They are set largely in Santa Maria—a sleepy, imaginary port town in which the variety (and uniformity) of the human drama plays out:
In spite of the years, in spite of changes in fashion and demography, the city inhabitants continued to be the same. Timid and spoiled, forced to pass judgement in order to prop each other up, always judging out of envy or fear…perhaps travelers have learned that human solidarity, under wretched circumstances, is a disappointing and astounding truth.
The stories are sardonic, oneiric, and drawn to the “convoluted nonsense” of life, its “surplus of subtlety.” Some are lurid while others operate on a near-Jamesian plane of ambiguity, but they all circle an unspeakable, and unrecoverable, truth:
We all lie, even before words. But something always remains, invincible, from the first, the oldest memories, that are conserved in spite of every effort to forget them, unlikely also to be eroded by any of those deliberate attempts that we all make to remember…
4. Autochthonous Fiction: Works involving characters sprung from, or intimately tied to, the land. A boggy supernatural fable redolent of “mischief-musk,” Sue Rainsford’s excellent Follow Me to Ground features a ravenous patch of earth, The Ground, that devours, heals and creates bodies. In a different, yet no less earthy, vein is Klaus Modick’s Moss, translated from the German by David Herman, from Bellevue Literary Press. The novel opens with the death of a renowned botanist, whose decomposing corpse appears to have undergone a curious “mossification.” Discovered among his things is a manuscript, written in green ink, that is considerably more personal and speculative than the Critique of Botanical Terminology and Nomenclature he was presumed to have been working on. The scholar’s hypnotic reflections and biographical recollections disavow the “botanist’s penetrating gaze”—its “classifications without real knowledge”—to arrive at a rejuvenating, anarchic conception of the natural world: “My critique of terminology grows and thrives, though it blooms in ways that I could not have anticipated. It is almost running riot.”
5. Auto Fiction: A distinctly American genre—not to be confused with Autobahn Fiction, in which the cars drive much faster and run on diesel—which goes back to The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road. “Like everyone with a long commute, I leave parts of myself along the way,” says the narrator of John Skoyles’s Driven. The narrator, like the author, is a poet and professor…oh wait, is this actually autofiction!?! No matter. Like his memoir A Moveable Famine: A Life in Poetry, this conceit-powered novel is witty and wistful:
I have always kept my distance, stayed in the middle lane, as a good motorist should, maybe guided by the wrong driving instructor, who taught that only as aesthetic phenomena are existence and the world really justified. Then again, maybe The Birth of Tragedy was an inappropriate driver’s manual.
(Fear and Trembling was my manual as a teenager trying to exit a Giants game in northern Jersey.) Driving down memory lane, as it were, the narrator is joined by spectral passengers from his past—parents, an old flame—on his 100-mile trip from Truro, MA, to the ominous darkness of an urban parking lot: “Tomorrow, a man who left the Cape in the morning for Boston will be cited for driving by himself in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane on Route 93 and will swear he is not alone.” Liquor too is a ghostly presence, with the dry narrator conjuring up memories of mammoth martinis and the dive bars that broke up his commute for years. Indeed, On the Wagon could be an apt title for this superb, plaintive ride of a book.
6. Autocratic Fiction: All of children’s literature, children being tyrants. Here I highlight the beautifully illustrated edition of Gianni Rodari’s Telephone Tales. Traveling for business, a devoted father calls home each night to tell his child a brief story from a pay phone. Charming exercises in absurdism, the illustrated stories play with language (“The Country with an Un in Front”) and conventions (“The Blue Stoplight”) to reveal fanciful possibilities for a different world. Moreover, tyrants feature in several of the tales, most memorably in “Giacomo of Crystal,” in which a transparent boy is unable to hide his disdain of tyranny and is thus imprisoned. The dungeon, though, cannot block his disinfecting light. (I also recommend Rodari’s edgier novella, Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto.)
7. Auto-da-fe Fiction: Novels in which the author depicts religious persecution and zealotry. Stefan Hertmans’s The Convert (translated from the Dutch by David McKay) is set in the era of the First Crusade: “The Western world is a place of growing unrest. Prophets of doom, beggars and heretics roam the land, spreading tales that agitate and confuse the masses.” Against this backdrop, a love story unfolds: a young Rouen noblewoman of Norman and Viking stock elopes with a Jewish yeshiva student, converts to Judaism and settles in the southern French town Monieux (then Moniou), where Hertmans lives today. Thereafter the newlyweds become playthings of history. The novel is as much about the titular convert’s exhausting tribulations—she is stretched upon the rack of this tough world for too long—as it is about Hertmans “groping in the seductive dark” to find some trace of her. He seeks to “touch” her life by visiting places where she sought refuge, centuries later: “My delusive longing to sense some genuine vestige of this woman has culminated in the awareness that she’s no longer present anywhere, except in my imagination.” There are also some excellent descriptions of snails mating (“…those squishy, mobile masses of undisguised instinct, bulging out of their shells, obscene and overwhelming, in slow, dreamlike intercourse”).
8. Autoimmune Fiction: Best to take a break from illness-themed fiction this year, so I’ll use this category for a (non-fiction) wildcard recommendation: Kay Ryan‘s Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. Curious, funny, idiosyncratic and occasionally oracular in the Gertrude Stein vein, Ryan is wonderful on what my old professor Stephen Booth called the “precious nonsense” of poetry.
9. Autocorrect Fiction: Any comic novel, on the theory that autocorrect mishaps reflect the essence of comedy in transforming the perfectly ordinary and legible into an amusing, often mortifying chaos. “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy,” famously said Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards. Or with a stuffed aardvark, we should perhaps add after reading Jessica Anthony’s debut, Enter the Aardvark. This marvelously sewn farce depicts grotesque (though often beautiful) specimens from the animal kingdom and the US Congress, tracing a history of repressed desire from Victorian London to contemporary Washington, DC. Hilary Leichter’s Carrollian Temporary, is another of this year’s comic wonders. The novel is about the absurdist jobs (“human barnacle” is one) the heroine takes on her quest for a mythical state of security, the “Steadiness.” And finally, I very much enjoyed Luke Brown’s Theft. In this dryly humorous update on the “Angry Young Men” novel, our hero, a bookstore worker and haircut reviewer of some fame, tries to steal the girlfriend of an established older figure from a generation ripe for being deposed: “We will be encouraged not to respond to their charm. They have what the young want and they won’t let go of it.”
10. Autotune Fiction: Music being a universal language, I am choosing Andrea Tarabbia’s untranslated Madrigale Senza Suona, winner of Italy’s Premio Campiello, for this category. It tells the Gothic tale of Gesualdo da Venosa, a Renaissance nobleman who crafted glorious sacred music, “perfect cathedrals of sound.” He also killed his first wife, psychologically tortured his second, and was haunted by a nefarious dwarf. I was entranced by the mingling of divine and demonic in this novel, and can recommend Gesualdo’s madrigals as well.
11. Otto Fiction: Ideally this category would include historical novels about Otto von Bismarck’s youthful Prussian romps—maybe he appears in the Flashman series?—but for now I’ll include a long-overdue rereading of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, in which the architect Otto Silenus, a ridiculous parody of Walter Gropius, nonetheless enjoys a perspective unavailable to the madcap novel’s other careless characters:
Life…is like the big wheel at Luna Park…You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all round, and in the centre the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly. At first you sit down and watch the others. They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too. It’s great fun…at the very centre there’s a point completely at rest, if only one could find it. I’m not sure I am not very near that point myself. Of course the professional men get in the way. Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. How they all shriek and giggle! Then there are others, like Margot, who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that. But the whole point of the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to…
12. Fraud-o-fiction: Novelists have never been able to resist tricksters and con artists. Two exemplary works, each a different kind of historical novel, investigate the intellectual, cultural, and religious stakes of fraud. The first, Sigrun Palsdottir’s History. A Mess. (translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith), involves an art history graduate student transcribing the mind-numbingly dull diary of a 17th-century portraitist, S.B.: “This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast,” read most entries. Then, the momentous discovery of an entry in which the painter mentions being “busie fouldinge some linan and airinge clothes.” Surely a man of the period would not do such work, which hints that S.B. could be a trailblazing female artist. Then again, as the student remarks: “I was the true champion of over-interpreting others’ words and always to my own benefit.” What would she do if contrary evidence exploded her thesis? Refute it? Destroy it? A beguiling hermeneutical contraption, the novel jostles readers (along with the protagonist) from a triumphant moment of certainty to a phantasmagoric realm of doubt.
The second fraud novel is Dexter Palmer’s Mary Toft: or, The Rabbit Queen (based on a real historical incident), which rightly asks: “Who would have thought that man-midwifing was a profession of such drama and intrigue?” In a curious medical case, the titular woman repeatedly “births” mutilated rabbits, or as one character puts it more crudely: “We have heard…that the woman inside has bunnies leaping forth from her cunny.” This naturally confuses doctors and theologians (“a monstrous inversion of the Great Chain of Being”), as well as affecting restaurant menus: “…due to a superstition suddenly in vogue, rabbit rarely appears on London plates as of late.” The novel reminds us that history “is an act of continuous collective imagining,” and thus always prone to instances of mass delusion.
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