Caring Is Creepy: Ian McEwan and ‘Machines Like Me’

I’m not a completist by nature or inclination. Even if I enjoy a novel or album a great deal, I tend to let chance determine what the next thing is I’ll read or listen to. There are very few artists whose entire catalog I’ve ever felt compelled to digest: Kubrick, The Beatles, most Alice Munro, possibly no one else. And, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, Ian McEwan, whom I began to read in my early 20s, and whom I’ve doggedly continue to follow, recently finishing his latest, Machines Like Me. His fifteenth: fifteen of this man’s books I’ve read, and having recently taken note of my unusual McEwan completism, it seemed worth thinking about the new novel in the context of his body of work, the only prolific author for whom I could attempt to do so.

It’s difficult to think of a writer with a more interesting, and in many ways desirable, career trajectory than Ian McEwan. His debut novel, The Cement Garden, published in 1978, was a Grand Guignol tale of death and incest, an unnatural (or perhaps all too natural) relationship that develops between a sister and brother when their parents die and they are left with their younger siblings in the house. It is a very good book: by turns funny, frightening, and powerfully creepy.

Creepiness is a theme that runs through the early part of McEwan’s corpus, a body of work that earned him the nickname Ian Macabre. [SPOILERS AHEAD] There is the creepiness of incest in The Cement Garden, the creepiness of child molestation in the story collection First Love, Last Rites, the creepiness of child abduction in The Child in Time, the creepiness of serial murder in The Comfort of Strangers, and the creepiness of bestiality in Black Dogs. I don’t mean this pejoratively—while this urge to shock and disgust can sometimes mark out an immature writer, in the case of McEwan’s early work, the unnatural seems natural, less motivated by the urge to provoke than the urge to explore the limits of human behavior.

My sense is that a reader in the 1980s would have thought of him as an oddity, maybe Iain Banks with better style chops. My sense certainly is that a reader of this era would have been shocked to learn that, by the early 2000s, Mr. McEwan would be a standard bearer of popular literary fiction. A run of three novels—Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday—cemented his mainstream reputation as surely as The Cement Garden had cemented his fringe reputation. The one-word titling suggests a narrowing shift in intent, and indeed, I believe this mid-career makeover to be intentional, as much as such a thing is possible, anyway. These books trim away much of the gothic fat of the early work, and present a kind of streamlined, updated Victorian realism, especially in the runaway bestseller Atonement.

This is his high-water mark, the ideal synthesis of McEwan’s genre and literary talents. Atonement simultaneously manages to be a legitimate romance, a mystery, and a World War II narrative without sacrificing much in the way of stylishness or sentence-level pleasure. It is either the most highbrow middlebrow book ever written, or the most middlebrow highbrow (I mean this as a compliment), and the same could be said of Mr. McEwan’s general authorial talents. In an era of intense specialization and branding, it is the extremely rare writer who manages to wear as many hats as McEwan does, especially during this middle period.

Solar, published in 2010, inaugurated McEwan’s late phase, the one that is perhaps my least favorite of the three, despite the various pleasures it still reliably serves up. Like James Michener with states, these are McEwan’s Idea Books, each one easily articulable in terms of social problem or dramatic conceit: Solar (Climate Change); Sweet Tooth (MI5); The Children Act (Euthanasia); Nutshell (Hamlet as Performed by a Talking Embryo). And now, Machines Like Me (Robots), the title of which I find impossible not to subvocalize with the emphasis on like, briefly imagining a book about robots being fond of the narrator. The book is an alternate history in which technology and AI advanced faster than it has in our timeline, producing human simulacra by the early 1980s. The narrator, Charlie—for reasons that are not entirely clear, to us or to him—purchases a robot named Adam (the male robots are Adams, the females Eves; the book notes that seven Eves have been dispatched to Riyadh, a not very good joke). Adam, over the course of the proceedings, develops feelings of what he describes as love for Charlie’s romantic interest, Miranda. The novel proceeds as a bizarre love triangle, between the three, with extra bits of intrigue thrown in to move things along.

This plot machinery includes a secret backstory for Miranda involving a false rape allegation against a man named Gorringe as revenge for his actual rape of her friend Mariam. There’s also: her dying father, an orphan boy named Mark, Charlie’s use of Adam as a kind of automated day trader, and the recurring guest appearance of an Alan Turing who is still very much alive in this timeline. This accumulation of the exciting and implausible begins to feel a little—and it brings me no joy to say this—silly. The late-phase books all, to varying extents, have an aspect of the ridiculous to them; or an aspect of the fun, depending on one’s point of view. Machines Like Me joins its brethren in a genre unique to McEwan, one that as I read, I began to think of as “high-concept intellectual potboiler.”

The intellectual part should not be understated. Take, for
instance, this gorgeous passage, describing a moment, one of the novel’s best
scenes, when Miranda’s father mistakes Charlie for a robot:

There are occasions when one notices the motion of an object before one sees the thing itself. Instantly, the mind does a little colouring in, drawing on expectations, or probabilities. Whatever fits best. Something in the grass by a pond looks just like a frog, then resolves itself into a leaf stirred by the wind. In abstract, this was one of those moments. A thought darted past me, or through me, then it was gone, and I couldn’t trust what I thought I’d seen.

Even McEwan’s worst books, and this is not one of his worst, are full of this kind of writing, almost somnolently smooth and controlled. The command of language goes a long way toward pulling together the strings of material that, in a lesser writer’s hands, might feel completely absurd (that Nutshell, with its pithy, oratorical embryo of a narrator, was even partially successful, is a testament to McEwan’s ability). The book is also full of interesting, if not always bleeding-edge, ideas about AI and consciousness. Adam has a precocious teenager’s love for earnest philosophy, a tendency played for laughs, but one that also produces many genuinely interesting digressions:

He said, “I’ve also been thinking about vision and death…We don’t see everywhere. We can’t see behind our heads. We can’t even see our chins. Let’s say our field of vision is almost 180 degrees, counting in peripheral awareness. The odd thing is, there’s no boundary, no edge. There isn’t vision and then blackness, like you get when you look through binoculars. There isn’t something, then nothing. What we have is the field of vision, and then beyond it, less than nothing.”

“So?”

“So this is what death is like.”

Nonetheless, despite the book’s many pleasures, one senses in Machines Like Me, as to some extent is true in all these late-phase books, a master prioritizing his own amusement. McEwan is clearly intellectually curious, and these Idea Books are clearly fun: fun to research, fun to think about, fun to write. And, to be fair, pretty fun to read. Having already dominated the British literary landscape for more than a quarter century, having produced several bestsellers, having won the Booker and just about every award that can be won, it is difficult to begrudge the man his pleasure. Nonetheless, there is an aspect of the hobbyist to it, the retiree retreating to his basement to fool with model trains.

As a lifelong fan of McEwan’s, this reader—and I suspect others—pines for a late-late phase. One that sees him leave the playroom and evolve once more while recapturing his earlier form, returning to novels of the small and intent variety. It’s not impossible to imagine—as much as McEwan’s subject matter has changed from The Cement Garden to Machines Like Me, if you read closely, certain elements and preoccupations are consistent: human desire, the ramifications of sex, the violence that people can so easily do to each other. The creepiness of the earlier work is less intense, more diffuse, but it is still very much there. McEwan received a great deal of justified flack recently, for an interview in which he spoke about the possibilities of science-fiction exploring the ethical ramifications of AI, seeming unaware of Isaac Asimov and the last 50 years of the genre; that said, to my knowledge, until the publication of Machines Like Me, sci-fi had yet to explore the possibilities of robot-human cunnilingus. In a gobsmacking moment early on, Charlie listens to Miranda and Adam going at it in her apartment overhead and vividly imagines the scene:

Minutes later, I almost looked away as he knelt with reverence to pleasure her with his tongue. This was the celebrated tongue, wet and breathily warm, adept at uvulars and labials, that gave speech its authenticity.

This is, on the one hand, a somewhat insane thing to write, but on the other it is characteristic McEwan—the unblinking, simultaneously scientific and voyeuristic eye. Even stately Atonement, a sweeping historical tragedy set in a 1930s country manor, hinges on a vulgar love letter and features a sexual tryst that includes the word “membrane.” Yes, the creepiness of the early novels remains. It is a productive, idiosyncratic creepiness that I personally find more compelling than the big ideas of his last few novels.

This, perhaps, explains why 2006’s On Chesil Beach is my personal favorite of McEwan’s novels. It tells the story of a young married couple trying and failing to have sex on their honeymoon. That’s it. It is simple and heartbreaking, paring away almost all plot machinery, distilling McEwan’s thematic interests down to the essential: two people, and the question of how to exist together. Its creepiness is the greatest creepiness of all, one that Machines Like Me also explores, but in a much more labored and labyrinthine style: the inescapable reality of human consciousness—the way we are trapped in our own minds, never able to really know anyone else in the end.  

Jernigan: The Last Unhappy White Guy

Have you read Jernigan? It’s a novel by David Gates, published in 1992. It was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize, and it is a great book that, according to a very informal poll I recently conducted, no one has read, and most people haven’t heard of. The only reason I have: when I worked at EPOCH magazine, the journal’s long-time and much-beloved editor-in-chief, Michael Koch, stumped for Jernigan as something of an already lost classic. Over the course of the ensuing few years, I kept remembering, then forgetting, to read it. Finally, a few months ago, I recalled its existence when I had nothing else to read and bought it on Kindle. It’s a strange book to e-read. It’s one of those novels that really wants to be read as a physical book. As I scrolled along, I felt I should own a dog-eared and coffee-stained copy that I’d already reread once or twice before. It is familiar, mostly in good ways and a few bad.

It feels anachronistically familiar, I think, partly because it is a reminder of a kind of book that used to be written and published all the time about unhappy white guys. A host of factors—among them, an increased awareness of systemic sexism and racism and privilege facilitated by the internet and social media—more or less put an end to this kind of book, or at least forced it to shape-shift into, say, the techno-fascism of a Michel Houellebecq or the neo-Victorian realism of Jonathan Franzen. Jernigan is one of the last pure versions of this kind of book, but a better version that deserves rediscovery, one that in some thematic ways anticipates the end of its era.

From around 1950 to 2000, books about unhappy white guys were written frequently enough to constitute a subgenre of literary fiction: call it, let’s say, Unhappy White Guys. Or UWG. Of course, one might argue that UWG has been a genre since time immemorial, since before Hamlet stalked the parapet being mad at his stepfather. This is generally true, but I’m thinking here of a certain very specific type of unhappy white guy: post-war American, middle to upper-middle class, suburban, straight, and usually WASP. In other words, more or less, the most racially, sexually, and economically privileged people ever to walk the face of the earth, a class of human who faced no threat on any front, except from themselves.

For the purpose of this essay I would exclude books that don’t meet these full criteria. Hemingway’s novels, for instance, very much feature unhappy white guys, but they are mostly pre-WWII and shouldering the burden of war, what we would probably describe now as PTSD. Jake Barnes, for instance, is unhappy, white, and a guy, but his ambiguous war wound complicates what would otherwise be aimless ennui.

Leonard Michaels’s characters are often unhappy white guys, but they are largely Jewish and urban, with a sense of the world extending past the emerald rectangles of their front yards, and a sense of history that reaches back past the pictures on their fraternity walls. Likewise, Philip Roth, whose characters were also often less unhappy than horny, or unhappy because they were horny, at any rate featuring horniness as the dominant note. Updike’s white guys are not generally unhappy; as with Roth’s characters, they are also monomaniacally obsessed with their own phalluses, often to the exclusion of the outside world and any meaningful sense of angst about it. Speaking of angst: yes, Rabbit Angstrom is an unhappy white guy, but just barely, with his lower-class provenance, his salesman job, his grotty hometown in the Pennsylvania hills.

A facile timeline of UWG might be roughly drawn between the two Richards—Yates and Ford—and their two great protagonists, both named Frank. From Revolutionary Road to Independence Day, this genre tends to take up as its work the definition of a specific variety of late-20th-century spiritual malaise, the sense that, despite having it all (perhaps even because of it), life is still somehow lacking. It is a particular brand of pure, distilled dissatisfaction only possible if you have almost nothing else to truly worry about. Yet the unhappy white guys at the center of these stories, in one way or another, feel deceived. The American dream, as defined by a big house and two cars and wife and kids, has failed to deliver the happiness it promised, and so the protagonist casts around with increasing desperation trying to find the thing that is missing. Whatever else its failings and blind spots, this genre performs a valuable—if at times unintentional—autopsy on the idea of orthodox capitalist happiness. Per Don Draper, our foremost televised unhappy white guy: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

Yates and Cheever were probably its foremost early post-war practitioners, although Cheever, at least in his short fiction, was weirder and more of a fabulist, interested in the suburbs as both a locus of stifling orthodoxy and as a liminal space of potential magic (something I discuss here). Yates’s Frank Wheeler is the archetype: successful, smart, handsome, and completely fucking miserable. Though his abusive marriage with April Wheeler is almost operatically unhappy, the true locus of his misery is the floating unease at not finding magical satisfaction on Revolutionary Road.

One can draw a straight line from Frank Wheeler to Frank Bascombe, the hero of Richard Ford’s trilogy The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and (the execrably titled) Let Me Be Frank With You. If Wheeler is the archetype, Independence Day’s Bascombe is more or less the type’s mature culmination, mellowed by the real and fictional decades separating Wheeler and himself. Bascombe, a gently restive real estate agent, cannot please anyone: his clients, his ex-wife, his new girlfriend, his struggling son, himself. The moments of respite in this (beautifully written, but to me, somewhat agonizingly dull book) are the quiet moments of zen-like joy in the little things that the Jersey suburbs can provide as well as anywhere else. Here, Ford borrows directly from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, whose Binx Bolling, an unhappy white guy par excellence, genially harasses a procession of secretaries into unsatisfying affairs, while “spinning” up and down Biscayne Bay in a little red sportscar on what he calls “The Search.” The Search is hazily defined, but generally refers to a receptiveness to the ineffable moments of grace and sublime beauty that, if they could be constantly existed in, would make someone like Binx—or Frank Bascombe, or Frank Wheeler—stop being so unhappy, if not so white.

To return to Jernigan—it would, on appearances, seem to offer more or less textbook UWG. Peter Jernigan is a failing real estate agent and drinker; a pensive wanderer who falls into bed with a neighborhood woman he doesn’t especially like; a narcissistic man-child whose teenage son is more grown up than he is. But Jernigan’s narration, at turns both theatrically self-dramatizing and self-aware of his self-dramatization (the title itself winks at his habit of third-person self-reference), offers something beyond the customary portrait of suburban malaise.

The novel is, among other things, an anatomy of the alcoholic mind. Since losing his unstable wife a year earlier to a freak car accident (crucially, Jernigan begins with the spousal tragedy that ends Revolutionary Road), our hero has descended into a shadowland that finds him waking on his couch at odd hours, having nodded off while watching a baseball game or Star Trek reruns. But Gates smartly plays the alcoholic notes lightly, and the reader’s main attention is absorbed by Jernigan’s lacerating solipsism. His narration recalls the best unhappy white guys before him, while simultaneously acknowledging and undercutting the usual sense of stakesless ennui. Like Binx Bolling and Frank Bascombe, Peter Jernigan’s lassitude leads him into trouble and accounts for much of the novel’s plot, though Jernigan’s lassitude is not born so much of complacent spiritual unrest as it is of depression and subtly rendered near-constant intoxication. That it often reads like a standard-variety suburban comedy of errors is a testament to Gates’s supreme control of his subject and his subject’s illness. Jernigan views himself in a gently ironic light, a received self-image handed down from the likes of Frank Bascombe—that is, as a man of his time and place, committed to committing his mistakes, mostly harmless. Like many alcoholics (and the reader), Jernigan only becomes aware of the true immensity and horror of his situation when it’s too late; that is, when he’s practically frozen to death in an abandoned shack with alcoholic tremors.

Gates’s rendering of Jernigan’s alcoholic spiral feels spookily real. Not so much the outright delusions or denials, or the false moments of control—markers we’ve come to expect from addiction memoirs—as the steadily accretive fact of it in the background. A tossed-off mention of a beer with breakfast, a soda topped jauntily with a little gin to make the drive to New York more fun, and before we know it, Jernigan is once again waking in the half-light, trying to remember where he is. Although he is a self-dramatizing narrator (the form of the book is, as we find out later on, a kind of bravura confessional from the confines of a rehab facility) the rendering of drinking is the opposite of Fred Exley’s in A Fan’s Notes, one of Jernigan’s other UWG spiritual forebears. Exley is all wildness and braggadocio, the college kid who lines up liquor bottles on his dorm window; Jernigan’s drinking is the stealthy veteran drinking of middle age, an accounting that fudges the numbers as the tally climbs upward.

The overall effect is a book and narrator both firmly in the
UWG lineage, and also outside of it, in some ways commenting on it. The louche
sexual politics are of a piece with the genre, as is the anodyne feel of
Jernigan’s Reaganite Jersey suburbia. But despite the insularity of the locale,
and in contradistinction with the unhappy white guys before him, Jernigan faces
very real problems, and not just from himself. For instance, from the .22 rifle
in the basement that his girlfriend uses to kill farmed rabbits for supper; for
instance, from the ex-husband who shows up unannounced and in terrifying
fashion; for instance, from the son’s unstable, drug-taking girlfriend.

The tradition of UWG novels typically finds its Angstrom or Bascombe or Bolling or Wheeler at war with themselves, their own worst enemy. From the vantage of 2019, this seems beyond quaint, positively antique. While Jernigan, too, features this mode of contemplative self-destruction, there is also a prescient feeling of the world beginning to creep in at the edges, a sense of the white guy’s imminent fall from his placid, unhappy Eden.

The Importance of Giving a Shit: On ‘Dreyer’s English’

As this review goes to press, Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, sits at #1 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list (Words, Language, & Grammar Reference). Shortly after the book’s release, he tweeted its march up the overall sales ranks, as it broke the top hundred, the top ten, and made it all the way to number two. Already in its fourth pressing, it is also currently at number two on this week’s New York Times Best Sellers list (Advice, How-to, and Miscellaneous). Think about that: a book by a copyeditor about the niceties of style elbowing up to the table with the likes of Marie Kondo and Michelle Obama. As Dreyer himself said in another endearingly flabbergasted tweet, “It’s a freakin’ style guide, for Pete’s sake.”

In one sense, I share his amazement. It would be difficult to think of a current subject that feels, superficially, less likely to top a list of best sellers (or best-sellers or bestsellers—Dreyer devotes an interesting page to the accelerated life-cycle and evolution of open, hyphenate, and closed words). We live, after all, in a paradoxically hyper-literate yet hyper-illiterate age—never before in human history have more people written more, and never before has less care gone into the production of this writing. We are inundated with emojis, unpunctuated tweets, garbled emails, and dashed-off chyrons rife with errata, not to mention the self-publishing phenomenon: hundreds of books going up on Amazon daily, thousands of Tumblr and WordPress sites, all the bloggy flotsam of the Internet’s wild reaches. The writerly ethos of the age would seem to echo Blaise Pascal’s famous apology: “I only made this letter longer because I had not the leisure to make it shorter.”

Which is not to say, reading Dreyer’s English, that it’s hard to see why people like it. Dreyer, Random House’s longtime copy chief, is funny and charming, delivering a style manual with a great deal of style. Here he is (in a passage more or less randomly chosen) on the word “bemused”:

The increasing use of the word “bemused” to mean “wry, winkingly amused, as if while wearing a grosgrain bowtie and sipping a Manhattan,” rather than “bothered and bewildered” is going to—sooner than later, I fear—render the word meaningless and useless, and that’s too bad; it’s a good word. My own never-say-die attitude toward preserving “bemusement” to mean perplexity, and only that, is beginning to give me that General Custer vibe.  

Throughout the proceedings, Dreyer is simultaneously meticulous and unfussy, a winning combination and surely a byproduct of dealing with authorial egos for the better part of his adult life. As the tongue-in-cheek subtitle implies, a good copyeditor has to both believe in their absolute correctness, while allowing for the mutability of language, authorial eccentricities, and the fact that most rules can and should be broken if they’re broken in the service of clarity. Dreyer’s tone is authoritative, yet relaxed and playful, with the presence of teacher that you do not fear, but do fear disappointing.

He is not a grammarian, and certainly not a so-called “Guardian of Grammar,” as a recent Times profile had it. Chapter Six is titled “A Little Grammar Is a Dangerous Thing,” and the first line is, “I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I hate grammar.” Grammar is, he explains, important—a firm grasp of the basic rules allows a writer to convey thought clearly; grammar jargon, on the other hand—and the oft-attendant starchiness about it—is not. Lynne Truss is a grammarian, and popular on that basis with people who see dashed-off text messages as the sign of a culture in shambles. Dreyer is not fighting this sort of proxy culture war; he simply wants people to write well.

But beyond the pleasure of Dreyer’s prose and authorial tone, I think there is something else at play with the popularity of his book. To put it as simply as possible, the man cares, and we need people who care right now. Dreyer’s English is, beyond a freakin’ style guide, the document of a serious person’s working life. At sixty, Dreyer is at the top of his game and profession, an honorable profession he has worked diligently at for more than three decades. To write a book is to care deeply and in a sustained way about something; to copyedit a book is to care deeply and in a sustained way about someone else’s deep and sustained caring. And to have copyedited books for one’s adult life is to have spent one’s adult life caring about other people’s words and the English language. As he writes in the introduction:

I am a copyeditor… my job is to lay my hands on [a] piece of writing and make it… better. Not rewrite it, not to bully and flatten it into some notion of Correct Prose, whatever that might be, but to burnish and polish it and make it the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make it read even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it. That is, if I’ve done my job correctly.

Our current era is marked by cynicism and nihilism—it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that we managed to elect the worst person in the world as president, a con artist and pathological liar who will say anything to stay in the public consciousness and keep the inverted pyramid of his shabby criminal empire from toppling down onto his empty head. Trump is an avatar of everything impermanent, incompetent, and insincere about this era, and I believe there’s a great inchoate hunger for the opposite, for someone who thinks that words and ideas matter. What Benjamin Dreyer provides in Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is the increasingly rare and refreshing public spectacle of a person caring about their job and doing it well. Fundamentally, Dreyer’s expertise is rooted not in credentials and accreditation. As he says, “I wandered into my job nearly three decades ago…and that’s how I learned to copyedit: by observing copyeditors.” His advice is not only correct, but also, crucially, idiosyncratic and eccentric. Above all, it is personal. Its basis, and the basis of Dreyer’s English, is a lifetime of thinking and caring deeply about something, a lifetime of giving a shit.

Mr. Dreyer was kind enough to respond via email to a few
questions that came to mind as I read his book.

The Millions: In the introduction to the book, you discuss how you got into copyediting. You’d been waiting tables and bartending after college—“faffing around,” in your great phrase—and started proofreading on the side, and one thing led to another. As someone who also took a roundabout path to their profession, I’m curious if there was an “a-ha” moment, a particular book or editing experience, when you realized this was what you were really doing with your life—a moment when it felt like a calling, if that isn’t too grand.

Benjamin Dreyer: What a good question, to which I don’t quite have an answer. But I can think of one particular job that loomed, and still looms, large in my memory: One of my first copyediting jobs was a book called Not Since Carrie, which was a history of Broadway musical flops. Basically, I was born to copyedit that book, because Broadway musicals are totally my thing, but I couldn’t, back in the extremely early ’90s, possibly have been wetter around the ears. I did, if I may say so, a first-rate job of it, and the book is, still, a great favorite of aficionados. But I remember distinctly what a challenge it was for me: so many copyeditorial things to figure out that I wasn’t confident about, that I was still learning—even rudimentary things like number treatment, which is important when you’re copyediting a book full of dates and numbers of performances. Had I copyedited it just a few years later, I would, I think, have sailed through it. I’m glad I applied myself so diligently to getting it right, but I like to think about something that I guess is obvious: The more you do a kind of work, the better you get at it. Perhaps that is the answer to your question, though: Perhaps it’s then that I realized that copyediting was a thing I could do, and not merely do but do well and make a difference, a contribution.

TM: I follow you on Twitter, and was amused and charmed, as I think were many writers and followers, by your incredulous delight at the book’s runaway success. In my review, I posit that one reason it has resonated with readers is simply the pleasure people feel, in our nihilistic and cynical age, encountering someone who cares deeply and sincerely about their work. In your case, obviously, someone who has spent decades thinking about writing and developing a book’s worth of idiosyncratic ideas and opinions. Have you gotten this sense? Why else do you think it has connected with the reading public?

BD: “Incredulous” is certainly the word for it. I’m utterly floored by the book’s success. Not merely that people are buying it—and reserving it at their local library! I love being a library book!—in numbers I couldn’t possibly have expected—though, okay, there’s nothing “merely” about that. But the joy that people seem to be taking in it: Truly I beam every time someone tweets a photo of their newly arrived copy or screenshots a favorite passage. I’ve also received a number of messages from people who want to tell me how much the book means to them, and that just undoes me. I’m going to rely on the wisdom of my wise mother, who might have been the first person to articulate, at least that I absorbed, that after two years of an administration whose every utterance is an insult not merely to democracy but to the English language, people are eager to embrace a book that suggests something so simple as: Words have meaning, and a clear, effective sentence carries a kind of truth. I don’t mean to be grand about it—truly I wrote the book essentially to be helpful and amusing, not to make a statement—but it seems to have struck a nerve. (And as my mother also pointed out: That it took me a lot longer to write the book than I’d intended certainly got us to a point of, apparently, spectacular timing.)

TM: Spare a moment for the em-dash, if you would. The most popular article I’ve published at The Millions is a paean to the em (found here). People love it, as do I, though with some guilty compunction. In a brief section in the book about the em, you mention that you feel it’s overused, and I wonder if you could expand on that—is it that it’s often an approximation of more precise punctuation? Or is it just generally overused, and as an editor, why do you think that is?

BD: I too love an em-dash—not as much as (oh, look, there goes one now) I love that scamp the en-dash or my favorite piece of punctuation, the semicolon—but people do, I think, lean on them a little hard because it’s easier to drop a couple of em dashes into a sentence than get a sentence’s various parts to adhere with, y’know, words. But I’m happy to repeat here that though traditional copyediting wisdom tells you never to use more than two em dashes in a sentence, one of my own sentences, up there in the answer to question two, includes three of them, and I have no regrets about that. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

TM: You are generally philosophical in the book about changes in grammar and usage, often striking a tone of resigned, if lighthearted, acceptance. Is there, however, one trend you imply can’t abide? What stylistic hill will you die on, if any?

BD: There’s remarkably little that’s occurred lately in This Our Evolving Language that bothers me, and though I’ve become aware these last few weeks that some people expect me to rail against the destruction of English as it’s being carried out daily on the Internet (which I still capitalize), I think that all that hand-wringing is utter malarkey and I have zero intention of participating in it. I suspect that my tone of resigned, if lighthearted, acceptance has much to do with the fact that I’m well aware that I’m not as young as I used to be in all regards, and not just how English works or is made to work. But okay, let’s do this: That people have come to condemn that excellent and necessary comma in such constructions as “Hello, Karen”: Well, that just boils my blood. How’s that?

Hard to Get: Books That Resist You

1. Recently, for the fourth or fifth time in my life, I started trying to read James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. I bought my copy many years ago, after falling in love with his story collections and enjoying Light Years, probably his best-known novel. A Sport and a Pastime, though not obscure, has a whiff of the occult about it, with its hazy voyeuristic sex and a title taken from the Koran. It is commonly and unironically referred to as an “erotic masterpiece.” Writing for The New York Times Review of Books, Reynolds Price said, “Of living novelists, none has produced a novel I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime…it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”

Despite these points of interest and an agreeable running length of right around 200 pages, over two decades, I’ve found myself consistently stymied by something in this novel. I can still clearly remember the thrill of finding it at a used bookstore (it was, I believe, out of print at the time, or at any rate not widely available), taking it home, cracking it open along with a beer, and…not reading it.

This has been my experience with A Sport and a Pastime, our relationship, so to speak, over the last two decades. Maybe it’s the strange narrative setup, the unnamed narrator employed mostly as a camera for the erotic exploits of the central couple. Maybe it’s the slowness of the plot. More likely, I think, it’s something wrong with me.

There is a type of book, I find, that falls in this
category: books that resist you. This is different from books you think are
bad, or books you don’t want to read. These are books you want to read, but for
some reason are unable to. These are books that, if anything, you somehow fail,
not being up to the task.

2. The obverse of this is the kind of book you helplessly return to again and again. Some personal examples: The Patrick Melrose cycle, Disgrace, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flannery O’Connor’s The Collected Stories, The Big Sleep, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary. These are books that my taste and intellect, such as they are, somehow notch into like teeth into a greater gear. Sometimes you outgrow these books, as I feel I have with, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s corpus, but by and large these are books that I have read throughout my adulthood and continue getting different things out of with each read.

I’m not sure this is a good thing. In a way, this kind of reading preserves a personal stasis, forever reconfirming your excellent taste in literature, always agreeing with you. They are the yes-men of your library—in reading, as in life, it is good to find people who will tell you no: No, maybe you are not smart enough for this; no, you are not entitled to an immediate endorphin release upon opening me up; no, you cannot read me.

3. Another book of the former type: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This is an especially irksome one, a novel I’ve been attracted to for years, then repulsed by every time I open the cover. My experience with this kind of book does feel, in its way, analogous to a certain kind of romantic flirtation, a pas de deux of advance and retreat—never quite enough advance to win the book’s affection; never quite enough retreat to finally put me off. I have long been drawn to The Volcano and Lowry’s shared mythos: suicidal alcoholism in a hot country. I’m intrigued by its aura and stature as one of the greatest books of the century. I want to read it.

But man, that first chapter—I’ve read it several times and never made it any further. From memory: the initial, oblique conversation between Laruelle and Dr. Vigil (okay, I looked these up) on the hotel balcony as they sip anis and gaze out at the titular volcano; the references to the Consul, Fermin (who I am aware, theoretically, will at some point become the actual main character), and shared recollections of his misbehavior and disappearance; Laruelle’s interminable saunter down the hill and into town; an equally protracted sojourn at a bar that, again, if memory serves, is strangely connected to a movie theater. There, Laruelle is given a book for some reason. Other things happen, or don’t. My memory of that chapter feels consistent with the mode in which I have most frequently encountered it: falling asleep in bed. Which is to say that the first part is most vivid, and, as it goes on, the lights grow dimmer and the enterprise seems to begin repeating itself.

4. But this is clearly user error. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice, with both Under the Volcano and A Sport and a Pastime, a personal difficulty with books that dwell too long in the perspective of a peripheral character. No matter how good the language and description—and the language and description in Under the Volcano are, of course, very good—at a certain point I want it to get a move on. The truth probably is that I am not an especially good, or patient, reader. Maybe good compared to the average casual reader, but not compared to many other writers and academics I know, who seem to omnivorously inhale all manner of book no matter how difficult or slow, like woodchippers dispatching balsa.

The truth probably is that my normal reading taste level lands somewhere just north of middlebrow. I have read Ulysses (and is there a more loathsome sentence to type than this?—the literary equivalent of mentioning your SAT score). But I skipped large swaths of the especially difficult chapters like “Proteus” and “Oxen of the Sun.” My highbrow taste is defined by a narrow niche of books that are well-written and also, for lack of a better word, fun.

Nabokov’s novels, for example—as strenuously modern and well-written as they are, they also move. They are not boring. The reader’s attention is rewarded like a good dog, receiving periodic treats for trotting along behind the master. “Fun” is a strange descriptor to apply to a book about pedophilia, but in spite of its subject matter, Lolita is, well, a pretty rollicking read (really, this is the novel’s perverse central project, to coax a reader into an aesthetic pleasure that mirrors, horribly, Humbert’s), jammed with the darkest comedy, suspense, wordplay, twists, turns, and the climactic ending to end all climactic endings. It is fun, as is Pnin, as is Pale Fire. Even early juvenilia like The Eye keeps you interested.

5. Interestingness, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But would it be completely unfair to say that a large swath of what we consider literary fiction is, by its nature and/or by design, uneventful? My Struggle is an obvious recent example—the first 200 pages of Book One are the story of the time young Karl Ove and a friend tried (spoiler alert: successfully) to get a case of beer to a high school party. Later, he devotes dozens of pages to the description of cleaning a bathroom.

Knausgaard’s work may provide an extreme example, but it remains generally true that in what we consider highbrow literary fiction, plotlessness often serves as a genre and status marker. Presumably this has something to do with a semi-consciously received idea of literary fiction being realistic fiction, and reality being uneventful. Brian Cox, portraying the screenwriting coach Robert McKee in Adaptation, had this to say on the matter:

 

Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!

 

My Struggle received overwhelming critical praise for its rejection of that stuff and for its strenuous, almost ostentatious, dramatization of the banal and prosaic—all of the bits that typically get cut out of plot-driven fiction. Zadie Smith, praising the books, said, “Like Warhol, he makes no attempt to be interesting.” The intellectual enshrinement of non-event is worth considering on its merits for a moment. It might be argued that this high literary conception of real life as a frictionless enactment of societal rituals, unconscious consumerism, and media absorption is essentially a safe, bourgeois version of reality, and that plot-free literary fiction aestheticizes that principle of non-event. And so it might further be argued that literature that tests a reader’s ability to endure boredom and plotlessness is, on some level, testing the degree of that reader’s integration into the late capitalist fantasy of a perfectly isolated and insulated existence just as much as a writer like James Patterson affirms that integration by the obverse means of testing a reader’s willingness to accept product as art. The extremes of event and non-event both affirm this version.

6.Then again, maybe (probably) this is bullshit, rigging up an objective rationale for personal taste. And besides, I can think of so many counterexamples—books in which nothing much happens that I adore. The Outline trilogy, for example, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I would listen to Faye listening to people until the end of time; I’d follow Lerner’s valium-popping liar Adam Gordon to the ends of the world. In the end, it probably just comes down to something ineffable and mysterious in the writing. That connection between author and reader, the partnership and compact that must occur, something in the handshake that slips, that doesn’t quite hold.

A Year in Reading: Adam O’Fallon Price

In June of 2016, I started a podcast with my friend Jesse called Fan’s Notes, about our two favorite topics of discussion: books and basketball. To date, we’ve recorded 58 episodes, a rate of about one book every two weeks. The project has been somewhat time-consuming, and extremely unlucrative, but it has been hugely rewarding in terms of reading. A quick scan through our list of published episodes in 2018 (the project comes in handy here as a kind of diary of my year’s reading) reminds me of many new favorites: Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women among them.

As a fairly slow reader, the podcast has benefited—dictated, really—my reading list, I think to the benefit of my writing. Not just in terms of regularly discussing literature in a somewhat structured (if beer-accompanied) format, but also in terms of simply venturing a little beyond the confines of my usual taste. I would not otherwise, probably, have sat down and read straight through two collections of Borges, would have been content with my passing familiarity with the greatest hits: “The Aleph,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Like most people, as much I intend to read new things, the attention-draining demands of life always make it easy to stick with what I’m confident will bring a good return on my reading time. That Patrick Melrose collection on the bookshelf, for example, is a constant familiar lure and pleasurable threat to experiencing novel novels.

Of all the excellent books the podcast introduced me to in 2018, none was more unexpected or exciting than Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I’d been vaguely aware of McCarthy as someone in the 20th-century literary landscape, had heard of The Group. But I’d never read her, and I’d never heard of this novel, her first, published in 1942. That this book was published 77 years ago, going on a century, is truly hard to believe—it is one of the most modern novels I’ve read in a long time, more modern than most modern novels.

The book’s political concerns are shockingly timely, somehow prefiguring #MeToo and DSA 80 years ahead of schedule. The Company She Keeps follows its protagonist, Margaret Sargent, a young bohemian Trotskyite, as she destroys her marriage, finds odd jobs to make ends meet, engages in a series of love affairs, and navigates the ’30s-era New York communist scene. Margaret’s sexual and political agency feel bracing, radical even by today’s standards. She is accorded the traditionally male prerogative to destroy and rebuild her life as she sees fit—to make, at times, foolish and selfish and self-destructive choices—without apology or justification.  

The novel’s form, too, is unusual and daring. It comprises six long, sometimes novella-length chapters, stories all published independently in outlets like The Partisan Review. Despite being anchored by Margaret’s consciousness and concerns, the POV moves from third person to first to second. In one story, Margaret only appears halfway through and functions as the antagonist. McCarthy employs every possible vantage point to probe Margaret’s character—her principled bravery, her fears and anxieties, her generosity and snobbish prejudices—in a kind of dialectic analysis mirroring the Marxist and Freudian thought that dominated both the author and characters’ intellectual circles. As soon as Margaret believes a proposition about herself or the world to be true, something else proves it false, and the two truths must be synthesized in order to allow her to edge forward. Margaret’s mental landscape—and this is where the real action of the book takes place—is like an impossibly large mansion of locked rooms. Unlocking one door, she only finds herself trapped in another.

The book posits self-awareness as a kind of comic hell. In the memorable conclusion to “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” the main character, Jim Barnett, a smug leftist (and avatar of white male privilege decades before that was a phrase in circulation) ruefully considers his extramarital fling with Margaret: 

What did he regret, he asked himself. If he had to do it over again, he would make the same decision. What he yearned for, perhaps, was the possibility of a decision, the instant of a choice, when a man stands at a crossroads and knows he is free. Still, even that had been illusory. He had never been free, but until he had tried to love the girl, he had not known he was bound. It was self-knowledge she had taught him. She had shown him the cage of his own his nature. He had accommodated himself to it, but he could never forgive her. Through her, he had lost his primeval innocence, and he would hate her forever, as Adam hates Eve.

Once the door to honest introspection is cracked, it cannot be closed again, can only be flung wider and wider as each confounding truth barges through. It turns out a little self-perception goes a long way, and a lot goes a little.    

The comic, brutal irony of McCarthy’s narrative regard—toward Margaret and the motley cast of secondary characters—is what struck me initially as most bracingly modern about the novel. As I read on, however, I began to question this proposition. I’m not sure, in fact, how much patience modern readers would have for a narrative voice this unsparing, or a protagonist as flawed and vexing as Margaret Sargent. She is not, in the horrible modern formulation, relatable. She is not nice, and neither, to its credit, is The Company She Keeps. This is a book that pulls no punches—about art, politics, psychology, and human nature. This is a book that tells the truth because there’s something at stake, politically and personally, something that would be lost by any intellectual fudging or false comfort. In a period of such rank political and cultural dishonesty, we need books like this—now more than ever, I want to cornily say, though probably this has always been the case. There have probably never been enough books like this.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

Unreliable Unreliable Narrators

All first-person narrators are unreliable. This is less a structural feature of storytelling and more a structural feature of the human condition. We lie to ourselves, we lie to others, and even if we mean to tell our story with complete honesty, we can never fully understand it. As the saying goes, approximately: The proof that we’re unreliable narrators is the fact that everyone is the star of their own story.

Certain kinds of genre storytelling, perhaps, get close to full reliability, as they are more concerned with driving plot than revealing character—we can essentially trust that Katniss Everdeen is reliable, since she exists mainly as a vehicle for telling the story of the Hunger Games she competes in. There would be no point, from Suzanne Collins’s point of view, in having her narrator fudge the truth. This is not meant as a slight—simply that the purpose of a great deal of sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller fiction is to drive plot, not to communicate hidden complexities of character. But in the realm of what we broadly consider literary fiction, character is paramount and true reliability is impossible.

In fact, as many critics have remarked before, the most truly reliable literary narration is a kind of very consistent unreliable narration. The go-to example of reliably unreliable narrators is Lolita’s dissembling monster, Humbert Humbert. For the novel’s 400-plus pages, Humbert engages the reader in a pas de deux of hideous charm, seducing and repelling again and again, via his theatrical biography of child rape. The act of reading Lolita is fundamentally the act of decoding Humbert’s narration, a narration as reliably encoded as the diary he keeps in Charlotte Haze’s guest room. We are pulled in with his language until just close enough to be revulsed at the object of his language. And we understand that the project is, despite its purported intent as a confession and object of psychological study, an act of self-justification—the self-justification of pedophilia, not mainly via sympathy or historical precedent, but through a larger project of aestheticizing it, transforming assault into art. It is, finally, an act and artifact of Satanically grand egotism.

Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, is another archetypally reliable unreliable narrator. The novel’s clockwork unreliability functions as a kind of equation that can be used to solve all of Mr. Steven’s statements of non-fact and pitiful delusion. Once we understand that Lord Darlington was a Nazi and that Stevens was in love with Miss Kenton, we know that for almost everything he says about them, we should believe the opposite: He is not going on his countryside jaunt to incidentally visit Miss Kenton; he does not especially want to “banter” with people; he is not proud of his service to Lord Darlington, whom he does not believe was a good man.

Characters like Humbert and Mr. Stevens provide the reader a level of confidence and certainty of motivation mostly unavailable with conventional narrators. Someone who always lies, after all, is as easy to understand as someone who always tells the truth. Less intelligible might be a narrator like Holden Caulfield, who is not, from a narratological standpoint, strategically unreliable—that is, if and when he’s lying, he isn’t employing it for conscious effect or advantage. Caulfield, like most normal people, is full of flattering illusions about himself, dumb notions of how to live, unfounded prejudices, and so on, but they aren’t importantly arrayed around a guiding principle/theme/blindspot like Humbert’s pedophilia or Mr. Stevens’s professional and romantic regrets.

Still, there is Holden’s dead brother, and the fact that the narration is being told to a spectral psychologist. The reader, and the novel itself, understands that something is amiss even if Caulfield doesn’t, fully. While most first-person narratives are not as structurally deceitful as Lolita or Remains of the Day, most do consciously incorporate an element of uncertainty in the narrator’s telling of their story. This uncertainty has a rhythm and tone as much a part of the reading experience as the author’s descriptive tendencies, their syntax and diction.

In this sense, paradoxically, while all first-person narrators may be unreliable, most first-person narratives are reliable—or, perhaps better put, intelligible. That is to say, the character’s blind spots and deceptions are congruent with the general aims and architecture of the text; more than congruent, they are an essential part of it.

But there’s a rare category of book that seems to misunderstand its own narrator. Either the narrator is unreliable and the book itself doesn’t understand it, or else the book understands the fact of its narrator’s unreliability, but misjudges its nature.

An example of the first case is The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe is meant to be a fairly honest reporter of his own story—a bit of a haunted loner, maybe, but more or less what he seems: tough, sardonic, and scrupulous. This scrupulousness is often dramatized through his uncorruptibility vis-à-vis women, in particular, Carmen Sternwood, who throws herself at him throughout the novel to no effect. Well, to some effect, actually. After Carmen appears nude in his apartment, Marlowe relates the following: “I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.”

Raymond Chandler’s seeming intent here—to characterize Marlowe as a private, sexually principled man—badly overshoots his mark; still, on a surface reading, this reaction is consistent with the book’s conception of Marlowe as, fundamentally, a straight arrow. Drape a gold crucifix around his neck and he would be more recognizable as a moral crusader, a Christian brother cleaning up Sodom. Sure, he drinks quite a bit, and his crime-fighting methodology exists in a shadowland outside of regular law enforcement, but his spine is as erect as any Midwest rotarian standing at the podium. More than money, or professional curiosity, Marlowe seems motivated by a kind of prim, abiding disgust at the perverted world of the Sternwoods and Arthur Geiger and Eddie Mars. Among the many types who make Marlowe sick: the rich, pornographers, and gamblers.

But mainly loose women and gay men. Gynophobia and homophobia are the twinned engines of fearful disgust that drive the novel’s emotional logic. In the Carmen scenes, we sense a narrator who is less inured to female advances than terrified and enraged by them. Likewise, gay men—a group the novel takes special pains to belittle. “A pansy,” says Marlowe, to the young man he’s preparing to wrestle, “has no iron in his bones.” A murder victim’s house has “the nasty, stealthy look of a fag party.” Homosexuality in Chandler’s 1930s Los Angeles, as it was most places in America at the time, was taboo, verboten. But even by those standards, there is a spectral seediness to depictions of homosexuality in The Big Sleep that feels unusual, accompanied by a visceral horror at vice’s general omnipresence, as though L.A. is a rotting log with maggots writhing underneath. Arthur Geiger, a gay pornographer, runs a smut library on Santa Monica Boulevard, trading in pictures of “such indescribable filth” that Marlowe—and the narrative eye—has to turn away.

And yet he turns back, again and again, with a fascinated revulsion that on multiple reads seems less homophobic than bristlingly homoerotic. Again and again, he is drawn to Arthur Geiger’s house, the locus of the novel’s main motivating crime, like a moth to its hated, cherished flame. These movements hold special significant in the work of Chandler, a writer who famously did not plan his stories ahead of time and who himself claimed to be confused by his novels’ labyrinthine plots. They chart a kind of map of the narrative subconscious, and no location is more central than Geiger’s bungalow, with its frou-frou chinoiserie and bedroom occupied by Geiger’s secret young lover—Marlowe returns to this locale no fewer than seven times, mimicking The Big Sleep’s helpless attraction to its own subsumed queerness. On this point, Marlowe, and the narrative he spins, are truly unreliable, and The Big Sleep reads like nothing so much as the journal of a gay man remaining unaware of his sexuality at all costs.

A different example of unreliable unreliability might be found in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The book is aware, mightily, of its narrator Binx Bolling’s strangeness. A stockbroker in New Orleans, Binx is a flaneur and artiste at heart, a dreamy loner who spends his days in the movies, and we are given to know that he is in a kind of despair despite his protestations of enjoying the simple, all-American life. But the novel itself misjudges its main character. By my estimation, Binx revels, wallows, in an ersatz version of artistic ennui and emotional instability authentically embodied by his suicidal, bipolar cousin Kate. In habit, he is a fairly normal, privileged white man of his time who likes making money, who genially harasses a procession of his secretaries into sleeping with him, who presumes his comfortable place in the catbird seat of the social order. And yet he also wants to feel special, outside this world as well as a part of it, so he cultivates a sense of himself as a seeker via some mumbo jumbo about The Search and a related array of cutesy little mental routines. He takes full part in normal society while scorning it—no episode from the book is more illustrative of Binx’s unconscious character than his origin story as a frat boy, wherein he casually insults another pledge to mark himself as a member of the inner circle, then spends four years drinking beer by himself on the front porch while silently judging his brothers to be fools. The book ends with him sleeping with his unstable, vulnerable cousin, whom he marries and with whom he purports to have found a kind of complacent, co-dependent happiness.

The epigraph of the book by Kierkegaard—“The specific quality of despair is this: it does not know it’s despair”—might be modified for Binx: “The specific quality of an asshole is this: they do not know they’re an asshole.” Neither, it seems, does The Moviegoer, or at least not to the extent it should. Binx’s narration is truly unreliable, unreliably unreliable, as the story he occupies misunderstands him much as he misunderstands himself. The reader must decode not only Binx’s misperceptions but the misperceptions of a narrative with an incomplete command of its narrator.

In this sense, unreliably unreliable novels can present both the greatest challenge and the most fun as an active reading experience. Authors like Kazuo Ishiguro create texts that are gratifying puzzles, a kind of curated escape room for attentive readers to explore and solve. Most normal, less structurally unreliable narration, is more like a detective story, with the reader cast as sleuth piecing together clues about the narrator’s true self—the self as a mystery that is never fully or decisively solved. But books like The Big Sleep and The Moviegoer are more like faulty maps of the wilderness in which the reader finds herself stranded. You have to find your own way, interpreting the weather and wind and direction, charting your own course in spite—in defiance—of the book.

Image: Flickr/recoverling

How to Write a Bestseller

I have a friend—call him Tom—who, like me, is a writer. Tom has written many novels over a long and enviable publishing career, and his novel-writing philosophy, related to me over various drinks at various bars, can be summarized as follows: Write whatever the hell you write, whatever concept or character or situation has burrowed under your skin and must be freed. Forget commerce and forget audience—you write for an audience of one, and if an editor or reader happens to find it interesting, all the better. A bestseller, in Tom’s view, should merely be a happy alignment of the world’s interests with your own, a momentary occupation of a dominant paradigm that is essentially unplannable. Or not something to be planned, at any rate.

Tom’s philosophy holds many advantages. It is pure, uncompromised and uncompromising. It presumably results in the best art, at least if you assume that, in theory, the most adventurous art usually takes money the least into account. And it is easily followed, as well, simply by adhering to its lone Thelemic precept: Do what thou wilt.

It is, finally, a comforting artistic position for an artist to hold vis-à-vis commerce. If you are utterly beholden to your artistic impulses, you cannot be surprised or mind much when a piece of art does not sell. You did not create it to sell. If it does, great, but whether it does or not is a simple matter of luck, of spinning the wheel. Further, it implies a retroactively absolving determinism—if a lifetime of artistic work has sold no paintings, no albums, no books, why fret? After all, you were always going to do the thing you were going to do, and you were never going to do the thing you weren’t going to do, and the thing you did do was never not going to be unpopular, QED.

This may be a philosophically solid position, but is it necessarily true? I began to ask this question after the publication and non-success—the anti-success—of my first novel. I wrote the book, as many first-time novelists do, in a kind of prelapsarian innocence, protected from the practical concerns of publication by ignorance and wonder at the odd fact of writing a novel in the first place. In the beginning, I hadn’t even really intended to write a novel, had simply been working on a short story that kept accumulating pages. In the end, it sold to a trade house, and the whole experience had the hazy quality of a dream, an impression strengthened by the arcane inscrutability of the publishing process.

Preparing to write a second novel, I had no such illusions. I had seen the amount of machinery required to make a book, all the stubborn engines of commerce that must be coaxed to life; I had received the distant publication schedules, the important dates that feel imaginary set nearly two years in the future; most importantly, I had a book come out that didn’t do much of anything besides get some nice reviews. These are lessons that cannot be unlearned, and they come with a circumspection about the projects to which you are willing to commit your time and attention. Suddenly lots of market-related considerations crept in that would never have occurred to me the first time around. I began to wonder, contra Tom: Could a writer set out to write a popular book?

In a largely facetious (though slightly more serious than I’d like to admit) attempt to address this question, I decided to take the most literal possible approach and go through several years of New York Times Best Seller lists. After all, to write a bestseller, it would be helpful to know what has sold best. Making the Times best-seller list may seem like casting a broad net, but only counting literary number ones, I was left with, approximately, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. So I figured hitting the top ten for a week would do it, over the previous five years. Too much further back and you might run into epochal changes of taste, some forgotten mania of the aughts. Also, I didn’t have the time.

An immediate issue this exercise presented, and a question much larger than the scope of this piece, was deciding what qualifies as “literary fiction.” For my purposes, I included almost anything not having to do with worldwide conspiracies, serial killers, werewolves and shapeshifters and rogue triple agents—i.e. anything not obviously genre. And though they invoke the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series—The Empire Striketh Back, The Jedi Doth Return, I am not making this up—did not make the final cut.

(Before moving on to actual findings, a couple of notes after having spent many man hours going through nearly 300 or so of these weekly lists. First—and I realize this is the summit of trite publishing observation—but holy shit does James Patterson, or The James Patterson Military Industrial Complex or whatever it is, produce a lot of books. I’m not sure I noticed more than a handful of weeks in the last five years in which some Pattersonian permutation wasn’t on The List. David Baldacci, also. Second, Brad Thor may be the only bestselling genre author with a less plausible name than his protagonist, the relatively mundane “Scott Horvath.” You would think his hero should be named something like Odin Hercules, but no.)

Having compiled a long list of recent literary hits, what did I learn? Well, for one thing, start your title with “The.” Around a third of these bestsellers are “The” books. The Goldfinch, The Nightingale, The Martian, The Interestings, The Vacationers, The Girl on the Train. Granted, “the” is a fairly common word in English usage, but I suspect it also holds some subliminal power for prospective readers, announcing a book as official in subject and purpose—the definite article, so to speak. Just imagine how many more copies All the Light We Cannot See would have sold if it had been titled, for example, The Light We Cannot See (All of It), or The Entirety of Unseen Light.

Another smart move is to be famous already. Ideally, have written To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago, but otherwise, at least be a known quantity. This, of course, introduces another chicken/egg problem, i.e., how did these writers get to be known quantities before they were? At any rate, surprisingly few authors seem to make the list from out of nowhere.

More seriously, write one of two types of books: mysteries or historical fiction, both if possible. In either of these genres, you’re in good shape if you can work in something to do with a famous painting or painter or other noteworthy work of art or artist. Anything to do with marriage and travel to exotic locales, as well. Over and again, a combination of these elements popped up, and the obvious common theme is that of escape: escape into the past, escape into a mystery, escape into aesthetics and culture, escape into imagined relationships, and the literal escape from one’s home to parts unknown. It turns out that the escapist instinct that drives genre fiction sales is alive and well in readers of literary fiction—it simply requires (debatably) better sentences and (usually) less fantastic trappings.

With these guidelines in mind, I came up with a few potential novels that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the list. Here’s one: a historical mystery based on the life and death of Paul Gauguin. But told from the perspective of his estranged wife, Mette-Sophie, via a diary she keeps as she travels the world, investigating her husband’s artistically triumphant and morally bankrupt life after leaving his family. Call it The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin. A synopsis of this ghostly book in the style used to query agents is as follows:
When a previously unknown Paul Gauguin painting is discovered in an abandoned apartment in Chicago, art historian Lena Wexler is assigned the job of tracking its provenance; an investigation back through time, and place—from Chicago to Miami, from Denmark to France, from Tahiti to, finally, The Marquesas, all with the help of The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin.
Does this sound like a book people would buy? I think so. I can very easily imagine this book on the coffee table of my mother-in-law, an omnivorous reader of literary bestsellers, classics, and nonfiction who helms a monthly book club. I’m fairly confident that if I queried 20 agents with this synopsis, one or two would request a read. It sounds like a popular book.

The only problem is that for it to exist, I would have to write it. And it’s not a book I can write. Working through this little thought experiment confirmed what I already knew writing a novel requires: an ineffable, personal spark of interest that catches fire and burns steadily enough to not be extinguished by doubt and creative incapacity; a fire that manifests over time as curiosity about the subject, and the project itself, how it all turns out. Lacking this deep interest, an otherwise valid project—exciting, interesting, and commercial—remains a theoretically good idea, like going to medical school or quitting social media.

Since this essay’s inception, I’ve published another novel and have two more in stages of revision, and I’ve fully accepted Tom’s point of view: You have to write what you want to write, even if what you want to write won’t usually be what people want to read. You can’t spend two to five years on something for a theoretical, external reward. Or I can’t, anyway, but maybe some people can—if so, The Journals of the First Mrs. Gauguin is all yours.

Image: Flickr/Nabeel H

Why Is This Story Being Told?

If you have ever been in a writing workshop, especially of the MFA variety—and good for you if you haven’t—you are likely familiar with the most dreaded response a piece of writing can get. It can be phrased in a variety of ways, sometimes hedged and mealymouthed and sometimes forthrightly insulting, but it is essentially this: Why is this story is being told? It’s a curious criticism, one that invites responses that are escalatory and often epistemological in nature, for example: “Why should I care about your opinion?” or “Why is any story told?” or “Why do we bother doing anything?” This line of criticism, especially when it is directed at you and something you wrote, is maddening, both in its dismissiveness and in its unanswerability.

And yet it captures something about a lot of writing, even writing that is good, or “good”—well-considered, well-phrased, and well-paced. Lots of good writing has this inert, pointless quality, and sometimes otherwise amateurish, inept writing has a curious vibrancy. Whatever the case, the first test that any piece of writing must pass is answering, in some way, why it exists.

To put it another and possibly less clear way, all fiction has to do battle with its own fictional nature. There’s a minor absurdity inherent in the act of entering a world invented by another person, even if we ardently wish to enter such a world. As readers, we sense it in the beginning of any new book—the dipping of toes into the water, the wading in. It isn’t so much realism or factuality that pulls us beneath the fictional surface, but a kind of mysterious weight, the gravity of a story that, for whatever reason, needs to be told. Narrative lacking this quality cannot convince us to read past the bare fact of its arbitrariness, its status as something created. It sits there, only making us aware of the infinitude of stories that can be told, when a good story does the opposite, narrowing the universe to its singular vision and significance.

One of the atomic elements of this weight—the felt necessity of a piece of writing—is a text’s narrative perspective, its particular deployment of POV and tense. And one of the most potently self-justifying combinations of narrative voice and time is first-person retrospective. Done well, it possesses implied narrative motivation as part of its DNA. Here’s the beginning of Stephanie Vaughn’s classic story “Dog Heaven”:
Every so often, that dead dog dreams me up again.

It’s twenty-five years later. I’m walking along Forty-second Street in Manhattan, the sounds of the city crashing beside me—horns and gearshifts, insults—somebody’s chewing gum holding my foot to the pavement, when that dog wakes from his long sleep and imagines me.

I’m sweet again. I’m sweet-breathed and flat-limbed. Our family is stationed at Fort Niagara, and the dog swims his red heavy fur into the black Niagara River…
This is a story about childhood. The narrator, Gemma, recalls a year of her childhood as a transient army brat and, in particular, her friendship with a boy named Sparky who drowns in the Niagara. It also details her family life, the triumphant return of the titular dog after running away, her pacifist teacher’s moral lecture on nuclear war, and several other memories of that vivid year on the Canadian border.

Notably, it never returns to her actual narrative position, 25 years later in New York. This is an unusual choice for a frame narrative—as readers, we expect what occurs inside a frame narrative to inform our understanding of the frame itself. Frame narratives offer a kind of significance IOU: however long it’s withheld, the story being told will eventually telescope out to the teller, thereby creating a diegetic justification for the telling, which, in turn, helps create a reader’s sense of the telling’s necessity.

But the frame itself implies a justification for the story’s telling, and what’s interesting about Vaughn’s story (and others in this collection) is that it turns out you don’t really need to know how the story has affected Gemma. That she is telling it at all—that apparently, this era of her childhood comes back to her at random moments during her adult life two decades later—is enough: it must be important. This implied motivation suffuses the whole story and informs our reading experience. What might otherwise read as a nice piece of nostalgia, a bit sentimental, perhaps, with its runaway dog and dead childhood friend, reads as something more serious and complex, something with the weight of subsequent lived experience behind it even if we don’t know what that experience is.

Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, employs this dynamic throughout the entire book. For large swaths, sometimes entire stories, we are allowed to forget that this is something that happened, not something that’s happening. But then, every so often, the present-moment narrator slides in and reminds us. “Emergency,” probably the most famous story in the collection, begins in this way:
I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.
With this, we are off with Fuckhead (the narrator) and Georgie as they take drugs and hallucinate and endanger patients, and kill rabbits, and rescue a draft dodger. No more mention that this is in the past, but the fact hangs over the story like one of the Midwestern snowstorms always threatening to blow into Iowa City. Johnson never elucidates exactly how long has elapsed between the story and the storytelling, but it feels like a long time—decades, maybe—and this communicated distance is vital to, as in the case of Stephanie Vaughn’s stories, providing depth and significance to what might otherwise feel like mere druggy randomness. This holds true over the course of the book and lends it a coherent shape—in vulgar terms, the shape of a recovery narrative. The narrator’s present-day existence, though faint as a ghost, suggests not only the significance of the stories he’s telling, but the simple fact that he’s around to tell them. Despite the Quaaludes and heroin being taken, the drunk driving, the almost slapstick violence, and the random appearance of handguns, we understand that our storyteller will walk right through, like Jesus on water. The novel’s stakes are thereby transformed from pure survival to the meaning and value of survival, to what survival might later entail.

Not knowing the exact terms of how this story has affected the narrator is advantageous. It creates a pocket of ambiguity the reader can fill with whatever they want in terms of significance and according to the reader’s own experience and aesthetics. To me, Jesus’ Son, despite all of the drugs and death and foolish misery, ultimately reads as a triumph. But a different reader might fill those years between telling and told with a sense of loss and regret.

In a story from her wonderful collection A Manual for Cleaning Women, entitled “Point of View,” Lucia Berlin makes the case for the (what I’m calling in this essay) implied narrative motivation—the weight—of third person, arguing that it possesses an authority that first person lacks. Introducing her character, she says:
I mean if I just presented to you this woman I’m writing about now…

“I’m a single woman in her late fifties. I work in a doctor’s office. I ride home on the bus…” You’d say, Give me a break.

But my story opens with “Every Saturday, after the laundromat and grocery store, she bought the Sunday Chronicle.” You’ll listen to all the compulsive, obsessive boring little details of this woman’s, Henrietta’s, life only because it is written in the third person. You’ll feel, hell if the narrator thinks there is something in this dreary creature worth writing about, there must be.
This suggests a productive approach to looking at the effect of various ways of telling a story. As stylized as the written word has become over the centuries, at its heart, narrative is based on oral storytelling. We still, on some level, encounter fiction transmitted via the intermediary of a book in the same way we encounter fiction as told to us by someone. It can be useful to imagine the author as a stranger who sits down beside us at a crowded bar. Berlin’s account seems intuitively true in this respect: if this stranger begins telling us about another stranger, it is simultaneously less engaging and more motivated—that is to say, we would infer that they have a good reason to be unloading this on us, even if in doing so they have to convince us to care about this other, described, person.

If, on the other hand, they simply begin talking about themselves and the kind of day they’ve had, the story they tell hinges purely on how interesting and arresting it is, and until they command our full attention with their raconteurial power, we may wonder why we’re supposed to care. We may assume, as is often the case, that this person just likes to hear themselves talk.

Finally, to return to the case of retrospective narratives, if a stranger begins their story with, “Let me tell you about something that happened to me ten years ago,”—as both Vaughn and Johnson do—they probably have our attention. The duration of elapsed time is suggestive: of potential loss and lessons learned, of all the many reasons they not only remember the story but still feel compelled to tell it all these years later. We may leave the bar thinking not only about their story, but about them, inferring things, writing our own version.

Image: Flickr/Harsha K R

The Torture Box: A Critical Look at Flannery O’Connor and Her Disproportionate Retributions

In a word cloud of writing about Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “grotesque” would be central, medium-large. The word is typically applied to the characters in her stories, whose spiritual deformities are often represented—in problematic authorial shorthand—by some kind of physical deformity. Hulga, in “Good Country People,” is archetypal, missing both a leg and the religious faith of her mother. Or Rufus, in “The Lame Shall Enter First,” with a clubfoot (she was big on legs and feet) that represents his essentially twisted nature. But the dictionary definition of grotesque, “comically or repulsively ugly or distorted,” also speaks to an essential quality of O’Connor’s work. Her stories are morally distorted, and the effect is both ugly and comic.

In the denouement of her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit, an escaped convict, has his henchmen systematically march the family members of the Grandmother into the woods and shoot them. The Grandmother, we are given to understand, has brought this upon her family and herself—in her deceitful vanity, she has gotten them lost, and then, having stowed away her verboten cat which attacks her son while he’s driving, gotten them wrecked and stranded. She is to blame.

It is a testament to both the power of O’Connor’s writing and the fame of this story that we do not generally find this ending odd. The Grandmother is annoying, true. She is a petty, class-obsessed bigot who wears perfumed cloth violets so that, in the event of a car accident, any onlooker “would know at once that she was a lady.” She names her cat “Pitty Sing” (“Pretty Thing” done in a reprehensible Charlie Chan accent). She makes up stories about her youth to impress her bored family. She flatters herself and holds fatuous opinions about the world. She is, in short, almost exactly like my own late grandmother who, ancient pain in the ass though she was, probably did not cosmically or karmically merit the murder of my entire family.

Yet we take this ending, in the context of the O’Connor universe, as more or less fair—if not deserved, exactly, then somehow structurally congruent. We accede to this kind of disproportionate judgment, and disproportionate punishment, in the majority of her stories. Disproportionality is at the heart of O’Connor’s work, and it represents both the worst and best aspects of her art.

A pattern of punitive excess repeats itself again and again in her work. Julian, in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is punished for workaday maternal contempt with watching his mother suffer a massive stroke. Asbury, in “The Enduring Chill,” guilty of being a proud, theatrical fool (not to mention, simply twenty-five), is consigned to a sickbed in his mother’s home for the rest of his days. True, we live in a world that can be mightily disproportionate, mightily unfair—we know this—but O’Connor is not merely describing our world and its injustice. These stories are torture boxes, lovingly designed by a master craftsperson to enact maximal punishment for minimal crimes. A flawed character is set inside; that flaw catches on the ineluctable, merciless gears of her narrative logic; they are ground to dust.

In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” the singularly named Sheppard and his little boy, Norton, have suffered the loss of their wife and mother. While volunteering at a local juvenile detention facility, Sheppard takes an interest in local ruffian Rufus Johnson—an intelligent child from a poor, criminal family. Rufus insists that he is evil, a claim repugnant to Sheppard’s rational atheism, and Norton becomes the battleground upon which these competing moral claims fight.

Although Sheppard’s obvious sin, in the medieval Catholic framework of O’Connor’s work, is his godlessness, it can be argued that the greater underlying emotional sin is his privileging of Rufus over Norton. His interest in helping Rufus supersedes his interest in his own son, whom he finds annoying and mildly repulsive, as the boy mirrors his own grief back at him. This is Sheppard’s emotional sin—his charity not beginning at home—and the penalty for this temporary neglect is the death of Norton, who hangs himself. We exit the story as the father kneels over his dead son’s body, utterly bereft in the coldest of all possible universes.

This same distorted quality is also largely responsible for the black humor of her writing. She is a very funny writer, with a Mel Brooksian sense of the inherent comedy of the suffering of others. As he put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Comedy, in other words, is inherently disproportionate, at least partially premised on the lopsided limits of empathy where the suffering of oneself and others is concerned. Seinfeld’s humor, for example, is based on juxtaposing the main characters’ utter insensitivity to other people’s plights—in particular, Jerry’s breezy unconcern—with their extreme sensitivity to their own trivial problems. A child trapped in a germ-free “bubble” is fodder for jokes, while not being able to get seated at a Chinese restaurant becomes a kind of personal hell. Cartoons, likewise, are almost completely predicated on a similar dynamic. Wile E. Coyote’s suffering is funny not only for the extreme violence of the physical comedy—the faulty boxes of dynamite and ill-planned catapults—but in a meta sense, the fact of his Sisysphean struggle, the brutality of his universe and its two-fold cruelty, assigning him an unappeasable desire for the Roadrunner that can only result in his destruction, for all eternity.

So it is in much of O’Connor’s writing, which, despite—and because of—its bleakness, is essentially comic. “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” says the Misfit, after finally putting the Grandmother out of her misery. With these words, he dispatches the Grandmother’s moral existence as summarily as he has dispatched the lives of the family. It’s justly one of the most famous lines in any short story, and one of the funniest as well, in its bathos and casual horror. In a sense, the entire story is an enactment of Mel Brooks’s epigram, with the audience enjoying the bleakly funny spectacle of the Grandmother, in all her petty obliviousness, leading her family straight toward the open sewer that is the Misfit.

Asbury’s bedridden fate in “The Enduring Chill,” while not comic in itself, is comic in the inexorable steps that lead to it. His prideful, self-dramatizing silliness leads to an ill-considered show of solidarity with his mother’s field hands during which he gulps a bucket of tainted milk. The fact that he does not “deserve” to become gravely ill forever—while arguably a moral flaw in the storytelling, is a pure advantage in the comic rendering of Asbury’s pathetic existence.

In a larger sense, there is something horribly comic in the experience of reading an O’Connor story. You pull back the cloth draped over the torture box, see the unlucky character enter, and nervously titter as you learn the terms of their demise. It is awful, and it is funny, and it is funny because it’s awful. It is funny because we live in a world that can be so awful, in which we spend large swaths of our time attempting to avoid that awfulness, and here is an artist training her godlike powers on the creation of perfectly awful worlds for her characters to inhabit. In this sense, the aesthetic experience of watching Wile E. Coyote and reading Flannery O’Connor are not very different:  in both, you are waiting for the two-ton anvil to fall from the sky.

This is also to say, however, that there is something fundamentally cartoonish about the moral unfairness of O’Connor’s work, an unfairness rooted, if one is inclined toward biographical interpretation, in her Catholicism and illness. Here was a genius twice cursed—first with original sin, then with lupus. These outsized personal afflictions surely inflected her worldview, a worldview that allows characters no agency—rarely, if ever, does the cool breeze of free will blow through her humid North Georgia hellscapes.

It is an art of typology: types of characters, types of flaws and sins, types of punishments. This monolithic, caricatured quality is both a weakness and strength, manifesting in ways that are impossible to disentangle. It lends, in my mind, an imposing greatness to the work that sometimes comes at the expense of truth.

Preoccupations with Witchiness: A Review of ‘Dead Girls’ and Interview with Author Alice Bolin

Good fiction typically provides few good answers but many good questions. The great novels and stories can often be, however incompletely, expressed as a single, overarching question that the author is working out via narrative. Is the American dream an illusion? (The Great Gatsby); should a person marry for money? (Sense and Sensibility); can the son of God be born in human form and sacrifice himself to save humanity? (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

Good essay, like good fiction, is also mostly engaged in the act of asking questions. But the forms differ in a few crucial aesthetic respects, leaving aside the basic fact of fictionality, which, as we know, can be an overstated difference—nonfiction is often partly invented and much fiction is true, or true enough, but never mind that. Centrally, fiction possesses a narrator that obscures the author. Largely as a function of the narrator’s existence and also simple novelistic convention, most novels seek to attain a smooth narrative surface, an artifactual quality. A great deal of received wisdom regarding fiction craft has to do with the author disappearing in the service of creating John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream.” This isn’t to say that essayists don’t also obsessively and endlessly revise to create a polished surface, but the goal is typically not authorial effacement. Maybe an easier way to say it would be that both fiction and essay revolve around formulating questions, but essay very often works the act of questioning—of figuring out what the question is—into the form.

Joan Didion pioneered what we think of as the modern essay, a self-conscious blend of journalism, criticism, and personal experience. Some Didion essays are intensely focused on one subject, for instance, “On Keeping a Notebook.” But the most Didion-y of Didion’s essays are ones like “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” that meander through subject and theme like a car driving home from work via L.A.’s surface streets. “The White Album,” for example, combines the description of her mental instability and compulsive dread with a more panoramic view of her bad-trippy east-Hollywood neighborhood in the late ’60s, a personal account which ripples out into larger cultural considerations: the Doors, the Manson murders, and California—always California.

Didion’s stylistic legacy serves as both influence and study for Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, an excellent collection of individual essays and also, to my mind, a fascinating example of the book-length possibilities of the essay form. Dead Girls begins in what seems straightforward-enough fashion with Part One, The Dead Girl Show, a quartet of thematically unified essays examining the centrality of the figure of the dead girl in American popular culture. These include “Toward a Theory of the Dead Girl,” about the glut of recent dead girl TV shows including True Detective, The Killing, and Pretty Little Liars; “Black Hole,” about growing up in the serial killer-y Pacific Northwest; “The Husband Did It,” about true-crime TV shows; and my personal favorite, “The Daughter as Detective,” about Bolin’s father’s taste in Scandinavian crime thrillers. (A side note: It’s not a requirement that you have mystery-addict parents to enjoy this essay, but it could hardly fail to charm someone who, like myself, grew up in a house crammed with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö mysteries.)

Having established its seeming method in Part One, the book veers sideways into Part Two, Lost in Los Angeles, essays largely about Bolin’s experience as a 20-something living, for no especially good reason, in L.A. Aimlessness becomes a dominant theme, as the book shifts gears into writing about freeways, Britney Spears’s celebrity journey, and wandering around graveyards. Perhaps in an attempt to pre-empt readerly confusion at the book’s shape-shifting, Bolin has made it clear, both in press and in the introduction: This is not just a book of essays about dead girls in pop culture.

I understand this concern and will admit to feeling a slight confusion about Bolin’s project immediately after Part One. But proceeding through Part Two, and then Three, Weird Sisters, about teenage girlhood and the occult, I found myself increasingly glad the book had morphed and kept morphing. The book’s intelligence has a questing quality, a pleasant restlessness as it moves from literary criticism to personal anecdote to academic cultural/political critique and back again, like a jittery moth that never lands for too long on the light it circles.

The way Bolin modulates subject and approach metaphorizes both the breadth and slipperiness of her main thematic concern: narratives of female objectification. The book generally proceeds from objective to subjective, mimicking the detached and objectifying eye of its central detective figure in Part One, then moving steadily into subjective, personal territory. Like Indiana Jones switching a bag of sand for gold, Bolin substitutes her younger self as the Dead Girl and, in doing so, bestows the Dead Girl agency, brings her to life.

Part Four, the longform essay “Accomplices,” brings the project to an end and to a thematic whole. In a way, it embodies the entire book, incorporating the major concerns—growing up, white female objectification and privilege, romance and the lack thereof, Los Angeles—into a self-aware meditation on the author’s sentimental education in the context of literary counterparts like Rachel Kushner and Eileen Myles and, yes, Joan Didion. Bolin seems to be asking whether there is, inherent in the act of writing the classic coming-of-age “Hello to All That” essay, as she puts it, a self-objectification that echoes the deadly cultural objectifications critiqued earlier in the collection. “How can I use the personal essay,” she asks, “instead of letting it use me?” Part Four anatomizes the entire Dead Girls project, simultaneously encapsulating the book and acting as a Moebius strip that returns the reader to the more stylized and essayistic distance of the opening chapters.

To be clear, there are many standout and stand-alone individual essays in these sections. The aforementioned “Daughter as Detective,” which, in addition to its many virtues, contains the unforgettable description of Bolin’s father as a “manic pixie dream dad.” “This Place Makes Everyone a Gambler,” a deft personal history of reading and rereading Play It as It Lays, that weaves together L.A. noir, Britney Spears, and Dateline NBC. “Just Us Girls,” a touching cultural study of adolescent female friendship. But the book’s biggest triumph, in my opinion, is of a larger, formal nature, as Bolin marshals her themes and interests into a book-length reflection, of and on, the persistent figure of the Dead Girl.

Alice was kind enough to field a few of the questions that occurred to me in writing this review, mainly regarding how this book’s singular form came to be.

The Millions: Can you provide a little general background about how the book got written? I’m curious which essays were written first. Also, if there were any pieces that it became apparent needed to be written in the interest of book-length cohesion. I’m especially interested in “Accomplices,” which serves so well as an embodiment and critique of the project.

Alice Bolin: This is a little hard to answer because most of the previously published essays in the book are drastically changed from their earlier forms. I would say the book really started with “The Dead Girl Show” and the essays in the second section about California, which I started writing, hilariously, the second I moved there. I started most of those pieces in 2013 and 2014 in Los Angeles, and that was when I started to see the ideas I’d been working with coming together in some vaguely book-like shape. Most of the essays in the third section, “Weird Sisters,” existed earlier, though, in different versions—I realized late in the game that my preoccupations with witchiness and teen girl pathology pretty obviously dovetailed with the Dead Girl thing.

“Accomplices” was the last piece I wrote for the book, and I knew that it was my opportunity to pull up some of the narrative paths I’d laid down earlier, both about Dead Girls and about my own life. The book as a whole is about questioning received narratives, so I had ambitions for it to work as sort of a (sorry) palimpsest, putting forth suppositions and then writing over or revising them. I want there to be some dissonance for the reader.

TM: At what point did the theme of The Dead Girl emerge? Was it obvious from the start? The collection approaches this subject from so many angles; I’m interested in if there was a certain amount of retrofitting in the revision—that is, were there already completed or published essays that you went back to and revised with the dead girl subject/theme in mind? Or did it all kind of hang together as it does from the start?

AB: I think once I wrote “The Dead Girl Show,” I saw that Dead Girls were a theme that I had been interested in for a very long time. I had already been writing about thrillers, true crime, detective fiction, and horror movies, genres where Dead Girls were everywhere. After that I was thinking about other ways I could write about Dead Girl genres—like in the Nordic Noir essay—and about subjects from other pulp genres that could throw those essays into relief, like pop music or reality TV. I didn’t really do much retrofitting that I can remember, except maybe lines here and there. I have my MFA in poetry, so I have borrowed a lot of the ways I think about a collection from poetry books—that you allow your preoccupations to dictate the shape of the book, instead of the other way around.

TM: The book’s critical mode seems to move somewhat from objective to subjective, and then, in Part Four, comment on that move. That is (and I realize I might be oversimplifying here, since all these elements exist in all the essays), Part One is predominately cultural critique, and then parts Two and Three become increasingly personal. To what extent was this movement something that organically emerged in revision, and to what extent was it conscious?

AB: It’s interesting, because in my original draft I had the California essays first, and the Dead Girl essays second—they seemed most important to me, but then my editor was like “Uh, shouldn’t Dead Girls be first since that is the title and the whole point of the book?” She was so right. Someone else has pointed out that the book works like a Dead Girl show, with the Dead Girl as bait at the beginning of the book, but the rest of the narrative arc being about something totally different. I love this, but it didn’t really occur to me, except maybe intuitively. I definitely wanted the fourth section to critique the strategies of earlier essays, but beyond that, the organization was more by subject than method. I actually wanted to cut the third section late into the drafting process, if that tells you anything about how uncomfortable I am with writing about my own life!

TM: To me, because of the thematic unity and movement of the book, Dead Girls has a somewhat novelistic quality or instinct. Is this something you’re interested in doing? More generally, what’s next?

AB: This is such a nice compliment! I am absolutely interested in experimenting with fiction. I had a sort of epiphany in the past few months about how my own attitude toward myself in the book is a lot like the detachment novelists have toward their characters—it’s the only way I can break through (or maybe… use?) my self-loathing. Anyway, yes I am interested in writing an autobiographical novel sometime in the future, with more details TBA, in maybe like 10 years. I’m also thinking about another very girly essay collection about magazines, social media influencers, and the vintage internet, and more generally, the way women have mediated and monetized their personalities.