A Year in Reading: Adam O’Fallon Price

Of all the books I read this year, none stuck with me quite like Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I realize the greatness of this book is not, as they say, new news—my temperament is such that I often come late to long-beloved novels and unnecessarily evangelize them. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an economical marvel, a funny and sadistic little hundred-page narrative containing, somehow, the entire lives of seven women. Everyone knows this, and everyone knows Spark is a fabulous writer. But hopefully here I can praise Miss Brodie for something less obvious—for something it possesses that it sometimes feels to me so many books these days don’t—that is, the story it tells about itself.

All books are really two books: a first book, containing characters and a plot with problems and complications that make characters do things, and a second book, about that first book. Great books tell a great story, and they tell a great story about that story. They are legible and coherent regarding their own project, which is to say that they possess a moral intelligence, a frame that, however ambiguously or mysteriously, contains and comments on the events of the primary narrative.

Morality in fiction—or maybe better put, talking about morality in fiction—has been somewhat unfashionable for a long time, but nonetheless most great books possess a kind of morality. I’m not using “morality” to mean a lesson, but rather an articulable if complex framework of moral meaning that situates a novel’s events and characters. All novels are miniature, idealized versions of the world (even if the idealization is negative), and a novel’s moral intelligence is what allows the reader to understand how this idealization corresponds with the actual. It is what the book thinks about the book.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a masterpiece already in so many other ways, is finally a masterpiece on the level of moral interrogation. Jean Brodie is a controlling manipulator, a benevolent, fascist-idolizing despot in her little rogue state of loyal young women; Brodie and her girls are, in turn, controlled and manipulated by Spark’s despotic narration. The novel’s odd technique of jumping ahead to reveal character fates is instrumental here—by telling the reader what will happen to this or that girl, Spark closes off narrative possibility, boxes the girls into their destinies just as surely as Brodie’s tutelage boxes Sandy Stranger into a nun’s penitence booth. In doing so, Spark implicitly asks if this degree of control is good. Encoding this kind of intelligible moral inquiry into one’s work is, it seems to me, the highest order of writing.

In my increasingly common fogeyish moments, I do wonder if moral superstructure in novels is something increasingly uncommon. So many modern novels I read lack moral depth and seem uninterested in interrogating the story they tell. Is this a function of the first-person-ization of everything, a shift toward viewing narrative primarily as a means of projecting one’s personality? I don’t know. A widely praised novel I read this year felt representative: It was intelligent and stylish and voice-y, its plot and character mechanics were smooth and inevitable—it was a pleasure to read. But it conveyed no sense of its sense of itself, what it thought of its own story, and so it ultimately felt irresolute and unfinished. I realize that it’s asking a lot, for novels to be as good as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But that is what I want.

More from A Year in Reading 2019

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A Truth Accuracy Could Never Achieve: The Millions Interviews M. Randal O’Wain

M. Randal O’Wain’s Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South is part of the University of Nebraska’s American Lives series, edited by Tobias Wolff. It offers a rich and moving portrayal of O’Wain’s hardscrabble childhood in Memphis and his journey away from his family’s working-class roots toward art and academia. The book has drawn praise from the likes of Patricia Foster and John D’Agata, who says, “For all their poignant intimacy, the essays in Meander Belt are somehow also achingly universal.” I was fortunate enough to get to talk to O’wain about his book, its genesis, and formal challenges.

The Millions: Meander Belt is about your childhood, growing up in a southern blue-collar family, the divergent path you took to become a musician and then writer, and the friction this caused at times. Despite the friction, you note that your father’s work ethic informed your writing—in a heartbreaking scene, you inscribe your debt to him on a self-published copy of your book that you give him for Christmas, that he refuses to read. Besides hard work, how else would you say your upbringing influenced your writing? 

M. Randal O’Wain: Bodies. I’m not sure I would have such a strong pull toward the intersection of emotional stakes within a memory (or character in fiction) and the way we physically move through the world. In part, I think this is because of my father and how in the summer he’d come home shirtless and dirty, smelling of sweat that was as much sawdust as the mushroomy pungency of something organic. I also think of my mother, who contracted polio as a toddler and forever after has had a distinct walk, one that I find impossible to describe but looked as if she needed to use her core strength to swing her right leg forward and yet she raised us to never consider her as disabled. In fact, we saw her as so able-bodied that it was often shocking to witness ways in which strangers treated her in public—cruelly, at times, or with kindness, but each had the same effect of drawing attention to the one thing she consciously avoided in her day-to-day: feeling different. We often did not have AC in our cars and us four siblings would sit close to each other in the southern heat, our skin tacky from sweat and sticking to this one’s thigh or that one’s arm.

TM: What was the original impetus for writing this? Why did this feel like a story that needed telling? And a related question: when did you know this was a book?

MRO: I never wanted to write about my family or myself. Even though there are fantastic memoirs out there, I have always had a difficult time respecting memoir as a genre because there is an expectation established by the more money-minded editors and houses out there that often flattens life experience into a palatable structure where the hero/heroine always gets better and learns a lesson. I am no hero and even if I might have learned lessons along the way, they are rarely teaching moments. Instead I was consumed by grief when I lost my father and brother at age 22 and 25 and I was suddenly faced with this knowledge that I would never be able to out grow my more selfish impulses, never be able to forgive both men for their more selfish reactions, and when this lack of rapprochement suddenly exists when the death of a parent or sibling happens so young it is a special kind of trauma. For me, this trauma told me stories of who I was in relation to home and in relation to the men who raised me and these memories were so horribly fucking bright I couldn’t turn away.

TM: Despite the admission in the preface that the dialogue and details are largely invented, this is a deeply personal memoir. Did you have any reservations about writing this as far as family and friends were concerned?

MRO: What I’m trying to respond to in the preface where I write about using storytelling techniques often found in fiction is an argument popular among essayists, which has specific battle lines drawn around how much detail and dialogue is acceptable. As I said before, it was hard to look away from my memories. It was as if my mind was trying to compartmentalize my past in order to store memory away and each time this mental picture show was presented, I felt it in my guts, man. In my heart. I fully inhabited each instance, and I heard dialogue, and I smelled the rooms and the bodies, saw the chipped paint, and touched the rough-hewn hardwood. From this perspective, I tried to inhabit memory as bodily as I could without worrying over accuracy. I wanted a truth that accuracy could never achieve and the way I felt most comfortable doing this was through narrative storytelling. In terms of family and friends, I often needed them in order to “fact-check” my memory. I relied on my older sister and my mom quite heavily and hounded friends about details of certain events in order to get a broader understanding of the memory. This usually came after I’d written a draft because I really wanted to maintain access to that raw, initial remembering. In short: Everyone was excited to participate. A friend, Parker, wrote me a nice note the other day and I thanked him for reading. He said, “I’m in the book so of course I read the damn thing.”

TM: I’m curious about some of the more unusual choices, for instance the numbered paragraphs in “Superman Dam Fool,” and “Memento Mori Part One,” in which you slide into and out of your father’s head. Talk a little, if you would, about how the less straightforward moves that you don’t always see in memoir suggested themselves.

MRO: A lot of the experimental sections came from a need to deal with large swaths of time and without letting these experiences and memories take over the entire book, or worse, cause the book to balloon to some grotesque page count. “Superman Dam Fool” encapsulates two full years of middle school but manages this in 10 printed pages. “Memento Mori Part One” came about for similar reasons. In this section, I needed to address a three-year period where I lived in Olympia, Wash, and for the first time in my life I had a band that I loved and we owned a van and equipment together, a label put out our record, we had tours lined up, and eventually traveled the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. All the while, my father’s mental health tanked. He developed crippling panic attacks that were not readily diagnosed at the time and doctors often insinuated that what caused him to stay in his room without sound or lights for weeks at a time was somehow psychosomatic, and there is nothing worse for a man who has ambition to be a provider, to be strength for his family, than telling him he is making his ailments up. And so the panic doubled-down. Soon after, discs slipped in his neck and he was fired from his job. Anyway, I needed to figure out some way to tell his side of the story even though I was not at home. I tried looking over photos and letters in a more essayistic style; I interviewed my mom and tried to insert these interviews into the narrative. Both were terrible—really hokey, man. And then, I heard his voice thinking, as I might hear a fictional character think before writing them into being. It was authentically him and so I wrote these sections that are entirely from his POV in just a few days. None of them have really been altered or edited since.

TM: Circling back around to the original question: a complaint many people have about the state of modern writing is that the influence of MFA programs has homogenized everything. While I disagree with a lot of the anti-MFA sentiment, it does perhaps seem true that a few decades ago there were more southern writers and regionalists, and writers from blue collar backgrounds like Raymond Carver that wrote about and from that place. Meander Belt reminds me, in some ways, of those books—I wonder if you feel like there’s any truth to this, if something gritty and regional has been lost in fiction being subsumed into the academy. 

MRO: I’m not sure New York even knows what it likes these days. It seems to me that the big houses are only interested in making money and will jump on whatever train follows the market. Everything is bought and sold at such a high level that it is difficult for most art to have a chance. Some great books slip through, sure, but the trends are obvious. For this reason, I don’t see New York lasting as the seat of the literary world. It has been Paris and London in past. Perhaps Oslo will be the new taste-maker.

I’m so close to Meander Belt, I don’t even know if it is a good book anymore. I’m glad it exists. I am happy to be on this side of the experience. I don’t know if my book was ever going to be widely read, but I always knew that it did not fit the current modes of capitalism and literature.

Edith Wharton Will Teach You Everything You Need to Know About Naming Characters

Character names are a strange aspect of the novel, one E.M. Forster neglected to cover. They are so important, so central to a reader’s experience with a book, and yet so often attended to at the last moment, if at all. From personal experience, character names often adhere early on in a draft, and it is only with an immense conscious effort that an author is able to pry the original handle away from its jealous owner. They run the gamut from the naturalistic and seemingly inconsequential (Patrick Melrose, Joseph Marlowe) to artificial and significant (Oedipa Maas, Thomas Gradgrind); from the subtle (India Bridge) to the obvious (Stephen Dedalus, Becky Sharp, Mr. Merdle); from the very good (Atticus Finch, Veruca Salt) to the very bad (Purity Tyler).

Good names often don’t matter all that much to the reading experience, but bad ones can be not only annoying but counterproductive and unilluminating. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox is one of my favorite novels, but the surname “Bentwood” for Otto and Sophie—as Jonathan Franzen touches on in his thoughtful foreword—is awkward and doesn’t land. It doesn’t speak to Sophie’s preternatural, almost neurasthenic sensitivity—the last thing you imagine her as is anything as solid as a piece of wood—nor does it seem to suggest anything true about the Bentwood’s strained marriage, which is in addled disarray, but is not bent. More importantly, it feels forced. You can hear the author coming up with it, and this precious quality does not serve the book, although Desperate Characters is great enough to weather this minor storm.

An ideal name, to me, conveys as much as possible about the character, while landing on this side of formulaic or self-conscious. It sounds plausible and real, but somehow resonates at a frequency that, at every appearance of the name, alerts the reader to important things about the character that it may take the entire novel to fully reveal. There are many examples of this, but the novel I’ll examine here, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, offers a masterclass in the art of character naming.

Let’s start with the protagonist, Lily Bart. Consider this name as compared to the aforementioned Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. “Becky” doesn’t tell us much about the character, other than perhaps in its lower class frisson. “Sharp” tells us everything we need to know about the character: the novel’s heroine is dangerous, a scheming cheat, and smarter than the procession of vain, dopey aristocrats and society wannabes who populate this teeming novel. In a sense, it’s the perfect name for her, as she is a fairly one-dimensional character, if still wonderful and exciting. She changes a bit through the book, becomes more forgiving by the end, but Sharp more or less sums it up.

Lily Bart, on the other hand, is a subtly great name that grows on you, and her, for the duration of the novel. The two names counterpoise each other and stand in the same opposition as the forces in Lily’s character. The leading edge, the face, Lily: a rare flower, beautiful and fragrant, feminine. The tailing, hidden edge, Bart: abrupt and awkward, and, if not ugly, unlovely and masculine. These are the competing qualities inside Lily, a love of beauty and comfort and a deep appreciation of aesthetics, arrayed against a tough, unsparing honesty. This honesty manifests both in her determination to attain the opulent lifestyle that befits her, and in her submerged doubt about the worthiness of this lifestyle as an all-consuming end. The Lily and the Bart aspects of her personality are always in contention, bringing her close to this or that marriage of convenience, but not allowing her to ever consummate the proceedings. As “Becky Sharp” captures the dominant note of a relatively uncomplicated character, “Lily Bart” speaks to the depth and complexity of Wharton’s heroine.

There are also the symbolic resonances: lilies are Christ’s flower, and by the end of the book, Lily has become something of a Christ figure. The final third of the novel finds her increasingly reduced in finances and social stature, living in shabby boarding houses and refusing to avail herself of the means by which she might regain her former place. This sudden morality, somewhat contrived in a character sense, positions her as a scapegoat who in the book’s schema dies for the sins of the materialistic New York upper crust. Christ is not the only martyr she evokes: St. Bartholomew was flayed alive for converting the king’s brother to Christianity. In art, he has historically been depicted as skinless—most famously, Michelangelo painted him in “The Last Judgment” holding his own skin and the knife of his martyrdom. In a novel obsessed with beauty, in which the 29-year-old heroine obsessively scans her face for any signs of incipient aging, and in which she eventually pays the ultimate cost for being too desirable, this could hardly be read as an accidental reference.

Lily’s paramour is Lawrence Selden. Lawrence is a lawyer, and the name reminds the reader of this in concert with his role as the probing moral intelligence of the book, the attorney who cross-examines New York’s dangerously unserious high society, and who questions Lily’s plan to marry a rich dullard. “Selden” is less obvious, but a great last name for this vexing hero. It summons the word seldom, descriptive of the way he dips into and out of society at his will, and of his related habit of appearing and disappearing from Lily’s life. His interactions with her in the beginning of the novel exert a tremendous influence on her thinking and moral development, but he is never quite there when she needs him most.

The name of Lily’s bête noire, Bertha Dorset, seemed strange to me at first, probably because of that “Bertha,” comically dowdy at this point, but likely fashionable 100 years ago. In any case, the name conveys Bertha’s signal quality, and the structural reason that she serves as a nemesis or counter-image of Lily—namely, that she has secured a berth in society by way of her miserable husband, George, a berth she does not intend to lose. Lily’s inability to, finally, pull the trigger and marry for money is reflected in Bertha’s amoral and remorseless maneuvering, a maneuvering that points her toward the last name, Dorset, with its posh British resonance. (Dorset was, additionally, Thomas Hardy’s birthplace and the setting for most of his books, and in a certain light, Lily recalls Tess, the lovely maiden reduced and ruined by the world.)   

Perhaps the best name in this book full of great names belongs to the main villain, Gus Trenor, an enormous brute of a man who bullies and harasses Lily throughout. “Gus” is the diminutive of Augustus, which perfectly sums up this petty tyrant. He is rich and important among a small group of similarly awful people, but a speck in the grand scheme—a Caesar, or better yet, Caligula, in microscopic miniature. The surname, Trenor, is to my mind, a minor stroke of genius. It manages to connote so many words without quite landing on any of them. Tremor: his presence instills fear in Lily whenever he’s around. Trainer: he would like to train Lily and fit her into the slatternly place he imagines she belongs. Tenor: despite being a huge, gruff man, there is something waveringly high-pitched and desperate about all of Gus’s appearances. Finally, there is the simple oddness of the name. It looks like a name you might have encountered before, but have you? How, for instance, do you pronounce it? I wavered between subvocalizing it as “trainer” and “trih-nor” and never felt confident about either. This uncertainty mimics the uncertain dread that he and his wife Judy, a society doyenne who wields terrible judgmental power, produce in Lily.

A constellation of wonderfully named minor characters sketches out the firmament. Gerty Farish, Ned Silverton, the ubiquitous Van Osburghs. Though these may possess less rich resonance than the leads, there is not a boring name in the whole novel. But at last, let us turn to the famous Mrs. Peniston. What a name, what grandeur. Look at it: Peniston. I do not accept the idea that Wharton, given the attention she clearly paid to the novel’s aforementioned naming schema, somehow missed the joke, and I will not pronounce it “pin-es-ton,” as people with taste superior to mine tend to do. Julia Peniston is a matronly widow possessed of such an exceptional dullness (or dulness, in Wharton’s regrettably preferred spelling) of imagination that it shocks her into illness (ilness?) to hear a rumor of Lily being linked with Gus Trenor. The irony of this woman being named Peniston is obvious and crude, yet somehow the crudeness works, is perfect. The House of Mirth is, on a certain level, all about the crudeness behind society’s thin façade, the mercenary nature of relationships and marriage, and the way society castigates any deviation from these set strictures as a kind of scapegoating for what is plainly a sexual economy. The sexless Aunt Peniston still plays her role in upholding the patriarchal strictures of this world, disinheriting Lily based on false and vicious rumors of an affair. In no other novel would this crude sex pun be less appropriate and more perfect.

It also supports an already legible feminist reading of The House of Mirth, namely that if some of these women, Lily especially, had penises, they wouldn’t face the problems they do. Lily’s worst crime is being a woman—if she were a man, with a man’s career opportunities, she could live her life as she pleased. She could live like Lawrence Selden, who remains infuriatingly obtuse throughout the novel on this key difference in their respective options. She could work as a lawyer, go to parties when she felt like it, have her own place. She could grow the beard denoted by her surname’s German translation, and she could live in peace.  

Image credit: Flickr/Jack Dorsey.

Writing the Present for the Future: ‘The Mezzanine’ vs. ‘White Noise’

As we careen toward the 2020s (!), and I personally careen toward my fifties (!), I have been increasingly experiencing what is probably a universal, and not entirely pleasant shock of aging, i.e., how fucking long ago in history the decade of my childhood exists. Specifically, the 1980s. I was born in 1975, but the ’80s marked the true memorable—in both senses—extent of those verdant years (not so verdant, actually, as most of them were spent in Saudi Arabia, but anyway). The 1980s long ago crossed that invisible cultural line into the realm of nostalgic camp: Pac-Man, early MTV, Arnold Schwarzenegger—even grainy TV footage of Ronald Reagan has long carried with it a kind of hideous sentimental aura. But enough time has passed and sociopolitical changes have occurred that it now exists as wholly in its own time as the ’40s and WWII did when I was a child.

When this amount of time has passed, we can truly evaluate literature from an era, both in terms of how well it captures its own time, and how well it, however obliquely, anticipates or fails to anticipate ours. This seems a particularly pressing question during our current political and cultural insanity: Which books and authors are identifying something true about our moment, and in doing so, perhaps predicting something true about the next? Assuming the existence of readers 40 years from now, they will be able to judge our literature at more or less the vantage we can now judge that of the ’80s. Recently, I happened to reread two of the most-’80s of ’80s novels: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It struck me what a contrast they provide—two ways of looking at what is now a startlingly previous age.

In The Mezzanine, Baker examines an 1980s office park under a scientist’s microscope. Nothing is too small to escape his notice, nothing too trivial to be beneath consideration: the superiority of paper towels to hand dryers; the overflowing multitudinousness of office supplies in cabinets; different vending machine mechanisms for dropping candy; the subtle kabuki of polite office conversations; the layout of a nearby CVS; an intricate, fantastic meditation on the similarities between office staplers, locomotives, and turntables. Applying a peeled eyeball to the overlooked mundana of office life, is, in fact, the aesthetic mission and basic point of the book. As it undertakes a seeming irrelevancy like tracing the evolution of stapler design from the early 20th century to the present, it invites a reader—unaccustomed to this level of granular detail applied to the banal—to ask what is relevant. Absent the large plot movements and rich character detail we’re accustomed to in fiction, what is left? Well, as it turns out, life, more or less. These tiny objects and customs constitute our lives—in the case of The Mezzanine, our lives as we lived them in the 1980s.

The narrator, Howie, is transfixed by the tiny ingenuities that populate the modern world, and by their evolutionary processes—both technical and cultural. Objects—and ways of using objects—have a lifespan as organic as the lifespans of the invisible humans who invent, market, and use them. The culture or character of any particular age is constituted by the stuff of that age and the way society agrees, by unconscious, collective fiat, to keep it or change it or discard it for something else, sometimes better and often worse. Throughout The Mezzanine, Howie’s little ecstasies about this type of staple remover, or that method of polishing an escalator railing, are tempered by a subtle awareness and anxiety about the loss of these inventions and learned behaviors to an ever-coarsening culture of pure productivity that doesn’t prize them (or anything much besides profit and cost-cutting). 

The book is unostentatiously prescient on this point. At one
point Howie wonders how all of this makes money, how it can last. As he says:

We came into work every day and were treated like popes—a new manila folder for every task; expensive courier services; taxi vouchers; trips to three-day fifteen-hundred-dollar conferences to keep us up to date in our fields; even the dinkiest chart or memo typed, Xeroxed, distributed, and filed; overhead transparencies to elevate the most casual meeting into something important and official; every trash can in the whole corporation, over ten thousand trash cans, emptied an fitted with a fresh bag every night; restrooms with at least one more sink than ever conceivably would be in use at any one time, ornamented with slabs of marble that would have done credit to the restrooms of the Vatican! What were we participating in here?

His thoughts go in this large, abstract direction as a natural extension of his noticing the very small, concrete things around the office. The sheer fact of the material world around him, all of the things that have to be manufactured and bought and cleaned and serviced to maintain the surface of a functioning 1980s office building, is both a delight and a bit of an existential horror at certain points. It feels—and, in fact, will turn out to be—unsustainable. Howie’s apprehension of the coming changes in the economy, the layoffs and downsizing both financial and spiritual that will render this kind of lavish and stable workplace antique, is a kind of involuntary thesis that follows unavoidably from his close reading of his world’s text. Nicholson Baker, via Howie, goes humbly about his quiet work, gathering data and making reasonable inferences about the world, inferences that have largely been borne out by the intervening decades.

In White Noise, Don DeLillo—in almost perfect contrast to Baker—looks at his world with the telescopic eye of a priest or pop-cultural anthropologist, beginning with a couple of large-scale hypotheses about modern culture and gathering particulars from there. Anyone familiar with DeLillo could more or less guess what these general hypotheses are, as they run throughout his body of work in various guises: 1) modern consumer culture is similar to primitive culture, and, related, 2) people want to be in cults.

As is standard operating procedure for DeLillo, the book, via its narrator Jack Gladney, operates in the oracular intellectual mode. There is, for instance, lots of stuff like this (during one of the many scenes in which Gladney watches one of his many children sleep):

I sat there watching her. Moments later, she spoke again. Distinct syllables this time, not some dreamy murmur—but a language quite of this world. I struggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell of ecstatic chant.

Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform…

Et cetera. If you’re not reading too closely, it sounds good, and the massed effect of paragraphs like this—of which there are many in White Noise—is to generate an impression of gnomic wisdom. But what is this actually saying? I suppose: brands infest our collective consciousness, more or less, though it sounds much more mystical than that. It’s never quite clear to me, reading DeLillo and especially White Noise, where the satire begins and ends. Is this supposed to be a parody of the pompous intellectual Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies and wearer of a toga and sunglasses around campus? It would probably be more convincing as satire if it didn’t also sound exactly like Don DeLillo. And if there was much of anything else going on the book besides these sorts of ruminations.

Over and again, we learn versions of the same thing: car names
are like magic words, shopping malls are like temples, the Airborne Toxic Event
is like an ancient Viking Death Ship (to be fair, this is actually one of the
more striking images in the book). This may or may not be true, but it isn’t
especially illuminating on any level beyond the claim itself. The book, one
feels—despite an established critical reputation for its prescience and
incisive cultural vision—is not looking very hard at the things it purports to
look hard at.  

The result is a novel that misses many present or future aspects of Late Capitalism—Trumpism, economic inequity and class struggle, the Internet—and superficially identifies other burgeoning issues—environmental disasters, anti-depressants—without saying anything very noteworthy about them. White Noise’s mode of intellectual engagement is perfectly metaphorized by the Airborne Toxic Event—a large, dark cloud that floats above the pages and across the events of the narrative without bearing down on the characters or reader in any appreciable way, other than conveying ominousness.

DeLillo’s best book, Libra, operates in a mode much closer to The Mezzanine. Though it invokes its share of non-specific quasi-mystical dread, it is a piece of work grounded in the mundane facts of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life: the abortive time in the military; his awkward marriage to a Russian woman, Marina; the little firings and failures that pushed him, and the country, toward catastrophe. Even the larger circles of intrigue—the CIA and KGB and Mafia and the Cubans—are laboriously researched and rendered, and although a plausible conspiracy is offered, it is a conspiracy of error and stupidity and inertia, and convincing for that reason. Libra notices: it builds its case from the ground up, rather than a big top-down idea that must be proved—that perhaps only can be proved—by exhaustive and unilluminating iteration.

The difference between these novels says something important, I think, about the most fruitful way of looking at our present moment. There is, on Twitter and elsewhere, the constant search for the Big Idea, The Grand Unified Theory of Trump and Late Capitalism. In a media environment that almost exclusively rewards brevity and pithiness, memorable pronouncement is the coin of the realm. In this sense, DeLillo really was prescient—if nothing else, the style of White Noise fully anticipates our era, the superannuation of truth by the impression of truth, or just by sheer impression.

Still, the most important work will always be done on the ground level, with attentiveness to the little particularities. We are always too close to the big thing to see the big thing, and so writers are at best like the blind men surrounding the elephant of their particular era—here, a tail; there, a baffling trunk. The Jack Gladneys and their Big Ideas will not often provide a definitive record of their time, or a projection of the one to come. It will be constructed by the Howies, all the careful and conscientious noticers of the world.

The Horror, The Horror: Rereading Yourself

Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.

The rest of us have to live with the reality of what we’ve written and managed to get out in the world, and so there’s a self-protective instinct to look away from it. But when the case of author’s copies of my new novel, The Hotel Neversink, arrived—and with it, the usual reticence to crack one open—I found myself wondering about this impulse: is it good? Maybe not. A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person. With a sense of great reluctance and apprehension, I therefore decided to sit down and fully reread my first novel.

The novel in question is The Grand Tour, which I wrote from 2013 to 2014, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I revised it over the following year, during which time I was lucky enough for it sell to Doubleday, which published it almost exactly three years ago, in August, 2016. For what it’s worth, it received good reviews from outlets like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was generally well-received by readers, although not readers who were expecting an uplifting read. One of the highlights of publication came in the form of a hostile email from a very old woman telling me how much she hated my main character, Richard. And she wasn’t wrong to hate him. Richard is quite hateable. In an era of nice characters, and an ever-increasing expectation of “relatability” from readers, The Grand Tour features the kind of anti-heroic ’60s/’70s protagonist sometimes played in films by Jack Nicholson, the kind who no longer curries any cultural favor whatsoever.

But that’s the point of Richard Lazar: he doesn’t curry any favor in his fictional world, either. He is washed-up and alcoholic and socially radioactive, having lived in the desert for ten years following the collapse of his second marriage. When he receives word that his Vietnam memoir has grazed the bestseller list, he is uniquely unprepared to capitalize on this fleeting moment of success. Nonetheless, his publisher trundles him out on a promotional tour, where he meets a young fan named Vance, providing the basis for what is essentially a coming-of-age road novel, (a bildungsroadman?).

The book’s first chapter sets the tone. Richard comes to after blacking out on a flight, is rude to a flight attendant and hostile to Vance, who meets him at the airport with a homemade sign. He proceeds to get drunk before the reading, do a predictably bad job, get drunker at the faculty dinner, and hit on the Dean’s wife. As he’s driven back to his hotel room by the disillusioned Vance, he tells the kid not to bother with writing.

I knew Richard sucked, but this time around, I found myself disliking him a lot more than I did while writing or revising the novel. Richard is a version of the Unhappy White Guy protagonists I grew up reading, and that I attempted to classify in this essay. His specific lineage is the hard-drinking hard-luck variety found in books by the Southern writers I loved in my twenties: Messrs Hannah, Brown, and Crews—Barry, Larry, and Harry. Ultra-masculine, drunk and doomed, these writers and their antiheroes exerted an outsized influence on The Grand Tour. I suppose it speaks well of my personal growth that I’m less (read: not) enamored with this type of character the way I was seven years ago. In a way, this disenchantment feels healthy and generally axiomatic: books take a long time to write and publish, and perhaps they should always feel a little dusty and outmoded by the time they come out.

To the novel’s credit, I think, it is aware of Richard’s awfulness, and, to an extent, Vance’s. It is not the kind of book that misjudges its protagonist, although it might misjudge the extent to which, for a reader, the comedy of complete assholishness can justify having to spend 300 pages with a complete asshole. That said, this time around, I still found it to be a pretty funny book with lots of amusing passages, for instance this one, describing Richard’s purchase of a house in foreclosure after the 2008 real estate bubble:

[His advance] was enough, as it turned out, to buy a nearby house in foreclosure, in a superexurban neighborhood called The Bluffs. There was no bluff visible in the landscape, so perhaps the name referred to the cavalier attitude local banks and homeowners had taken toward the adjustable-rate mortgages that subsequently emptied the neighborhood. It turned out they were giving the things away—all you had to do was show up at auction with a roll of quarters and a ballpoint pen.

Horrible or not, Richard is a successfully drawn character, if one with many problematic antecedents. Vance is drawn convincingly, as well, although his chapters feel slightly less successful to me, simply for the fact that he’s a less funny character. He’s nineteen, stuck at home, depressed and painfully earnest—in other words, the perfect earnest foil for Richard’s cynical lout. This odd couple set-up does feel formulaic, although it also works, as formulas tend to do. Formulaic, as well, though less successfully so, are a clutch of chapters representing Richard’s memoir in the book. On a reread, the appearance of these Vietnam chapters felt somewhat unwelcome to me, and not just because of being typeset in italics. They lean a little too heavily on skin-deep source material like Full Metal Jacket and The Things They Carried. Here comes the gregarious, rebellious grunt. There goes the gruff sergeant and patrician lieutenant. I did do some actual research about troop movements and munitions and local geography, but the whole thing feels a bit stale, though maybe any Vietnam story published in 2016 would.

What does not feel stale at all this time around is the introduction of a third perspective, Richard’s estranged daughter, Cindy, a casino croupier and malcontent, who takes over the middle third of the book. On this read, Cindy strikes me as the most successful aspect of The Grand Tour. She’s the most original character, and she structurally provides respite from the bad male behavior that otherwise dominates the proceedings. Richard and Vance are, after all, two sides of the same coin, i.e. the coin of male ego and its attendant problems. That Vance’s ego is subdued and wounded makes it no less irritating.

The novel’s awareness of these men as problematic and tiresome, and the section in which Cindy more or less destroys them—Vance sexually, Richard emotionally—elevates (I hope) the book above similar novels that simply find their male hero’s antics fascinating. Cindy makes her gleeful exit, disappearing into a street fair crowd, in one of the novel’s most memorable passages:

The Friday-night crowd swelled around her as she neared downtown—in front of the façade of a large art deco building, a stage was set up on which a bunch of paunchy white dudes mangled “Whipping Post.” People pushed past and she rejoiced in it, becoming part of the throng, the multitude … she wondered what someone watching her from above, looking at her face, might think. Would they know anything, be able to divine something about her, her life, or her mistakes? No. No one knows anything about anyone, she thought, and for the second time that day was struck by the feeling that she could start over—that nothing, in fact, would be easier. Denver, why not? She dragged her suitcase into the hot jostle, for the moment immensely pleased.    

The remainder of the novel (SPOILER) finds Vance getting sent to Riker’s Island (!) and all of Richard’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost. A lot happens in these last chapters, probably too much. This is, I think, an unavoidable function or symptom of the book itself trying to do too much. One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It’s a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn’t. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts—maybe the Vietnam sections—and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang. The tour, I might suggest, could end on a more muted note. The final pages do manage this quietness, and it’s a relief after the sound and fury that precede them.

All of which is to say, I think it’s… pretty good? It’s entertaining and funny, and the writing is solid and sometimes excellent. That sounds like an unreliable claim, given my obvious bias, but would it convince a reader of my objectivity if I also say that I found the book to be weirdly old-fashioned and in certain places very contrived? Ultimately, it’s an uneven novel held together by its humor and prose. I believe if I hadn’t written The Grand Tour and had just happened across it, I would have finished and enjoyed it, with reservations. And if I’d written a review, I might have been generous with this first-time author, adding to everything I’ve said here that I looked forward to what he comes up with next.

Image credit: Unsplash/Rey Seven.

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

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