Our Work and Why We Do It

“I hate to write, but I love having written” is a quote variously attributed to Dorothy Parker, George R.R. Martin, Gloria Steinem, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among many others. The promiscuity of its provenance is, I think, a testimony to its relatability among writers in general. It’s difficult, in other words, to think of someone who couldn’t have said it.

I first heard this quote paraphrased years ago by a fellow writer in my MFA program, an older student who truly seemed to hate the act of writing. As described, it was torture for him. He claimed to sometimes labor over a single sentence for most of the morning and walk away unsatisfied. Getting together a 10-page draft for workshop was, for him, a task that required Herculean, heroic measures. Having drinks afterwards, he would seem limp and wrung out, relieved at having the experience behind him, miserable at the thought of the next one in a month.

My friend may have been an extreme case, but he is not alone. People hate writing. An informal survey of any group of writers online overwhelmingly yields this sentiment. My Twitter timeline is perennially filled with variations on the theme of what a difficult, sometimes even hateful experience writing is. On the one hand, a great deal of this kind of angst, especially on Twitter, is performative and attention-seeking. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in it, too. Entire forums primarily exist to allay and soothe not just the misery of writing, but the anticipatory dread it seems to inspire. Even when many people are away from their computers or Moleskins, the mere thought of writing, or having to write, seems to exert a depressing power on them.

This is not unreasonable. Writing a novel—or short story collection, or memoir—is an awful lot of incredibly hard work that no one asks you to do. It’s a little like playing the office martyr who voluntarily stays at work after everyone has left, except the office martyr gets paid and might get a promotion for their trouble. Whereas 99.99 percent of the time, you will get effectively nothing. Despite all of this, most people gird themselves and get back on that horse. Why? Why do it, if you don’t like doing it?

Overwhelmingly, the reason why most people keep at it would seem to be the prospect of getting published, the feeling that it will all be worth it at long last, holding that contributor’s copy or freshly minted novel in their hands—that the love having written part will outweigh the hate to write that it follows. But there is reason to wonder if this equation has any basis in fact.

The Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize for his pioneering work in the field of behavioral economics. His research is far-reaching, with many implications about how humans apportion their time and resources, and how they might make different decisions with a different understanding of the mechanisms of happiness. In particular, he divides happiness into two types: experiential happiness and reflective happiness.

These types are what they sound like, more or less. Experiential happiness is the pleasure we take in the moment-to-moment experience of living—moments that, according to neuroscience, last about three seconds and are more or less gone forever. Nonetheless, in aggregate, they constitute the fabric and texture of a life. Reflective—or, variously, in Kahneman’s research, “remembered”—happiness is the pleasure we take in thinking about our lives. This is the happiness that on vacation drives us to visit the Louvre when we would really rather sit at a café drinking red wine. We sacrifice that existential happiness for the prospect of remembering the museum in the future and deriving pleasure from that.

This mechanism also accounts for why we pursue many of our ambitions, and, arguably, for the fact of ambition itself. Ambition, very often, if not always, sacrifices existential happiness at the altar of reflected happiness. What, after all, is something like law school, but a three-year exercise in not having fun, for the sake of living a presumably better life afterward? Paraphrasing Kahneman, for various reasons, some of them neurological and some of them learned, we don’t intuit future experienced happiness as being as meaningful as future remembered/reflected happiness.

Another way of putting it is we want to have done things. We want to have made partner by forty. We want to have run a marathon. We want to have climbed Mt. Everest. And many, many people, it would seem, want to have written and published novels.

The problem with this, according to Kahneman, is that as humans we chronically and radically overestimate how happy reflected happiness will make us relative to experienced happiness. In one of his examples he cites a three-week trip he took to Antarctica, surely, he says, the most spectacular and meaningful vacation of his life. In the three years since he took it, he estimates, he derived reflected pleasure from it for thirty or so minutes. Even, he says, if you are someone more predisposed than he is to dwelling on past pleasures, surely you cannot reminisce sufficiently to make the happiness of remembering equal to the happiness of experiencing.

Generally speaking, according to behavioral research, “wanting to have done something” is usually not a good reason to do it, if the something in question is something you dislike doing. However much pride, for example, a person might feel in thinking about or mentioning that they once completed a marathon, that flash of happiness could never make up for the months of miserable, painful training it took to run 26 miles. That is, of course, unless the runner in question loves training itself: loves 10-mile early morning runs in the freezing cold, loves pushing their limits, loves making schedules, loves incremental success, loves adjusting their diet, and so on. In that case, running a marathon is a pleasure in both experiential and reflective terms, with a quantity of reflective and experiential pleasure gained by running the race that pales in comparison to the months of training.

And so it seems to be with writing. Professor Kahneman, I think, would agree that for a person who does not really enjoy the act of writing—like my old workshop friend—the pleasure of having written a thing could never, for him, outweigh the pain of the writing itself. Novel writing presents a radical example of trading experiential happiness for anticipated reflective happiness, surely one of the most extreme examples of this kind of activity that humans regularly engage in. Yet it is a widely held article of faith that all the suffering it takes to produce—and maybe publish—a novel, will be worth it.

But it won’t. It couldn’t possibly. Getting a novel written and published is a rare achievement and should be a matter of great pride—but pride is thin gruel that becomes thinner by the day. It is not sustaining. What is sustaining—if you are lucky enough to enjoy the work—is the work, full stop.

This seems like a fact worth meditating on, at this particular moment, more than ever. Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case.

I so often have to meditate on this fact, despite counting myself in the fortunate camp of people for whom the act of writing is an act of pleasure, even, at times, joy. I am never really happier than when I’m opening a file in the morning, my first cup of coffee beside me. I am capable of enjoying a years-long novel writing process, excluding possibly the very last draft or two, which are almost invariably brutal slogs.

Nonetheless, like most people, I find myself making the same mistakes, over and over, forgetting that it is only about the work. In the lead up to the publication of my last novel, I was a kite flapping whichever way the wind blew that day. A good review might send me off into the clouds; a bad review would certainly plummet me to the ground, reminding me of the unlikelihood of the book achieving any kind of success.

Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.

We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.

Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall was published in 2019 to a chorus of near-unanimous praise. Reviewing it at The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote, “[Ghost Wall] is a worthy match for 3 a.m. disquiet, a book that evokes existential dread, but contains it, beautifully, like a shipwreck in a bottle.” The novel tells the story of Silvie, the sheltered daughter of a brutish father obsessed with the ancient lifeways of pre-Norman conquest Britons. Silvie accompanies her father and mother on an anthropological journey through Northumberland with a university professor and group of graduate students. As they move through the countryside and bogs, they move back through time and the journey becomes increasingly harrowing, as it invites the reader to ask, “How far removed are we really from our ancient ancestors and their traditions?”

The paperback edition of Ghost Wall was recently released, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Moss about her novel-writing process and technique in the first of what will be an ongoing new column at The Millions focused on craft.

Adam O’Fallon Price: One thing I love about this novel is that it’s short! And I don’t mean because it couldn’t be longer, or because I wasn’t enjoying it, but I simply like a short novel, and in my limited publishing experience, it is quite difficult to get a very short novel through. We need short books! Can you talk a little bit about the length of this book and related process?—i.e. was it whittled down from a much larger draft, or did this always feel like this was the right size for the story? And was there any pressure from the publishing side to pad it out more?

Sarah Moss: It really just came that way. I finished it and there it was, short. At first I thought that meant it was an interesting exercise but of no use; I was working on a longer novel anyway and this was the distraction project. But I mentioned it to my agent and she wanted to see it, and then to send it to my editor and so it went. At first I kept protesting that it wasn’t a novel and I didn’t want to give readers short measure, but I was more or less persuaded that people really don’t buy books by weight. Certainly no-one suggested padding.

AOP: On a semi-related note, I think one of the reasons for Ghost Wall’s brevity is it doesn’t muck around with a great deal of backstory or throat clearing. The main narrative puts us right into the reenactment excursion and keeps us there, a perfect choice as it creates a sense of readerly discomfort that matches the unnerving journey of the characters. Was there a temptation to do more exposition and general setting up?

SM: I think all my books start rather suddenly. I like to put the reader behind the narrator’s eyes in the first sentence and worry about setting up later. As a reader I’m patient with exposition and landscape and weather—I rarely read for the plot and like slow books—but as a writer I want every word to be earning its keep.

AOP: I’m also curious about when you really felt you “knew” your main character, Silvie: her thought process and personality. Was there a particular place where she emerged, or was it gradual? I’ve been asked this question before and my best answer is that I tend to feel like I know a character when I know their sense of humor. Is there, generally speaking, a way that you tend to find “into” your characters’ heads?

SM: I think for me it’s maybe about inhabiting the character’s body. Once I can feel her skin and push her hair behind her ears, feel her shoes on her feet, I can start.

AOP: Ghost Wall features a good amount of area-specific (Northumberland, correct? I’m a hopeless American.) flora and fauna as well as a great deal of information about Iron Age lifeways. I wonder how much this background inspired the novel, and how much writing the novel simply necessitated this information. Chicken, or egg, or both?

SM: Yes, Northumberland. I love that landscape partly because I have no history there, no personal or familial claim on it. My desire to be there is simply aesthetic and I feel no need to belong to or own it. I became suddenly interested in the Iron Age before I had any idea I might write about it, which is how it often goes for me; a passion for Japanese textile design or the history of obstetrics grows in my mind and later I find it’s for a book. (Or not; sometimes the fascination comes and goes without producing anything much.) So background first. I always start with a place: weather, birdsong, soundscape. And then history, archaeology, architecture. Characters come later.

AOP: One of the interesting choices in this novel (among many) is the lack of quotation marks, with dialogue embedded in the narrative. It seems right to me, though in a way I find difficult to articulate—something, perhaps, in the way it captures Silvie’s budding, confused consciousness. I wonder what you think it does, and how you feel the book would read differently with standard dialogue?

SM: I’ve been surprised by how much some readers mind about speech marks. After all, different languages do it differently, and I wonder if readers who are upset by the dialogue in Ghost Wall are similarly bothered by French or Spanish. I’d been playing with dialogue and interior monologue in my previous novel, The Tidal Zone, and here I wanted to take it a bit further. It’s all in Silvie’s head anyway; the narrator is older, remembering, so the speech isn’t exactly direct in the first place.

AOP: Were there any moments in the drafting of Ghost Wall that really surprised you? Not asking for spoilers, but were there any character moments or small but significant plot turns that seemed to pop out of nowhere?

SM: I liked the way the animals emerged and made patterns. It wasn’t planned until I saw that it had started to happen, and then I developed it.

AOP: Finally, a very dumb, but perhaps thematically appropriate question to end: in terms of writing a first draft, are you a plan ahead-er or flashlight in the dark walking through the woods-er?

SM: Both! Spend two years making a map and then put it in your back pocket and ignore it while you hack a path through the wilderness. Just remember that you invented that wilderness and, however it feels, you’re responsible for everything from the mining rights to the sunset.

The Subjective Mood

In my 2019 “A Year in Reading” entry, I wrote about the way Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie engages with itself on a moral level. In short: Spark’s controlling headmistress Jean Brodie metaphorizes Spark’s controlling narration, and the whole book serves to—among many other things—interrogate the value of this kind of domineering control in fiction. The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.

I wrote about the feeling I have had, for some time, that this kind of novel is being written less and less frequently. I don’t mean a novel of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s quality—novels of that quality have always been written infrequently. And on a related note, I’ll allow for the likelihood of some selection bias here—in other words, that I’m comparing great novels of the past to decent novels of the present. That said, over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

After writing the “A Year in Reading” piece, I found myself unsatisfied with merely diagnosing a (possible) condition. I wanted to consider whether it was a disease or symptom, or both, or neither. And I wanted to think about why—if this is a real change in the way people are writing—it might be happening.

As so often seems the case with questions like this, the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet. Two decades of internet usage has rewired (and in some cases, broken) our brains. Since the advent of the internet, more people are writing than ever in human history, and the dominant mode of all this writing is first-person, in the form of tweets, Facebook and Instagram updates, Tumblr posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and so on. I wrote here, about the move from third to first-person as our primary storytelling point of view, a shift borne out by opening any Best American Short Story collection from the last few years, and one from, say, 1995.

But authors have always employed first and third person to varying degrees, and literary tastes and trends are constantly changing. What seems more important here is less the current hegemony of first person, and more what feels like an accompanying change in the expectations of what a piece of fictional narrative can—or should—do. What I’m talking about is a cultural change that has accompanied the internet’s rise: the primacy of the subjective.

This primacy is expressed in a number of ways, large and small, obvious and less so. There is the bespoke, à la carte, curated nature of almost all entertainment, for example. Mostly gone are the days when a vast number of people tuned in, at a certain time, to watch a show they all agreed on. We are now delivered not only the content we want, but content we might want suggested on the basis of previous listens or views, and in this manner our consumption of music and film can be insidiously siloed. I’m not bemoaning the death of network television, and I find streaming services as convenient as the next person, but someone younger than I am (44) might not be fully aware of the paradigm shift this represents, in the way the world has been miniaturized and streamlined to service individual taste.

Our politics have, as well, become almost exclusively subjective. In some ways, for the good—#MeToo, for example, prioritized women’s individual claims of abuse out of necessity, in response to a rape culture that so often denies justice and even a voice to victims of assault. Cancel culture, more trickily—though still understandably—seeks to erase from the public record works of art by artists accused of bad behavior. Whatever one thinks of this, it signifies a stunning change in expectations from most of the 20th century, when, as articulated by the New Critics and their Intentional Fallacy and later by Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author, the inviolable, objective separation between artist and art seemed more or less a settled matter. Finally, and to the unquestionable bad, the internet has allowed the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that, like Netflix and Spotify, are curated at the level of individual taste depending on one’s personal cosmology of fear and desire. Trump’s election represented, in many ways, the victory of subjective paranoia and ignorance regarding immigrants, racial politics, and climate change over objective facts that were somewhat more difficult to ignore in a pre-internet era. Fifteen years ago, it felt stunningly cynical, not to mention stupid, for a Bush apparatchik to accuse a reporter of living in the “reality-based community,” but it now feels horribly prescient.

All of which is to say that one feels a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.

The problem with this is, from my point of view, situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art. No other narrative form can so dexterously tell a story while critiquing it, a sleight-of-hand enabled by the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative. The reluctance to engage on this level may become an inability, and this is a loss. Not just artistically, but socially, as well. During times of moral crisis like the one we’re living in, we need books of moral power and daring that challenge us. Books that are willing to take a stand, and in doing so, dare us to do the same.

On a less grand, but possibly more important level, the problem is also that so many of these books are boring. The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this? I suppose it’s conceivable to write plot without placing any moral weight on the character, and by extension the text, but it’s difficult to imagine in practice. Action and choice occasions a moral dimension—even dumb superhero movies usually manage a bit of this kind of depth, however microscopically thin.

Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago, but one that feels stylistically of an entirely different era. Love Affairs begins as its protagonist, Nate, encounters a former girlfriend on the subway, who calls him an asshole. The entire novel is premised on asking this question—is Nate an asshole?—and the questions that this question raise, among them: What constitutes being an asshole, and is it even possible to not be an asshole in the sexual marketplace? The book offers Nate a real choice, between a more complicated woman and less complicated woman, and he chooses the less complicated with all the consequences that choice brings, good and bad. By forcing Nate to take a stand (several of them), the messy drama of Nate Piven’s romantic life is acted out in a larger moral theater, though Waldman resists easy formulations. In the end, the novel finally seems to ask how fit we—the reader or the narrator—are to judge anyone else’s romantic happiness.   

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

To return to Muriel Spark: in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie acts in a manner that damages her students, and Sandy Stranger, in return, betrays her teacher and brings about Miss Brodie’s downfall. These choices and consequences are important in themselves, in the creation of a dynamic piece of narrative, but also, again, they are important in the way they dramatize a larger point about the dire consequences of authoritarian control, in real life and in the novel—a question Spark is clearly wrestling with regarding her own artistic tendencies. In a broad sense, it’s clear what the novel’s intentions are, what the moral implications are for the characters, for the reader, and even perhaps for the author.

Published today, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would seem to run counter to the larger cultural mood, the sense many smart people may have that we are past—regrettably or not—creating work that presumes, however obliquely, to tell other people how to live. At first glance, it seems odd to think this might be the case, given the sheer volume and stridency of opinion to be found online. But this is mostly simple moralizing, mostly about creating in-group dynamics within one’s curated political space—an intensely subjective and affirming performance of one’s felt beliefs. It is not about the kind of serious inquiry and deep self-reflection at which novels as an art form excel—a moral dimensionality that complicates, rather than simplifies, our sense of other people and the world. The subjectivity that has characterized our consumption of art and our participation in politics has also begun to characterize our sense of morality, and it therefore may seem quaint to write with the objectivity required to hoist up and secure a fictional narrative in a larger, moral architecture.  

And so it is not difficult to imagine a first-person version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 2020, from the lone perspective of Sandy Stranger. In this book, we would also get marvelous descriptions of Edinburgh and the rolling fields by the river. We would also get tender moments between the girls. We would get, perhaps, an ominous sense of Miss Brodie’s despotic personality, and we might, at some point, get the news that Mary had died on a misadventure to Spain. But we would likely not get Miss Brodie’s manipulation of Rose, we would likely not get Sandy’s affair with Mr. Lloyd, and we would almost certainly not get Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie. In the end, Sandy would graduate from the school, having grown apart from the crème de la crème, feeling a bit wistful and disabused, but not much worse for the wear.

A concluding question here might be, even if one accepts that what I’ve described is true, is there anything to be done about it? That depends, I suppose, on if one sees cultural movements as something inevitable, or something that can be affected on an individual level. In truth, it’s probably both: No, there’s no putting the Me genie back in the internet bottle; yes, we can try to write, and reasonably expect to read, fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post. What we want, really, is a well-read modern fiction that represents the historical moment we’re in, with all of its solipsism, its confessional honesty and sometimes wonderful theatricality, while remembering the encompassing moral intelligence great fiction is capable of when, now and then, it gazes away from its own navel.

Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez

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.