Year In Reading: Anne K. Yoder

-

In this year of accursed years, whose events have unfurled like bad writing for a television series that went off the rails a few seasons back and I would’ve ditched if we weren’t living it, I am indebted to the authors and books that offered solace, refuge, a safe harbor. The books that shepherded me through the tumultuous news cycle, provided companionship through the pandemic, while trying to reckon with the unjust killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and too many others, and the slew of other dreadful happenings that marked this year. I’m beholden to the books that enticed me to think harder, to be present, the books that convinced me again and again there are worse things than solitude, books whose language, vitality, and mindfuckery made me feel alive, still, and grateful to be so, mostly.

 

Here’s to Thomas Bernhard, that old wonderful curmudgeon whose misanthropy charmed me once again, this time with his novel The Woodcutters. Through itI was able to revisit dinner parties, the kind attended by the high society artists and poseurs, while through Bernhard’s caustic lens I was reminded of the many ways these parties can also be loathsome. Rereading Amina Cain’s Indelicacy just before lockdown, (our conversation published here), I was reminded of how art and isolation can feed the imagination. It’s a meditative book, and one that offers space to think alongside its narrative, the dialectical opposite of a Twitter feed. In Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the willfully independent and curious-minded Janina has a profound understanding and sympathy with nature, something I identified with more as I intently watched the squirrels outside my window and started throwing quinoa on the sill to lure the house sparrows closer. Janina despises the ways men around her kill animals for sport, and, as the reader eventually discovers, she retaliates in an Old Testament kind of way. (As an aside, I’d like to send Eric and Don Jr. to live in her village.) Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World has the most apt title for a book read this year — like the four horsemen of the apocalypse—except that it borrows its signs from Aztec mythology, the descent into its afterworld can be read literally and metaphorically. It’s relevant too for its border crossings, the perils of doing so, the ways illegal immigrants in this country are used and then treated as less than human.

To Cuban poet Lena Rodríguez Iglesias whose fire and obstinancy in Kenning Editions’ bilingual collection, Título, invigorated me with its poetics of ugliness, its fuck you to so many oppressive systems, its inherent iconoclasm. I’m not sure how such frenzy can be contained within its pages. Poet Olivia Cronk’s book Womonster is seductive, repulsive, and subversive simultaneously; I adore it for its admiration and troubling of female desire, the female performative, while asking, why are we drawn to it? (because it’s so enchanting, iconic, and yet… ) To Joni Murphy and her Talking Animals, which pokes fun at academia and bureaucracy and the anthropocene with its vision of a New York City run by animals, all while taking seriously the threats of climate change and late stage capitalism. To Blake Butler’s Alice Knott, which somehow navigates a Gordian knot of life, simulacra, surveillance, the troubling of memory and its gaps, in way that’s both coherent and mind-boggling. The result is the novelistic love child of David Lynch’s third season of Twin Peaks and David Bowie’s concept album Outside; it’s truly just as strange and wonderful and hallucinatory. 

To audiobooks, and to Libro.fm membership, which operates much like its competition, but instead of patronizing amazon you’re buying from an independent bookstore. Once I was working from home, audiobooks helped offset the monotony of a workday passed before screens, and with little human engagement. I devoured all twenty-two hours Benjamin Moser’s epic biography Sontag: Her Work and Life in little over a week. It convinced me that Sontag was feline — and lived at least nine lives, and was at the center of intellectual life in more ways than seem humanly possible. The book is wondrous and epic in its compiling, though it’s also problematic when Moser’s inferences read like forensic psychoanalysis. Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, was a masterful and enticing listen, with its taut sexuality, its depiction of tensions about establishing identity, its instability, and how the past is always with us. The highly religious household in Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s Discomfort of Evening is even more accursed than most of us. It starts when the young Jas’s brother falls through the ice while skating and dies, and in doing so the guilt-ridden Jas, effectively loses any stability of her household: her depressed mother withdraws, her father retreats, and she’s left with her two siblings to find her way through her own guilt while ultimately seeking escape. As a child narrator Jas’s depth of darkness and expansive imagination are remarkably vivid.

And last but not least, here’s to the books (and their authors) that I spent the most time with this year, books dear to me for having edited them, for having ushered them from mansucript to printed, perfect bound book published via Meekling Press, the small press I co-run in Chicago. In retrospect, it seems like a feat that despite the year’s setbacks we made three books of fiction and released them this fall. I’m not exagerating when I say I’ve come to admire these books more with each read: Kater Wyer’s deeply embodied and lyric pair of interlinked novellas in Girl, Cow, and Monk, Willy Smart’s erotic novel in disguise, Switch Wish and Marream Krollos’s voice-driven Stan, its narrator rewrites herself into being from her humiliations and the wounds of her desire.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Past Made Present: On Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘Photostats’

-

1.A year ago I revisited the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’m still convinced I first saw the play on a high school field trip in the mid ’90s, though I can’t find any documentation that it was staged at the University of Maryland. Still, I remember being profoundly moved by its beauty and gravity, the tragedy of so many lives lost so early, and the prevailing homophobia of the mid ’80s. But what struck me this time, when watching the miniseries, wasn’t any of these things. Instead I was floored by Al Pacino as the dying Roy Cohn, Donald Trump’s mentor and former attorney, who provides a direct political through line from McCarthyism (Cohn was Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel) to our current political mayhem. Watching Angels in America, the foundations of Trumpism had never been more apparent. 

And now, in 2020, the parallels are even more striking.

Then: the president didn’t acknowledge AIDS publicly until years into the pandemic, and only as his friend Rock Hudson died. 

Now: the president refuses to acknowledge the continuing health crisis and the 225,000-plus deaths and growing.

Then: Cohn refused to publicly admit he was HIV positive and dying of AIDS, or that he was gay — instead claiming he had terminal liver disease. 

Now: The Trump team’s Covid outbreak was first reported by the press. The president’s timeline from symptoms to diagnosis remains in question, with his doctors, at times, making contradictory public statements and refusing to state the date of his last negative test.

Released from Walter Reed, the president refuses to acknowledge Covid’s threat and instead tweets: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Then: Cohn used his political power to access the then-experimental treatment AZT.

Now: Trump uses his political power to access the experimental treatment, Regeneron’s monoclonal antibodies.

History repeats itself, or Trump learned a lot from his mentor.

Tell it slant. Re-tell it slant. 

“Do you think you might be a super-spreader, Mr. President?”

2. When I consider Felix Gonzalez-Torres, his name conjures the tactile pleasures of my first encounter with his work at the Art Institute of Chicago, specifically its visual warmth, its physicality and playfulness. Candies are piled high in the corner of the room, which the visitor is encouraged to touch, take from, and consume—generally a forbidden pleasure for museumgoers. I recall the delight of undoing the shiny wrap, the hard, sweet candy melting in my mouth. The work is “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.),” made in 1991, the year that González-Torres’s lover Ross Laycock died of AIDS. The sweet pleasure, this melting in one’s mouth is sexual, illicit, and also a woeful replacement. The work has been assigned a target weight of 175 pounds, which is the weight of an adult male body—presumably Ross’s weight. This knowledge makes the memory of taking and eating so bittersweet. 

In 1991, the year that Laycock died, Gonzalez-Torres also created a billboard, a black-and-white image of an empty bed. It’s a stark reminder of his personal mourning conjured on a public scale. How many loves were lost, and beds emptied during the AIDS epidemic? 

Two years earlier he created a billboard to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It was mounted at the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue, across the street from the historic Stonewall Inn. The billboard’s black rectangle contained two lines of white type that run across the bottom:

“People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969”

These names and dates commemorate significant moments both celebratory and tragic in the fight for gay rights and liberation. Gonzalez-Torres called this billboard “an architectural sign of being, a monument for a community that has been ‘historically invisible.’” 

3.Visibility is key for public awareness, especially during a pandemic that governmental leaders would prefer to ignore, downplay, or pass off responsibility for to someone else. It also presents the conundrum, how to commemorate an absence? Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” replaces the mass of his lover’s body with a pile of candy. His billboards, too, are confrontational, inviting the public to intimately gaze upon an emptied bed. 

1988 is the year Felix Gonzalez-Torres made most of the photostats recently collected in the volume by Siglio Press called simply, Photostats. Their design matches that of the Stonewall billboard, only they’re vastly downsized.

1988 is the year Ross Laycock was diagnosed with AIDS. At the time testing positive was a death sentence. I’d assume Gonzalez-Torres would’ve had an awareness then that he too would likely die from AIDS-related causes. 

The photostats were originally printed on photographic paper using what was effectively an early photocopy machine. The term now sounds exotic, evoking medical lexicon—”stat” being a term used ubiquitously in hospitals to reflect an acute need demanding swift attention, but also “static”—like the white text on black, like a memorial. Visually these photostats evoke another somber memorial, The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Maya Lin. There the simple, stolid black granite walls are etched with a year, followed by the names of fallen American troops. Together the individual names amass into a sea of downed men in a war that mars our history.  

The paper Gonzalez-Torres uses is ephemeral, like the many lives lost to the pandemic, to the wars. It’s ephemeral, too, like our nation’s historical memory. 

As Ann Lauterbach comments in her essay that accompanies this volume, “History is a noun. Is it a thing?”

In recent years especially it’s become apparent that what’s “great” in American history has been made so not by what’s happened as much as by what we’ve collectively chosen to ignore. 

Photostats captivates with its bright red cover, conjuring AIDS like the red ribbons worn in the ’90s to signify solidarity with those with HIV (I wore one pinned to a bag). The title is embossed in gold and possesses an elegance and beauty suited to Gonzalez-Torres’s aesthetic. As Mónica de La Torre observes in her accompanying essay, his work, even here, is about love and infiltration, “To look closely here involves taking a deep dive into history’s ash heap, getting lost in the process, knowing there’s no one way to read the works.” There are multiple beginnings and no end: open the book on either side to the series of photostats, one series is gloss (to see the image as it’s displayed, to reflect the viewer), the other matte. Each is followed by an essay, one by de la Torre and the other by Lauterbach.

The photostat texts cite names and events that elicit and implicate the reader/viewer in a varied American and world history— that of bloodshed, protest, celebrity, glamour, oppression, and scientific prowess. Just glimpse the first page: “Patty Hearst 1975 Jaws 1975 Vietnam 1975 Watergate 1973 Bruce Lee 1973 Munich 1972 Waterbeds 1971 Jackie 1968”—and consider the commingling of history, corruption, pleasure, death, fantasy, adventure, and wealth. As de la Torre writes, “González-Torres’s inscriptions do act as constellations, as celestial alphabet.” Each page can be seen as a snapshot, read as a couplet, or a contorted haiku. What emerges are the connections a reader makes, between words and events conjured, while discerning their entanglement. There are names of fighter jets and bombs and court trials and, of course, references to the AIDS epidemic. 

I don’t have to try very hard to tease out the resonances and parallels to our current pandemic. 

“PTL 1987”: the televangelist Jim Bakker stepped down from his position after being outed for embezzling money and improper sexual acts. In 2020, Bakker was sued and sent a warning by the FDA for pedaling $80 bottles of silver solution as a Covid treatment and cure.  

“New Life Forms Patents 1987”: allowed for the trademark of the genetically manipulated OncoMouse used to develop cancer treatments; a similar transgenic species—VelocImmune® mice—was used to develop antibodies for Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment that Trump received.

Toward the book’s center, names, images, ideas, and incidences cited in the photostats run on, run together so that they merge: “Diana Princess North Zero Oliver Patient” and “supreme 1986 court crash stock market crash 1929 sodomy stock market court stock supreme 1987.” Here Black Monday 1987 dovetails with another black Monday, not as often recalled: the day the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia sodomy law outlawing oral and anal sex between consulting adults.

As a child of the ’80s I’m already fluent in the patois of Photostats, and familiar with the names dropped—be it Ollie, Spud, Princess Di. The disparity between this lightness and the weightier remembrances, or those that I have to look up, creates a rift through their seeming inequivalence. But also, isn’t this how history plays out? Diana was an icon when the aforementioned outcome of Bowers v. Hardwick was decided; and I doubt Gonzalez-Torres would’ve guessed Princess Diana would die only a year after he did. These coincidences only accentuate the intermingling of beauty and carnage and power. 

I’m thinking now of how those in Generation Z will create their own lists with their own penumbras of resonance: what names and court decisions will they contain, and what aspects of the present will spin on into our collective future? Perhaps one might look something like: “Osama 2001 Obama 2008 Hobby Lobby 2014 TikTok 2020, Breonna.”

But also, in considering these fragmented histories, what becomes apparent is what’s so easily forgotten. Photostats reveals how the past still lives on, only reinvented. I’m wondering, when will there be an intervention, a disruption, a reckoning with the current trajectory we’ve taken? Perhaps it begins with the 2020 elections and becomes something we enact daily.

In the Process of Becoming: The Millions Interviews Amina Cain

-

I first encountered Amina Cain’s writing with her first book of short stories, I Go to Some Hollow, published by Les Figues Press. I remember impressions—her laconic precision and distinct voice, which have continued to evolve in her second book, Creature, and in her novel, Indelicacy, just published by FSG.

Cain’s writing is succinct in a way that conjures Dickinson or Duras, with her swift and deliberate delivery. Reading Indelicacy feels like inhabiting a painting. Or to play with the metaphor that writing a book is like building a house, my experience of reading Amina Cain is akin to wandering through a series of exquisite rooms where I’m surprised by a decisively placed fixture or an oblique passageway. They are rooms I’d like to return to again and again.

Indelicacy’s protagonist Vitória is a writer and a former cleaning woman, who was rescued from her job when she married. She is concerned with note-taking and observation, and with the authenticity in her life. Just as Vitória is seeking, so is this novel in asking what it means to be free, to think, to be true to oneself. This quandary of being and becoming is quite the opposite of self-help: Vitória is indelicate and self possessed. For example, she tells her former employer, who is quite cold to her, that he is “Like a tooth that hasn’t been brushed in years and is growing hair.”

Vitória’s solitude without loneliness is a quality I’ve considered quite a bit over the last month as the following conversation with Cain has evolved, and even more so now that we are living mostly isolated within our homes during a pandemic. Here in Chicago, all events are canceled and establishments closed, and I am thrust into a solitude that Vitória makes her companion. Or rather, Vitória is not lonely when she chooses her solitude. When wandering alone and when writing in her room, she becomes visible. As she notes at the end of the novel, “in the process of becoming, the soul makes room.”

The Millions: I’ll begin with a remark that seems as true—having just reread Indelicacy—as it did when I first read the novel. I experienced a kind of synesthesia when reading, each word and image so precise, each action so clear, sentences came together as a portrait, a landscape, an emotion. This novel feels as close to art as a novel can. And I mean “art” in many ways, but I’ll start with it in the sense that reading Indelicacy somehow made me feel that I’m wandering within a painting, and at times like I’m walking through rooms.

Vitória, cleaning woman and writer at heart, takes note of multiple works of art both as she cleans the museum and upon reflection, but her notes are almost like an accent within the larger picture. When reading I also started thinking of similarities and stark contrasts with Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, where the Adam passed days gazing at paintings in the Prado; it’s so beautifully written but also so masculine and privileged, whereas Indelicacy is gorgeous but spare, and Vitória dwells amongst paintings as she cleans.

I could say more, but for fear of saying too much, I’d rather ask you about the influence art as had on your writing, and this novel in particular. How were you thinking of approaching feminine vs. masculine approaches to making art? Were you thinking of maintenance art and labor versus emotional labor? It seems, too, privilege and gender intermingle, so I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about that as well, with regard to Indelicacy.

Amina Cain: It’s wonderful the images came through to you in that way, precise and clear. I want them to be. I like that you felt you were wandering in a painting, and sometimes through rooms. And if the novel, for you, feels close to art, then I am happy. I’ve wanted that too.

Art has had a huge influence on my writing, starting with the time I spent at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, when I was in college, working for two years at the information desk and coat check. I had never spent so much time at an art center before, and it was formative. I remember discovering Essex Hemphill and seeing the film Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs, a huge show on Fluxus, a concert by Diamanda Galas, a dance performance by Bill T. Jones. Though I majored in Women’s Studies, I worked at the Wexner Center at the same time that I started writing, and now the fact of this seems meaningful.

For graduate school, I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and was surrounded by art and artists. As students, we were given free admission to the Art Institute (which is one of my favorite museums of all time; in fact, it inspired the museum in Indelicacy), and for two years I went there every week. I remember seeing Bill Viola’s work for the first time at his retrospective there, which changed me as a writer. I felt then that I wanted to do in writing what Viola was doing in video and installation. I’ve felt the same looking at paintings by Amy Rathbone and Carravaggio and Bruegel, and experiencing the work of Kara Walker, Marina Abramović, Yinka Shonibare, Sarah Conaway, and Alex Branch, in the films of Laida Lertxundi and Alicia Scherson, in sound and animation by Todd Mattei, in the music of Coco Rosie, Josephine Foster, and Antony and the Johnsons.

When I was working on Indelicacy, I don’t know that I was thinking consciously of feminine versus masculine approaches to art making, but subconsciously I obviously was, and that’s my favorite kind of thinking anyway. And the novel is subsumed in “female” experience, the experiences of the narrator, as well as her friends, Dana and Antoinette, and their art making. It feels tricky, because I don’t think I can say what female experience even is, and though I’ve written about women, I don’t want to set up binaries, gender and otherwise. But I know that the book has nothing to do with male experience or art making, and in it I poke fun at men a lot, though my narrator likes art by men, as do I.

Labor (of all kinds) is an oppressive force in the book, in that it so often tries to define who a person is, circumscribes their life, and, in the worst case scenario, is abusive. And privilege is entwined in this in terms of class. My narrator is suspicious of men, but also of other women, the ones to whom she’s made invisible because she is poor. When she herself has money, she sees the same thing happen to Antoinette, who is still without it.

TM: One of the pleasures of reading Indelicacy for me is the centrality of the female friendships. However, for Vitória and Dana especially, their relationship to art—writing and dancing, respectively—is arguably the central relationship for each woman.  I don’t perceive their engagement with each other or their art as a pushback against the masculine, but rather, something organic and specific to their friendships, related to the power of this attention. In this vein, Indelicacy seems to be a kindred spirit with Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which portrays female friendships and a love affair in an age in France that predates telephones (I believe it’s the 18th century) — this also mirrors a timeless quality in Indelicacy. In a post-screening interview, Sciamma answered questions and she stated she had wanted to make her film, in part, to depict the process of a woman making art.

Vitória is defined and thus defines herself by a need to write, and I’m so curious to hear more about your sense of her writing as a vocation, as a way to live. I know Joan Didion famously once said that she writes in order to know what she’s seeing and thinking and to know what it means. I feel like Vitória might say something similar but different—in that she writes and thinks about art in order to live. Can you talk about this in regard to Vitória’s becoming, and her becoming visible, and also her invisibility you mentioned earlier?

Vitoria also comments that reading certain books enhances her desire to write, and that she writes in part to keep them in conversation. With this in mind, what books and texts have you found a similar desire to write strengthened, and that you write to in response?

AC: Definitely. For Vitória, looking at and thinking and writing about art is not only what makes her feel alive, but what she forms her life around. I feel similarly to Didion, that I write to see what is inside my mind, but Vitória is coming to art for the first time, and to heightened experience, and writing is a way of interacting with both, which is also a way of living. It is how she becomes herself. I don’t know if it makes her more visible to others; in a way it is an invisible vocation, and she is rarely acknowledged by others in this pursuit. Certainly not by her husband, or “her” maid, Solange. It’s part of why her friendships with Antoinette and Dana are so important—they see each other as they really are. It is a wonderful thing, to be seen by someone, and to see them in return. It doesn’t always happen.

I just saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and that makes sense to me—that Sciamma in part wanted to show a woman making art. I like the scenes in which we’re watching Marianne draw. And there’s a particular scene in the kitchen, when the three young women are in front of the fire, with chopped vegetables on the table and flowers in a vase: it looks like a scene from a painting.


As to other books, so many! I really can’t read any of these books without wanting to write: Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, Kate Zambreno’s Drifts, Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up, Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women.

TM: I’m curious about the novel’s title, Indelicacy, which is so cunning—what what led you to it? I sense it’s related to Vitória’s perspective—she’s strong-willed and independent, gloriously and hopelessly herself; but she’s also very attuned to beauty and elegance within the museum and in the world. When dining on Christmas eve, Antoinette’s small careful bites make Vitória “want to eat like a pig.” Or there’s the way she has an outburst after enduring a self-indulgent conversation between two male authors, and she calls them both worms: “When you open your mouths you are male worms eating from a toilet.” I love this line, so angry and unexpected and quite indelicate. Is indelicacy for Vitória a source of pride? A reaction against expectation? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, and on indelicacy in general.

AC: Yes, I would say so: indelicacy as a source of pride, and a reaction against expectation, certainly. It is how she pushes back against who and what she perceives as trying to keep her in her “place.” She likes to upset the status quo in her own way, and she has a certain bluntness when it comes to people she sees as privileged. She is judgmental, and in that way I think she might be the daughter of Sei Shōnagon, with Shōnagon’s endless lists of the things she hates in The Pillow Book.

It took me quite a while to get to the title. In general, titles aren’t easy for me. There’s a line in the novel when Vitória says of herself: “how indelicate,” and my husband said, why not Indelicacy? It made such sense. In addition to the fact that being indelicate is partly how Vitória finds her freedom, it’s a word that isn’t used as much as it once was, which seems apropos to the novel. And a word used to insult suffragettes!

TM: What does freedom mean to Vitória? Her marriage is and isn’t a form of entrapment—she relocates when she marries and is able still to write and see art, but her husband doesn’t understand her devotion to writing. Is she captive because she’s estranged from herself?

And when she ends her marriage, Vitória goes on a self-imposed exile. How is this sense of becoming distinct for her, must she be alone to sit with her thoughts? There’s such a meditative quality to this book, in her existential focus—I’m curious what becoming and being free mean to Vitória, and also how does this freedom relate to meeting one’s fate, as articulated in the epigraph, taken rom Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark: “It’s as if something that should happen is waiting for me…it’s something that owes itself to me, it looks like me, it’s almost myself. But it never gets close. You can call it fate if you want. Because I’ve tried to go out and meet it.”

AC: Freedom means everything to her, and in a way it’s what drives the whole book. I’d say it’s not so much that she needs to be alone in order to write, as much as she needs to feel that she is living authentically, close to the things that have meaning to her, that make her feel she is becoming who she was meant to be. Freedom means being herself, whatever that looks like.

For awhile it makes sense for her to be married; she finds great freedom within that institution because she has time to write, and money that allows her to go to dance classes and concerts, and buy pretty clothes and objects, all of which make her want to write. But it doesn’t last, and it isn’t enough, and to spend her life in that way feels false. She says she has no vision for it. To go away alone is an impulse she feels and then follows, to give everything to her writing, but even that isn’t perfect. She is figuring out how to have the life she wants; it may always be a work in progress. Like the Lispector epigraph, she is trying to go out and meet something in herself; she doesn’t want to block it. But what does it mean to never quite meet one’s fate, to get close, but not come right up against it? For me, it is one of the central questions of the book.

TM: Vitória encounters a gallery of unfinished works, filled with empty space—and she reflects “Why is empty space a comfort and a relief?…Empty space remains empty, always. And for a little while a small part of me can be empty too.” Does Vitória’s relief come from feeling the presence of others too strongly? Is writing a way for her to empty herself? Your prose is so beautifully pared back and illustrative—in what ways are you mindful of emptiness when writing, and what is your relationship to emptiness or the unfinished?

AC: I think writing is a way for Vitória to empty herself, and to fill herself too. Since she is becoming who she is through her relationship to looking at art, and to writing, and both sort of purge everything else, all the things that aren’t important to her fall away. Without them, she can see herself, and everything around her, more clearly. There is room; she can breathe. That is where the relief comes in. As a writer, I’m always thinking about how to empty out a text so I can see (what remains) more clearly too, with the hope that this will be true for the reader as well. As to the idea of the unfinished, I think it’s the true nature of things, that we are always “becoming,” never finished. There’s something nice in a text or an object or a person that appears polished and neat, but there is also something appealing about one that wears its changing nature on its sleeve.

A Year in Reading: Anne Yoder

-

My most mysterious reading experience of 2019 began with a dream, in which a friend arranged for me to meet with her literary agent. He had read my novel manuscript and told me he liked it very much, then handed me a musty pile of books. He instructed me to read them and absorb their lessons, and once I did I was to get in touch. We had a disagreement about something and I left. When I awoke, the agent’s name was on my tongue: Sergio Chejfec. If you’re like me then, you may have heard of his name, have an inkling that it belongs to a fiction writer whose work has been translated into English, or perhaps you even know this writer hails from Argentina and that his translations have been published by Open Letter. I was nonplussed by the clarity of his name and my seeming lack of connection to it, and so I followed this thread to see where it led, if it did.

I headed downtown to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library and found two novels by Chejfec: My Two Worlds and The Planets. I picked up the latter first, and reader, I was stunned. The first line? “Dream, nightmare, truth.” The narrator dreams of a girl falling, mangled in an explosion, her unlikely name the name of one of the protagonists in the novel I’ve written, that in my dream Chejfec supposedly had read. The explosion was an occurrence that the narrator had previously dreamt: “Days earlier he had woken to a memory, at the time still unreal.” And on the second page of the novel: “Grino often wondered about the power of dreams, whether they simply reflected events, or if, perhaps, they catalyzed them.” Needless to say I checked out both books. I still cannot fathom how a dream led me to an author with whose books I feel such deep kinship. Chejfec was an author I didn’t know I needed to read, although, however, it seems that somehow I did. 

Sergio Chejfec writes deeply interior novels, concerned with the shape of time and how we experience moving through it, preoccupied with thought and memory; his characters are philosophical and enigmatic. The Planets concerns the lives of two men, close friends, who are separated when one, M, is disappeared (it was the ‘70s, Buenos Aires). Grino convinces himself in his swirl of memory that the two had been switched as children—M had always seemed the writer, and here he is, telling M’s story. He writes his memories as if he’s still searching, as if to uncover and reanimate this absent half. 

At another point Grino retells a story he’d heard a woman tell: An ashtray fell, cracked, and one half disappeared, as if it was mysteriously reabsorbed by the universe. A friend conjectures, when asked, that if he couldn’t find the missing half, he’d assume it to be lost. What I’ve found in this book is more than coincidence, and yet it’s now influencing how I perceive the world, my realm of possibility; it’s even rewriting my history. Though, on some level, isn’t this what great literature does? I wonder at times, is it possible that I somehow unknowingly encountered this novel before? I find something impossible in encountering Chejfec in this way, and yet the notion is utterly enticing to me. It seems like the perfect response to this novel, and yet in my account time seems warped. 

I am surprised again and again by Chjefec’s sense of interiority—which when done well in fiction, I adore—his focus on mystery, and his interrogation of how we encounter time passing and memory.  In The Planets, Chejfec writes: “There I was wondering about the nature of an impossible event and, not only that, trying to find some explanation for its appearance along my path. This might seem ridiculous—all of life’s events are certainly interruptions, providential obstacles eternalized later by the course of events itself, and we know that to wonder about chance is to deny the power of destiny.”  

Another wonder of a book is Brandon Shimoda’s Grave on the Wall. His book draws on his nearly preternatural ability to perceive, draw connections between unlikely events (and also insert other texts and exchanges into his own as if they were conjured there first). He uncovers layer upon layer, connecting material and ethereal. It makes me think of Ocean Vuong saying in an interview that novel writing is a form of myth-making, and yet the best way to describe Grave on the Wall is that it’s doing the reverse. Teasing the sacred and profane from the mundane—whether it’s the appearance of Shimoda’s grandfather’s ghost or his encounter with his grandfather’s portrait when visiting the internment camp he’d been held at in Missoula during WWII. Shimoda asks how do we remember, and how do we metaphorically, or even physically, enter our ancestors’ graves? how do we attempt to conjure the individual names and faces of the dead when a memorial focuses on the grandiosity of destruction? On his third visit to Domanju—a less conspicuous memorial mound that holds the ashes of 70,000 killed by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima—Shimoda sees an entrance he’d never fathomed before: “ It suggested a clandestine, unending world. An underground network, a labyrinth. Shadow Hiroshima … I had not imagined that the mound could be entered.” 

This fall in Budapest I entered what was once a temporary grave for many, a wartime hospital and later a nuclear bunker built into a series of caves in the hill that borders the west side of the Danube. The lobby sells outdated items such as old gas masks and glass syringes as cheap memorabilia. What I didn’t realize before the tour is that part of the former nuclear bunker had been transformed into a memorial to the victims of the atom bomb. Melted glass and images of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are present as are maps of international cities where  hypothetical epicenters and fireball perimeters are mapped out. They are meant to leave an impression, I suppose, of how swiftly a city a visitor knows intimately could be wiped out. I wasn’t surprised to find Washington, D.C., represented here, but I couldn’t have fathomed that the imaginary bomb detonated over the metropolitan area would be one with multiple smaller nuclear warheads, with one situated directly above my hometown of Accokeek, Maryland, a town so small that friends from high school 20 miles away didn’t know where it was. I’d travelled thousands of miles to a city where I didn’t speak the language to witness this fantasy of a horror at home, in a way that I’d never so explicitly imagined. 

Is this the definition of unheimlich? Or is this the opposite, by finding the familiar in the foreign? Perhaps the two are similar. In Kate Zambreno’s  “Translations of the Uncanny,” which appears in her Appendix Project—a series of essays that developed from and beyond her Book of Mutter—she writes, “home is tied up with the concept of what is hidden.” She writes of her friendship with the writer Sofia Samatar and the inherently uncanny nature of correspondences in their thinking and reading and general simultaneity of thinking, and how this happens so frequently they no longer find it surprising. This essay is a meditation on uncertainty and chance occurrences, of how, if we’re aware, we move through time witnessing crossed signals and ripples: “what can double, return, echo—I keep on thinking of the phrase , a copy within a copy. … How can literature yearn towards art, how can image ghost text?” 

But also, how can text ghost image? I’m thinking of Zambreno’s linguistically taut and intellectually riveting Screen Tests, and precisely of how its story series of “Sontag in the Bear Suit” one-ups the image by using it as a springboard for pithy wordplay. Literary figures pepper Zambreno’s stories as if family, or at least familiar, their  familiarity born of vast reading, which is often the best way to be intimate with a writer.

I also loved Max Porter’s language-drunk Lanny, Jesse Ball’s Divers’ Game for its perfect first page alone (though, keep on!), and Amanda Goldblatt’s wonderfully strange Hard Mouth whose prose leaves an indelible mark. The pleasure, pain, and beauty of forever becoming in T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through.  Miyó Vestrini’s ferocity and desiring toward death in the collection Grenade in Mouth, translated by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig. I found deep companionship in Kevin Huizenga’s The River at Night—with Glenn’s late-night coffees and sleepless nights, his bibliophilia and endless stream of existential thinking. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing gave me hope that individually and in communities we will be able to delineate spaces apart—both online and off— from social media, from expectation, from demands of efficiency and production, and where we may again move toward the communal without commercial interference.

Miriam Toews’s Women Talking has such a pleasing structure and yet is so destabilizing in its #metoo, as a group of Mennonite women must decide whether to stay and fight or leave their deeply traditional and community, when they discover that some of their men have been using animal anesthesia to rape with impunity for years. Last and never least is Amina Cain’s soon-to-be-published Indelicacy. Its title is a swift, elegant repudiation. I develop a synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing. I imagine Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within and breathe.

Humane, but Not Nice: The Millions Interviews Amanda Goldblatt

-

Summer arrived suddenly the day I met Amanda Goldblatt on Northerly Island in Chicago to discuss her bold and impressive first novel, Hard Mouth. I arrived to find Amanda standing on a concrete embankment in Lake Michigan, with waves rolling over her feet. We chose this spot because of its intentional remoteness—it’s a caesura to downtown Chicago’s bustle. The peninsula that once housed the private airstrip, Meigs Field, has been re-envisioned, with fields of wild grasses and hills sculpted to hide the city’s skyline behind us.

We are unprepared for the sun and oppressive heat in a way that befits a discussion of a novel whose narrator, Denny, drops the trappings of her isolated suburban life to live in the wilderness, wildly unprepared and accompanied by what I imagine must have been a suitcase of snack bars, a handgun, and not much else.

We found refuge under a tree, outside a yacht club, with Canada geese and their goslings feeding noisily nearby, coming up to inspect us every so often. As you read, imagine a conversation interspersed by bird calls and caterpillars.  

The Millions: Hard Mouth is not a nice book, but it’s a humane book.

Amanda Goldblatt: I think I agree with that.

TM: And its main character, Denny, is not nice but ultimately she’s humane. I’m wondering what you were drawn to in writing about her not-niceness and alienation. I mean, it’s a cancer story but it’s not a cancer story, it’s a story about family, and yet it’s completely unsentimental. I really love that about the book.

AG: I was interested in thinking about a character who cared but wasn’t nice. In some ways it’s a book about empathy as a fact of existence as opposed to a positive character trait. I was interested in how empathy and closeness could be written about without kindness. Although Denny does have a certain amount of kindness, like she does with The Thing, the cat. I think there’s a begrudging kindness for her there, but it’s easier because the cat is not a person. 

TM: It seems like Denny’s kindness comes out of her accidentally having injured the cat. But that is a sense of responsibility for the cat. 

AG: Whereas she is taking no responsibility for her father, anymore. She’s meaningfully shirking it. I think you could make an argument that she’s projecting the care that she might’ve given to her father to the cat. But actually, I don’t think it’s a one-to-one thing. It’s more about being humane. It’s more about, you break it, you buy it. It’s a logical thing. It’s not about guilt and it’s not about kindness. 

TM: Denny is a good citizen, and she’s not a bad daughter. She’s not a good daughter either, but she has cared for her father in the past, and now he’s giving up. I saw her escape as an inability to process that.

AG: On the surface that’s absolutely what it is.

TM: She speaks at the beginning of “the compounding of bad behavior.” In some way I could read the whole book as kind of compounding of Denny’s bad behavior, and yet, she’s not so bad.

AG: You mean in the sense that she’s leaving?

TM: She’s labeled herself as “bad.” She generally isn’t harming people. She’s just neglecting to demonstrate care. It seems she doesn’t know how to and isn’t equipped to care. 

AG: She’s not equipped to grieve. That’s a key thing. If anything, the bad behavior that she is compounding is her inability to behave appropriately in response to the oncoming death of a loved one. Even by telling the story, and telling the story within the story when she talks about ruining an heirloom as a kid—she’s not unproud. She’s not unproud of doing that, and she’s not unproud of leaving town, going to the mountain, and not wanting to stay and watch her father die. If anything could be compounding of her bad acting, that is. In some ways she is luxuriating in these stories as part of her identity and enjoying the exhibition of that.

TM: Does Denny need to transgress in order to feel? 

AG: It seems like it, right? There’s a scene later in the book, where for no reason she pours a full bag of candy on the floor. I think that’s an example of her inability to not only process but behave in the way that she might be expected to behave, socioculturally. She just has to disrupt it. The book is a series of transgressions for her whether or not they’re larger societal transgressions. 

She’s an extraordinarily passive person. Most of the scenes of the book are her transgressing that passivity. I’m really interested in the idea of passivity. I think we all live lives with a lot of passivity. Many of us, most of us do. Just by the trick of what contemporary life entails. You spend time in transit, you spend time waiting, you spend time waiting for information. And so I think we all have a degree of passivity or, not to globalize it, I feel that I have a certain amount of passivity that gets knit into my life no matter how much I am doing in a given day. And part of that is being beholden to larger institutional systems. And part of that is for me just needing small breaks from processing the world. 

Denny has taken an almost lifelong break from processing the world. She’s made her life small enough that she doesn’t have to figure these things out. And so transgression is almost equal to action, is equal to emotion for her.

TM: I was wondering how much the suburban setting contributes to her sense of aimlessness or formlessness. There’s an isolation inherent to her character, in her nuclear family unit. But there’s also something so suburban about her alienation. I identified with the depiction of her coming of age in the suburbs and her sense of wanting to take agency but not knowing necessarily how to. Denny’s decision to go out to the mountain—is that an attempt to give herself agency, or is it an attempt to kill herself?

AG: I think it’s both. She’s not sophisticated enough, or self aware enough, to know which is true. She thinks about the move to the mountain as, if not an annihilation of the self, then an annihilation of the self that she knows. It’s hard for her to conceive of herself outside of the structure of the family and outside of the structure of her passive life. 

In writing the book, I thought a lot about how the suburbs are constantly built. I’m talking about a really specific inner-ring suburb outside of D.C. that is racially diverse, that is middle class to working class. That’s where Denny exists and that’s the kind of place where I grew up. But obviously the suburbs have a very large spectrum of possibility. 

TM:  It’s specifically suburban Maryland, between Prince George’s County, where I grew up, and Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

AG: But like, not Bethesda.  

TM: And not Potomac. 

AG: And not Potomac. It is a hyper-specific place, but also it happens to, for whatever reason, in some ways mimic a lot of representations of white suburban life that we’ve had in the media and in culture. Although, have you ever watched the film SubUrbia

TM: I haven’t, no. 

AG: It’s with Steve Zahn and a lot of other people. It’s directed by Richard Linklater. The thing I remember most about it is that it had a really good soundtrack. It had Sonic Youth on it, which was maybe not the first time I heard Sonic Youth in high school, but like one of the first times I remember really getting into them. It’s about a bunch of suburban kids waiting for an old friend, who’s a rock star now, to come back to town. There’s something very classic about it in that way—it has a Godot quality to it. That I can recall. There’s a lot of driving and strip malls, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take place on the East Coast at all, maybe Texas, yet the quality of it felt familiar to me.

The constantly self-revising suburbs manage to always feel stagnant because the components are changing shape, but they’re not changing themselves. You still have the strip malls and the churches and the temples and the schools and of course the single family houses and the townhomes and usually low-rise apartment buildings. And maybe there’s a mall nearby and then maybe there’s a fancier mall if you go further. 

I’ve really gone down a rabbit hole here.

TM: The suburbs are important to the book. 

AG: Yeah, they are. Denny in some way has always used the suburbs and how she feels about them to be one of her self-defining characteristics. And the fact that she tolerates her environment as a fact of her life says a lot about the way that she tolerates herself as a fact of her life. And so, when she’s ready to go to the mountain, even if she is not interested in a direct kind of suicide, she is interested in partial self-annihilation.

TM: One thing that struck me is how compartmentalized she is. Which isn’t just a way of life limited to the suburbs. In some ways it’s inherent to our everyday lives, our ability to remain isolated while in touch, using technology. 

AG: Can you talk a little bit more about the compartmentalization? 

TM: I was very surprised when Denny got rid of all of her belongings. She got fired from her job and gave up the lease on her apartment. It’s empty for a few weeks at least. And nobody knows. Nobody is coming over. She goes to her parents’ house, she goes over to her friend Ken’s place, but there’s no intersection. I mean, other than what she allows others to know, and she allows them very little. 

AG: On the mountain she’s in search of complete solitude and she was in search of that in the suburbs. But when emotion encroached on that she had to remove herself from the situation.

TM: The irony is that she runs away to not complete solitude. 

AG: In an early review, someone mentioned that things sure happen to her a lot. It was being said critically, which is fine, I’m open to criticism, but also that’s kind of the point. Things can only happen to her because her transgressions are discrete and designed to make her further hermetic. And so in order for anything to happen, things have to happen to her. Otherwise it’s just a story about someone with complete control over their life, which seems entirely incredible to me.

TM: When she wants to put herself in the position of making something happen, she does this. 

AG: That’s true. 

TM: She’s active in a passive way. Like when she decides she wants to live life and she puts herself in the position to meet Hill. 

AG:  She’s a very good backseat driver.  

 She frees the flies, she gets fired, she sells all of her shit. She buys the things that she’ll need for the cabin and so on. She goes to the mountain. That’s pretty much all the gas in her tank. That’s her agency. The action is her agency. 

TM:  I do wonder where she’s telling the story from. She does bring some sense of wisdom, or or at least a sense of distance—”this is who I was then.” 

AG: At some point there was a specific vantage—she was telling the story to a particular particular person. But ultimately—this was in early edits with my agent—it became clear that that apparatus wasn’t necessary, that it could be disassembled. I actually like that a lot better. Any future Denny would have perspective. 

And the ending is so specific. It’s so specific and much more final than I ever thought I’d write in a novel or a story. I prefer stories with abrupt endings and no resolution. I think that having the mystery of where she is telling this story from allows for some give from the relentless resolution of the actual ending of the book. Which alleviates me a bit, as a writer.

TM: It’s a very precise end, but there’s ambiguity that allows you to read into what has happened since.

AG: Often, I talk to my students about killing off characters. My students are always killing off their characters. I have a lot of ideas why. Main characters, sometimes narrators—they just die and that’s the end of the story. I don’t always disagree with the impulse but I tell them, in an overly fatigued and jaded voice, Sometimes if you want the story to be sad, the sadder thing is that the character has to keep living. 

With Denny, there’s an element of that. She has this narrative of her life, but she remains unreckoned with as a person. And she’s perhaps trying to tell this story to understand who she wants to be or who she thinks she is. But there’s not any resolution of that. And so she has to continue, like all of us, to grasp in search of some kind of self fundament.

TM: There is a lack of catharsis. 

AG: How often do we get catharsis in everyday life?

TM: Even when you think you get it, you realize later…

AG: It doesn’t last. You can have something that you experience as catharsis and then it can reverse itself a week later, and then you’re not where you were but somewhere even further away because you no longer have the hope of catharsis. 

I’m much more interested in stories that don’t offer catharsis, as pleasurable as reading catharsis can be because it gives us some kind of hope. I’m interested in stories that are merely accounts of people and their understanding of their lives and their understanding of themselves in relation to narrative. So even though a retrospective narrator classically offers catharsis: “And that’s when I learned…” Denny can’t offer that. It doesn’t happen. 

I was flabbergasted that this book had as long a duration as it does. I mean, it’s short relative to what happens in it but I fantasize about writing a novel that happens in a day or a week or even a month and the kind of temporal urgency you get just from that.

I’m interested in talking about the language. 

TM: It’s something I thought about frequently while reading Hard Mouth.

AG: I’m really interested in using language to make concrete or materialize a narrator. I spent a lot of time on Denny’s diction and her word bank, how she used sounds, and what words would she not use? I had to delete a lot of grad-school words that were my words but not her words. I really spent time with the fine grain, like word choice, diction, and references. That’s what I’ve been most obsessed with as a writer—the idea of creating the performance of the narrator and understanding that language materializes the narrator. 

I’m interested in first person and I’m most often only interested in first person. Because I think of stories just like essays as a discourse of a single mind, it becomes necessary to configure the narrator, a character, as someone who is offering the story that is happening or has happened to them. And so having Denny’s retrospective narration became really important. I was thinking about where she might be and what kind of perspective she might have at the point of telling the story, and what perspective she would still not have. That all started with language and order of information and sentences and thinking about the tone, and tone as created by things like the length of sentences.

TM: I love that you build a character from language up.

AG: Always. It starts with this, a sentence. Or multiple sentences. I mean, with Hard Mouth, I started writing because I was scared that my father was going to die. He was diagnosed with cancer. And my running away to the mountain was starting a novel for the first time. It became important for me, in order for the trick to work, to understand a vocalized character separate from me and to really set about understanding her presence. 

TM: There are so many sentences that I am in awe of In this book. I came away with a sense that you are a stylist at the sentence level and care deeply about words. And so all of that makes sense.

AG: I’m interested in potent, not nice characters, characters that are specific or angular, in some way, emotionally—because I can imagine more extreme language in accordance with a character like that. There is a certain relief in writing the voice of a character who is not so nice. I have, I feel, a whole capability of communication that I don’t generally use because of the kind of person I am socially. It’s fun to use that language in a character.

TM: I was also thinking about Hard Mouth in relation to wilderness narratives. It’s even said by Monica, when she talks of traveling to Cyprus, and Denny is like, I would never, that isn’t my style. And Monica urges her to travel because she has time because it’s what people do these days. And ever since Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

AG: And Eat, Pray, Love.

TM: Yes, and Eat, Pray, Love — 

AG: Monica is more Eat, Pray, Love. And Denny, if she has to be part of the binary, is definitely more Wild, even though it’s a very different narrative.

TM: Does Denny offer a counter narrative to Wild? I have not read Wild. And I don’t know if you have either…

AG: I haven’t.

TM:  I do know that the narrator follows a similar trajectory, like, I’m going out into the woods, I’m totally ill equipped, but I can’t deal with the loss in my life. But with Wild, at least, she found herself, she wrote the book, and connected with an entire community of people. Denny does not have that experience. I was wondering if you consider Denny’s escape as a counternarrative to the that of a young woman going out into the wild and finding herself. Or a resistance to that.

AG: Ultimately, yes. In the seven or eight years I was writing this book, there were a lot of books coming out, and not just Wild, that had a woman’s escape transfigured in completely different ways. I’m thinking about Catherine Lacey’s novel Nobody Is Ever Missing. And Laura Van den Berg’s novel Find Me. You have all of these female characters putting themselves in new contexts. 

I’m interested in art that reflects flaws as opposed to resolving flaws, or seeking to resolve flaws. Whatever deepens flaws is generally more what I’m into. I was much more informed by survival novels like Hatchet, by Gary Paulson. It’s a young adult novel about a young man whose plane goes down and he has a hatchet and basically just has to survive. 

Or, a movie I had watched, called Mara of the Wilderness, which is about a young girl whose parents are killed during a wilderness excursion, and, left there, she becomes this feral human.

TM: If Denny were part of the Donner party, she would have been totally fine. It would have met her expectations of life, of excitement.

AG: And of desperation. That’s the thing. She’s not someone who has had desperation. And yet there is a certain amount of desperation that helps to drive her to the mountain.

I was talking with some writers recently about why mean or antisocial or misanthropic female narrators or main characters have been so popular lately. Of course, no one would ever say that about a male narrator, main character. There’s been a lot of discourse about that. But we were talking about why it felt so empowering to write characters like that. I think it’s a real shucking of social expectation, female social expectation. Having a character who is humane but not nice, and having a story that is humane but not nice, is a way of claiming a less gendered-weighted representation of humanity in art, with a narrator who happens to be female.

TM: She doesn’t conform. She doesn’t make herself digestible. 

AG: No. Pathologically so.

TM: I’m curious about the end where Denny puts out the flame of the candle with her palm.

AG: It’s a lot.

TM: The action sums up her character, of being able to take action, but only when she’s able to extinguish something. She comes down from the mountain and there is no epiphany. Her realization is that life just keeps going on whether or not she cares. It’s just going to keep moving forward. But something has changed in her—she recognizes new capacities within herself.

AG: Perhaps it’s not a story of a self evolution, but perhaps it is one of self recognition. She’s not necessarily changing. She’s just expanding. It’s variations on a theme. 

TM: Which does seem empowering in this context. 

AG:  Absolutely. It’s funny because the idea of extinguishing a candle that’s been lit in your parent’s memory—if her mother had really truly cared about it, that could be a very hurtful gesture. But in this household it’s just a matter of fact. The candle would go out anyway. And in many ways I think that this is an existential novel that’s predicated on the idea that everyone dies and there’s no afterlife. Therefore, there will always only be death at the end.

Art credit: Amanda Goldblatt.

The Ascent of the Sick-Girl Narrative

- | 6

1.
I recently saw a playwright I had studied with at a cafe. Her mother had just been hospitalized and this led to a discussion of how women’s symptoms of heart attack often present differently than the “typical” signs we’ve been told to look for. Nausea and vomiting, pain radiating up the arm, shortness of breath, fatigue and sweats. Not crushing chest pain. Gender plays a role in how an illness presents and how medications work, and it can affect prescription dosages too. Women make up half the population but most medical research is biased toward men. My grandmother also suffered from a few heart attacks with atypical presentation. It was a challenge to persuade her to go to the doctor then, or ever. While her reasoning was never explicitly stated, it was clear that she would rather die than spend more time institutionalized, which was how she passed a number of her middle years, due to schizophrenia.

Women make up a disproportionate number of mental health cases, too. We are twice as likely to suffer from depression. Twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder. At greater risk than men for developing bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. As I have been thinking more about women and illness, I’ve been struck by the proliferation of memoirs about women’s illness published recently—and there’s more on the horizon, including Anne Boyer’s much-anticipated memoir, The Undying, recently excerpted in The New Yorker. There were enough that I started thinking of these memoirs within their own subcategory, what I came to call “sick-girl narratives,” a term that aligns with Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. The only requirement for the Young-Girl is that “she” is a model citizen, i.e., consumer:
The Young-Girl is not always young; more and more frequently, she is not even female. She is the figure of total integration in a disintegrating social totality.”
The Young-Girl is ever consuming, is desirable; she is spectacle, a brand, a handle. In this way, the healthcare industry has made us all Young-Girls as our bodies have entered its labyrinthine system.

The healthcare industry is this country’s largest employer and accounts for nearly 20 percent of the GDP. It may not be apparent to readers of this site, but I have been working in healthcare for as long as I’ve been out of undergrad. My first degree was in pharmacy and for nearly 20 years I have been writing alongside working in hospitals, in long-term care, and now for a drug company. I’ve had a good glimpse of healthcare’s flawed systems as a provider as well as a patient.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that healthcare prices are rising and we receive fewer services in return—we’ve all felt the pinch. What does this mean in real-life terms, in our era of late capitalism? I am relatively healthy; my only real problem is a tendency toward depression that’s relatively under control. Even so, medical expenses are my largest monthly pay out, even taking into account the government credit. I am grateful for Obamacare, or rather, despite Obamacare being flawed and slowly being undone by many forces, I am grateful that I am able to afford the support I need. In 21st-century America, healthcare is a privilege few can afford, not the accessible and affordable service that it should be.

Our narratives have been shaped by the ways we experience illness, by the illnesses we live with, by the advertisements we see on TV that make us wonder if we are less happy than we should be, if our bowel problems could be eased, or perhaps our social malaise can be cured at the local ketamine clinics that now sponsor public radio. Illness is a lens through which we see ourselves. How could it not be? So much has been written on the experience of being ill, from Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag to Robert Burton and William Styron. But that’s not the point. The point is that the industry has its grip on our wallets and our bodies, and thus our minds. This has played a role in making medical narratives a primary focus.

Our bodies and their state of upkeep preoccupy us, in part because we are built for this, but also because our healthcare systems rely on this and our recurring needs. When we’re ill we have little choice but to forge ahead and try to find our way through the convoluted and often disorganized system. Illness takes a toll not just physically but also financially. Nearly half of people diagnosed with cancer drain their total assets within two years. As Tiqqun states: “The initial form of Biopower is a process of submission to and by the body.” The point I’m getting at is that our preoccupation with medicine isn’t coincidental. It’s systemic, and this plays a role in the stories we’re drawn to and the stories we tell, such as these memoirs of illness and specifically those of the sick-girl.

Let’s consider this rather sudden appearance of memoirs written by literary women who’ve published at least one novel. Each of their current books is devoted to chronicling struggles with an affliction, whether it’s addiction or mental illness or late-stage Lyme disease. It’s possible that their inclinations toward writing fiction have made them more adept at depicting the emotional terrain of their own lives. In memoir, the empathy the novelist would bestow upon her characters is turned on its head. As Leslie Jamison writes in her essay, “Empathy Exams,” about her job as a medical actor role-playing sick patients for medical students learning how to diagnose, empathy is a focused and discrete attention paid to another’s experience that requires an effacement of self: “Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard— it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”  In the sick-girl narrative, the attention is turned inward to chronicle the author’s experiences of recognizing, treating, and living with illness. The empathy evoked is of the reader, who is encouraged to find compassion for the author’s account.

2.
In The Recovering, Leslie Jamison writes about her struggles with alcoholism while also attempting to disrupt our culture’s mythos of the alcoholic creative genius.  Jamison has stated that her intention was to elevate a multiplicity of addiction narratives while examining alcohol’s detrimental effects on some of the literary alcoholics who have been immortalized—from Raymond Carver to John Berryman to Jean Rhys to Denis Johnson (the list goes on). However, Jamison’s statement comes off as somewhat disingenuous when considered alongside the book’s contents. She isn’t employing Svetlana Alexievich’s methods of self-effacement by creating a tapestry of voices. Instead Jamison’s recovery narrative forms the backbone of the book, upon which these other compelling addiction narratives hinge. I mostly find Jamison’s account of her attraction to and subsequent struggles with alcohol solipsistic for the way that her story overwhelms the others. It’s not that she lacks empathy when retelling these stories. Rather, Jamison’s scrutiny and focus on her own struggles with alcohol dominate the book. Her intense first-person account overshadows the myriad other voices of addiction interspersed throughout the book’s 545 pages. (Mind you, I did first encounter the book on Audible, during a road trip where I listened to Jamison read her text for hours on end—there was no escaping her voice. It’s possible the book may have left a different impression had I first encountered it on the page.)

And yet, what memoir couldn’t be called solipsistic? It’s Jamison’s denial that The Recovering gives her narrative primacy that I find frustrating. Jamison aligns her plight with the struggles of the creative genius by placing them side-by-side. This is a longstanding trope of the “mood memoir,” writes Katie Rose Guest Pryal. The mood memoir is a subgenre in a long tradition of memoirs, including slave narratives and spiritual memoirs, told in order to give voice and authority to the oppressed. Daniel Paul Schreber is the author of perhaps the first contemporary mood memoir, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness—but, even so, his long trippy text is also part spiritual narrative. In his hallucinations, both God and demons spoke to him directly. In the preface, Schreber explains that his intent in writing the memoir is twofold. He wants to declare what has been revealed through his direct communication with God, and he intends to offer an explanation for his “oddities of behavior” and eccentric beliefs to the community he will rejoin when he leaves the asylum.

Guest Pryal writes that one of the four key features of the mood memoir is that it points to other well-known people who have lived with a similar affliction, in order to establish their authoritative stance and to imply this impairment can also be a gift. Jamison does this with a twist. While Jamison’s stated intent is to reveal the bleak toll alcoholism takes on even these wildly creative individuals—such as when Jean Rhys and her husband drank Champagne to calm their nerves as their baby lay dying at the hospital—I sense in this iconoclasm an underlying reverence for these myths. I mean, how awful and yet how wonderful that Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight exists. I think most young writers, myself included, have fallen prey to the myths of their literary heroes. It’s one thing to encounter an author on the page and another thing all together IRL.

In meeting Jamison on the page, I wish she had lingered longer with her moments of vulnerability. How tortured she was by the shame of her intense shyness and naiveté. How she questioned the contradiction of self-effacement despite her strong, driving ambitions. But she glossed over this for better plot points: We hear of her drinking excessively while pregnant, while wearing a heart monitor, drinking often and in ways that gave her access to communities with cachet, via parties at Yale, at the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.  Jamison desired to live largely, like Icarus flying near the sun, and she fell. And yet, how far? This isn’t the question to ask of an author attempting to subvert the notion that a story must be original or extraordinary to have value. One point that does come through is that it doesn’t matter how far one falls, whether one drinks herself into a coma or never misses a deadline. The daily struggle to become and remain sober is as real and perhaps even more so when admitting the ubiquity of this plotline.

3.
“Pacing, they told me at graduate school, is one of the beginning writer’s biggest challenges, because a beginning writer wants to tell all the wrong things, or everything at once,” writes Esmé Weijun Wang in her book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, that recounts Wang’s experience living with schizoaffective disorder and examines the scope of what living with schizophrenia means in its myriad varieties. The remark about pacing is made as she recounts preparing for an appointment with her psychiatrist, where they will decide whether she should receive electroshock therapy, used to treat severe depression and mania and a host of recalcitrant symptoms of mental disorders. Wang doesn’t discuss the treatment, its implications, the potential side effects of retrograde amnesia, or the treatment’s long history of use and efficacy despite its associated stigmas. As Wang prepares for her consult, she is deciding what to wear. Look too put together and her suffering will not taken seriously. Look too disheveled and she might be admitted to the psych ward.

I was befuddled by this emphasis on Wang’s preparation for the consultation rather than what transpired. The reader never learns the outcome, if she endured ECT, what her physician recommends. That couldn’t be her point, could it? Perhaps. This interruption gives way to more questions. Why does she stop here? Is Wang attempting to give a play-by-play account of her medical history? She certainly isn’t. Instead it seems she’s revealing how she must be hyperaware of her presentation of self and symptoms, as if she needs to enact an idealized version of her illness. Whose ideal? The doctors’? Or the industry’s? One that conforms just enough to the DSM? All of the above. It’s evident Wang adjusts her appearance so that her illness will be visible but just enough. Unlike Jamison’s role as a medical actor, Wang is enacting the symptoms of her own disease. Is this manipulative? Yes, and unfortunately it’s necessary. Wang has learned that this is a way she can navigate the system.

She then directs the reader’s attention back to her preoccupations: her fear, her ability and inability to negotiate the system, a nurse who blames Wang for her delusions during another hospitalization—a result of her lacking faith in Jesus, the nurse claims. Which opens another can of worms, including how is our system even called healthcare? This nurse is assumed to be the “sane” care provider, while it’s obvious that she suffers from her own delusions.

Wang reveals again and again through her own encounters with the medical system that treatment for mental health operates on many tiers. Our individual experiences are modulated by the treatment we have access to and the healthcare systems we navigate. But so much about our experiences also comes down to personal interactions: the nurse who is attentive or stretched too thin. The dismissive doctor or the practitioner with a vested interest in isolating a difficult-to-pin-down diagnosis. Wang recognizes the importance of perception, and her role in what she signals to her providers. Her history as a fashion blogger helps her here. Again, I’m thinking of the Theory of the Young-Girl. The skills of manipulating her appearance, of the performance of everyday life (à la Erving Goffman) are inherent to her way of defining self. She’s very sophisticated in her presentation, in her appearance, and to be able to gauge how she will appear to someone else. She’s an expert navigator, generally able to recognize the difference between her perception and reality, and she’s largely able to see where these points converge. Dressing to impress or to seduce or to signal that she’s ill—it’s all about appearances.

Wang can pass as neuronormative in society and she’s aware of this, that this gives her autonomy and power and respect that’s not afforded to those who are less able, lower functioning, less intelligent. However, Yale wasn’t compassionate when Wang became incapacitated and was admitted to the psych ward. Wang’s expulsion, resulting from her psychiatric hospitalizations, and Yale’s later refusal to readmit her is shocking. It sends a striking message about how her mental illness stigmatized her, even after it was controlled.

Self-worth is an obsession that haunts Wang throughout the book. She often highlights her credentials as if she needs to prove herself to her audience. As if the reader needs a reminder that her capacities are far vaster than her diagnosis. As if she needs to remind herself of her self-worth. She says more than once that having gone to Yale is a signifier of her value. Similarly, she makes sure to remark during a speaking engagement that she went to a “prestigious university”: “That phrase, ‘prestigious university,’ was there to underscore my kempt hair, the silk dress, my makeup, the dignified shoes. It said, ‘What I am about to disclose to you comes with a disclaimer.’ I didn’t want my audience to forget that disclaimer when I began to talk about believing, for months at a time, that everyone I love is a robot.” Her emphasis on these external markers can be frustrating to someone who doesn’t buy into the institutional prestige machine, that credentials make for valuable people. And yet, I empathize with Wang’s need to demonstrate her value by reminding us of the intrinsic value of her personhood.

This focus on value is not coincidental. As Tiqqun writes, value is the standard measure of self, and that this image must be perpetuated and sold.  “The Young-Girl would thus be the being that no longer has any intimacy with herself except as value, and whose every activity, in every detail, is directed toward self-valorization. At each moment, she affirms herself as the sovereign subject of her own reification.” Wang’s personhood and intelligence has been devalued by her diagnosis—by the academy, by the healthcare system, by society—and so she reasserts her value again and again. But what about lower-functioning schizophrenics? What does this mean for those who don’t have a Yale admission? Wang speaks within this system of value, rather than questioning why she feels she must.

Without Wang’s delusions and hallucinations, which at times result in incapacitation, she would appear to be living a wildly successful version of a life. She is impeccable on paper—with a psychology degree from Stanford and an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her accolades include being anointed one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and winning a Whiting Award for her nonfiction. She married her college sweetheart who she met during her first tumultuous year at Yale. On the surface, she’s the epitome of achievement.  As Katie Rose Guest Pryal states, disability must be made invisible in the mood memoir. In this sense, it’s no surprise that Wang’s narrative has been embraced by People and the Today show. She demonstrates without fail how she’s an exceptional person. That Wang is exceptional is part of why it’s easy for the media, and the public at large to embrace her narrative, and her disability. Guest Pryal writes: “The rhetoric of these memoirs “tends to remove the stigma of disability from the author, leaving it in place for other individuals with the condition in question.”  So this is the trickle down theory of uplift.

4.
Wang knows mental illness is in her genetic make-up, with her mad great-aunt and her mother’s cousin who committed suicide and her mother, who at one point suggested that she and her daughter kill themselves together. Perhaps mental illness is also environmentally triggered, triggered through trauma. Wang encounters a neurologist who says that one day all mental illness will be linked to autoimmune disorders. Wang has flare-ups that appear with a fever, without a trigger, and she seeks answers, a cure. She wonders if late-stage Lyme disease could be a culprit—while also admitting that Lyme disease is a “belief system” of its own.  Late-stage Lyme is difficult to pin down, with many diffuse symptoms in people who often otherwise appear well. What they share is, “desperation based in suffering, and based on a system of conventional medicine that not only has no method of alleviating that suffering, but also accuses us of psychosomatic pathology.”

This accusation of psychosomatic pathology is no stranger to the sick girl. Think of hysteria of the old days and the water cure. Women with illness are viewed as less reliable narrators. Women with pain are more likely than men to be prescribed sedatives; they experience pain longer in the ER before being given an analgesic. Women experience the majority of chronic pain and yet the majority of pain studies focus on men’s pain. To be taken seriously the sick girl must appear ill, and if ill then also weak, and if weak, then she is less likely to be taken seriously. It’s a loop that’s easy enough to enter but difficult to emerge from healed.

Late-stage Lyme sufferer Porochista Khakpour is a friend of Wang’s and they seek Lyme treatment together in Santa Fe, N.M. Khakpour is also an author of a sick girl narrative, the aptly titled Sick, which explores her confluence of afflictions: addiction, depression, and late stage Lyme. Khakpour is a self-confessed sick girl of many kinds. “People ask me for advice, and I tell them to look elsewhere…I am not the poster girl for wellness,” she writes. “I am a sick girl. I know sickness. I live with it. In some ways, I am keeping myself sick.”

It’s impossible to isolate Khakpour’s symptoms as related to her individual illnesses. Her depression, addiction, and neurological  deficits from late-stage Lyme intermingle. She’s lived in exile most of her life, a child of the Iranian Revolution, whose family sought political asylum in the U.S. She writes that she’s never felt at home in the world. This alienation plays its own role in the manifestation of her illness. Her community has failed her, and now the medical industry is failing her again. They will be her audience, however, as long as she can pay them. Tiqqun writes, “The Young-Girl mortified her flesh in order to take revenge on Biopower and the symbolic violence to which the spectacle subjects it. The distress she exhibits overwhelmingly reveals, in its former aspect of unshakeable positivity, sexual pleasure as the most metaphysical of physical pleasures.” Khakpour’s photo, face forward, wearing a nasal oxygen cannula, would not be on the cover of the book if there weren’t enacting a form of seduction while playing up her sick girl visage.

She had originally planned to write a book with more of a conventional narrative arc, one of recovery and triumph, where she heals herself. It’s wishful thinking as this isn’t the path her chronic illness takes. Instead, it persists and she continues to seek medical care, and her life is a revolving door of practitioners who want to help, who try to help, who are quacks, who are incompetent, who lack time, who lack compassion.

I admire how Khakpour allows the unforeseen progression of her illness to reshape and muddy the conventional arc she’d planned. She follows it down its rabbit hole. This narrative off-roading, if you will, “reminded [her] that illness will always be with you as long as life is with you. And tragedy will be with you too.”  Khakpour’s multiple diagnoses have presentations that aren’t necessarily discrete from each other, that bleed into each other. It’s complicated. The comorbidity of mood disorder and late-stage Lyme, which some write off as “psychosomatic” doesn’t help her come off as a reliable narrator within the healthcare system.  She deserves and needs a sensitive and knowledgeable practitioner to suss out the etiologies of her pain. She can afford this, at times. But also, her medical expenses exceed her resources and she must rely on a GoFundMe, to offset her debts—a system that relies on the generosity of others, their compassion and empathy and call to action. Her narrative extends validation to others who are suffering without acknowledgment, but her story also validates her own suffering. As Khakpour writes: “And the deal with so many chronic illness is that people won’t believe you. They will tell you that you look great, that it might be in your head only, that is likely stress, that everything will be okay. None of these things are the right things to say to someone whose entire existence is a fairly consistent torture of the body and mind.”

One of the sick girl’s biggest challenges is having practitioners take her pain seriously. If her presentation of symptoms is evasive, non-specific, she must act the role of the weak woman in need of help. Her sickness doesn’t conform to the physician’s diagnoses, there are no effective treatments for post-treatment Lyme disease, i.e. the symptoms of Lyme disease that persist after a course of antibioitcs. Even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s resources state a skepticism regarding symptoms that remain post-treatment. The sick girl is solipsistic because the system forces her to be preoccupied with her body, and she is preoccupied because she is suffering. She must follow her pain, listen to her intuition, in order to receive attention and care, to seek and find relief. And the general  disbelief from the system, when doctors don’t clearly see the results they’re looking for, turns on her itself. The sick girl questions her sanity. Khakpour makes too many ER visits to keep track of, seeks referrals and opinions, tries alternative therapies that cost up to $1000 a day. Think of all the energy her illness requires. Think of the monetary drain. Think of her adjunct’s salary and what she can afford. What she can’t afford. How she barely has the time or energy to teach. She’s not a model of health, but she deserves to be seen by doctors and followed by a team of healthcare providers. She deserves to have her pain taken seriously and a Lyme disease assay to be taken when it’s first suggested. This is not the story she lives out. This is not the system available in our country.

Without capital, without Biopower, without a man’s body, without a neuronormative mind there is less care available than there should be.  I wish we were closer to creating a network of support more focused on sustaining health than on the accrual of wealth, but wishing isn’t enough when it comes to one’s health. The repetition of chronic illness, of seeking help, of having to advocate to receive good care, is maddening. The industry thrives on it. And other industries also feed off it, including publishing, including the propagation of the sick girl and her narratives. So much is about what is made visible. One thing is sure: the suffering is real, and continues. As Wang stated, she doesn’t ever expect to be cured, and through our experiences we come to see ourselves anew: “I …do not consider it possible to ever be completely free of the schizophrenias. They have been with me for too long, I think, to be obliterated, unlike these more recent ailments, which feel like part of the wrong narrative, and make me wonder how many different types of sick girl I can be.”

Image credit: Unsplash/ Lacie Slezak.

I Don’t Want So Smooth a Shape: The Millions Interviews Laura Adamczyk

-

Laura Adamczyk’s stories are not for the faint of heart. Her stories involve sisters and estranged fathers and young men and women attempting to remake themselves, those “who commit to no life even [their] own,” there are lovers both potential and unrequited who are truckers and Lincoln scholars and La Quinta managers. They are filled with adults who are preoccupied with their own affairs or who aren’t to be trusted, and who fail or die regardless. Their children are forced into weighty situations and who, despite shared experiences, emerge with divergent memories and traumas.

Hardly Children‘s stories read as innocuous enough at first—yet as they unfurl this becomes questionable, ominous, the fissures become wider. These aren’t redemption narratives. Rather, they’re keenly observant and aware and unapologetic for this. Their narrators attempt to control their relationship to disappointment, to eke out a space and identity to call their own, however idiosyncratic. It’s as if entering American Gothic, you emerge from Saturn Devouring His Son. The stories in this volume have lingered with me long after most fictions do, haunting my psyche in unexpected ways. I spoke with Laura via email about her stories, their intricate structures, their ‘terrible characters,’ discomfort, and the new dirty real.

The Millions: With regard to writers, who are your idols, compatriots, agitators, influences? What short stories or collections do you return to again and again?

Laura Adamczyk: Édouard Levé, Lucia Berlin, Toni Morrison, Joy Williams, Diane Williams, Borges, early Michael Ondaatje. Denis Johnson’s short stories, Because They Wanted To and Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, Esther Stories by Peter Orner. “The School” by Donald Barthelme, “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.

TM: I’ve recently been deeply immersed in the works of Ali Smith, and in her book Artful she remarks that short stories are about brevity and the shortness of life and in this way their sense of time is elastic, while novels are about continuance and attached to the trappings of their time. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on stories and time, especially with regard to the way your stories will make striking leaps in time and perspective that refract and shift the reader’s awareness of the central action.

LA: I think I agree with what Smith says, as hesitant as I may be to make any overarching pronouncements about what one can and cannot do in stories vs. novels. But because of their brevity, short stories do have more of a mandate to make sharp turns if an author wants to expand the scope with regards to time. There’s no expectation that a story will have as encompassing a blanket as a novel.

I can’t say these leaps in time are something I think about intentionally while first writing a story—say, as in “The Summer Father” or “Girls.” It’s much more associative to the story’s prevailing timeline, but once I realize what I’m doing, I make it more strategic. Jumping forward here and there, but not everywhere. It works better as an accent, I think. Equal parts past and present, or present and future, would make things too even. I don’t want so smooth a shape. It’s a nice little trick, really. It often seems like the freedom of writing novels is that anything at all can be included—it’s a freedom of excess. With stories, that anything-goes sense must happen more pointedly. I can make big moves in stories, but maybe only once, and quickly.

TM: Perhaps this is part two of the above: You and I have discussed writing short stories versus the endeavor of writing novels and as I recall you had some very smart things to say about the ways story writing differs from novel writing, especially when it comes to structure. Do you consider yourself an architect of your stories? Are you methodical in configuring them? And to what extent do urgency and abandon come into play?

LA: Form and structure take more control in some of my stories than others. It’s nice when that happens because structure can be something I struggle with. It’s a relief when I come upon something like the conceit for “Gun Control,” for instance. That was maybe one of the most fun stories in the collection to write, despite the subject matter. I did a lot of free associating, just writing down whatever as it came—the opposite of how I usually write. In that story, a pattern eventually emerged, and I went back and shaped it. But it’s often hard for me to get into so free, so playful of a space. For other stories, the form and structure feel a lot less intentional, like I’m stacking one thing on top of the other until it’s as tall as it needs to be but solid enough not to fall over. Sometimes it’s just like, Am I done? I think I’m done. But I’m always working under the mandate that the story should never be longer than necessary. Like reducing fractions—get it all the way down.

TM: Hardly Children is such an apt title for this collection. The title comes from a story about children who are becoming adults in a time when boys in the community are being murdered by bands of men—at first this premise seems a bit mythic (and reminiscent of Stephen King’s It) but then a protest scene becomes anchored as the list of dead boys’ names are called out. At that point the scene changes utterly, evoking the Black Lives Matter protests and the ever tragic and growing list of boys and young men killed by police. Children don’t find refuge in these stories—there’s always fear or terror or some unnamed unknowable danger or loss lurking just beyond and the adults have ambivalence towards children too. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the children in these stories and what the title means to you.

LA: For me, the title points to two things: children thrown into adult situations, into peril, and often stunted adults acting in childish ways, in a manner that we might not consider fully adult. I think the ways these children and adults overlap has to do with language. There’s often a threat lurking, even if it’s as yet unknown. But neither the children nor the adults form language around their trauma or fears: the children because they are not yet able, and the adults because they’re too afraid to do so, because they’d rather ignore or bury those fears.

In the context of that story, “hardly children” is also a way to disparage those victimized, the same way young black victims of police violence or young (often) female victims of sexual violence, for instance, are made to seem older than they are, more dangerous, more adult, and therefore somehow deserving of their terrible fates. They’re hardly children, hardly angels. It’s an attempt by those in power to justify the horrible things they do to vulnerable individuals.

TM: Tolstoy’s adage, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” applies to your stories in the most delicious ways: the tensions and refuges of sisterhood, the experience of being a child captive within a family and its circumstances. The precision with which this dystopia is captured is unique—like in “The Summer Father,” where the middle daughter fleetingly feels joy and of wanting it “so bad but knowing it as something that will peak and then flow away.” Also, in that story, the youngest sister is consoled by sleeping with a tiny (and I imagine unwieldy) toy vacuum. What draws you to exploring the boredom, despair, hatred, affections, and airlessness even, of these circumstances?

LA: Most generally, I think what draws me to these circumstances is that family is not chosen. You have absolutely no control over who your parents are, who your siblings are, etc. Later in life, people can certainly seek out and create their own, separate families—friends, lovers, co-workers, political comrades, etc.—and can shed their biological families if they want to, but most of your childhood isn’t up to you; your family, for good and ill, isn’t your choice. It’s interesting to me to see how those people relate to each other over time, the way they can move closer together and further apart. More specifically, more personally, I’m drawn to such circumstances because, well, I’ve had those circumstances. I have two sisters with whom my relationship has transformed and shifted. And I have a lot of specific memories of and with them to draw from. Camping and bickering and dancing and talking and not talking, etc.

TM: The narrators of these stories are always onlookers, often grasping—through memory, interjection—to understand their circumstances and/ or claim their distance. Perhaps what I’m drawn to most is how your female protagonists are self-aware and uncomfortable and are utterly unapologetic for this. What role does discomfort have in your fiction, in these depictions of family, and is it a source of feminine strength?

LA: I once heard that those who can’t act observe. That might sound reductive, but it’s at least partially true for some of these characters. A lot of them either can’t act or don’t feel like they can, so they see, they notice. It’s adaptive, to become a sort of supreme noticer, and I believe there is a certain power, and yes, a feminine power, in that—to see and try to make sense of what you see. Because women are so often expected to be caretakers, to keep their distance, to let the discomfort lie, is a way of rejecting those expectations. But that’s also a generous way of seeing some of these characters. Many of them just can’t handle engaging more fully, so they seek out spaces of their own, which often tips them into isolation.

TM: Considered together, the stories in Hardly Children echo some kind of Dirty Realism—definitely the female and finer half (like Bobbie Ann Mason, Angela Carter, and Jayne Anne Phillips, who were included in Bill Buford’s genre-defining issue of Granta). In Buford’s intro he quotes Phillips to say their stories consider “how things fall apart and what is left when they do.”  In this case perhaps Hardly Children is next-generation dirty—saucier, dirtier, and darker, not just witness to, but unafraid to protest? To what extent have the dirty realists shaped your thinking for or against the short story? I’d like to say these stories are also riddled with something like Lispector’s passion and Kristeva’s abjection. In what ways do you hope to break open the form?

LA: There are times when I can remember exactly what I was reading when I wrote something, but short of that I have a hard time either directly placing myself alongside or diverting from other writers. So frequently the challenge is just to get something down that means something to me and that might mean something to others. It’s hard to see yourself sometimes, you know? That having been said, I read a lot of those writers as I was coming up, and have absorbed that style to such an extent—I put a similar value on the dirt and the gunk, the specific detail—that it’s very much a part of me. It’s like a French cook trying to verbalize the influence Julia Child had on their food. For so many, she’s the standard. I told a friend I wish I could strip away specific memories and experiences so that I could view my work more objectively to see what I really think of it. But objectivity is impossible, especially if you’re the object.

TM: What lure does the Midwestern landscape hold for you?

LA: Even though it’s a cliché, I appreciate the blankness. I like the feeling of characters being left with only their terrible selves.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

-

The year began with Mexican beaches and ceviche and morning yoga during a much-needed sanctuary from Chicago winter and the latent anxiety that was plaguing me. This was an ideal setting to engage in the drama of someone else’s fucked-up life and fraught desire—perhaps I was seeking catharsis of some kind? Well, if so Elizabeth Ellen’s auto-fictional novel Person/a, provided it. Person/a is a tale of a once-requited turned unrequited love cum obsession, accompanied by a crumbling marriage (no surprise) and self-imposed isolation. The novel includes emails and chat sessions and text messages and almost like a preface, rejections to Ellen’s manuscript queries. It’s all so wonderfully messy and unnerving, it feels like it shouldn’t hold but it does. In an age where I Love Dick has been subsumed by the mainstream, Person/a still reads as raw and suppurating. Fleur Jaeggy’s I am the Brother of XX didn’t fare as well at the beach. No fault of the book that the sun was too adamant, the breeze too gentle for its dark melancholia, its haute cynicism. It’s better read on a bleak winter day, when the air is already laced with desperation. I am not sure how one writes so beautifully about melancholy, how to make envy so alluring, and yet Jaeggy’s a master.
 

Obsession runs through yet another favorite — Lynne Tillman’s Men and Apparitions is an obsessive’s compendium. The sprawling novel contains anthropological disquisitions on photography and our cultural inundation in images, and ends with the narrator Zeke’s attempt to delineate the new masculinity belonging to the sons of second wave feminists. Zeke’s survey on the “New Man” ends the novel, with questions Tillman had posed to male subjects accompanied by a selection of answers. Tillman’s choice to open the novel to a survey of voices conjures a conversation from Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, where the narrator argues that novels are not very good at conjuring our contemporary reality and that documentary fiction, such as Svetlana Alexeivich’s “novels in voices” seem to do a much better job.
 
Despite my skepticism about any dog-centric story (the dog here being the narrator’s inheritance from the titular dead friend), The Friend became my constant companion for a few short days. Nunez plays with the conceit of the novel in a way that brings the “truth” of the main narrative into question, it’s a wonderfully surprising turn, and that’s as much as I’ll say to avoid spoiling it.
 

Many of the novels that stayed with me hijacked my expectations of what a novel is or can do. Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox was sly enough to seemingly shift forms while reading. I knew it was a novel going in, and yet by the time I was in the thick of it I questioned this until I was assured the book was definitively nonfiction. But then there were moments that gave me pause — such as when on a butterfly hunt, Nabokov’s companion’s skirt flies up to reveal a butterfly resting on her pubis. What’s true and what’s not?  Fox is cunning and places this ambiguity at the forefront, for the novel is  concerned with what makes up a narrative and, specifically, how stories come to be written.
 

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is nothing like Fox in its material — confronting a deep-seated ambivalence and desire about becoming a mother — and yet both books retool the novel’s form. Heti engages with the I Ching as a dialogic partner as she delves into an inquiry about whether Sheila and Miles should have children, and with uncanny results. (Incredibly, Heti notes that the answers from her coin tosses have not been manipulated.) If you aren’t subsumed by the desire to have children, if you’re female and an artist and that window of opportunity is closing, how do you decide? Heti’s commitment to exhausting the question illuminates fears wedged in the crevices of my own mind, such as how can you be both writer and mother without some type of neglect or resentment towards one or both roles? (which I know isn’t true, and yet…)
 

I picked up Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks while visiting family in a small coastal town in Oregon, a town serendipitously much like the one where the book is set. Being there I felt even more subsumed by the lush language and descriptions of the coast and dense forest, and was in awe of the nearly mystical powers possessed by herbalist abortionist whose power is derived from her knowledge the natural surroundings. Also, I was delighted to learn that ‘red clock’ means ‘womb’.
 

Delight is  just the word I’d use to describe reading Sabrina Orah Mark’s story collection Wild Milk, whose tales are surreal and playful and seem deceptively simple despite their profound linguistic and imaginative play. Rita Bullwinkell’s collection Belly Up is just as playful and profound, though her stories delve deeper and darker. They floor me with unexpected turns, slippages into the surreal, and their vast emotional registers.
 

I’m a little late to the party, as everyone’s championing Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel, but I just encountered her Find Me this summer. I read it twice, and became obsessed with its own obsessions with memory and loss and what’s inaccessible, its esoteric theories about immunity to the ongoing epidemic, and the fracturing effects of trauma and absence. On Joy’s ever-meandering bus ride, all seems like a dream: the bus is never heading where she thinks, she keeps getting deterred on her way. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life, or perhaps she’s she lost her mind? I love that both readings seem plausible.
 

Unlike Joy, Sequoyah in Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking knows where his mother is (she’s incarcerated); though like Joy he’s suffered abuse and has been shuffled through the foster system. He’s so tender and adrift, but finds connection in his relationship to his older foster sister Rosemary, and their shared Native American heritage. They’re all so flawed and awkward and completely alive on the page.
 

The dead do talk in Shelley Jackson’s Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children. It’s an enigma of a novel about a boarding school for stuttering children whose impediment, or rather, gift, allows them to effectively speak the dead’s voices . The novel is a linguistic and imaginative feat, as well as a gorgeous object to behold. Interspersed between chapters is documentation of artifacts, images, and illustrations, which only an imagination as wonderfully freaky as designer Zach Dodson could pull off. Is it a cliche to say it’s enchanting? Though Riddance’s main obsession is with a murder mystery, at its core it’s also a philosophical consideration of translation and writing, and the voices that exist beyond the grave.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

Image and Appropriation: On Lynne Tillman’s ‘Men and Apparitions’

-

How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories” of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” “addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel “Zeke” Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions.

What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely.

Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time.

Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that ‘fact’ become an image for the family?” Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother’s intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this “fact” of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him.

Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: “The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open.” This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke’s filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking.

It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious.

Much of the book’s first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: “Images don’t mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them.” However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.)

As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)”

Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world’s a stage” — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism:

[Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper…Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them.

Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else?

Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his “Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already.

The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren’t mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist:
Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’
This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there’s a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study.

“Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project.

Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of  interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and “Men in Quotes” features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman’s Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers’ imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

-

2017, I resented you and your Twitter feeds, the obscenity of your news stream. The skyrocketing of petulance and greed. The normalization of hate. It was a year of half-read books: too difficult to concentrate. But books, they were also, for me, bright stars against the dark night of our political nadir. Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book tore a hole in my soul. A semi-autobiographical novel about the break-up of a marriage: think Scenes from a Marriage, think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? set with West Virginia as its backdrop. The sad, clever, and at times woefully misguided Scott chronicles the fallout of his marriage to Sarah, ICU nurse and self-appointed caretaker of helpless things. It’s a sad beautiful song of bleakness and alienation lined with sunbursts of tenderness and redemption.

I loved Jess Arndt’s slender gem of a story collection, Large Animals, for its ways of seeing. Arndt’s uncanny observations give life to desire, to despair, to the smallest things. In her stories, the mundane is drawn anew—waves appear “like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away,” a refrigerator’s shelves, like a rib cage. The embodied sensuality lies in stark contrast to the narrators’ struggles with the physical encumbrance of inhabiting a body with breasts, and fantasies and fears associated with having them surgically removed.

I’ve spent months teasing out relationships of teenage girls in my fiction, and sought out other fictions that depict the young girl with complexity: their surly, backbiting, tender, loyal, and vulnerable ways, the ferocity of their attachments. Megan Abbott’s Dare Me did this brilliantly well; I am loath to admit I so enjoyed a book about a team of high school cheerleaders, but, oh, I did. The girls are drawn with such intelligence and wit.

Edith-May, loner and protagonist of Coco Picard’s graphic novel Chronicles of Fortune would hate cheerleaders, I imagine, as much she hates bachelorette parties, and for this (and many other reasons) I adore her. “If I have to eat a penis lollipop I’ll die,” Edith-May tells her roommates (who consist of a mountain that’s grown in her city apartment and a crocodile she took in from the roof). Edith May’s superhero alter ego comes to life after the death of her mother, though she only appears at night and suffers from ennui. Together they encounter ghosts and healers and moth populations and find ways to grieve. Kate Zambreno’s powerful, lyric processing of her mother’s death in Book of Mutter is an artful encomium and stunning homage of a book that at its center conjures Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”  I’m in awe of Vivian Gornick as a thinker and reader and of her powers of observation with regard to the city (New York) and of her love/hate relationship with her mother in Fierce Attachments. I’m still not over Patty Yumi Cottrell’s beautiful and devastating Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, whose narrator returns home after her brother’s suicide in an  attempt to piece together his reasons and instead finds her parents inhospitable and in denial. And last in this line of loss is the first Elena Ferrante I’ve read—Days of Abandonment—consumed in what now seems like a prolonged summer haze.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a brilliant book of interlinked stories that revel in wordplay, and that depict the lives of temporary workers in the UAE and their families and their interchangeable identities in the eyes of the state. In contrast, these characters are so vivid on the page—a woman tapes together workers who have fallen from tops of buildings; a son throws his grandfather’s ashes into a river; a suitcase sprouts legs, a man devours, and in devouring, becomes a plane. Dispensability is key, too, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which tracks a group of refugees housed in Berlin through the vantage point of their tutor, a recently retired college professor. We see Richard’s privileged life and its relative continuity (despite the fall of the Berlin Wall), his companionship of friends who are like family and have grown old with him, and the stark contrast this poses to the lives of the refugees he befriends and attempts to help. They’re survivors of genocide and oppression who escaped via harrowing journeys. They are  subject to bureaucracy without rights, subject to prejudice against their skin color and origins, shuffled at the whims of the state, condemned for the burden they pose while not being allowed to work or to settle there. The disregard for the men’s lives is staggering—as is their suffering, the ways state’s intercession only perpetuates the shuffle and undercuts their humanity. Go, Went Gone, is an important book. It’s impossible to read and not take a long, hard look at how we’re all implicated.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005