Beware the End of Art: The Millions Interviews Mark Slouka

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Mark Slouka is an American writer who has published eight books, fiction and nonfiction, that have appeared in 16 languages. The son of Czech immigrants, Mark has two stories in Best American Short Stories, and three pieces in Best American Essays. Further credentials include Harpers, Ploughshares, the Paris Review, Granta, Guggenheim, the NEA, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. You get the idea.

The part you don’t yet get but will is that when a writer with this CV exchanges the security of the academy for the unfathomability of east-central Europe, it’s incumbent that the rest of us give serious consideration as to why. Mark recently gave me two solid days on Skype—Prague to Kyiv—making a strong case for the necessity of book learnin’ and more.

The Millions: So now that you’re retired from the MFA business and living in Prague, where is the good writing going to come from?

Mark Slouka: Thanks for that, but my guess is, pretty much where it’s always come from, which is to say, probably not an MFA program.  Honestly, the MFA industry in America is a wonder to me: The less people read, the more they seem to want to write, and a whole lot of them think that dropping the big bucks on an MFA is the only way to do it.  It can work for some.  For others not so much.

TM: How so?

MS: Okay, for example, when I taught at Columbia, the bill for an MFA came to around 70,000 bucks and we offered precious little financial aid. There was one student sleeping in her car with her kid until I found out about it. What’s worse, I was on the acceptance committee—one of the people who had to call students to give them the good news. So, I make the call and somebody’s mom out in Ohio picks up and I can hear her whispering, “Oh, my God, it’s Columbia University!”  Then the student gets on, her voice shaking, and I say “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the Columbia MFA program,” which is followed by much rejoicing. Then she musters up the courage to ask if there’s any financial aid and I say, “absolutely, we’re awarding you a $3,000 scholarship,” or whatever.  To offset the blow—or sucker them in, in my opinion—we were supposed to tell prospective students that they could apply for a teaching fellowship in their second year, omitting the fact that only a small percentage of applicants actually got one.  I felt like I was hustling sub-prime mortgages. To my credit, I always told them the odds of hitting the teaching jackpot were low, so if money was a concern and they had better offers, they should consider taking them.

TM: Okay, but for those who could afford it, the workshops were worth it, right?

MS: I don’t know, maybe.  I had some amazing students, but the sad truth is that all too often the culture of the workshop can lead to a kind of “blind leading the blind” situation: As an instructor, you’re not really allowed to just lay out the problem and suggest solutions.

TM: Not allowed?

MS: Let’s say, “discouraged.” After my first class at Columbia—I’d never taught writing before—‚a student came up to me and said, “Um, professor, I’m not sure you understand how it works around here.” And I said, “Probably not, what am I doing wrong?” And she explained that I wasn’t giving students enough time to frame the conversation themselves and I realized I was expected to step back and let them lead each other.  Results were mixed. Sometimes a good student would take it in the right direction.  Other times, someone would write, “Her tears fell like pebbles on an iron grate,” and I’d try to say something about what metaphors are supposed to accomplish only to get a chorus of, “But I loved that pebble thing!”  But hey, lately I read a review by Dwight Garner of The New York Times, who singled out for praise the line, “The moon is a huge sanitary pad,” so what the fuck do I know?

Bottom line is that writing is not done by committee.  If you try to please everyone in your workshop you end up with this sad, neutered thing that any agent or editor worth her salt can smell from a mile away.

TM: Russians say, “not fish, not meat.”

MS: Exactly.  If you want to write, make reading your MFA.  Find the writers who move you and try to figure out what they’re doing on the page.  If I’m honest, my teaching at Columbia, and later at the University of Chicago, really just came down to disarticulating the written page.

TM: Meaning . . .?

MS: Meaning teaching students how to read like writers, showing them what their options are in terms of voice, silence, time, dialogue, and so on.  How certain moves on the page—a period in the right place, to recall Isaak Babel—can break your heart.  If it was up to me, I’d teach nothing but example-based craft seminars, which go straight to the issues writers encounter, then cut people loose to do their own work.

TM: I have to say, it sounds like a sweet deal: guided looking, credentialed people shaping your study—

MS: I’m not saying there aren’t some great programs out there. Just that sometimes the MFA program’s guiding principle seems to be “the shortest distance between two points is a cube.”  People will say there are good reasons for this, that students need time to write in a supportive environment, to develop relationships or whatever. Fair enough. But if somebody considering an MFA today were to ask my opinion, I’d tell them to at least consider saving the dough and doing what every writer in history had to do until a few decades ago: read their ass off, then take the leap.

TM: You have a PhD in American literature. How much does that shape your views on this?

MS: God, I don’t know.  Some, maybe.  I mean, if nothing else, a degree in literature introduces you to some great writing, right?  Virtually none of which was written by committee, by the way.

TM: We’re a mimetic species, though.  Isn’t any act of writing somewhat of a collective function? If I look at the novel you’re writing now, do I hear Kent Haruf in there? Steinbeck? Who makes up your writing committee?

MS: I see where you’re going: committee as influence.  In that sense you’re absolutely right—writers are sponges. We absorb everything—a metaphor here, a bit of dialogue there.  To some degree, we’re made up of the writers we loved, and for all I know, the ones we hated too.  So…yeah.

As far as my committee goes, I wouldn’t know where to start.  I mean, I grew up falling asleep to my parents and their friends singing Czech and Slovak folk songs late into the night, my dad reading me those dark fairytales the Czechs love so much . . .

TM: Like?

MS: Oh, I don’t know—there’s one called “Otesanek” that I wrote about in The Visible World.  It’s about this couple who have a baby that can’t stop eating.  It devours everything—the chickens, the plow-horse, its own parents—until it makes the mistake of swallowing a little girl who’s sitting at her sewing and this little girl, finding herself in this community of the consumed, takes her scissors and delivers everybody out of the monster’s stomach by a kind of reverse caesarean.  I loved that story when I was a kid.  It’s a parable of fascism, of course, and how it always dies from within, having consumed too much—though I somehow doubt I got that when I was six. Anyway, mix all this Slavic stuff in with Shane and Old Yeller and “Coo-coo for Coco Puffs” and Daniel Boone and Man from Uncle and you’ve got . . . what?  Me, I guess.

TM: Any particular writers who had an influence?

MS: Melville, for sure, who, by the way, you strikingly resemble.

TM: Young, rugged Melville, no doubt.

MS: Absolutely.  I guess if you forced me to name names, I’d say I was most influenced by Melville and Kafka—which makes sense.  After those two, though, the floodgates are open: all the writers of the American Renaissance–Thoreau, Whitman, Poe–a mix of American voices from Cotton Mather to Frederick Douglass, Wharton, Ellison, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Richard Yates. European writers from Dante to George Eliot to Woolf and Musil, Hamsun and Hrabal. Essayists from Montaigne to E.B. White to Joan Didion to, I don’t know, more contemporary voices like Charles D’Ambrosio and Thomas Lynch.  Pro tip: never ask a writer what his or her influences were–they’ll never fucking shut up.

TM: Perhaps some of those names help explain the aphoristic quality I pick up in your writing, particularly your fiction? Like, for me, the key line in Brewster: “Stay somewhere long enough, you don’t really see it at all.”

MS: I hadn’t really thought about it.  But it’s true, don’t you think?–that a place begins to fade with time?  Maybe the biggest struggle in life—or the biggest prize, if you want to get all positive about it—is to just keep on seeing.

TM: You hung around academia for 30-years plus, taught at half a dozen universities—did you stop seeing it?

MS: No such luck.

TM: So how do you see American higher education today?

MS: Oh, Jesus. Ask me about daffodils and sunsets.

TM: Any position on daffodils and sunsets?

MS: I’m pro-daffodils.  And sunsets.

TM: I can quote you?

MS: Sure. Important to get that out there.

TM: Absolutely, so . . .

MS: I honestly think the state of higher education in America today—and I’m talking about only the humanities here and completely ignoring the huge, structural changes the pandemic has forced—is pretty well screwed. The humanities are an endangered ecosystem, just hanging on between the subdivisions.  Whether they’ve slipped below the threshold of genetic viability is anybody’s guess.  Extra credit.

TM: What’s endangering them?

MS: A dozen things.  For starters, the humanities are being forced to justify their existence on economic grounds—What kind of job will this Shakespeare class get my Jimmy?—even though their real value is civic; they form human beings, citizens, not workers.  Asking the humanities to justify themselves in economic terms is like asking a tomato to hammer a nail: It’s a fucking tomato—it serves a different purpose.  But that’s a tough case to make to parents shelling out a king’s ransom for their daughter’s college education.

TM: Sounds like a feedback loop: As the price of education goes up, market forces come into the classroom, forcing it to become more vocational.

MS: Exactly, one standard of value comes to dominate everything.  Of course, the marketplace bias is hard-wired into our culture. Consider Marco Rubio, that paragon of American statesmanship, who once memorably said that what America needs is more welders, not philosophers. Really, it was probably only a matter of time before the universities morphed into the corporations they now are. Of course, I’d love to ask the good senator from Florida why a philosopher can’t also be a welder, or whether he realizes that “manly labor” vs. “effete book-larnin” is a cliché as old as time. Maybe he could write me a five-page essay on why the Founding Fathers would have found his statement ridiculous, while Herr Goebbels would have applauded it.  Of course, to write that essay would require something resembling a humanities education, so . . .

TM: So where does this leave students?

MS: Equal parts entitled and ripped off. The story of higher education these past two generations is that as tuition costs skyrocketed, students morphed into customers.  It makes sense: if you’re paying a quarter mil for a four-year BA, it’s not unreasonable to want to have some say.  But just because something makes sense doesn’t automatically make it a good idea.

TM: I’m going to need something more concrete…

MS: Sure. At the end of every semester, college professors all over America hand out evaluation forms so the students can evaluate their teaching, the class, whether they found it a rewarding experience—stuff like that. These forms factor into promotions, tenure decisions, and so on.  Which sounds fine except that it doesn’t take professor X very long to figure out that he’s handing out customer satisfaction surveys, and that Ted will be a happier customer, and rate professor X as a genius, if professor X gives him an A instead of a B and doesn’t bust his ass with demanding exams and 15-page papers.  The incentive, clearly, is to inflate grades while depressing requirements.

What it boils down to is diminished rigor and party favors all around.  My so-called career basically tracked this paradigm shift. When I was a student, a 15-pager due on Monday was a 15-pager due on Monday. It never occurred to me to argue or to feel aggrieved if I missed the deadline.  By the time I quit my professorship at the U. of Chicago 30 years later—and we’re talking about a place that fetishizes rigor—things had changed. Obviously, there were exceptions—professors who struggled to maintain standards and students who appreciated a rigorous class—but these were the exceptions. I had students in my office at Chicago in tears because I’d given them an A-. They’d never had an A- before.

TM: An A-? That’s pretty heartless.

MS: Oh, there’s more!  All this stuff I’m describing—the corporatization of the university, the transformation of students into customers—has had the unintended side-effect of turning the classroom into the perfect petri dish for grievance. How many stories have I heard lately about some professor being taken to the woodshed for assigning a book that caused a student offence? It’s gotten to where some students don’t even bother discussing it with the prof—they just show up during office hours with the administration’s legal representative.  Thank God I split when I did because I’d last about 20 minutes in today’s environment.

TM: I’m guessing you’re not a “safe space” kind of guy.

MS: How could you tell?

TM: Melvillian intuition.

MS: Let me put it this way: I think “safe spaces,” where a student can opt out of a discussion that might upset them, are well-intentioned.  But I also think that, with rare exceptions, that option makes about as much sense as having science labs in which students can opt out of undesirable results from an experiment.

This whole movement toward customizing our education, making it more about us—above all protecting our tender sensibilities from anything that might upset us or, God forbid, force us to defend our position—is anathema to the humanities. The entire purpose of the humanities is to do the exact opposite: to force us out of ourselves, to challenge us, to flay our pieties. I wrote as much in a piece for Harper’s. The humanities are supposed to make us question our givens, disturb us, unsettle us. A safe space?  The humanities are life itself.  Where’s the safe space from that?

TM: You’re not concerned about blowback?

MS: I’ve stuck my foot in it, so let me earn my hate mail for real.  To my mind, the whole notion that education, or art, should match the consumer’s background, that Latino students need to read more Latino authors and Black students more Black authors makes about as much sense to me as saying that privileged, white, male students need to read more privileged, white, male authors to the exclusion of everything else. What we need is to read good writers—Black, white, Latino, you-name-it.  Whatever hue, whatever cultural background. Especially those who confound us, or piss us off, or tell us something that goes against what we believed to be true.  Kafka still says it best: a book should be like the axe for the frozen sea within.

TM: So how would your ideal classroom be run?

MS: Openly, dangerously, fearlessly.  Against the grain.  Everything on the table, nothing exempt from discussion, debate, argument.  You say James Baldwin’s use of the “n-word” offends you?  Good—it should.  Now let’s discuss whether it’s the word itself, Baldwin’s use of it, or my having assigned Baldwin’s essay in the first place that offends you, and why.  Let’s talk about Baldwin’s reason for deploying that word in the context of his time, and how that particular slur’s payload has changed over the years, how it’s been weaponized by some and co-opted by others…That would be my ideal classroom. I actually had something like it back in the 1990s when I led discussion groups for a course called “The Making of the Modern World” at the University of California, San Diego.  An amazing time in my life—I’ll remember those students, and some of the conversations we had, till senility do us part.

TM: And that’s no longer possible today? Only 30 years on?

MS: Honestly, I don’t know that it is. Between the orthodoxies of the right and the orthodoxies of the left—in academia, definitely more the left—professors have to walk between the raindrops.

TM: Orthodoxy is something we’re both familiar with, considering where we both live. 

MS: Sure. I mean, during the Soviet era, whether in Kyiv or Prague, certain expressions were sanctioned and others condemned, certain works deemed correct, others criminalized. Which is more or less what’s happening in the U.S. now, with the right and the left both clawing for the right to decide what’s “acceptable.”  It’s just a matter of degree, but given our criminal ex-president’s interest in criminalizing dissent, who knows how long that gap will hold?

TM: There’s something else at work here, though, isn’t there?  Tech. What part does it play? Twitter’s an easy target. A vital tool of free speech, but also a cesspool of tendentiousness and impulsivity when it’s called on to address an important cultural stress-point. Though it’s not entirely the fault of the tool, rather, what techies call “an IBM error”—the Idiot Behind the Machine. User error.

MS: Sure.  What’s happening in academia is obviously just a subset of what’s happening in the culture as a whole. The decline of rigor in education—and, again, I’m only talking about the humanities here because I’m not competent to discuss the sciences—is part of the general dumbing down of society.

TM: Okay, Boomer.

MS: Careful, comrade—I might be offended. Some professor has argued that “boomer” is a slur, right?

Seriously, though, this stuff is real. I’ve watched student attention spans atrophying over 30 years. Slowly breaking up—fracturing might be a better word.  And it’s not just students—we’re all under attack.  My honest opinion is that the assault on the silence of the inner world will be the biggest story of our time.  I see it as a form of colonization, masked by convenience and speed. The new gadgets are extraordinary—and extraordinarily addictive—but each new thing plants a flag on a bit more of our inner space. That stillness we need in order to figure out who we are and what we believe.

TM: Your first book was about this, wasn’t it?

MS: Yeah, it was. I was yelling about this back when having any reservations about the digital revolution at all made you kin to the Unabomber. At least he seemed to think so.

TM: Hold on. You know the Unabomber? THE Unabomber?

MS: I wouldn’t say “know,” exactly. We corresponded a bit in 2012 because I wanted to write an essay comparing Ted Kaczynski and John Brown—basically exploring the connection between fanaticism and prophesy—and I thought it might be interesting to get his view.

TM: How’d that go?

MS: The essay? Never wrote it. Harper’s wasn’t interested and they were my go-to guys back then. I let it slide.

TM: And your correspondence with the Unabomber?

MS: Not so good.  For starters, ADX-Florence is a supermax, so all correspondence has to be handwritten.  I was fine with that—I still write letters by hand now and then—but the list of things you couldn’t send—no seeds, no body hair, etc.—was pretty weird. I mean, it’s not like I was dying to send Ted Kaczynski some tomato seeds and chest hair. Anyway, I just didn’t find him all that interesting.  Worse, he’s a terrible writer, but the thing that creeped me out was when he said he had some people on the outside researching me, hoping I’d be helpful for “the cause.” Which is not what I had in mind.

TM: Ted’s People are looking you up. I’d move to Prague. But back to literature—what it did, what it does, what it’s supposed to do.  I mean, once upon a time, a liberal arts education, for all its lack of currency, provided an examination of classical literature that exposed a student to elements of anthropology, phenomenology, metaphysics, ethics, rhetoric—to the story of human progress, basically.  But contemporary fiction—and I say this as somebody who’s working pretty hard playing catch-up to contemporary literary thought—it strikes me that it so rarely goes for the bigger picture. We get a lot of unvarnished processing of personal experience, which, frankly, most of the time isn’t interesting enough to warrant a novel.

MS: I heard a two-part question.

TM: You’re generous that way.

MS: Tell my publisher. Anyway, part one has to do with what’s being taught in the universities today—with the disappearance of what used to be called a classical education. Personally, I think there was a lot of value in the core curriculum at Columbia. It required us to read—or at least convince our professors we’d read—the so called “classics” of world literature, political philosophy, and so on. Of course, almost all the books were written by dead white men, since white men were the only ones empowered to write until a nanosecond ago, but they still had value.  My take would be: Absolutely, mess with the canon, challenge it, include more contemporary voices, female voices, non-Western voices. These have been neglected for far too long. But don’t throw out Aeschylus and Machiavelli because they happened to be privileged, white, and male.

Part two has to do with what’s being written today, and that’s tougher to talk about. I do think that literature has been forced to respond to the changes wrought by the digital revolution.  We expect to be gratified instantly by what we’re looking at now—if we’re not, we swipe it away.  We’re more visual, more short-form. We’re increasingly impatient with complexity, nuance, indeterminacy—all the things that bend toward wisdom, all the things that literature once trafficked in.  The market has adjusted accordingly, as markets do, so that for most novels to succeed today—and, again, there are wonderful exceptions—they basically have to do the impossible and break through the noise, the distraction of the culture.

About 80 years ago, reporting on this new gadget called the TV, E.B. White wrote that “the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist at RCA and the angel of God.” It’s a great sentence, but the point is that the angel of God has been taking it on the chin for a while now. A novel that whispers rather than shouts is going to have a tough time finding the light.

TM: No room for the still, small voice. And this fits in with the corporatization of higher education and identity politics and–

MS: God, you had to ask.

TM: It’s why I get the big bucks. Swing away…

MS: Why not? So, when I said that we expect to be gratified instantly now, I guess that in literary terms, that would mean either entertained or comforted. Still, there are so many exceptions to this that I’m not entirely comfortable with the generalization; I mean, Louise Erdrich just won the Pulitzer. But I have this sense that more and more people today are turning to books to get away from the complexity of the world, not to confront it.  And given the direction of things these days, from the climate crisis to the rise of a fascist political party in America, who can blame them?

What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s possible that this need to be comforted has resulted in people wanting to read more about people like themselves—entrenching themselves in their tribal group or whatever—which in turn has led some to question whether writers have the right to imagine characters different from themselves. That’s a problem. The whole point of literature is to imagine another world, another consciousness. Taking this nonsense to its natural conclusion would imply that you shouldn’t read Huckleberry Finn because Twain wasn’t a runaway slave and neither are you. But read that book and for the duration of that reading to some extent you are Jim. And Huck. And the King and the Duke. You’re taking your ego out for a spin. That’s what defines imaginative fiction. Your genotype doesn’t determine your ability to write fictional characters, your imagination does. Of course, you might do a lousy job of writing a character who is “not you,” but you have the right to try. If the writing sucks, if your imagination can’t cut it, prepare to be criticized. But to incarcerate a creative spirit, to say, in effect, “you don’t have the right to imagine that”—that’s the end of art.

TM: Does the critique of cultural appropriation misunderstand how fiction works? And is this the place to talk about the lingering effects of Soviet cultural policy?

MS: The effects of Soviet cultural policy…?

TM: I mean the way the rank and file were compelled to develop this uncanny bullshit detector, which produced the unforeseen consequence of spilling over into their ability to read fiction.

MS: Well, as far as the cultural appropriation thing goes, like I said, I honestly think it’s another one of those well-intentioned absurdities. Art begs, borrows, and steals, and the rest it imagines. Force artists to stay on their racial or gender reservations or whatever, and you may as well forget about it. Again, you can argue with the accuracy of a writer’s depiction—its success, its spirit, what-have-you—but don’t forbid an artist, a priori, from imagining the other. That’s nuts.

But you’re probably asking the wrong guy about this. My first novel, maybe still my best, was God’s Fool, in which I imagined the lives of the Siamese twins, the women they loved, the children they had, the slaves they owned, and yet I’m neither Siamese nor a black slave nor a woman nor born in the 19th century—though my kids would probably argue that last one. My point is that after the novel came out, I had people who’d lived in Thailand for decades asking me when I’d lived there. I’d never been there in my life.  So.

But your second question, about the effects of Soviet cultural policy and how it’s led people to basically be suspicious of fiction, to see it as just an elaborate form of lying, is more complicated. Basically, as somebody who writes both fiction and nonfiction, I’m always amazed when people assume that fiction is “made up” and non-fiction is “real.” The genres bleed into each other all the time—there’s no fixed border between them.  Which is not to say that certain things didn’t happen at certain points in time–I have no patience with historical relativism–just that our retelling of what happened, no matter how objective, always borrows from fiction.

TM: Examples?

MS: Okay.  Let’s say you’re retelling an event in a personal essay. That retelling’s going to involve chronology, selection, memory—you’re basically lining up events in a certain sequence, stressing certain things while leaving others out, possibly misremembering what actually happened…All these things shape the remembered event in a certain way. There’s nothing wrong with this—you’re not consciously falsifying anything—but some degree of subjectivity is baked in. Again, I’m not saying there’s no difference between the genres, or that we shouldn’t have certain expectations when we read them; all I’m saying is that the most wildly imaginative fiction is rooted in empirical fact, and the most objective essay borrows from fiction.

Sometimes I wish that some university out there would set up, I don’t know what you’d call it— a Reality Studies Program—basically a discipline that would map the territory between fiction and nonfiction in all forms of private and public discourse—histories, novels, diaries, political speech, legal opinions, journalism, you-name-it.  I mean, what could be more relevant in our shapeshifting, post-truth age, right?

TM: Do I hear a desire to go back to academia?

MS: Honestly, only if I felt I could be part of the conversation about what’s happening with the humanities—and part of the solution, hopefully. I wrote a piece on the humanities for Harper’s in which I interviewed a bunch of people—the president of Harvard at the time, the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities—who basically confirmed what I’d been seeing. That there’s less and less room at the table for the humanities. That no one’s making a very compelling argument for them.  That the sciences are gobbling up market share at an extraordinary rate because money talks. The reality today is that private capital and U.S. Department of Defense contracts flow into MIT, for example, the good folks at MIT cook up a product they can sell, and everyone splits the profits. If I’m teaching a course on Kafka, I’m not part of that show. There’s no product. I’ve got nothing the DOD might want.  Which would be fine except that I’m being asked to justify my existence according to criteria the sciences use, criteria that guarantee my eventual erasure. I care about the humanities too much—I think they matter too much—to want to be part of that charade.

TM: So, it’s a marked deck?  No point in playing?

MS: Not at all. If a group of people were to get together to try to articulate an argument for the humanities—an argument that played to our strengths—I’d love to be part of that. I’d love to try to figure out how best to explain to Senator X from Wyoming why he should fund the humanities. Maybe I’d ask him if he knows why it is that the authorities in Tehran, say, will happily let me teach chemistry, but not history. Or why the communist authorities in pre-revolution Czechoslovakia always planted a spy in my English classes. If I’d been teaching physics, I’d have been free to do as I pleased.

TM: How much of the problem with the humanities has to do with what they’re producing?  Unreadable papers loaded with jargon; books that seem deliberately opaque?

MS: A lot. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the average educated person could read academic literary critics like Lionel Trilling or Richard Poirier and understand what they were saying. Except for James Wood and a few others, try that today. Some of the most God-awful prose in the known world is being cranked out by university literature departments.

TM: What created this?

MS: You got me. The operating principle seems to be “obscurity equals genius.”

TM: Is advancement, understood differently, undermining literature as well? Or changing it? I mean, are writers, tyrannized by the market, being forced to self-censor?

MS: I think they are.

TM: I gotta ask: censorship is something I know a little bit about. 

MS: I know you do.

TM: And self-censorship is what the Soviets were after. In the current context, who needs censors, enforcers of orthodoxy, if you can get people to censor themselves?

MS: Censorship is a loaded word, of course, but I think the question is legitimate.  Basically, I see a market that rewards a certain kind of creative work and discourages a different kind. Fine. That’s how markets work. You could argue that it’s always been like this, but I also think that until fairly recently there was still this charmed space where writers whose books didn’t sell a lot of copies could at least hope to find shelter.  Survive. My sense is that this space is getting smaller. The market dominates everything now.  Agents, editors—good people, people who went into it for all the right reasons—are being squeezed.  A lot of them are fighting hard to resist the forces we’re talking about, but they need to survive too. The result is that books they admire sometimes have to be cut loose.

TM: So, the writer adjusts to the market?

MS: Or not, but it takes a lot of energy not to adjust, to ignore everything and just write your book, especially if you’re in the unhappy position of actually having to make a living. I don’t think there are many writers in America who haven’t struggled with this. You’re working on a novel for three, four years, all the while ignoring that voice in your head whispering, “Your last one sold 4,000 copies, you idiot. How’re you going to pay Billy’s tuition next year?” It’s not easy to ignore that voice saying, “Well, you could juice it up a little, bend it this way or that.” I’m guessing it gets even tricker if you’ve had some real success, because then you start thinking, “Hell, I’ll just give them a little more of that!”  Fortunately, that’s not something I’ve had to deal with.

TM: I’m going to venture that tech—access—makes the situation worse?

MS: Bet your ass. Writers today can look up their numbers on Amazon for example.  See the rankings of every book published in America, from #1—Stephen King or somebody—to some poor schmo at #12 million. This is like crack for writers. If my book jumps from 800,000 to 512,000, I feel great, I have some value in the world. If it goes the other way, hide the belt and the scissors. And then there’s the commentariat—people who think you’re Tolstoy and others who think you’re the antichrist of literature.

TM: So, what do you do?

MS: You go on saying what you need to say, bleeding market share, wondering how you’ll pay the bills.  And then somebody from Australia writes to tell you she’s reading your novel for the third time because she’s going through some difficult times and it helps her—and suddenly it all makes sense, somehow.

TM: The bigger picture: are human beings losing interest in stories?

MS: Not at all—I think they’re craving stories.  I mean, look at TV—it’s full of stories, and some of them are terrific.

I’m repeating myself, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to it, but I do think a lot of what’s happening has to do with the marketplace.  Books have to compete with Netflix, so publishing houses are looking for what they can market—which by the way also means writers they can market. Writers who look like fashion models or have exotic life stories.  I can’t even blame them. Unfortunately, I don’t really check off those boxes. I don’t have a brand.  I’m interested what used to be called the human condition—that’s it.

TM: But that should be enough, shouldn’t it?  I’ve just reread The Visible World, and there’s that heartbreaking story in there where the narrator is trapped on a tram with this old guy who tells him about the day his father was arrested during the German occupation. It’s so convincingly told—he could be the old guy who lives two floors above m—a guy who’s probably riding every tram that passes my building.  It strikes me that it’s not to the benefit of the culture when stories like that struggle to get published.

MS: I’m glad that story spoke to you, but seriously, there’s no way to respond to that without sounding like an asshole who believes his stories are a gift to the culture. On top of which, though recent years have been harder, I haven’t really “struggled” all that much. I’ve written the books I wanted to write, I’ve had the good fortune—so far, anyway—of getting them published, the critics have generally been kind, and now and then I get a letter from a reader who actually took the trouble to write to me.  Not bad.

If I take myself out of the equation, though, I couldn’t agree with you more: In some slow, sedimentary way, literature—and I use the L-word without apology—builds human beings, human beings capable of imagining lives other than their own, so to the extent that literature struggles, and I think it is struggling, we’re all the poorer for it.

MT: What’s the way forward?

For me, I’d say more of the same.  I’d like to think that as we get older some of the bullshit peels away and we’re able to see who we are and what we’re drawn to. I’m drawn to characters who have a history, who’ve taken some hits and have the scars to show for it. I’m interested, basically, in how well, or not, we’ve survived the life we’ve led. That’s my territory, and I’ll keep coming back to it, one way or another, for as long as I write.

At the same time, I’d say it’s important to take your work more seriously than yourself.  Keep a sense of humor, if possible.  I mean, most of us have had the experience of walking into some venue to do a reading and there are two people in the audience and one of them is your wife and the other seems insane.  It’s not fun, but it’s okay.  It’s survivable.  You can rend your mantle and defile your horn in the dust, or you can figure, “Fuck it, I get to go to dinner an hour early.”

But that’s just me.  On the larger, cultural level, I guess the way forward might involve something as simple as putting down our phones and picking up a book.

TM: Good luck with that.

MS: Yeah, I know.  You see it everywhere now, though it’s worse in the States. Groups of friends hanging out, each one on a device.  Couples having dinner or sitting on a bench, both on their phone. We’ve created a space that doesn’t exist and we’re migrating into it at extraordinary speed.  I can’t predict what the blowback will be, but it’s going to be considerable. I just don’t believe we can sever ourselves from everything that’s sustained us for millennia—in the blink of an eye, evolutionarily speaking—without suffering some kind of psychic kickback. But there I go again, bitching about tech.

TM: A bit. Still, a couple more?  Tell me about your decision to give up tenure at the University of Chicago and move to Prague. You were Chair of Creative Writing there, right?

MS: There were some years between the two moves, though I guess you could see them as related.  Basically, the U. of Chicago and I didn’t see eye to eye, let’s just put it that way.  It’s a strange place: An extraordinary university, and at the same time, I don’t know how else to put it, a kind of Mecca of depression—the pilgrims drag themselves to it from the four corners of the earth.  My family and I stuck it out for a while, then split.  For all I know, I’m the only person dumb enough to give up a gold-plated professorship like that without having something lined up to replace it with.  I’m blessed with family members as impractical as I am.

TM: And so, Prague.

MS: After a decade or so in Brewster, Canton, New York, and Winslow, Ariz., yeah.  What can I tell you?  I love this city, though it regularly drives me nuts. And, of course, our kids live here, which is huge for us.  But coming here was also an economic decision. Around the time writing became my sole source of income several my venues from the old days had dried up, Harper’s had gone in its own direction, a couple of books had gotten good reviews but didn’t sell well…you get the picture.  And so, it came down to either figuring out how to make more dough or moving to a place where the little we had would be enough.  We chose, “b,” and it was the right call.

TM: It’s likely that some people assumed it was because of Trump.

MS: Yeah, which was funny for two reasons. First, because the moon wouldn’t be far enough if that was our intention, and second, because the Czechs have their own corrupt leaders in Zeman and Babiš (the current president and prime minister of the Czech Republic) who they’re going to have to get rid of just like we got rid of Trump.

TM: A positive note to end on…

MS: Qualified. As the Czechs say: Pravda zvitezi, ale veme to fusku!—The truth will triumph, but it takes some sweat!

Image Credit:

This Thing Feels Alive: The Millions Interviews Brad Fox


I have trouble getting books in Kyiv. Not books. There are lots of those. Most of which make me wonder if the Russian nationalists burning books in Crimea might be on to something. Check that. Flip it. They’re not on to anything. They’re just assholes. They burn books because ideas scare them and books in Ukrainian and Tatar apparently terrify them.

No, I have trouble getting physical books, in English, translated or not, that are appearing on the American market. And so, last autumn, a publisher I’d never heard of offered me a physical book from a writer I’d never heard of. I read the blurb, looked at the bio, and said yes, please send it.

The blurb was fine. But that bio: Brad Fox left the U.S. at 20; came home to get an education; left again. Came back 15 years later. An American who’d spent the better part of his adult life living in places profoundly not America, doing humanitarian work. The book, and the man behind it, drew me in, in part, because their very existence—both the book’s and the man’s—cuts against the grain of a whole slew of American political and cultural orthodoxies.

And after several hours on Skype with Fox, I found out that being angry, hyperbolic, or revolutionary are not required for great prose when intelligence will suffice. In fact, I’d say the former are counterproductive to writing this strong. Particularly, when it’s a book that is destined to challenge the pieties of anyone who picks it up the way this one will.

The publisher is Rescue Press. The writer—for those just tuning in—is Brad Fox. The novel is To Remain Nameless. And for the hours spent on SKYPE chewing on every bizarre question I threw his way; for a talk that offered serious balm for the sting that comes from getting my hands on only a half-dozen physical books worth reading every year; for offering up his authentic, experienced perspective, I am grateful. Below is some of what we talked about.

The Millions: So, elephant in the room. The audacity of a man writing a woman protagonist with another, pregnant, woman as her foil…no worries about criticisms of appropriation?

Brad Fox: It came from hearing stories about birth. I don’t have kids. I was present at one birth. The parents were very close friends of mine, I helped them get to the hospital and they pulled me into the room. That’s the extent of my personal experience, other than being born myself. But I am married to a woman who worked as a birth doula. She assisted at around 40 births. She’d get a call that one of her clients was going into labor, she’d grab her kit and rush off. She’d come home 36 hours later, euphoric from sleep deprivation. And she had a routine—it didn’t matter if it was 9 a.m., she’d buy herself a couple of beers and half a rotisserie chicken. She’d show up, eat and drink, and tell me what happened. The stories of the births themselves were fascinating, how the woman made it through the process, the body versus the medical system. Then there were the other people around. Partners, family members, everyone pushed to the limit until all their defenses fall away. Who are they? And what do they see at that moment? I thought it was a perfect frame for a story. It forces all kinds of questions about life and meaning. I started looking around to see what had been done with birth narratives. There was the birth scene in Anna Karenina, and some other scattered scenes, but not a book where a birth is the narrative device. But I thought about all that later. First I just woke up one morning and wrote a couple of pages with no plan. The premise came into focus, and I thought: this thing feels alive.

TM: I’ve lived in the post-Soviet space for a quarter century, I’m required to ask: You would be opposed to a proscriptive approach to modes of expression in literature?

BF: I guess you mean the way identity is used to forbid certain kinds of writing or storytelling? There are good reasons why positionality needs to be examined. And there are reasons some people can travel more easily than others. Power dynamics are always involved. But that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed even to try to enter how somebody else thinks or feel how somebody else feels, that it’s impossible to write from the perspective of anyone who’s not strictly who you are.

TM: But, a man, you’re on some foreign soil there, no?

BF: There’s baggage in every identity. If I only write about men, that’s unbearable and wrong. Taking on another perspective is fraught, which means you have to devise an ethics about it. I did a lot of interviewing to get the birthing stuff right. I revisited the hospital ward where it was set. I asked a few writer friends who are mothers to read the book and give me notes. There’s one detail that’s inaccurate.

TM: And that is?

BF: I’d rather not say. But I’m curious if anyone spots it.

TM: I wanted to be there when my sons were born. But if that delivery scene is accurate, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. Didn’t matter. Ukraine is pretty traditional: No men allowed in the room. Three cheers for tradition.

BF: I wanted it to be accurate and also graphic. Because it’s the confrontation with extreme bodily reality that sets the book in motion. Most of the book takes place in the mind and memory of the birthing woman’s friend—a woman who doesn’t want to have children, who’s disillusioned with humanity, a misanthrope. To have her faced with the reality of a new child, but before that, the struggle, the smells, the weird light. What does that do to her?

TM: So, no hesitation to write about a character whose circumstances you could never fully embody?

I can’t say I did it without hesitation. I thought about the reasons. But the reasons to do it were much more interesting than the reasons not to. I spent a lot of time imagining having a different body. I knew I would need help to get it right, and that in itself was a compelling challenge. I haven’t always decided to go ahead with things.

TM: You have suppressed your own work?

BF: Yes, I have, for various reason. Abandoned things or decided not to show them around.

TM: But To Remain Nameless is different?

BF: Who knows! But I wrote it and the people at Rescue liked it. It was important to me that the editor was a woman. And it’s a book that comes from legitimate concerns, from a sense of what kind of questions a narrative operating on different levels can ask.

TM: To Remain Nameless: That title has some deep roots. Care to elaborate?

BF: I’m a student of apophatic theology. It’s an orientation toward what lies beyond thought and language. It’s more of a disposition than a way of thought. It’s a way of engaging the divine through negation, through terminal dissatisfaction with any linguistic structure. I spend a lot of time trying to read Ibn ‘Arabi, the great Andalusian visionary writer. But also Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius. Many others.

TM: Pseudo-Dionysius! He’s always reminded me of Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. You know: “I know nothing! I see nothing!”

BF: Please explain.

TM: I’m talking about absence: where else in contemporary fiction can we read an informed perspective that incorporates apophatic theology? What the Old Book describes as “the Spirit interceding in groans that words cannot express.” Mourning in contemporary fiction is typically a device—a decorative bauble, maudlin, self-pitying, not like this—it’s central to her dilemma.

BF: These are two different things. You’re right that here mourning is inseparable from beauty and human connection, the richness of life, but that’s not what I mean by an orientation beyond thought. Apophasis is a matter of using language to point beyond itself, endlessly, endlessly, so there’s a forward momentum in that. Or there might appear to be at times.

TM: Yet her assessment of her ontogeny is pretty harsh. You’re sure she’s no pessimist? Even a nihilist?

BF: She’s someone who’s seen the worst of human nature, now staring into a birthing body. Also holding on and trying to help in whatever way she can. Here is her closest friend in the world engaged in the continuation of life, which she herself has turned away from. It’s a genuine mystery to her.

TM: But the self-abnegation inherent in the work, the self-flagellation of working for an NGO, the suggestion that, well, I have this or that capacity so who cares what happens to me as long as the job gets done? Not nihilism?

BF: There wasn’t much self-flagellation among the NGO workers I knew. It was a pretty hedonistic life. A lot of burn out. But that’s something else. For her, yes, there’s a self-abnegating impetus to serve. She understands the neocolonial reality of what’s happening, sees herself implicated, and sees that any intervention may do more harm than good. Still, the concerns are immediate, and that compels her to keep at it. What else can she do?

TM: How significantly has your own experience internationally, seeing the results of the blind spots in U.S. foreign policy, bled into the writing?

BF: I left the U.S. at the beginning of my 20s. I knew nothing at all. I practically grew up in the Balkans. My sensibility was formed in Sarajevo and Belgrade and later in Cairo and Syria and Mexico and Istanbul. Often, U.S. foreign policy was a matter of life and death. I never went to Iraq, but what the U.S. unleashed with the invasion was the definitive event of the era. I moved back to the U.S. after 15 years away, which turned out to be the 10th anniversary of 9-11. It was a harsh reminder that though U.S. foreign policy may be a matter of life and death elsewhere, within the country there is little awareness of it. That fall of 2011, there were celebrations of veterans’ experiences, the trauma hero, and a sense of victimhood—what happened to us, what we’d been through—but no acknowledgment that the U.S. had rained ordnance on the rest of the world for a decade, causing permanent damage. We had perpetrated outrageous violence. There’s still been no reckoning with that.

TM: It’s like bad clams for lunch: eventually they’re going to come back up. Is that, in part, what’s happening now in the U.S., in this reconsideration of its own history?

BF: I do think the Trump phenomenon is an effect of decades of lies and denials about history and the effects of recent policies.

TM: And yet, in the book you avoid any explicit politicization of your argument. Your character’s politics aren’t ideological, partisan, but pragmatic.

BF: This book is driven by bodily knowledge, by staying close to granular realities. She sees, as anyone would, the damage all over the globe. That’s not a polemic, it’s simply the world. The novel gives space to talk about love and friendship and quotidian struggles and health issues and also politics and mortality in an open-ended way. And to see how all that mixes with desire and pleasure and humor. There are passages that are just following an energetic impulse, like dynamics in music.

TM: So, not a fan of manifestos posing as fiction?

BF: I participated in the movement to oust a group of corrupt politicians from the New York State Senate a couple of years ago. If you want to make changes in policy—and it’s a worthy pursuit, activist movements, criminal justice reform, all of it—you need to do the work of politics. Which is tireless, usually thankless, but social. Novel writing is something else.

TM: A couple more? First, the pain. Why was To Remain Nameless not picked up by a big house?

BF: I had the same question! Querying is so demoralizing. How many times can you hear “I don’t know how to sell this”? But there’s a big world of small presses in the U.S. People who are engaged, who care. For love not money. It’s not a cultural desert; it’s just hard to connect. And then Hilary Plum at Rescue Press saw it. So careful and astute, so beautiful in her attention to it. In my experience that’s really rare.

TM: A story question: That scene where Laura and Tess go out drinking in Istanbul with a couple of Swedish NGO financial guys. Is this the single greatest scene written in contemporary American literature in the last decade? Or just one of the greatest?

BF: Ha! There’s a kind of euphoria in that scene. The frustration of working in the international sector builds up until you have this kind of ecstatic release.

TM: The kiss that follows a piss. You wandering into magical realism?

BF: No, I think it’s real. You do piss out reports and meaningless tax documents, files that no one at headquarters is going to read. They are in your body until you pass them. And then—ahhhh—you feel better!

TM: Indeed, a protagonist at the breaking point but still with so much to offer. Decidedly hopeful, no?

BF: I mean, the oceans are rising, how could you bring a life into this twisted, unjust place? That’s part of her conundrum. It’s the contemplative space of the book. Its structure puts grace, faith, and the hope for something better under pressure and it’s for us to see what comes of that.

TM: A comment, not a question. I’m a snob and the stuff I like to read has to be really good. So, big house, schmig house. To Remain Nameless is a strong, thoughtful read. Honor is due.

BF: That’s gratifying to hear. Thanks.

A Year in Reading: Iľja Rákoš

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In contrast to most years and the reassuring ebb and flow of
good fortune and ill—never too good, never too ill—that attends them, this year
produced some honest-to-God awfulness like no other in memory. My life, at least,
had a definable low point: The day I got lost in the neighborhood I’ve lived in
for the better part of two decades.

I’d been out of the hospital following (let’s call it) treatment for COVID-19 about a month. My hospital ward of 50 patients had one oxygen concentrator. Despite my blood-oxygen saturation levels of 90%, that device wasn’t coming my way anytime soon. I checked myself out and went home.

God is good: I got better.

Anyway, I’d been out about a month and had just read a short
interview with the Minister of Health where he claimed that Ukrainian hospitals
had only enough supplemental oxygen for 38% of all hospitalized Covid patients.
(We can argue about this [you will lose], but I maintain there is no more
entertaining or original fiction than that produced by Ministers quoting
statistics.) Rage sufficiently fueled I went out for a walk.

At some point on that walk things went foggy. I found myself
standing on a street I didn’t recognize, shopping in my right hand, on my left a
small boy with an oddly familiar face. We found a bench and sat, the boy
singing the line “do you know the way to San Jose, I’ve been away so long…”
over and over. I dug through the shopping bag. Two bath towels. Half a kilo of
dates and three packages of spices—cumin, berberis, and fennel. A prescription
for eyeglasses.  A kilogram of black
beans. “Black beans won’t aggravate your arthritic knee,” said a voice and the
fog lifted. My five-year-old and I walked home.

The fugue state held no fear, no sense of urgency that I had
to be somewhere other than where I was right at that moment. Since then,
however, things have turned a little shaky. I’ve gotten lost twice more—streets
I’ve walked ten-thousand times rendered into foreign territory—yet it is
difficult to recall other junctures in my life where I had felt that peaceful.
Gone were a head filled with obligations and shattered deadlines. However, just
as gone were a slew of forgotten, crisply imagined paragraphs generated on long
walks, along with all frustration at the weather, the government, the maskless.

Not gone is a kind of fuzzy certainty that I read a lot of
good books this year. My neurologist assures me that I will, in time, remember

That’s the long way around to saying that I can only
recommend, with any confidence seven books that I (re)read this year. I read
more, certainly. The signs are there: Dog-eared pages; old book festival
bookmarks; marginalia in my handwriting, these occasionally in the opaque-to-outsiders
and comforting familiarity of a dead language I’ve battled with for 40-plus
years. The signs are there. It’s the books and any substantive recollection of
what is in most of them them that are obscured.

But the titles below stuck somehow. Others should be on this
list but brainfog (as a friend from back home describes it) prevents
their inclusion. It would be dishonest to say that as I write these paragraphs
that I know why I had thought to recommend them. There is good
news: I get to read them again.

I look forward to that.


The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray – Murray, I have learned, took a lot of heat for this collection of essays first published in 1970. It should take the perceptive reader no more than the length of the first essay to discover why. But if you, like me, are befuddled if not worn down by the “more heat than light” tone of the American socio-cultural dialog and desire some clarity of both thought and prose on the matter, this is your book.

Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen – If Masha Gessen is not on some prohibitive list of leading American public intellectuals then there must not be any such list. Drawing on Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s concept of the “Mafia State” to describe post-Communist regimes, Gessen has given us in this brief volume an essential primer for effective civic engagement in the 2020s. Their critique of western institutions is sharp, their credentials to issue it indisputable, and wow, can they write. Clear, crisp prose from a mind that we should all be glad is on our side. A sample:

In the Trump era, there is no past and no future, no history and no vision—only the anxious present. There can be no hopes, dreams, and ideals where there is no shared reality; and there is no political community where there is only the self-obsessed and endlessly self-referential president.

Missionaries by Phil Klay – They say that organized religion has a lot in common with making war— plodding, chaotic enterprises led by egomaniacs and driven in equal measure by true belief and opportunism. In Missionaries, Klay draws on that characterization and freshens it up with personal insight into the particular and abstract motives that fuel the urge to make war or to be just close enough to it to profit from the carnage. One take: this is a story about war and geopolitics in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Venezuela. Another take: This is a hard look at human nature and its attempts at establishing political order—a phenomenon long marked by graphic violence, personal betrayal, and pathetic frailty. Concocted of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, the Old Testament, 21st-century geopolitics, and Rage Against the Machine, Missionaries is that rare kind of muscular fiction that manages to heal even as it wounds.

To Remain Nameless by Brad Fox – This debut novel beautifully navigates the difficulty of telling a thoroughly modern story built on an ancient conceptual superstructure—that of hope, grace, and the urge to do the right thing. Fox’s characters circle the earth in pursuit of a righteous objective whose elusiveness can never supplant its desirability—precisely, the ache to accomplish something meaningful with the time given us. Tess and Laura have seen the world, perhaps too much of it, and have now entered a period of reflection, of reassessment, and of labor pains coming two minutes apart. (There’s nothing quite like the arrival of a baby to help recast the grandest of abstract global ambitions down to the particular.) Told with casual authority and a smart, tension-building economy, Fox has given us a novel for our age: a world of hurt, crushing need all around, and no work more vital than that of keeping hope alive. Thanks to Rescue Press for recognizing the need, and finding the place, for storytelling like this.

Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman – The concept of faith gets a bad shake in contemporary culture. In Europe, they’ve replaced it with naïve empiricism. In the east, it’s buried in self-mystification or impenetrable ritual. In America, they’ve sugared it up and rendered it in soft focus. Inevitabilities, one and all. The good thing is that this has created a place in the world for the verse of Christian Wiman—poetry where spiritual, non-empirical conviction, aka ‘faith’, comes out swinging, raging off the page and reinforcing the homely dignity of just being alive, created in God’s image, and not about to go out without a fight. Not for the faint of heart. One couplet:

O God / Make of my anguish / more than I can make.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – For a collection that “the philosopher king” never wrote as such, in a format he never intended, the marginalia and aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius have stood the test of time. These snippets—their generosity, their foresight, their maturity, their grace—have carried me through Covid recovery. Meditations should be required reading for any person who seeks public office or, really, any sphere of human agency.

Isaiah by Isaiah – When I was a child, my pastor sussed out some ability in me for memorization and began assigning me big chunks of the Old Book. Whole chapters of the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms for recitation. That was 47 years ago. This October, COVID hit me particularly hard and I was shuttled off to a Ukrainian triage hospital for treatment in conditions I wouldn’t subject a rabid dog to. In the place I was assigned to there was no prospect of receiving timely medical care, but there was no alternative—no other available beds anywhere. I was in a room with four more sick, hacking men, all of us over 50. There were no plastic barriers, masks, or other precautions taken. Just lie there, (try to) breathe each other’s air, eat your cornmeal in the a.m. But Isaiah—poetry of nearly three millennia past of a rigor and beauty that is incomparable—was in my head and on my lips. Its recollection, its recitation, was essential to my return home. Prove me wrong. Better yet, find it in the Authorized Version in English, aka “The King James Bible,” and prove yourself wrong.

+RIP John le Carré, aka David Cornwell+

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

- | 3

In 1996, on my second day in Ukraine, a respected, local priest—Otets (Father) Ivan—invited me to his flat for lunch. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I went. I’d barely hung up my jacket when he thumbed open a bottle of Sovetskoye champagne with one hand and poured while snapping a chocolate bar into sections with the other. I was bewitched. He then dropped a chunk *bloop* into our shimmering flutes, handed me a glass and offered up this sotto voce nugget with a wink: “our girls love it this way.” Thus had begun my master-class in the finer points of Ukrainian corruption.

Which you may have heard of. The news reports don’t do it justice, of course. For Ukrainians rich or poor, it is as pervasive as it is maddening. Every sociocultural touchpoint bears its trace, from the obstetrics that open your eyes to the palliatives that close them corruption complicates the process. Register your kid in a school. Get a driver’s license. A dog license. A dentist’s license. Open a business. Close a business. Make a sale. Build a home. Pay your taxes. Finagle a liquified natural gas distribution contract or secure a plum date with the local priest for your wedding and it’s blat (pull), otkat (kickback), and khabarya (bribery) all the way down. It’s quid pro quo, who-ya-know, and pay-to-play.

But over these past five years Ukrainian corruption, both macro- and micro-, has met with some significant resistance. The unwashed are naming names. We have become a nation of whistleblowers. There are, finally, arrests.

Had we been listening, Big History would have long ago consoled us: Unless forestalled by terminal cultural collapse, the grubby venality, relentless emotional grind, fragile loyalties and ugly contempt for individual dignity that connote a pervasive culture of immiseration will not hold. Corruption—personal or systemic—is unsustainable indefinitely. Finding corruption, wherever it occurs, has never been the problem. In Ukraine, it took the blood of the young mixed with the memory of the old to confront it and to put a beginning to the end of the days of bullying dilettantism and petty, quotidian tyrannies. Lev, Igor, and Rudy simply showed up too late.

For my part, I was afforded a nice,
soft landing in the bog of Ukrainian corruption. I had tutelage from that jazz
impresario of scam—the abundant, amiable Otets Ivan. The embodiment of
the Russian proverb: if you’re going to steal, steal a million. If you’re
going to fuck, fuck the Tsaritsa.

A week before the end of my parish
service in Ukraine, Ivan called me up, excited; he wanted to show me the
galleys for a book he’d written. “Take a look”, he says. I turn a page,
another, begin to read. Slowly the fog lifts. I was reading my own sermon. Turn
a page. My essay. Turn a page. My lecture. Seven years of my work in print with
only one alteration: Ivan had listed himself as the author. He hadn’t even
bothered to change the anecdotes from my-cum-his youth growing up in the
1960s on the Pacific coast of Washington State. I hope it sold well; I was on
fire in my pastoral writing. Two things I know about Otets Ivan: He possessed
a genius-level capacity for corruption, and he was my first local friend. The
latter is relevant to my reading because I lack Ivan’s gift for acquisitiveness,
but I am not less corrupt. To address it I read.

That’s the long way around to saying
that I’ve come to a point in my life, in my reading, where I seek out books
that engage my need for redemption. In practical terms, a book—no matter how
relentlessly hyped—that betrays a lack of breadth, experience, or feel for
honest human encounter doesn’t interest me. I won’t be scammed. Fiction or
non-fiction, if I get a whiff of manifesto, a hint of ideology, performative
prose, cheap signaling, aversion to complexity or any of the other stultifying categories
of sociological pablum that make for viral tweets, then you’ve lost me as a
reader. I don’t need to be made any dumber than I am naturally. And I, like you,
definitely don’t need to be made more susceptible to the predations of the truly
sinister agents of corruption that are at work all around us.

In the end, I’m looking for love in the stories I read because I believe the Old Book is trustworthy in this: love shall cover a multitude of sins. Edify me, lift me up, restore me, help me atone, even provoke me, but talk to me as if I were the only person in the room. It’s what they called storgē in ancient Athens—longsuffering, dedicate, parental love. It’s uncommon among storytellers, a rare gift, and the surest antidote to corruption I know of. You’ll find it in each of the books below.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I am a tree-climber. I became enamored of Macfarlane a dozen years back when he opened The Wild Places with a description of his need to climb “a tall grey-barked beech” in a wood outside London. In Underland, he descends to locales that my claustrophobia prevents me from following him except on paper. He takes us below the surface of the planet to the concealed geographies, sacred and ancient, that undergird our existence and link us to the depths of time. My book of the year, perhaps of next year, too.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson

The great appeal of the best Russian writers is their sneaky way of slipping hard-won philosophy into the story and doing it without being preachy. Perhaps that’s because it’s marked by an acceptance for our mutual predicament (essential to storgē), suffused with irony but bereft of contempt. Osipov’s short stories are brimming with it. Here’s a snippet: “He knew that all the cars passing by contained people who valued their lives no less than he valued his—their lives and the safety of their vehicles; and so they tended to be cautious, give warning, and not to despise themselves for their willingness to yield.” Think about that.

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers

As preposterously original as her fiction is, this is Petrushevskaya at her spare, brutal best. This refreshingly brief memoir adds, at the very least, sobering perspective to current debates about “Cancel Culture”. At its most exhilarating it provides some toothy, deeply grounded counterpoint to the claim that there are no more heroes.

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

I swear, Marilynne Robinson steals all my ideas and then writes the hell out of them with intellectual rigor that’s as rare as it is outmoded in an increasingly vitiated culture. She is the anti-Tweet, the anti-meme, the anti-eyeroll GIF. Lectures, essays and, yep, sermons. Read her, get smarter, and feel your heart swell.

Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

An articulate, compassionate, and necessarily particular argument/memoir on the “fluidity of racial borders” and the idea that it is not the perception of race that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to concepts of race. Williams delves into the abyss of corrupted human nature and emerges hopeful writing, for example: “…the situation is not zero-sum: We can simultaneously resist bigotry and imagine a society that has outgrown the identities it preys on. In fact, we have to.” Smart x3.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

Proviso: You will need to read the first three books in Krasznahorkai’s tetralogy—Satantango, Melancholy of Resistance, War & War—if you want to get this. What am I talking about? There’s nothing to get. Unless, that is, you’re interested in grasping the uncommon appeal of fake news, collective crisis of conscience, and cultural entropy. And all wrapped in Krasznahorkai’s prose both staggering and nonpareil, and dipped in wincingly dark humor sauce. Very funny. Very true. Very us.

My Chernobyl

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☢ ☢ ☢ a tv show

In an early scene of the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl the local Pripyat town council is called to a meeting. By this point in Soviet history, these meetings of official Communist Party functionaries—like those portrayed in the scene—served no purpose beyond employing whatever means necessary to save the Party embarrassment from another ideological failure. The set-up is borderline comic, appropriately so, with a tableful of actors portraying crusty, back-slapping Soviet nomenklatura—honest to goodness bad guys—all too ready to swallow the demonic proposal offered by the crustiest Party hack in the room: Shut down the town. Nobody in or out. Cut the phone lines. We can’t allow a general panic. Particularly, the old man insists, since there’s nothing to panic about.

I wondered, though, whether Ukrainians and Belarussians watching Chernobyl wouldn’t guffaw their borscht out their noses at another “Hollywood” attempt to dramatize their aching history. More cultural hash, devoid of nuance, stuffed with comic book Soviet citizens. Had HBO screwed up, casting Anglophone actors who wouldn’t know a Ukrainian from a Taresian from the Delta Quadrant? The actors around that table were not the unflappable, taciturn eastern Slavs I’ve spent half my life among. Not even close.

I was pretty sure of myself: In giving life to Chernobyl, HBO, in a gloriously unintentional blast of irony, had birthed a mutant. A flop. It would sink like a pebble in a pond. Too windy. Far too nuanced for the 280-character generation. And anyway, ancient history. 1986? Pre-internet. People wouldn’t care. For proof, look to the five million Kyivites living within 80 miles of the Chernobyl dead zone, our city hyped by an endless string of millennial puff-pieces about “Kyiv: The New Berlin!”—how bad can the damage be, really? If nothing else, the series would fail because as an internet troll once scolded me: Ukraine is irrelevant. By writing about it I was just promoting American hegemony—a CIA acolyte, a baby boomer stooge pining for the Cold War and looking to disparage Marx.

An assertion that was, of course, as ignorant as it was beside the point. I love Marx. But the exchange did provide a delightfully ironic rendering of what happens when an ideologue bastardizes an otherwise worthy piece of technology—be it the internet or a nuclear reactor—to serve parochial interests.

Back on point: Admittedly, the Chernobyl series faced challenges. People would rather forget. Nuclear physics is hard, and conversely, easy to ignore. Ukraine’s new president, a comedian by trade (there is no joke in this sentence), is currently prodding the Ministry of Culture to turn the Exclusion Zone into a “Tourism Magnet,” and I wish I were kidding about the formulation he chose. Ukrainians who earn their bread and board in the cultural sector have largely adopted an exasperated pose toward the subject of Chernobyl—it’s boring. Insignificant. Ukraine has so much more to offer. A sentiment that oddly recalls Cousin Eddy in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation describing “the Yak Woman” at a local carnival: “She’s got these great big horns growing right out above her ears. Ugly as sin but a sweet gal, and a helluva good cook.” Chernobyl casts Ukraine as Europe’s Yak Woman. And if radioisotopes have anything to say—and they do—it will continue to serve in that role for the next 10 millennia, give or take.

☢ ☢ ☢ the history

Here’s the gist: In the early morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded—the worst nuclear disaster in European history. It came about because a young Ukrainian engineer, Sasha Akimov, did exactly what his boss told him to do and punched the malfunctioning reactor’s big red OFF button.

There’s more to the story—and the HBO series tells it well, with clarity that few physics professors could match—but that punched button would force the permanent evacuation of 350,000 people, kill tens of thousands more, embitter tens of millions, contaminate the greater part of Europe with random showers of radioactive fallout, poison sheep in Britain and Sami tribes in Norway, take a solid $225 billion bite out of an already flailing Soviet economy, and provide a fatal kick to the groin for the USSR.

In the 33 years since, the accident has also resulted in a shitstorm of mendacity, double dealing, and unprecedented opportunity for fiscal corruption in a state celebrated the world over for its genius-level capacity for graft fueled by disinformation. It has produced enough scientific and sociological studies to level a forest, grist for Ukraine’s competing hard-right political factions, and helped fashion at least two nation-states that suffer from chronic, somatically mutated socio-political cynicism.

☢ ☢ ☢ at home in Kyiv

By accident of history I am better positioned to spot the little flaws in the Chernobyl production—the rare anachronism, the even rarer info-dump passing itself off as dialogue and the very-non-Slavic staginess in some of the acting. An example of the latter: In one scene the male lead—in what is an otherwise knee-buckling performance by British actor Jared Harris—stands alone at a bar, knocking back jigger after jigger of vodka with nary a zakuska (munchies, hors d’oeuvre) in sight. Clueless that a true Soviet man, uncharacteristically deprived of zakusky, would take a deep snort of his own sweaty wrist after each gulp.

Yet, I kept watching long enough to confirm a thing or two, namely: goddamn HBO. They don’t make flops. My initial skepticism was wrongheaded. Chernobyl, the mini-series, is good. In places, great. A series to rewatch, if not by me. All it took was a single long crane shot filmed on a street I know well.

The scene in question shook me—wrong word—sent me into a sobbing fit that scared the hell out of my sons, three and five. It was filmed not three blocks from our flat. The Soviet penchant for cookie cutter architecture surely helped in the scouting for locations that resemble those in the ghost town of Pripyat and 1980s Kyiv. My neighborhood had provided one.

Military-drab personnel trucks with the word LIUDY (“people inside”) spray-painted in capital letters on the tailgate pull onto Kyiv’s Kostiantynivska Street. Soldiers fan out along the street to begin the work of conscripting some of the 700,000 volunteers it would take to restore the devastated area to something resembling order. Kostiantynivska is bisected by tram tracks and lined on either side by modernist apartment blocks. When it came on screen, I knew the place immediately—my sons’ kindergarten is in the left of the shot. And there, on the right side, hangs the mistake: a single plastic-aluminum balcony extension for a top-floor flat. If Google street view is dated correctly, that balcony went up during the past four years. It certainly wasn’t there in 1986.

An ugly anachronism, but one that reminds me that in life, as in art, the past, present, and future will meld any damn way they please and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing. Particularly when Chernobyl-related relevancies—strontium-90, caesium-137, and plutonium-239 and its 24,000-year half-life—come into play. The spectrum of radioisotopes produced by the 60-ish metric tons of uranium that spewed from the Chernobyl reactor core and were carried by prevailing winds that dropped nuclear fallout across the breadth of Europe before it could be controlled, well, those chunks of burning stardust have a different concept of time.

Yet, Kyiv is home. Safe as Chernobyl milk. My family stays in part because we lack viable options. Also, partly because, despite attempts by cynicism, that relentless bitch, to seduce me, I will show that I am tougher than her. Or at least tougher than I was before I started allowing her room in my heart.

Chernobyl made me mad—not at all what I expected when I sat down to watch in preparation for this essay. Full disclosure: Chernobyl—the accident, not the HBO series—and I have some shared history.

☢ ☢ ☢ an ancient history

I used to be a pastor, a priest, a performer of ancient Christian ritual. As such, I, like most clergy, kept a book called a Pastoral Agenda—a ledger of official sacerdotal function. You get baptized, married, anointed, or buried on my watch and the relevant names, dates, Scriptural text, and attending circumstances go in the book. An earthly spreadsheet with heavenly data.

One crisp autumn day in 2001, I entered a name and the attending circumstances in my leather-bound, gold-leaf embossed Agenda that ended up being the last entry I would ever make as a clergyman. Before I left the Church, taking off the cloth for good, more weddings, funerals, etc. would follow, though they’re mostly a blur. They’re definitely not in my Agenda. I have no conscious memory of it happening, but it’s clear that I stopped writing things down that day.

About two-and-a-half years after that final entry, I would finish my parish work in Ukraine and return to the United States. Six months later I would be released from a psychiatric hospital, now tagged as suicidal, with PTSD, and on full disability: an unholy trinity that puts a hellacious crimp in your job prospects in God’s green America. I did what any sane person would do: I went back to the country that had unmade me. The place that had confronted and continues to confront my demons with its own.

That last entry in the book records the day I spent with a mourning family in a small village in far western Ukraine—day three of a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral. I led the procession from the home to the church. Sang the liturgy. Led the procession from the church to the cemetery. Officiated at the internment. We had a bit of a scare at the church doors where pallbearers traditionally kneel three times, lowering the coffin to the ground before crossing the threshold. That day the pallbearer—only one was needed—nearly stumbled. In the end he managed not to fall, and the Igloo cooler-sized coffin he was carrying was delivered safely to the sanctuary.

The funeral was for a two-year-old boy dead of acute juvenile myeloid leukemia. The 39th funeral I had conducted in Ukraine for a cancer victim under the age of six.

The drive back from that Carpathian village was gorgeous, but I was in a rush because I’d been invited to a talk with a member of UNSCEAR—the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation—meeting with local pediatricians. I disliked her on sight. When she opened her mouth it only sealed the deal. She spoke with the dismissive assurance typical to the breed, telling the room: There is no credible evidence of widespread malign effect on public health from radiation released during the Chernobyl catastrophe. I worked with pediatricians who had, five years running, determined that 100 percent of the children they treated tested positive for hypothyroidism—thousands of children annually. Ukrainian children born a generation after Chernobyl. Their mothers had been girls when it blew up. Their results, these doctors were told, were anecdotal. It was intimated that their research would not be considered for UNSCEAR reporting “as is.”

The dreams can be rough. Dead-eyed parents standing by a grave as the shoebox that holds the desiccated corpse of their little one is lowered into the black soil. The child whose family was so poor that the only coffin they could afford was made of particle board covered in felt. The dead boy’s godfather served as pallbearer. It was raining hard as we walked from the church to the grave and the box began to split apart in his hands. He gripped it tighter before eventually dropping to his knees and weeping in a way that has me praying for senility. Perhaps one day I will unhear him. Or unsee the vision cauterized into my brain of a little girl, pinched and skeletal in her coffin, and the crisscrossing indentations made by the mortician’s stitches holding her tiny mouth shut.

☢ ☢ ☢ the half-life we’re living

In these latter days, Chernobyl adds little to my existence beyond the 1.5-percent pension tax I pay every quarter—certainly an upgrade from toddler funerals and the attendant demons that HBO refused to keep locked in their cage. And there are demons. There are more lurking in this story than the series could ever begin to tell: the State-enforced abortions and the pregnant women crossing borders to avoid them, the ungodly spike in juvenile cancers, the crushing infertility rates, the 31 years it took to finally put a stable cover over the reactor, and, God help us, even profiteering bankers, those nuggets of human toxin that surpass all understanding.

Perhaps the defining phenomenon I draw from Chernobyl is the understanding that there is no limit to the evil we will do to one another. Though perhaps I stand as proof that there is a limit to how much evil the average person can stand. Something the HBO series captured well by centering its story around Valery Legasov, the actual Soviet physicist and inorganic chemist who drove the creation of a team of 700,00—700,000!—first responders by sheer force of will. (You have to admire Soviet maximalism.) The same ragged crew of the unwashed whose daily micro-acts of defiance understood tyranny as a way of life and not just vocabulary for a hyperbolic political tweet. Legasov, though he possessed all knowledge of nuclear fission, and though he spoke the truth to Soviet power in the tongues of angels, could not find sufficient love in his heart and hanged himself in his flat.

Here, close to the core, we have it better than most. Chernobyl hunkers nearby, a daily reminder of the lessons we ignore to our peril. That governments lie. That their noble-sounding intentions will involve, without fail, practical human cost. There is no truth, no nobility, no heart in them. The lie is their native language and murder their craft. Embitterment their true policy. They call some men free while enslaving others. And they take this turn—some sooner, some later—because they are made up of us. We swallow the lie as we feed it. John Le Carré put it well: “Communism. Capitalism. It’s the innocents who get slaughtered.”

Don’t misunderstand, the broader lessons of Chernobyl—if that’s not too quaint—are as unimpeachable as they are immutable: Rogue technology is off its leash; we shit where we eat and the earth groans, indicating it’s had its fill; our institutions, our best ideas, are obsolete the day they are minted. And yet I can’t help but think that these concerns, though disturbing, are altogether predictable phenomena on the spectrum of evil produced by a benthic species with a penchant for deep hostility and murder in its genes.

Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature, told me a couple of years back during an interview for The Millions: “I cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them…about love. But this is hard for us…every story about love inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture.” And despite the prevailing timbre of this story, I am not sure I completely agree with her. Chernobyl has given Ukrainians an advantage: the ability to recognize what James Joyce called “the radiance in all things.” They have seen the world as it is. The lie in all its bold potential. They have seen a generation of their children reduced to so much insignificant and unidentifiable particulate, seen those children dismissed as statistically insignificant, and yet they have endured. Who needs happiness when you have hope? Finally, when nothing is as it seems what else is there but hope?

☢ ☢ ☢

I’m sitting on a bench outside my church. Too crowded in there. Too many random nuclei bumping and jostling. Too much heat being generated. This little congregation has an unexpectedly outstanding choir and this Sunday they are singing the Rachmaninoff liturgy—a rare treat. A tram rattles down the block, the same model of tram that’s been traveling along this road for at least the last 33 years. A young woman exits the sanctuary. She is big pregnant and her belly makes it difficult for her to bow and cross herself three times before the church doors. Out and down through the narrow windows float the words of St. John Chrysostom from deep antiquity—let us now lay aside all earthly care—to my ear the spiritual cantus firmus that fueled Rachmaninoff as he labored to compose this otherworldly music precisely as the Russian Empire was beginning its meltdown. The pretty woman smiles at me as she passes.

Image Credit: Oleksandr Khomenko.

A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rakos

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These things come in threes and today they came nearly all at once. The first, when the President of Ukraine–famous for his chocolate–announced that he was putting the half of the country that borders Russia under martial law. The second with the two emails from the U.S. Embassy: the first advising me to be aware of “heightened police presence” and the second which informed me that my sons, 3 and 5, had been issued American passports. And finally there came Michael Cohen and the glimmer of hope that we might not be hearing the phrase “constitutional crisis” every damn evening on the news much longer.

I don’t know and am loath to predict how these events fit together–the war, the passports, the Cohen revelation–I just know they do. You can laugh, but that’s the way things work here: in threes. You greet an honored guest with three kisses. You receive a long absent friend into your home by offering them 1) bread, 2) salt, and 3) a lengthy formal blessing. When you go on a trip you sit on your suitcase before you leave and cross yourself three times. If you’ve ever endured a full Eastern Christian Orthodox liturgy you wouldn’t be wrong to walk away after the benediction convinced that orthodox ritual has a certain OCD quality to it. Why pray it once when you can do it three times?

With the species developing a real knack for atrocity, I turn to books not so much in search of escape but for reassurance. An irrational, and fully conscious, bid to force the world into a semblance of order, a place where things come in threes. Faith, hope, and love. Wisdom, integrity, and goodwill. Kessel to Malkin to Crosby. This phenomenon almost certainly affected my reading choices more than usual this year and I selected (or had selected for me) writers I could count on to honor that ancient Trinitarian codex: intelligence, clarity, and truth. These three, couched in beauty, can change the world. I am required to believe it.

There is more to say here but I’ll let it stew for a bit, hopeful that I will yet have opportunities to express my ideas this year here and elsewhere. And I will take my cue from the authors I name below, and not blanche in the face of the presumption, invective, ill will, bald-faced mendacity, self-righteousness, lazy orthodoxy, or myopically stubborn resistance to engage that I encounter this year. I’ll write about it. I’ll take it on, that–in defiance of Keats–the ceremony of innocence not be drowned. I have no choice really. It’s snowing hard–the first real thump of winter in what is tuning up to be a very long one, morally, politically, and meteorologically, and my two little Americans are tucked up warm and safe, the five-year-old with his arm wrapped protectively around his brother. These allow me no room for cynicism.

But you came for the books. Each title I recommend here, it turns out, contains its own trinity of sorts: an absence of juvenile staginess; something of wisdom; something of love. These helped keep my hands steady as the troops amassed at the border and my brain struggled to distinguish between threats to civilization whether credible or concocted.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
I’m hopeful that the day will come that le Carré ceases to be referred to as an “author of spy novels.” It’s going on six decades that he’s been offering us an unflinching critique of our systems and ourselves, and yeah, his protagonists are often spies. But, oh, what spies. In this revisiting of the misdeeds of characters he first introduced us to in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré takes a coldblooded look at how the past refuses to stay buried. This is a masterful writer, with a keen eye for humanity at its most frail and most sinister. One proviso: to get the full enjoyment and understanding of Legacy, prepare by reading the other two novels I’ve mentioned here. Your local bookseller, not to mention your conscience, will thank you.

Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman
If you have not yet discovered James Kelman, here are 400-ish worthy pages to allow you to take on one of Scotland’s hidden treasures. Kelman’s ability to inhabit a child’s head provides us with a remarkable opportunity to again confront the world for the first time. He writes with grit and physicality of a rare sort and his depiction of Kieron “Smiddy” Smith, ages five through 13 and growing up poor in Glasgow, is an achievement nothing short of astonishing. Kelman’s art will shatter your preconceptions of what a child narrator sounds like. Just don’t look for neat plotlines or tidy, moral-laden endings–this is the anti-Harry Potter. This is your kids.

All That Is Left Is All That Matters by Mark Slouka
The author of the criminally underrated Brewster is back with a short-story set that puts his considerable gifts to the test. There’s a muscularity to Slouka’s writing that I don’t encounter often enough in contemporary fiction and it strikes me that this is a writer who’s been around. He’s a grown-up and the worldview of his characters, regardless of background, reflects that. He whittles our contemporary predicament down to its core and his characters, without pretense, are largely untouched by first-world problems or facile first-world solutions.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
If a strictly linear narrative structure is obligatory to your definition of what makes for a “good book,” I’d encourage you to set that requirement aside for a bit and consider this 2018 Booker Prize winner. At 116 stories filling 400 pages, structurally it will seem chaotic at first. Stick with it, though, and themes and patterns will begin to emerge of lives and loves and a rocket ship ride through the swirl of stars that is us. An added bonus: Jennifer Croft’s translation (from Polish) is a joy to read and a template for a translation master class.

Florida by Lauren Groff 
This is a problematic writer for me for a couple of reasons: first, Florida is the second of about half-a-dozen books published by Riverhead Books that I could have put on my list this year, and having to choose was not pleasant; and second, I struggle to decide whether Groff has written a set of fictional short stories or just spent years and years observing the (apparent) mess that is Florida and rendered some exceptional creative non-fiction describing life in those parts. This is high art–the conjunction of a keen intelligence, a febrile imagination, and unrelenting skill that gets you thinking so hard about your own circumstances it stings. And these sentences. I shake my head in disbelief, wondering if it’s easy for her to be this good. These stories will spawn a brood of “I don’t like any of these characters” critiques, no doubt. Usually a pretty good sign that a writer has knocked it out of the park. Outstanding.

Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff
How many stories have you read this year about an isolated fur trapper who falls in lust with a grizzly? None? Then what have you been reading? I’m a son of the American northwest and have always found grizz to be wet-my-pants terrifying, but Maxim Loskutoff has got me wondering if they might be an acceptable alternative to the company of some people. Come West and See, his short story debut, is filled with the careworn who spend their lives in the rugged territories in America’s northwest corner and–here’s the true part–they’ve got some unique ideas about their role inside these United States. Towering boreal forests and isolated settlements and a people and locale largely ignored fill these pages, and if you’re wondering how life in America could possibly engender the current level of disaffection that we’re seeing in society, well, here’s a dozen tales of how that works. Loskutoff’s writing puts flesh on the free-floating anxieties of those relegated to spend their days alone with their pain, and plugs them into a territory as pristine as it is insuperable. A territory that features the kind of overwhelming immensity of the natural world that would be impossible in an urban setting. Certainly the most “political” book on my list and therein lies the irony: these stories are about what happens when humanity becomes so degraded that all it has left to hold onto, all it has by which to define itself, is its politics.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

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One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes.

Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm.

Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel.

Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie.

All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky.  He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books.  A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too.

The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook: 
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action.
If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile.

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading.

The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah
An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room.

It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right?

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it “genocide.” He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.

A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s:  “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.”

This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read.

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself.  But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.”  The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while.

And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter.

The Given World by Marian Palaia
The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut.

The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more.  Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface.

Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one.

Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh.

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling.

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart.

Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding.

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy?

Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe.

The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes!

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.”

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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The Grueling, Painful, Beautiful Fiction of László Krasznahorkai

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Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. There’s something about the sodden, crumbling brick and cinderblock-scape of eastern European towns that I find irresistible. I’m arrested by the desperate beauty of these places: the wrecked medieval castle on the outskirts; the main street with its waterstained two-story layer cake structures in fading pastel pinks and butterscotches; inexpert patching where entropy or mortar shells have left their mark; squat cubical huts slathered in oatmeal stucco. The inevitable Erste Bank. The EURO-MODA secondhand shop. The bad pastry shop. The bad baguette sandwich shop. The Všetko! One Euro! shop. The gatherings of Roma. The improbable Cadillac Escalades of the nouveau-riche wedged into too-small parking.

For me, the allure of these towns is matched only by the pain undergirding them. I wish I was capable of enjoying a less complicated kinship with these places. Just a tourist with no plans of hanging around—here for the halušky and a few somber snapshots at the family boneyard. But like the region where my family name adorns villages and ancestral mansions, my better days are likely behind me. Like them, I am running out of time. Actuarial irrefutabilities are at work; senescence is taking chips out of me on a daily basis despite my plans, my hopes, and the people who depend on me.

For László Krasznahorkai, the 2015 Man Booker International laureate and stalwart-in-translation of the New Directions stable, these locales, or ones like them, comprise the greater part of his published fiction. Over the last dozen years or so, New Directions has released a mini-torrent of Krasznahorkai—seven titles by this soft-spoken Hungarian author whose debut, Satantango, first hit shelves in 1985. What’s the fascination with this author, a chronicler of the detritus of failed collective policies, inebriation, madness, faithlessness, and spiritual asphyxia?

Perhaps the sixth and most recent New Directions release, The Last Wolf & Herman, provides a partial answer for those wondering whether or not to read the writer Susan Sontag referred to somewhat hastily as the “contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse.” The book is a slim volume consisting of two (structurally and functionally, three) related short stories: I. “The Last Wolf” and II. “Herman”—a) “The Game Warden” and b) “The Death of Craft.” Stylistically, the latter two stories represent a more conventional side of Krasznahorkai, but “The Last Wolf”—involving a wolf we never see and a disillusioned German philosophy professor that we see far too much of—is unlike any wolf story you’ve read before.

Befuddled in Berlin, our professor bends an elbow at a local Hauptstrasse watering hole, puzzling out a conundrum: What is preferable—a life marked by futility or a life marked by scorn? Burning a hole in his pocket is a letter outlining a generous job proposal, but the faded scholar is assailed by doubt:
…he can’t have been the one it was intended for, since he wouldn’t have been invited to Extremadura, by this unheard-of foundation, a foundation staffed by people he had never heard of, asking him whether he felt like spending a couple of weeks there writing something about the region…
The sporadically interested bartender does his best to stay alert as time melds for both teller and tale in this account of epistemic hell. But spilling his story brings the professor little relief as truths and half-truths and facts lost and gained in translation slowly peel back the scab of the unrelenting disquiet that there is, despite the substantial sum offered for his services, little to be learned and less to be accomplished in this venture. But chronically broke, the professor accepts the offer.

The mantle he assumes becomes more a calling than a payday, directing him to a distant country, to confront barren wastelands and scour obscure texts in search of a beast that may never have been. We sit with the barman and listen along with him as our itinerant professor endures the generously financed and enthusiastically, if haphazardly, organized junket to Extremadura—Spain? Portugal? Both? Neither?—where the last wolf in the region may or may not have met its end. The professor is a man drowning in myth and metatext and deep suspicion, but contractually bound to codify whatever he might find, real or otherwise.

By story’s end, relentless self-accusation has the good professor lying curled, fetal, in expectation of his inevitable unmasking and the discovery that “it had been a mistake inviting him, and that they’d be taking him back…asking him not to make them look ridiculous again.”

A common misstep when grappling with eastern European writers is to misread these authors’ personal experiences of a life lived under a fractured Communism, their discombobulated personal Marxism, and their more-than-likely agnostic take on organized religion and to conflate these into a catchall label—“political”—as if that were some sort of commendation, or explanation. László Krasznahorkai’s life and work are not spared this broad misconception, James Wood calling him “a more political writer than Beckett” and Margit Koves in Adelphi “…a romantic anti-capitalist of the age of globalization who examines what happens to various forms of art and culture at the time of globalization,” both of which, while accurate, are akin to focusing on a politician’s modest handsize, or a writer’s height.

To misread Krasznahorkai as merely, or primarily, a political writer is to risk squandering the profoundly personal nature of his stories. More tragically, it is to foist a kind of sloppy activist, and determinately secular métier onto one of contemporary literature’s most sophisticated exponents of the sacred. It is to miss his elegant, if troubling, depiction of the regrettable distance at which the sacred is held from the greater part of contemporary cultural production. With his repeated exploration of the importance of the sacred to life and culture, Krasznahorkai is among the more godly godless authors you’re likely to meet. These, I submit, are what, in a widely publicized quote, W.G. Sebald was hinting at when he said that “Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

Though lacking his predecessor’s mad religious zeal, like Gogol Krasznahorkai directs his most consistent and pointed critique against a kind of indolence that results in spiritual vacuity, servility to baser human drives, and incurious acquiescence to the pull of a morally and aesthetically baffled culture. Although clearly no fan of conspicuous consumption, his hard appraisal of the same is more than just fashionably provisional snobbery toward rough-grind economics. Rather than limit his focus to the corrupting power of capital, he would have us seek out worth that lies beyond the realm of what is bought, sold, traded, stolen, corroded, and corrupted.

Often cursorily compared to writers like Thomas Bernhard and William Gaddis, Krasznahorkai employs nothing of the former’s self-crippling contempt for the church, and serves as a proper antipode to the latter’s flippant disregard for all things spiritual. His protagonists are not polemical, but confessional. His motif has more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s via negativa to enlightenment, populated by an absent god, human savagery, holy fools, ersatz messiahs, sacred texts, and the unwashed but heroic who are consumed by the task of making things right. But when making things right proves, as it inevitably does, beyond the capacity of a Krasznahorkai protagonist, it is madness, exile, and ruin that follow.

Audible in the creeping dementia of these central characters —the doctor in Satantango, Korin in War & War, the hapless Valuska in The Melancholy of Resistance, and Herman in “The Game Warden” – are echoes of Samuel Beckett’s crone in Ill Seen Ill Said:
Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then.
What Beckett manages stylistically in brevity and quick-cuts, Krasznahorkai accomplishes via what his long-time translator George Szirtes has described as “a slow lava flow of narrative.” The ancients might have characterized Beckett as melitta—the sting of a solitary bee, repeated a thousand times, and Krasznahorkai as murias—a thousand individual ants moving in a wave. In regard to the latter, this quite consciously nurtured device of the paragraph- or page- or chapter- or story-long sentence is on full display in “The Last Wolf”—a 50-page story comprised of exactly one sentence.
…how could he explain how long ago he had given up the idea of thought, the point at which he first understood the way things were and knew that any sense we had of existence was merely a reminder of the incomprehensible futility of existence, a futility that would repeat itself ad infinitum, to the end of time and that, no, it wasn’t a matter of chance and its extraordinary, inexhaustible, triumphant, unconquerable power working to bring matters to birth or annihilation, but rather the matter of a shadowy demonic purpose…
George Szirtes’s fluid translation of “The Last Wolf” maintains this feel of textual surge, of ebb and flow, and remarkably, of the parallel poetic structure characteristic of the ancient Hebrew ketuvim.  The above citation concludes—if that is the right word—below.  An apodosis to the protasis ending in a deep exhale in a literary selah of sorts.
…something embedded deep in the heart of things, in the texture of the relationship between things, the stench of whose purpose filled every atom, that it was a curse, a form of damnation, that the world was the product of scorn, and God help the sanity of those who called themselves thinkers…
It is this kind of writing that, even in his short stories, reveals Krasznahorkai as a writer obsessed in the parsing of the invisible. Parsing it, and then rendering it in a philosophical relation to the visible by means of sentential waves that serve as both trap and what the author calls kijárat—a way out—a way to extract oneself from the conceit, step back, and view the overwhelming detail from a distance as it fashions itself into a cogent whole. In a sublime marriage of form and function, with image-rich prose coming at us in layers of detail and perspective and internal dialogue, Krasznahorkai’s prose readily overwhelms the reader with sadness—or isolation, or beauty—of a purity rarely encountered, but which ultimately compels us to stop, move back from the page, and offer these invisible qualities our more conscious consideration.

A too-brief example: Korin, the aspiring scribe of War & War, describes his narrow escape from peril at the sleazy “Sunshine Hotel” where even the interior windows were sheathed in:
iron bars, at which Korin had hardly taken a glance than he started back, for he only saw the people there for the fraction of a second and did not dare catch their eyes again, they looked so terrifying, but the personage beyond the glass and metal grille somewhat suspiciously asked him, ‘Sunshine Hotel?’ to which Korin had no idea what to answer, but…a few seconds later he was outside in the street again, putting as much distance between him and the place as he could, as quickly as he could, all the while thinking that he should immediately ask someone for help…
This work is that of an artist who articulates the beauty and the terror he encounters, choosing to reveal it typically in characters caught up in life’s abundance, yet an abundance that’s never quite so apparent, able to be appreciated, as when it’s being wasted. The characters shaped by Krasznahorkai don’t dabble in cheap eschatologies, nor does his prose suffer from the fate of so much sci-fi and dystopian literature—drowning in shallow puddle readings of Heideggerian concerns with techné. He addresses dehumanization and the encroachment of “the last things,” certainly, but without the de rigueur fixation on artificial intelligence and the potential for maleficent feats of engineering or bio-engineering consuming life on the planet. Fear in this fiction bubbles up from springs far more difficult to dowse, flowing from motifs that lie deeper—envy, lust, and animal malevolence—than antagonists mechanistic or materialist. It is not drones and dogma and big data that dominate the landscape in Krasznahorkai country, but Cain and Abel. His demons—as with any demon worthy of the title—lurk within, not without.

In Satantango, this degeneration is incarnate in the gluttonous “doctor.” Bent on his own ruin, his home closed to all but the woman who keeps him supplied with drink and victuals, wallowing in filth, pickling in a seemingly exhaustible supply of tulip glasses of pálinka, he eventually nails his door shut so “no one would disturb him” in his work. Which work? Medicated, wrapped in blankets against the cold, peeking out his front window to monitor the movement on the street and chronicle in his journals in delectable detail the depravity of his neighbors, the denizens of this ruined town.
He woke at noon, drenched in sweat and angry, as always after a long sleep, cursing, turning his head this way and that, furious at the wasted time. He quickly put on his glasses, reread the last sentence in his journal…’They’re dead, the lot of them…or they’re sitting at the kitchen table leaning on their elbows. Not even a broken door and window can rouse the headmaster. Come winter he’ll freeze his ass off.’
And therein art meets life, capturing the appeal of towns like Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. As towns go, they tend to be compact and compartmental, designed on a human scale, lending themselves to leisurely walking, popping into hidden courtyards for a peek at what lies within. Places wonderfully accessible to the boundless speculations of a febrile imagination. And moving past these windows, it’s not difficult to imagine a dissolute physician; a plump and lusty butcher’s wife; or a didactic, alcoholic ex-state security agent within. Outside, the new paint job bought with European Bank for R&D money dries slowly as the town spirals into its inexorable, if unacknowledged, katabasis. In each one its own history of religious purges, mass executions, plague, pogrom.

It’s not just growing older, though I wish sometimes it was; that would make things simpler. No, my fascination with impending ruin moves beyond mere fetish, or morbidity. Here, in these places marked by decline, the geographic fag-end of the corpse of Austria-Hungary, there are stories lurking. Stories that resulted in the delectable stories of László Krasznahorkai. Grueling, painful, beautiful human stories. My own, perhaps, among them.

A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

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Eighty-eight books on my TBR pile. Thirty-seven on the TBR reserve squad. And beyond Jaromír Navratil’s engrossing Prague Spring 1968, I can’t rightly remember much else of what’s stuffed into the extra carry-on I brought along on my last trip into English-speaking territory, specifically for the purpose of bringing it back filled with books. Still there, safe in the bag, in the same corner I dropped them, having unlocked my flat and walked into a life instantly too full. I don’t know how you make your personal value judgments, but I am not morally prepared to lump a suitcaseful of half-recalled books into my aggregate just yet.

Why do we do this? I managed to put away about 120 titles this year, some of those twice, yet, it wasn’t enough. I worked as a priest years back, but quit. When I took off the dress I also sold my entire library. Two thousand five hundred  books, conservatively. I kept about a half dozen, one of which was in English. Yet somehow, given sufficient time, they’ve found their way back. At first, just a trickle — a title here a title there. But then, in some twisted literary analogue of punctuated equilibrium, I now own more than I did then. Stacked and shelved, their covers shinier, their authors confirmable, and in most cases, their copyrights or attestations more recent by 100 human generations, give or take a millennium. But these new books and their silent scream for attention don’t fool me; they’re still bent on the mischief they’ve been up to since Gilgamesh.

I have a theory about all the reading and the writing, and it arises from simply having been blessed with the chance to slow down, to look around, and to talk to the people whose lives meld with my own. Reading is more than just our drug of choice. Writing well is more than just whistling louder past the boneyard now that our gullibility has been largely defrocked. We read and write for largely the same principal reason the ancients did: because, good Lord, we’re a damn mess. If 2016 hasn’t convinced you, I’m not sure what it will take.

I look east and then south, and through a day across the sea, and then back to my homeland where finally my glance comes to rest on The Donald, and I conclude that there are far darker shadows in the world than those cast by my unread piles of books. There are far bloodier and more intransigent problems to be wrestled with than my inability to carve out the time for Karl Ove Knausgård. Yet, there’s a kind of solace that comes with the certainty that the books won’t stop and that the pile will never shrink: it’s the assurance that I’m not alone. Not alone in my wariness of the categorical, the naively empirical, and — this most of all — the terrifyingly attractive and endemic lack of imagination that eventually infects all modes of human endeavor, as well as its ugly step-sister — the urge to repress that imagination in others.  So, I keep reading.

I loved every book I read this year, even those I hated, if for nothing else than for the conscious engagement it took for them to be written. The Old Book asserts that Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος — in the beginning was the word. It’s never been more true than at this moment: ‘Til the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, we’re here for the books.

What follows are books I read in 2016 but have read before and/or will read again. That is all.

Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink

I have lived for a while now in a big city, but come from much the sort of places Callan Wink documents in this debut collection of short stories: fly-over country, peopled with the unwashed, the insignificant, and bundles of the deplorable. Yet these lives are so beautifully observed, their piety so fragile, and their shared dilemma so unforced that it would be indecent to look away, not to care. My preference has — probably always — been for stories about the little people, and without romanticizing things beyond recognition, the broken folks Wink has imagined into existence here tug hard at the part of me that would not struggle in the least moving somewhere where the population density numbers go into free fall. To see if it would help me figure out some things: where love went wrong, where I fit, or where I might find again what was lost. Stories of substance told by a gorgeous stylist whose young enough to still give noogies to.

Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

I have this bad habit of falling for every Irish writer I read and Kevin Barry is no exception. At the risk of lapsing into cultural stereotype, here’s why: perhaps it’s because the Irish don’t seem to possess the whine gene that infects this age. Goes double for their writers. Stepped on, starved, reviled, invaded, and subsumed, they just keep showing up, keep astounding us with the fact that grace and brutality can exist in such constant and fruitful juxtaposition. Life is an absurd joke and they are the punchline, at which nobody laughs harder than they themselves.

In this collection of short stories, Barry shows an incredible knack for making what ought to be unappealing so utterly appealing. His writing is inhabited by the anti-Facebook crowd — the uncoolest, most unenviable lives you will ever encounter. Lives that demonstrate that in the final accounting, all that ever really remains are faith, hope, and love. But faith poised to topple, hope with a leak at the seam, and love as bent as it can be and still be called love. Darkly comic and just damn dark, as filled with the sinister as they are with succor, this is writing I envy. About halfway in you’ll find “Ernestine and Kit,” likely a modern masterpiece.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

When I first moved to the post-Soviet world, I was given this piece of advice: if you want to survive here, get used to thinking counterintuitively. That’s pretty much right. And that’s pretty much what Anthony Marra gets right in these nine interconnected stories of life “in Russia” past, present, and future. The greatest consistency of the place is its inconsistency: pragmatism meshing with fatal impracticality; ancient wisdom smothered in brutal ignorance; and Sergei Rachmaninoff composing the Divine Liturgy while across the street Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky are bumping heads and planning to burn the place down. The beauty in the ruins.

Marra embraces the paradox and the result is a set of lives vividly rendered by a writer with a flawless eye for the spare detail that evades all genre writing about Russia. The hard lives he fashions engender an uncommon empathy for a place that can be a challenge to love, and it elevates these stories from lyrical curiosities to the realm of literary fiction that would set its hand to some worthy puzzles. Free will versus determinism, and the thought that surviving in the present just might be impossible if you’re unwilling to survive the past. And that’s just for starters. What? You were expecting a “Russian” book that wouldn’t be philosophical?

Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi

First of all, love Ms. Faludi for her brain, her admirable intellectual rigor. Next up, love her for her practicality. You may disagree with her analysis, you may not, however, brush it aside as aloof, obscurantist, or the work of someone indifferent to society and its welfare. Finally, love her for her clarity. Given the shitstorm of an election cycle we just went through, clarity is at a premium. As the author demonstrates in the lives of the men she chronicles here, compassion, understanding, and progress are the way forward. Time to peel off some ugly, inflammatory labels and chuck them into the trash before the glue is allowed to set. To gird up our loins for the long-haul if we’ve any hope of figuring out where this is all headed. It’s been 15 years since Stiffed was first published, but it remains solid, relevant journalism focused on what the hell is going on with American men. Spoiler alert: the Y-chromosome isn’t the problem.

The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

Seventeen essays, theological treatises, and rambling meditations with some loose-limbed exegesis thrown in just for giggles. Sound like an obvious stocking stuffer to you? For years, folks have been underestimating Marilynne Robinson’s superpower, namely: just as you’re prepared to dismiss her as a religious nut, she cites John Locke, links him back to Maimonides and forward to Edwin Hubble. A cage match against Bill Maher would be something to watch — for about eight seconds.

Newsflash! The priest recommends theology. Perhaps, but there’s this: Ms. Robinson’s considered worldview is drawn from literature that spans millennia. Also an eager student of the hard sciences, and as literate in Big History as anyone you likely know, Marilynne Robinson is somebody worth switching off the screen for. Primarily, because that’s exactly what she’s done in this book — she’s tuned out all the noise just to talk to us. She’s taken the time to go soul to soul. Sure, she offers few solutions, but she also makes no assumptions that you’ll agree. Even if Givenness feels a tad homiletical, she really just wants to talk. And to the ugliest questions confronting our culture she brings a grace, a patience, and a fearlessness that has a way of stripping our polities of their stridency, and when you think about it, stripped down and flailing might just be the best position from which to preserve our dignity. In an age that seems hellbent on getting dumber as it gets louder, her quiet, considered path offers a way through.

Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East by Reza Aslan

In winter, Istanbul is a $59 roundtrip flight from Kyiv. The first time I went, Orhan Pamuk had just won the Nobel Prize. I managed to be predictable and came home with a bagful of Turkish writing. But it was another Turkish writer I learned about on that trip, Yaşar Kemal, whose They Burn the Thistles knocked me flat. That anybody could still write like that and sell books was a revelation in equal measures humbling and edifying. How was it that I had never imagined that these books, and the people behind them, existed? I went further south, into deserts and mountains and fruited plains — in Arabic and Persian and Urdu, from Pakistan to Asia Minor down to the Levant and all the way across North Africa to Morocco.

Reza Aslan, author of the invaluable No god but God has, in Tablet & Pen assembled a treasure horde of this writing. Poetry and prose excerpts (prefaced with much needed cultural and historical context) from 70 authors joined, as Aslan notes in the introduction, “by intention, circumstance, and setting.” The result is a primer in Middle Eastern literature the spurns the political in favor of the human. What a concept. And a marvelous way to start learning about the Middle East you’re not ever likely to see on the news.

No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy by Lydia R. Cooper

I’ll allow Cormac McCarthy’s finest critic to describe what this book is about:
 …his novels present a complicated ethics. Reality itself can be rather dark, and perhaps McCarthy’s complex, knotty ethical arguments demand attention precisely because they offer necessary insight into an increasingly complicated nonfictional world.
Cooper has put together a deeply serious work that puts some common assumptions about McCarthy to the test — from his storied “absence of interiority” and “lack of psychologizing” to his supposed “rejection of narrative empathy.” She also dishes up a few surprises, revealing the reclusive McCarthy as 1) a close reader of Virginia Woolf, 2) a writer whose style is (far) more counter-Faulkner than quasi-Faulkner, 3) a nihilist, but only if you’re ready to brand Samuel Beckett a nihilist, and 4) a writer deeply invested in the concept of justice.

Along with a welcome confirmation of his sneaky classical erudition, it’s the latter part — about justice — that most engaged me. This is academic writing without a single abstruse construction in sight, and in it Lydia Cooper lays out a convincing argument about McCarthy’s oeuvre that might be summed up thus: the light never shines quite so brightly as when the darkness is working hard to overcome it. For fans and serious scholars, and particularly for those who’ve stayed away, intimidated by “all the blood,” this is your way in.

The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War by William T. Vollmann

In 1877, Chief Joseph – Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt – and the Nez Perce people, were defrauded massively by the American government. The 1,400 mile retreat toward survival on which Joseph led his people is the stuff of legend. To hear my third grade teacher, a young Apache woman, tell the story of the Nez Perce was to fall in love. No Indian story gripped us like that of Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” Our teacher coupled Joseph’s words of surrender with the Gettysburg Address, insisting we memorize both. She had that right, I figure.

William Vollmann is no Native beauty, but The Dying Grass — his fictionalized version of the brutal near escape of the Nez Perce people — is as engrossing as anything I’ve read in the last decade. At times, certainly, his dialogue ranges into territories both florid and cornball, the action is marked by bombast, and the Nez Perce are afforded a dialect that may fairly be described as Noble Savagery, yet the overall effect as a master novelist goes about balancing multiverse narratives for 1,300-ish pages without tumbling into complete chaos is mirabile visu. Moving seamlessly from the historical to high art, in an antiphony of the sacred and the profane, these interwoven histories of the Bluecoats, the Bostons, and the People leave us with a flawed but deeply necessary re-telling of our common history. Read this book because of Standing Rock, and because Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain deserves no less.

Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan

“We love the things we love for what they are” the poet said. What’s to love about Voroshilovgrad? Not much. At the very least, the novel represents a courageous attempt by Deep Vellum Publishing at bringing contemporary Ukrainian writing to an American market.  Zhadan is an admirable writer whose poetry captures the problematic Ukrainian zeitgeist vital to the nation’s attempt at self-determination. In the long form, however, he struggles, and the incendiary quality of his poetry fizzles with the demands of the novel, sputtering out completely with the book’s sentimental resolution. The translation is serviceable, but uneven, with the dialogue suffering the greatest damage, and the unfortunate influence of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and their love for allowing Slavonic inversions to stand in translation too keenly felt. Word has it that Yale University Press will be putting out Zhadan’s Mesopotamia — a collection of short stories with a rotating cast — late next year. So what is this review? A heads up for Mesopotamia, which is just a better book, and kudos to Deep Vellum for taking the risk.

Crocodile Words by Dex Quire

And finally, from the tiniest of presses imaginable – Blue Guitar Intl. Press – the story of a Native American boy on a college scholarship who, mostly on a whim, translates excerpts from the Quran into some less than sacred dialects. A timely satire on what can go wrong when we conflate our pieties with ourselves and end up taking both too seriously. An effortless and entertaining take on the nature of soft coercion, and the often fine line between obstinacy and courage.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Composed of Living Breath: On Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Secondhand Time’

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It is late in the fourth Act of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and the romantically devastated yet resilient Nina Zarechnaya draws a parallel between her life and that of a seagull that has been shot and killed near her family’s country home. The play hinges on this moment, which dispassionately asserts how grand aspirations cannot be dismissed, even if they are brought low by human recklessness, superficiality, and indifference:

Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million…comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning…For the bliss of being an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself…I am so tired. If I could only rest…You cannot imagine the state of mind of one who knows as he goes through a play how terribly badly he is acting. I am a sea-gull — no — no, that is not what I meant to say. Do you remember how you shot a seagull once? A man chanced to pass that way and destroyed it out of idleness. I feel the strength of my spirit growing in me every day. I know now, I understand at last, that…it is not the honor and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure…and when I think of my calling I do not fear life.

Now I am a devoted Chekhovian from a long line of devoted Chekhovians, but it has never been less than a struggle for me to admit that Chekhov, despite his prodigious talent and the pains he went to “to get the sound right,” was certainly guilty of allowing his authorial presence to overwhelm a character. To me, Nina’s speech less resembles that of a naïve 19-year-old than the domineering, 35-year-old, world-weary, consumptive male, so much so that I’m not entirely convinced that Chekhov, consistently ahead of his time, wasn’t making some entirely other kind of meta-textual joke.

Or maybe he just blew it. Getting dialogue right has never been easy. Even the ancients, unburdened by modern conventions of verisimilitude, had their reasons for being concerned with making the text sound right. For modern authors, this task has come down in the form of a necessity to capture the patterns of ephemeral speech in physical form in such a way that it might, at least, suggest authenticity, plausibility, durability. The plain fact is that if it doesn’t sound real, how many modern readers will bother to venture beyond page two?

But what tack to follow when one encounters literature — celebrated literature — that presents itself as fact but sounds like so much fiction?

“We had an Invalids’ Home in our town. Full of young men without arms, without legs. All of them with medals. You could take one home…they issued an order permitting it. Many women yearned for masculine tenderness and jumped at the opportunity, some wheeling men home in wheelbarrows, others in baby strollers. They wanted their houses to smell like men, to hang up men’s shirts on their clotheslines. But soon enough they wheeled them right back…They weren’t toys…It wasn’t a movie. Try loving that chunk of man.”

So who is that? Kurt Vonnegut? W.G. Sebald? Kōbō Abe?

When 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich began writing her cycle on Soviet history, variously referred to as “Voices from Utopia” or “A History of Red Civilization,” she had little idea of what she was getting into. As she recounted in a recent talk, “it wasn’t until finishing up my interviews for ‘The Last Witnesses’ [not yet available in English translation] that I understood what I was describing with this approach. I wanted to write about this paradise, in the Russian understanding of it.”

This week, Alexievich’s most recent book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets was released in the United States, taking its place in an estimable lineup of work whose telos it is to capture the sense and nonsense of the Soviet Union. Other titles of this pedigree include notably, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. And yet, despite those novels’ indispensability for a fuller understanding of Soviet history, neither the metered didacticism of the former nor the engaging casual authority of the latter achieve the effect of Alexievich’s collage of first-hand testimony in Secondhand Time (the fifth and final volume in her Red Civilization series, though only the fourth to appear in English translation).

Alexievich, it turns out, has different rocks to turn over. Her text ranges wide, and never has utopia appeared quite so dystopian as it does in the recorded witness of the disenfranchised, the embittered, the deceived, and the delusional that inhabit these pages. Her method is that of seeker, itinerant. She wanders the blasted and ill-remembered territories of the former USSR, encountering a host of characters — dime-store philosophers, ex-military, ex-State security turned private consultant, the rural poor, and memorably, a raft of widows unhinged by the injustice of their loss — but each with a tale to tell and bread to break. It is these communal interactions, these simple lives, that give her oral history of dysfunction its heft. In this way Alexievich helps make sense of a situation as impossible to explain as it is to deny.

This urgency to assist us in grasping the Soviet conundrum comes across nowhere so effectively as in one particularly idiosyncratic mode of Alexievich’s reporting in Secondhand Time. Here she includes longish sections of seemingly scattershot testimony, unreferenced and decontextualized, presented rapid-fire, as if she were simply regurgitating what she heard while walking through a crowded railway station, jotting down overheard snippets of conversation, allowing herself a liberal dose of ellipses to reflect the bits she didn’t quite catch.

‘The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness.’ — ‘I don’t like the way things are today…but I don’t want to return to the sovok, [discredited, retrograde “Soviet way” of thinking & living] either. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything ever being good.’ — ‘I would like to go back. I don’t need Soviet salami, I need a country where people were treated like human beings.’ — ‘There’s only one way out for us — we have to return to socialism, only it has to be Russian Orthodox socialism. Russia cannot live without Christ.’ — ‘Russia doesn’t need democracy, it needs a monarchy. A strong and fair Tsar. The first rightful heir to the throne is the Head of the Russian Imperial House, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna…’

These sections, subtitled “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations” go on for pages, like the graphomaniacal, rambling thesis of some importunately zealous, nicotine-oozing Marxist — and Fulbright hopeful — theater arts student from Lugansk. And while the collective dissonance of these quotations might rightly clang on the Western ear, to me they sound like home. The complaints, the confusion, the grasping for meaning recorded in these pages could have been lifted, verbatim, from conversations I’ve had around Kyiv with an old landlady, a wannabe capitalist rainmaker, a frighteningly accessorized Orthodox pilgrim, or a nicotine-oozing Marxist theater arts major…

Like the improbably warped and yet wonderfully apt associations that spilled out of Chekhov’s imagination, the reporting in “Secondhand Time” makes extraordinary demands of the reader, while offering — to the patient reader — insight otherwise unavailable into what made the Soviet clock tick, albeit counterclockwise. This is a book rendered meaningful, rendered necessary, because of the difficulties it presents and the contradictions it documents. Its truth lies in the resolute confusion and resultant collective cognitive dissonance captured by Alexievich, and in her refusal to pronounce judgment on even a word of it.

Secondhand Time is a strong closing act to Svetlana Alexievich’s five-book cycle chronicling the last days of the Soviet Union, and of the effects of a dispirited socialism and cynical political apparatus on the lives of the Soviet rank and file. In contrast to her previous work, the absence of a single defined subject — Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Women in War — results in a book that is certainly less focused, but no less disturbing than her earlier histories.

Seventy years of Soviet socialism has given birth to the homo sovieticus, and if Alexievich accomplishes anything here, it is to alert us to his existence, as well as to the grave error involved in the summary dismissal of his complaint, or graceless satisfaction at his profanation. She takes the jingoish caricature, the pulp-fiction rogue, the faceless millions of victims of historical record, and restores to them a voice — their own.

Like Chekhov, Svetlana Alexievich is an author who writes in Russian though does not self-identify as such. She is a messenger of no particular fealty save that owed to her story. Her body of work leaves us with more than a dry history of a time, a place, a people, but with a document composed of living breath. Breathing it in, we are compelled to clasp our hat to our head and set off to nudge, to jolt, and to buffet our way through crowds of former Soviet citizens — Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Buryats, Tajiks, Latvians, Georgians — at the Kyiv, Novosibirsk, or St. Petersburg vogzal and off toward our train.

And perhaps, climbing aboard, we see there in our coupe a fair-haired young woman wearing a beret, a small dog on her lap, her luggage marked with the name of her country estate at L____________…