Year in Reading: Jennifer Acker


When life outside the house evaporated last March, and we turned our focus inward, I thought innocently, “Zoom book group!” My husband and another couple were willing, and I took advantage of their indecision, or perhaps it was polite deference to my profession, to impose my favorite novelist on our unsuspecting friends. I first read The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard in college in a fiction workshop taught by Anita Shreve, who once, with the best of intentions, lectured our class on the “banality” of the subjects we chose to write about, and who, when her most recent novel was selected by the Oprah book club shortly after our class ended, never, to my knowledge, returned to the classroom again. Regardless of her lack of finesse with 19-year-olds, I will be forever grateful to Shreve for introducing me to Hazzard at such a young age and setting me up for a lifetime of the most marvelously rewarding rereading.

Because Hazzard is not easy. She is perhaps the most economical (read: dense) writer I’ve ever enjoyed, a woman who took 23 years after The Transit of Venus won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980 to write and revise her next novel, another whittled perfection, The Great Fire, which took home the National Book Award. The central theme of these two novels is women in love, which is perhaps as banal as it gets, but it is wrapped in an unceasing intelligence in which every look on a face, rustle of a tree branch, and sentence uttered is reflected upon with a piercing and unerring gaze. Take the following paragraph, from the first page:

That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner. Every nerve — for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments — waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.

The prose bristles with anticipation. This is perhaps what Hazzard does best. Her abbreviated sentences (“Only he, kinetic”) force the reader to sit up and pay attention, knowing that every moment, every movement, is precious and portentous. (I’ve written more on Hazzard’s unparalleled prose here.)

I’m a fast reader, and in the past, I’ve been guilty of zipping through Hazzard novels because of their taut energy; I can’t wait to see how her enigmatic and forceful characters next persuade and seduce and propel each other. But this is a tremendous disservice not only to the author but to myself. I deserve better! But better is sometimes hard to do on your own. So this winter, my husband and I read the novel aloud to each other, switching off reading a chapter or two per day, while the other followed along in a second copy. This forced slowdown not only matched the pace of the world around us, it ignited a continuous conversational flame between us. Each of us possessed the liberty to interrupt the other at any moment to say, “Read that again. I didn’t get it.” We would repeat the sentence, mull it over, and try out various interpretations. 

In this way, I sometimes felt like I was reading the book for the first time, rather than the third or fourth. I realized I had never fully understood the ending (which I won’t give away here). My husband, a philosophy professor, said he found reading The Transit of Venus as fun and meaningful as doing philosophy, which is like a nymphomaniac saying it was the best sex they ever had.

As the days get colder and darker and we head into another quarantine New England winter, we have The Great Fire lined up as the kindling to light our inner lives.

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On Verisimilitude


My father-in-law died unexpectedly on the last day of the decade. He was a quiet, gentle man who had affected my husband’s and my lives more and more the older we became. We were devastated, and I felt guilty.

In 2008, after a trip to Kenya with my parents-in-law, I had begun a novel loosely based on the migration story of their family, in which each of the last three generations grew up on a different continent. My husband’s grandparents were from Gujarat, India, and immigrated to Nairobi—another corner of the British Empire—as teenagers. My Nairobi-born parents-in-law moved to the United States as a newly married couple. My husband was born in Wichita and grew up in Minneapolis. In my own Jewish-European family, I have to go back five generations to find someone born outside of the U.S., so I was fascinated by the dramatic movements and decisions of the family I’d married into.

In fiction, you build characters around a few important traits and pieces of biographical data. Personalities are expressed and tensions ratcheted through events large and small, lined up like mile markers on the highway. I knew I could not love my characters too much. If I were too easy on them, if I spared them from hard decisions and tragedies, the novel would be dull and lifeless. And so, after I made up a husband and wife from the Indian enclave of Nairobi who immigrate to the United States to further the husband’s career as an infectious disease doctor, I inserted a tragic accident that spurs a move from the U.S. back to Nairobi. I couldn’t have been more surprised when my in-laws announced in 2013, a couple of years after I finished the first draft of my book, that they would do the same. Kenya was warm, affordable, and near a network of relatives who would help take care of them as they aged, my mother-in-law told us. I understood this explanation because my characters had made a similar calculation.

It’s a long story, but my in-laws’ life in Nairobi didn’t last long. They landed, eventually, in Florida. My husband and I were relieved. Tampa is a direct flight, and, more than anything, I was grateful that the fatal scene I had imagined on the streets of Nairobi for the father character in my novel had not played itself out in real life. My in-laws move to Kenya had spooked me, made me feel my novel prophesized their lives.

As publication day drew near, and the advanced reader copies arrived, I panicked. What if, despite years of observation, research, and triple-checking my facts, I had gotten some aspect of Indian life wrong? What if my in-laws were offended and enraged? In the early years of writing, I had shared with them interesting facts I’d found in my reading and asked questions about their experiences. Occasionally they’d assisted my research: my mother-in-law recommended a book she’d read about the horrific mass imprisonment of Kenyans under British rule during the Mau Mau Revolution; another time, my in-laws introduced me to a Ugandan Indian friend who had narrowly escaped Idi Amin in the trunk of a car. Snippets from both these sources made it into my novel. But my in-laws had never read a draft, and I had never told them the plot.

When the early reviews rolled in, including those by Indian and Indian-American writers, and they were positive, heralding the research and true-to-life dialogue, I began to sleep better at night. And now that my in-laws had moved back to America from Nairobi, they wouldn’t think I had simply written down their life story as it occurred. Gradually, I realized that the release of my book had hardly registered. Despite my husband writing his mother to share publication news and to suggest that they send me a congratulatory email, they never once mentioned my book.

The father character in my novel, Premchand, is a reserved man who values his freedom and always wanted to live and practice medicine in America. This independent loner who loves his son intensely, who draws from his well of kindness when he speaks, who fights hard to maintain an optimistic view of life, is in many ways a portrait of my physician father-in-law, Popatlal Hirji Shah. In the novel, Premchand develops a special relationship with his new daughter-in-law, a Jewish-American woman who works in public health; they bond over corny doctor jokes and their love for Premchand’s son. When the book was published, I heard from readers how much they relished this unusual relationship. In one scene, Premchand tells his daughter-in-law that the song lyric from the Bollywood movie Taj Mahal, roughly translated as “the substance of you is missing from your picture,” could apply to her own emotionally reserved presence. Instead of protesting, she argues that the words are also an apt description of him. I didn’t realize until the book came out that the intimacy these characters share is an idealization of life. I never had that closeness with my father-in-law, but I sometimes thought it might be possible.

For most of his life, my father-in-law suffered severely from clinical depression, undiagnosed and untreated until he was in his 50s. He was psychologically well for much of the time I knew him, and this, plus his son’s security from a good job and stable relationship, had allowed for a new sense of understanding and respect to flow between father and son. But it occurred only in flickers, as if hesitant to heat up to a full burn. Largely unconsciously, I redirected and amplified this development in my novel, in Premchand’s emotional journey from being a supportive but mostly absentee father during his son’s childhood to developing a renewed interest in his grown child’s life. And then, because a novel needs drama, I abruptly ended this incipient closeness. The rightness of this decision, from a plot point of view, was confirmed by the devastated reactions of readers. One writer friend told me, “I loved the character Premchand and the interactions he had with Amy. I wanted so much more of that, but YOU KILLED HIM!” I did. As my friend reluctantly agreed, the story demanded it. But it did not feel good, on a personal level, to have killed an avatar of my father-in-law.

And it would come to feel worse.

On Christmas Eve, we Skyped with my in-laws. It was a tense and worrisome conversation. My father-in-law had fallen in the middle of the night a week before, and after seeing the x-ray he believed he had fractured his ilium, the curved broad bone forming the upper part of the pelvis. But he had not received the report from the doctor to confirm what he had seen. The connection was bad, and we had to turn off the video. We had grown used to seeing their faces when we talked, and there was something bare and wrong with looking at a black screen. Additionally, we could only hear their voices when one of them was positioned directly in front of the screen. We made sure the person we could hear the best was my father-in-law, the physician turned patient. We asked if he thought surgery would be recommended; “No no,” he said, “just rest.” “But what about physical therapy?,” I asked. “How will you be able to keep moving, and prevent muscle atrophy, if you can’t walk?” I was also worried about blood clots, but I didn’t say so. My father-in-law, in his ever-patient, gentle way, reassured me he would be plenty active and I should not worry about atrophy. “Do you need handrails in the bathroom?” “No no,” he said, “There is no issue there.” In my mind, I began to hire a physical therapist to work with him at home, as soon as he got the doctor’s report.

Then at the end of the conversation, he said something about my mother that came out of left field: “Your mother must be very proud.” I was confused, we had not been talking about my mother. But yes, my mother was a good person (and it was from her I had learned to ask the probing medical questions), and I imagined she did take pride in doing things for other people, so I simply agreed and said, “Yes, I think she is.”

That was the last time we spoke. He died on New Year’s Eve from pulmonary thrombosis, a blood clot in the lungs.

Bereft in his absence, my husband and I try to talk about his father often, to keep his memory alive. Together we wrote an obituary that ran in his old newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and shared it as widely as we could. The loss of a parent is no easier for being universal; it makes one face the abyss.

My husband’s father is also a conversation topic via his influence on my novel. In the months since his death, friends have noted both the eeriness of Premchand’s fate and the warmth with which the character was written. My husband tells me he feels reassured by the way the book preserves the memory of his dad. I never intended my novel to carry this weight, but I am glad for it now. I spent many years imagining what someone like my father-in-law would think in a given situation, what he would say if he were asked about why he became a doctor. How he would address conflict in his own family; how he would face death. In fiction, I could have the answers that were in life an enigma. In many cases, my speculations veered close to home.

It has in fact become hard to separate in my mind the things I imagined from the things that transpired. Did my father-in-law really tell me that childhood story about the rough characters who threatened the poor settlement where he grew up with six siblings, or did I make it up based on some slivery detail? And had he seen himself in my novel? A month before he died, he’d surprised us by saying suddenly during one of our video chats that he was reading my book. He had checked it out from the library. So far, he said, it was very interesting.

What did he think of Premchand, who so clearly loves his son but struggles to express it? What went through his mind during the character’s final helpless fall onto the street in the city of his birth? He couldn’t have thought I, the author of the act, wished him dead, could he? This is perhaps what haunts me the most.

There is solace in the fact that some of the last words my father-in-law spoke to us were to me. My husband had to point it out: that when my father-in-law said that my mother should be proud, he meant she should be proud of me. Because I was asking questions about his care. Because I cared about him. Though he brushed my concern aside, I have to believe he knew it was sincere.

As for what he thought of my novel, or even if he finished reading it, I will never know. He never mentioned it again, and I didn’t want to press him.

Thought Episodes: Norman Rush’s Novels of Ideas

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This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

The novels of Norman Rush are full of sharp-eyed, straight-talking men and women who are fearless in the pursuit of ideas, but who don’t forget to have fun. And though they love arguing most of all, they’re also passionate about sex and adventure.

Rush, now 80, is the author of four masterly, unique works of fiction. The first, Whites, a collection of taut, voice-driven stories published in 1986 when Rush was 53, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Five years later, Rush emerged with his debut novel, Mating, which won the 1991 National Book Award, and his novel Mortals followed in 2003. Just shy of 500 and 800 pages, respectively, these two novels are expansive, exuberant narratives set in Botswana (also the setting for Whites), where Rush and his wife of 56 years, Elsa, co-directed the country’s Peace Corps program from 1978-1983. Thick with meditations on matters scholarly and literary, political and psychological, these books feature delightful wordplay.

Rush’s most recent novel Subtle Bodies was released in September. It’s his first work set entirely in America, and it’s a mere 230 pages. While much more compact than his previous novels, this fiction has lost none of Rush’s signature style nor his deep interest in human relationships — particularly marriages — and political ideals. These qualities, along with the ambition of his narrative structures and the penetrating elegance of intellectual thought woven into characters’ talk and action, have made critics swoon and generations of younger writers dive into his dense works as if they were barrels of jellybeans. In 2006, a body of more than one hundred writers and critics polled by the New York Times Book Review declared Mating one of the best American novels of the past quarter-century.

Particularly striking in Rush’s books is the rich development of both action and thought. His stories are stuffed with what the author calls “thought episodes.” Norman Rush’s idiosyncratic, strong-willed people act and think for themselves — an independence of mind scarce in contemporary literature.

By combining our two most powerful forms of explanation, narrative, and argument, Rush has successfully created that rare and most valuable art form, the novel of ideas.

Rush excels at two forms of hard-to-achieve novelistic thought. The first consists of the rich mental description we might call Jamesian, most evident in works like The Portrait of a Lady. James Wood titled his review of Mortals, “Thinking,” for the book whose “central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind’s own language.” Consider the opening paragraph:

At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house.
This passage shows Ray thinking, in wonderfully penetrating detail, about thinking. He’s both trying to identify an elusive problem and reflecting on the ways in which one comes to know something. He realizes that, because he has noticed that something is wrong, he’ll come to the knowledge of the wrong thing sooner. Ray is trained to notice; he is a spy. He is also a most uxorious husband. This passage invests the reader in learning what the problem is with Iris — we want Ray to stay with Iris in the house that he loves — and in tracking precisely how he discovers it.

Though Rush wrote stories from an early age, from self-publishing at age 11 to completing a “non-violent thriller” during the nine months he was imprisoned for conscientiously objecting to the Korean War, it took him years to master Mortal’s acute, free, indirect style. For a long time he wrote abstract pieces populated with inactive talking heads. When his first critical success came in 1971 — his short story “In Late Youth” was anthologized in Best American Short Stories — Rush was consciously working to write simpler tales and, as he said in a Paris Review interview, “to sync thought more closely to a character’s actions.”

Mortals demonstrates how supremely Rush has accomplished this. Yet while Ray’s recursive self-examination adds depth, comedy, and poignancy, it also slows down the story. Wood doesn’t see this as a detriment — “a high level of analysis never insults the hospitality of storytelling” — but not all critics agree. John Updike wrote that Ray, “a control freak, a fussbudget, a tireless ruminator, and annoyance-nurser [most of whose] overflowing mental energy goes into an anxious gloating over his happy marriage,” is “perhaps the most annoying hero this reviewer has ever spent seven hundred pages with.”

While I don’t share Updike’s level of irritation, I do find considerably more compelling the inner life and intellectual urgency of the unnamed female narrator of Mating. A nutritional anthropology grad student, she falls hard and fast for a “Serious Man” named Nelson Denoon, an intelligent do-gooder who has established a feminist utopian village in the desert. After abandoning her dissertation and dating several minimally desirable men, she takes off, solo, across the Kalahari to throw herself at the feet of Denoon and the sui generis village of Tsau.

The anthropologist’s barrel-scraping, yet somehow joyful, journey toward love and self-knowledge is propulsive from the novel’s early pages. Her attractiveness stems in part from her peculiar diction, which combines high-register Latin, French, and academic phrases with vulgar formulations. Here she explains her fierce desire to visit Victoria Falls:
I not only wanted to go to Victoria Falls but to stay there in splendor at the Vic Falls Hotel, the way the colonial exploiters had. This was less greed per se than it was wanting to visit or inhabit a particularly gorgeous and egregious consummation of it. I was convinced that under Mugabe accommodations would be democratized and establishments like the Vic Falls Hotel would cease to exist, which of course was only one of a number of things that didn’t happen under Mugabe. I had a fixation on seeing the greatest natural feature in Africa and seeing it at the maximal time of year, which was just then, when the Zambezi was still in spate. I might be going back home to exile in the academic tundra, but I wanted to have seen the world’s greatest waterfall from the windows of an establishment amounting to a wet dream of doomed white settler amour propre.
We’re eager to follow our anthropologist — and her piercing thoughts — wherever they go. Unlike worrywart Ray, her introspection and argumentation are infused with a contagious joie de vivre.

A novel of ideas is driven by both story and thought. The kind of fictional thinking illustrated above is crucial, but it’s not enough.

A true novel of ideas must also have arguments, the second kind of novelistic thought at which Rush excels. Ideas, just like places and people, create a vibrant fictional world and fuel its stakes: what do the people in this world believe and why? What do they want to understand, and what do they ignore at their peril?

A contemporary novel of ideas must not only investigate topics of intrinsic interest, but must also render flesh-and-blood characters who vigorously and clearly express these ideas — who care about and challenge them.

How does one integrate argument into narrative? It would seem the two forms of explanation are at odds. Though both require precision, argument is pegged only to logic, not to time. Narrative, on the other hand, depends absolutely on chronology and can be bogged down by too much explanation. When Rush would show to Elsa, his first reader and most rigorous editor, early pages too thick with explanations, she’d respond: “Consider maybe that there are some extremely smart people out there who are not interested in stories that require a seminar.” His tendency is to be exhaustive, he explains in the same Paris Review interview — “to show the human project of trying to reshape the world, in all its particular guises and methods.”

One technique Rush exploits well is argumentative dialogue occurring at high-stakes moments. In Subtle Bodies, male college friends gather for the funeral of their former ringleader Douglas. Ned, a respected activist in the Fair Trade movement, tries to convince each jaded friend to sign his petition protesting America’s impending war against Iraq. Their jousting is energized by knowing how much it means to Ned that his friends support him and that he prove himself able to convince them on both pragmatic and idealistic grounds — thereby escaping, finally, Douglas’s shadow.

But surely argument can happily exist outside heightened moments of battle. In life, arguments are sustained over time. “I like to discern an unstated, but illustrated, argument in a novel,” Rush says. “I mean, I like to become aware of an embodied view of a particular moral-slash-philosophical problem or circumstance. With my novels, I want readers to argue about my argument, at least in their heads. While writing I am very conscious of it.” Mating exemplifies how argument can be embodied throughout a novel’s entire arc. Our anthropologist is desperate to know if equality in a male-female romance is possible, given all the cultural and biological factors working against it. Her desire to understand something abstract is converted into her real-time relationship with the exalted Denoon. Tsau, a community built from scratch upon feminist and socialist ideologies, is also put under the microscope. The whole action of the novel tests whether either of these utopias is viable.

While Rush beautifully embodies arguments in circumstance, he does even more than that, as a true novel of ideas should. Real people think about more than what’s immediately in front of them. They argue about free trade and two-party political systems; the virtues of television versus reading. Arguments that examine, broadly, how we should understand and reshape the world are just as much the necessary and joyful and fascinating stuff of life as the things that happen to us directly.

Rush therefore also imbues his novels with abstract arguments that extend to the larger world. At the dinner party where the narrator of Mating first meets Denoon, he gives a long lecture on development in Africa, which includes five reasons why socialism will not succeed there. The whole novel is told in hindsight, and this lecture, too, is related after the fact. The lecture reads like a play. The narrator’s interpretive notes are interspersed in italics. This may sound cumbersome, but it works cleanly. We get Denoon’s arguments in his own words, as presented to his live audience. For example:
Let us say you want to clear away private ownership of productive property and put everything under the state. Well and good, but then you must be prepared to pay five surcharges, very heavy surcharges. These are permanent recurrent costs that never go away. They are intrinsic to your system.
At other points, the narrator summarizes Denoon, often because she’s impatient or dissatisfied with the way he puts things:
[Point] Five was a mess. He couldn’t get it schematic enough, and during it some people got bored to the hilt. My notes, which I made when I went home that night, say that there are two ways to extract the social surplus–…
Additionally, as Denoon speaks, the narrator speculates about how and why he’s arrived at various formulations. She explains a particularly circuitous set of remarks thus:
This is intellectual loneliness showing, I thought. …I had no idea who he had with him out in the bush, but this scene suggested that they left something to be desired as discussants. The same sort of hysteria was familiar to me.
Naturally, she has a solution: she should become his mate.

Rush’s Knopf editor, Ann Close, was worried this long exchange would bore readers, but Rush felt it was crucial “to prove to the reader that Denoon was an intellectual of a certain caliber.” Indeed, we have to see for ourselves that Denoon is not a charlatan. We’re to experience through our anthropologist’s eyes and intelligence, for another four hundred pages, people and places we’ve never or rarely encountered and ideas we perhaps haven’t thought much about. It’s also imperative that we trust the intelligence of our narrator. We must know she’s not been hoodwinked by Denoon’s status, charisma, or beauty — all of which he has in spades.

Among Rush’s three novels of ideas, Mating is the most successful. Although it does occasionally give us too much of a good thing, by piling on more argument than can be absorbed, ideas are given life by a torrentially passionate narrator for whom it’s clear how deeply ideas matter. Developing her unusual, entertaining language was important to Rush not only in order to create a fully realized, never-before-seen character, but also because her linguistic prowess empowers her.
The narrator, in her vocabulary and her attitude toward language, is like several people I have known who considered themselves underclass and at a disadvantage socially, but who were smart and discovered that knowing how to use language better than the people oppressing them was a form of power.
Ned’s wife Nina in Subtle Bodies has fewer years of education than Mating’s anthropologist (who is in fact closely modeled on Elsa Rush), but Nina is similarly bold, innovative, and articulate in her use of language.

When asked in a recent interview in Tin House, “Will your next project find you returning to a longer form?” Rush said, “Dude, I’m 80.” He hopes to write more short stories, though he recognizes that despite Elsa’s “extraordinary forbearance” during his long-gestating novels, it may be time for the couple to spend more time on pursuits other than writing. These days Rush also worries about the value of fiction writing in a world that would benefit more from advocacy and political action than another novel. In an August 2013 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Rush dispiritedly admits to himself: “You’re an artist. You’re not a nuclear engineer, you’re not a statesman, you’re not the head of the World Bank, you’re nothing, really, in terms of who pulls the strings of the world. …None of your acts are designed to change things.”

But Rush’s argumentative impulse clearly hasn’t subsided, so one hopes for another opportunity for adventuresome intellectual love, which our anthropologist describes like this:
the feeling of observing a mental searchlight lazily turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss tout court.
It’s a description that could be aptly applied to the experience of reading Norman Rush’s body of work — with the exception of the word “lazily.” His scouring mental searchlight prompts questioning and reflection and, most of all, it makes you want to argue.

In Search of Lost Dream Time: Two New Books by André Aciman

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This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

If ever there was a writer disappointed with the here and now, it’s André Aciman. Best-known for evoking the lost Alexandria of his childhood, Aciman writes in a recent essay:

Things that do not have an Egyptian analog do not register, have no narrative. Things that happen in the present without echoing even an imaginary past do not register either. They cease to exist. They do not count.

In an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, he underscores this perpetual dissatisfaction even more strongly: “I was never in one place, ever, in my whole life, without thinking of being somewhere else.” The tragedy of feeling out of place and in the wrong time is at the aching heart of Aciman’s writing, and on grand display in two new books published this year: Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and his third novel, Harvard Square. The tragedy of his displacement, however, does not create victims. Aciman’s narrators are disappointed not only in the world before them but also in themselves.

He has been hailed as a writer who excels in the investigation of memory, but it’s not a fixed past that offers the siren’s call; it is a past that dreams of and anticipates a future full of longing for itself. The act that goes by the name of remembering in Aciman’s world is actually a process of invention and loose reconstruction whose appeal is the formation of a coherent narrative of desires. Most of us would say “experience” is the fabric of our lives, but for Aciman it’s the desire that motivates experience, and that remains after the fact, that constitutes our identity. “The disconnect, the hiatus, the tiny synapse — call it once again the spread between us and time, between who we are and wish we might have been — is all we have to understand our place in life,” he writes. “One measures time not in units of experience but in increments of hope and anticipated regret.” What do we long for and why? This is what Aciman wants to know.

Born in 1951, Aciman lived his first 14 years in Alexandria, Egypt, among a multinational, multilingual, and multigenerational Jewish family of educated entrepreneurs. Shortly after his birth the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown, followed by the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, in which Israel, joined by Britain and France, invaded Egypt to reverse President Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal. After Israel’s attack, Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt. When Aciman’s uncle was arrested on the night of the author’s great-grandmother’s 100th birthday, nervous relatives began to flee to the world’s Western corners. Aciman’s own parents lasted until 1965, when his father’s profitable textile mill was nationalized. The family then fled to Rome, where they lived for three years while waiting for visas to the United States. In 1968 he moved, with his parents and brother, to New York City.

Aciman calls himself a late bloomer as a writer, pointing first to the fact that he didn’t start until the fifth or sixth grade and, more significantly, to how long it took him to develop an American, non-academic style and sensibility. Aciman grew up speaking primarily French, with Italian, Greek, English, Ladino (the Spanish-like language of Sephardic Jews), and Arabic mixed in. His boyhood schooling was stark and unhappy, marked by poor teaching and the humiliation of corporal punishment. (In the era of nationalization, Aciman’s flunking Arabic class was of great consternation to his father, who believed his son’s failure would draw retribution from the government.) In America, Aciman’s academics improved considerably, and he eventually earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard. But he soon found his academic career limiting. He began writing book reviews for Commentary, whose editor he asked if he could write something for the magazine about growing up Jewish in Alexandria.

Aciman’s debut book, the exceptional memoir Out of Egypt, was published in 1995, when he was 44. The book traces his family’s Alexandrian life from 1905 to 1965, telling the stories of various aunts and uncles in exciting, up-close detail, even though the events take place up to 50 years before the author’s birth. “Gossip is, for me, a fount of information superior to history,” he says. The young Aciman is fought over by his two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, and absorbs the rigid class and cultural distinctions resulting from the fact that his mother’s father is an Aleppo-born Syrian Jew. The European Sephardi side of the family attempts constant rescue of the young boy from the uncouth ways of “the Arabs.” The prose is beautifully fluid and elegiac throughout without being in the least sentimental, and the book’s scenes unfold like a play I could watch for hours, not caring so much about the story but captivated by the pride, sorrow, invective, and determined survival of this family and their friends and servants.

In a gorgeous essay called “Intimacy” in his 2013 collection Alibis, Aciman returns with his wife and sons to the apartment in working-class Rome where his family lived during their three years of visa-limbo. His approach to the old place is sly, strategic, timed to build just the right amount of apprehensive anticipation; he has avoided returning for a reason:

I had always been ashamed of Via Clelia, of its good people, ashamed of having lived among them, ashamed of myself now for feeling this way, ashamed, as I told my sons, of how I’d always misled my private-school classmates into thinking I live “around” the affluent Appia Antica.

He describes shame as “the reluctance to be who we’re not even sure we are” and suggests it “could end up being the deepest thing about us, deeper even than who we are, as though beyond identity were buried reefs and sunken cities teeming with creatures we couldn’t begin to name because they came long before us.” To get around this shame, Aciman dissembles, faking how he felt then and how he feels now. He tells his sons with false disaffection: “Fancy spending three years in this dump.” He doesn’t let on how much he wants to be injected by the past. The memory of his former, vulnerable self in this ancient city — in this bursting-with-character neighborhood — should move him, shouldn’t it? But the dissembling, both then and now, is successful, which leads to an unintended side effect: he’s untouched by the return. He looks around, sees, recognizes, but feels nothing. The present has failed him.

Later in the day, Aciman returns in his mind to Via Clelia and tries to sort out the visit by writing about it, hoping the process will “un-numb” him and bolster the event with “retrospective resonance.” Of course, as soon as he has recorded this hope, he doubts such a thing is possible. Instead of revealing, he asks, does writing “provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?” His lack of response to the place leaves him wondering if some part of him has permanently disappeared; or perhaps his former self was merely a shadow. The majority of Aciman’s Rome years were spent reading in his bedroom — Lampedusa, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Wordsworth, Joyce. These fictions papered over the daily misery of his exile, and now, when he revisits with his wife and sons, Aciman realizes that “all I’d been able to cull here were the fictions, the lies I’d laid down upon this street to make it habitable. Dreammaking and dissemblance, then as now.”

“Intimacy” is signature Aciman, an essay that originates with a pilgrimage and rushes headlong into the past in expectation of a revelation that never comes — that cannot come. He dives into the current of memory to fetch a dropped object only to surface many yards downstream triumphantly upholding a prize similar, but not identical, to what was lost. He is not fooled, though. He knows the object never existed, but it is far more interesting to write about a failed search after the fact than to admit at the beginning that such an attempt is futile.

Such reflections on the influence of writing on experience are layered throughout Alibis, as are musings on the empathetic and escapist activity of reading. Aciman is a devout classicist with little patience for contemporary writing, and it should come as no surprise that Proust is of paramount importance to him. In “Temporizing,” Aciman assigns the French time-seeker a verb tense all his own, the imperfect-conditional-anterior-preterit (a concept I’ve explored in The Common), and Proust’s more general influence — especially in his labyrinthine sentences — threads throughout his work.

As in Proust, a richly sensory world swirls and flares around the figure I have come to think of as “the Aciman narrator” — the voice of his essays and the unnamed first-person narrator of Harvard Square. Through the sun-washed beach of the Lido in Venice, the ocher walls and refuse of Roman alleys, the lavender scent of a snug Old World, Middle Eastern living room, and the wooded sunshine of Walden Pond, Aciman’s worlds are vivid and particular. However, on closer look, even these descriptions reveal his distance from the moment. Rereading “Intimacy,” I was surprised to see that the “frail street singer [who] would stand every afternoon and bellow out bronchial arias you strained to recognize” was a tune pulled from the past; very little of Via Clelia at the moment of his return makes it onto the page. The wonderful Walden Pond scene in Harvard Square hardly features the place, but rather the effect of the larger-than-life central character, Kalaj, on the narrator and the foreign au pairs who accompany them for a swim. Sensory experience is only the premise upon which deeper emotional and psychological investigations are built.

Aciman’s places — mostly cities—are projections, patinas he perfectly calls “wishfilms.” He doesn’t know the Rome of 1965-68 as it really existed, only as he dreamed it then and has chosen to remember now. But this shouldn’t matter. Who cares about the actual street sequence of shops or the exact words of a conversation?

We seldom ever see, or read, or love things as they in themselves really are, nor, for that matter, do we even know our impressions of them as they really are. What matters is knowing what we see when we see other than what lies before us. It is the film we see, the film that breathes essence into otherwise lifeless objects, the film we crave to share with others.

So it is with the narrator of Harvard Square, the reclusive, evasive graduate student of literature inevitably drawn to the brash swagger of a libidinous Arab. In addition to his relentless pursuit of women, Kalaj — short for Monsieur Kalashnikov, after his rat-a-tat diatribes — is forever slicing up the world in hugely enjoyable rants. All of America is “jumbo-ersatz,” he says, from its peroxide blondes with boob jobs to its love of nectarines, an overly fleshy, hybrid fruit that is “all graft” and therefore cannot reproduce.

Having both grown up in Arabic North Africa, the two men have a natural affinity: “There was something in the timbre and inflection of his words that seemed to rummage through a clutter of ancestral fragments to remind me of the person I may have been born to be but had not become.” This shared history allows the narrator, for a while, to hand over to Kalaj the responsibility of making sense of his new world. The intimacy of the two men is real, necessary, and yet the graduate student and the illegal taxi driver are worlds apart:

I have a green card, he a driver’s license. He saw the precipice every day of his life, I never had to look down that deep….But there was another difference between us: he knew how to wiggle his way around the precipice; I, however, put him right between the precipice and me. He was my screen, my mentor, my voice. Perhaps his was a life I was desperate to try out.

In the end, the narrator cannot uphold the bonds of friendship. He wants intimacy but not the obligation that could compromise his own ambitions. He is, of course, ashamed of Kalaj, about what an alliance with this brash, vulgar man says about not only the narrator’s origins but who he is now, who he will become.

Beyond any particular exodus or return, it is Aciman’s prose — the rants and curses, the Proust-like rushing forward, diving down, and doubling back — that carries the reader urgently through Alibis and Harvard Square. As he has said about his own writing, even more than finding a kind of comfort zone through literature, he has built the lifeboat that ferries him from shore to foreign shore with cadence:

Cadence is like feeling, and cadence is like breathing, and cadence is heartbeat and desire, and if cadence doesn’t reinvent everything we would like our life to have been or to become, then just the act of searching and probing in that particularly cadenced way becomes a way of feeling and of being in the world.

For Aciman, we will be in the world tomorrow. Today we will write about the dreamed-up past.

Everybody Pays: The Extreme, Dark Fictional World of Donald Ray Pollock

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This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  Click here to visit Bloom, where Donald Ray Pollock will be the featured author throughout the week.   

The rolling hills of Southern Ohio may not seem, at first, a likely place for serious mischief and mayhem, but the fiction of Donald Ray Pollock makes one think the devil himself is tainting the groundwater.

The eighteen linked stories of Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff, published in 2008 when the author was 53, tornado through this town of the same name — a “holler” of four hundred endangered souls plus a couple of general stores, bars, a church, and a ballfield. The action of Pollock’s second book, the 2011 novel The Devil All the Time, ranges into West Virginia and farther afield along American interstates and back roads, but its heart is still Knockemstiff and its surroundings, where a paper mill sulfurs the air and poor folk live in trailers with open sewage. Residents are related to at least half of everyone else. An OxyContin addict in the story “Blessed” describes the view on his way out of town to a clinic where his wife sells her blood: “The damp, gray sky covered southern Ohio like the skin of a corpse. The landscape was the seemingly endless row of squat metal buildings full of cheap junk for sale: carpet remnants, used furniture, country crafts.”

I understand left-behind towns where agriculture and some rough industry barely support a few of the luckier ones, but my rural Maine upbringing in no way prepared me for the depravity and squalor of Knockemstiff. What’s more, the death-skinned sky and rotten-egg air turn out to be sterile compared to the insides of people’s heads.

The fictional Knockemstiff is based on a real town of the same name, where Pollock grew up. “It was claustrophobic for me,” Pollock said in a 2011 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. “I was one of those kids — I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping the holler.”

Indeed most characters in Pollock’s work want to get the hell out; but fear of the unknown and of being alone knock ‘em back. In “Dynamite Hole,” a mentally damaged man has lived on scraps in the woods since escaping the Vietnam draft decades earlier. He still fights his disapproving father in his head, admitting something curious, provincial, and utterly believable: “How could I have told that old man, the way they were drafting and killing boys left and right, that I was afraid of the fighting nearly as much as I was scared of leaving the holler?” In the title story, the clerk at the general store says about an old flame toward whom he still feels tender and who’s about to leave town with a lunkhead named Boo Nesser, “Ever since she started putting out for the boys, she’s been looking for someone to take her away. I wish I could’ve been the one, I really do, but I don’t figure I’ll ever leave the holler, not even for Tina. I’ve lived here all my life, like a toad stool stuck to a rotten log, never even wanting to go into town if I can keep from it.”

Donald Ray Pollock’s parents ran a small general store in Knockemstiff, where he worked as a teenager before dropping out of high school at 17 to work at a meatpacking plant. Not long after that he took off for Florida, where he worked at a nursery for a few months, until his father called to say he could get him a job at the paper mill in Chillicothe, just 13 miles from Knockemstiff. It was a union job with benefits, and Pollock knew he wasn’t likely to find anything better, so he returned. He settled in at the mill, married and divorced twice, had a daughter, filed for bankruptcy, and often drank too much. After about 14 years, he looked around and saw that the other guys who’d been hired at the same time had stacked up some accomplishments — homes and cars and families. “When I got sober [in 1986] I was living in this little, very small apartment above the garage. It was about the size of a hotel room and I’d been living there for about four or five years. I owned a black and white TV that my sister had given me and I had this old ’76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it.” He wasn’t jealous of his friends, but he still felt like a failure.

In his 30s, Pollock decided to go to college, earning a degree in English from Ohio University. He didn’t take any writing workshops then, even though the fantasy of being an author sometimes lit up the back of his mind. When Pollock was 45, his father retired from the paper mill. Seeing that leaving the mill job meant the end of his father’s working life unsettled Pollock and reignited his desire to try writing stories: “I just decided I had to try something else. Some other way to spend the rest of my life.”

His self-education in fiction writing began with typing out stories he admired by authors like Hemingway, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, and Denis Johnson. In this way, elements of craft became visible. He submitted his pieces to The Journal, the literary magazine published by the English Department of Ohio State University, and connected with Michelle Herman, one of the editors, who eventually convinced Pollock to enroll in the MFA program there.

Erin McGraw, one of his teachers at OSU, noted in a New York Times profile by Charles McGrath that she consistently had a hard time reconciling the “gentle, extremely gracious person” in her classroom with the “dark, violent, often lurid” stories he wrote. Even after winning the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship — awarded to “an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise” and carrying a $35,000 prize — Pollock evinces genuine modesty and shyness, both in his soft, twangy voice (lawg for log) and in photos. And Pollock’s successes have only continued: this year, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

Though the back cover of Knockemstiff announces the stories as a “genuine entry into the literature of place,” what Pollock is writing is the literature of extremity. In another New York Times piece, this one profiling the town itself, Pollock says, “Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a really rough place. When I started writing, I took that and cranked it up a few amps.” Though the landmarks of Pollock’s world feel accurate down to the last junk heap, characters are pushed hard into dire circumstances with which they can only cope through extraordinary action. “Gothic hillbilly noir,” is how Pollock once put it, and indeed there is a traceable line of descent in his fiction from the Grimm Brothers’ original gothic tales.

In the acknowledgements to Knockemstiff, Pollock makes clear that the rapists, murders, whores, pedophiles, and junkies in his stories are of his own creation: “My family and our neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.” It’s desperate need — for food, companionship, recognition, a fix — that motivates Pollock’s people to both commit and endure gruesome deeds. One of the most tragic is Todd in “Schott’s Bridge.” Todd likes men, and he’s smart enough to know that his only chance at survival is to use the savings his grandmother left him and get out of town. But because “loneliness always got him into trouble quicker than anything,” Todd moves in with a roughneck named Frankie, whose face is disfigured by a scar. Once a month, Frankie spends a few days with an old hag [who]
didn’t give a damn what he looked like, as long as he could make his hog leg stand up. On Sunday evenings, he’d come back to the fish camp bruised with denture marks and loaded down with food she packed for him: dusty jars of preserves, bread sacks of bloody turtle meat, sometimes a soggy pie.
To Todd, Frankie adds, “My God, she’s awful. I might as well stick my dick in that jar of peaches.” The two men pass the time smoking, snorting, and dropping whatever they can get their hands on. A bad batch of “mildewed Lebanese hash” makes their gums bleed; their spit coats the floor with sticky blood. As expected, Frankie eventually steals Todd’s savings, but not before raping him and beating him up. Todd is at fault for trusting whom he shouldn’t and lacking the confidence to care for himself, but he’s otherwise a victim, unlike many other characters in Pollock’s work (the father in “Discipline” who pumps his kid up on steroids until his heart bursts, for example), whom the reader can’t help but feel is severely culpable.

It’s not easy to inject moments of grace into such brutal stories, but Pollock often cracks open a raw beauty I wouldn’t have thought possible, given the subject matter. In “Hair’s Fate,” a young boy getting off on his sister’s doll gets caught in the act by his father:
Trapped in the bright July sunlight pouring in through the open doorway, he was at that point in his fantasy where Gloria was begging him to split her in two with his big, hairy monster; his poor hand couldn’t have stopped if the old man had chopped it off and thrown it to the dogs. With a shudder, he unloaded his juices all over Lucy’s plastic face, the crooked orange mouth, the bobbing blue eyes. Then, like an omen, a black wasp glided down from the rafters and landed gently on top of the doll’s fake blonde hair.
The pace masterfully slows, and our gaze into the bright summer light shifts to an insect, small and natural.

I’ve been focusing on Pollock’s stories because I’m impressed by his skill for repeatedly plunging the reader into convincing, eviscerating worlds. He’s written some of the most arresting opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” Pollock rockets the reader into a highly particular time and place. He never wastes our time circling about the airfield looking for a spot to touch down. We’re immediately there, in the thick of it. Pinned right where Pollock wants us.

Like any art that traffics in the grotesque—I think, for example, of Goya’s Los Caprichos — Pollock’s fiction is not for the faint of heart. While a reader is always helpless in that she can’t influence the outcome of the story, rarely have I felt so hopeless. Pollock’s people appear destined to suffer, as if some rotten, misbegotten force has wrapped them tightly around its finger. In the stories of Flannery O’Connor, to whose fiction Pollock’s is often compared, I’m often baffled by why people do what they do, their mean and murderous impulses, and O’Connor’s own essays suggest that such mysteries are intentional. By contrast, in Pollock’s world, violence is clearly beget and perpetuated by humans: reading Pollock’s fiction makes me admit, with reluctance and discomfort, that people who act badly for reasons beyond their control — poverty, abuse, addiction — are still morally corrupt. Just as when Pollock explains failures in his own life as a result of his own choices — “where I had ended up was my own fault,” he says, adding that if he’d wanted to go to college as a young man his father likely would have helped him, “but that’s not the route I chose” — the author shows us again and again that these down-and-out southern Ohioans make terrible decisions. At the end of “Blessed,” for example, the Oxy addict realizes his son is not deaf and mute — he simply doesn’t talk when his father is around. The father recognizes this moment as one of great potential: he could spare his wife and kid, starting now, by leaving them alone. But then he remembers another bottle in the medicine cabinet, and we know their misery will continue.

Pollock achieves in his two books a powerful moral paradox, one that must undergird any fiction with staying power. He reveals with great care and specificity characters who are both trapped in cycles begun by those who came before and who could, if they really wanted, nudge their lives and those of others toward the better, rather than the worse. In Knockemstiff, there’s no such thing as a victimless crime.

For more on Donald Ray Pollock, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.