Dexter Palmer, King of Questions


At parties, people would ask Dexter Palmer, “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” he’d reply.

They’d ask the inevitable follow-up, “What are you working on?”
“Well, this book about a woman who gives birth to rabbits that’s based on a true story,” he’d say, which was the truth at the time.
Strangers weren’t quite sure what to make of that, so Palmer would talk about his research: lots of texts from the 18th century, including obsolete articles about women’s anatomy, or the history of the “royal touch”—the idea that kings could heal anyone’s ailments with a little bit of monarchical contact. In the context of Palmer’s library dives, the notion of a woman birthing rabbits didn’t sound so ridiculous.
The book, Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, is Palmer’s third work of fiction and will be published by Pantheon in November. Its genesis goes back to 1996, when he was getting his PhD in English from Princeton University. In a class titled Representations of the Improbable, Palmer had to give a presentation on fraud. So he uncovered the story about the woman who claimed to give birth to rabbits and tried to understand the most obvious question: Why the hell did anyone believe her?
Over the course of two decades, Palmer returned to that idea. He kept clips of articles that were somewhat associated with the rabbit case and books about the 18th century, never sure what he would make of all this material, until it became the novel concept he sold to Pantheon and the recurring subject of polite cocktail conversation.
Palmer says that because he still lives in Princeton, N.J., a town of Ivy League academics, those same party guests often asked whether the book would include a bibliography—which would be unusual for a novel. Mary Toft does include a list of sources at the end, with Palmer’s caveat that he’d “taken a novelist’s liberties with its subject matter,” and following that, an itemization of those liberties. All his lies, basically. Palmer laughs when he tells me, “As an academic, there’s that bit of me that wants to prove that I did the work.”
The work is the research, but of course, it’s also the writing, which is getting easier for Palmer. Or at least, it’s getting faster. His first book, The Dream of Perpetual Motion (2010), which is like Kafka meets steampunk, took 14 years to finish. Version Control (2016) is a tome of speculative fiction that warps into a time-travel tale. That one took about five years of work (and a lot of cutting—40,000 words, a short novel’s worth). Mary Toft was done in just two years, written bit by bit after the workday and on the weekends.
Ask Palmer “what do you do?” somewhere other than a Princeton party and he’ll tell you about his day job: He works for the College Board, writing test questions for the SAT. He can’t talk much about the job itself—he signed an NDA—but he’s been on the test-writing circuit for the better part of 13 years, having also worked on the GRE and AP exams.
Palmer’s workdays are filled with a different kind of creative writing. Testing someone’s reading comprehension requires a mind-set that’s “precise and, at the same time, elliptical.” Good test-question writers need to figure out all the ways students might possibly misread a sentence. To write a good multiple-choice question, they have to write one correct answer and three plausibly wrong ones.
Is understanding how people might misinterpret something helpful when writing fiction? “It’s different, because if someone misreads a novel, it’s not really high stakes,” Palmer says. “The worst thing that’s going to happen is that someone posts a one-star review on Amazon or something like that.”

Which is to say, Palmer is okay with his writing being misunderstood—not a bad way to approach a novel about a big lie.
Mary Toft isn’t really about the character of Mary Toft. She gets two short chapters from her point of view, but the book is ultimately about the men who surround her who have all, for various reasons, taken on the curious case to understand what’s going on with the rabbits. It’s a conspiracy of self-delusion but also a tale of four dudes talking about a woman’s body.
It’s a tricky proposition: “Mary Toft has to be a book about women,” Palmer says. “But it also has to be a book about men talking about women.” Those men who populate the book, because of their status and because of their gender, become the arbiters of how Toft is perceived. It’s a book about what happens when we ignore expertise and decide to instead reinforce each other’s misthinking. “Why would a number of people, many of whom are very smart and educated, collude to believe a thing that seems self-evidently, materially false, to the point of being ridiculous?” Palmer asks.
In that way, Mary Toft gestures at our current political situation, in which a lot of reasonable people have decided to take at his word a president who is constantly lying. (Palmer began writing the book in 2016, naturally.) Trump is, after all, an authority figure—one of the highest in the world, depending on whom you ask.
Palmer says, “Expertise is why people feel obligated to go get vaccines, for example. Expertise tells us that the climate is changing. And yet, just because of the way the society is, who gets designated an expert is largely a class issue.”
When elites fancy themselves experts, isn’t it then subversive for the public to disown expertise and reclaim that power? The problem is that expertise is also often condescending, and it might behoove towns like Princeton to be more self-aware about that.
Modern education approaches pupils as blank slates who must be taught the right thing. But we live in the age of misinformation, of dishonesty, of YouTube—and students now come to class already believing all kinds of horrible things: the conspiracy theories of Alex Jones, the misogynistic views of Jordan Peterson, the conspiracy theories and misogynistic views of the president. The role of a teacher is no longer to teach but to first help a student unlearn. Disproving a lie in 2019—and in 1726—is more complicated than just pointing out that something is false. It’s even more difficult when a lot of people believe in the lie.
“People can collude in believing something,” Palmer says. “That is resistant to education.”
But this is not the lesson Palmer set out to teach readers when he first endeavored on Mary Toft. He started writing in spring 2016, when the moment was uncertain. “I can’t claim that I somehow foresaw our situation when I started to write about it,” he concedes.
Mary Toft really just started out as a book about a woman giving birth to rabbits. Like Palmer’s other two novels, the idea emerged as he was writing and researching. Palmer recalls something his editor told him once during a conference call: “Nobody ever writes an important book on purpose. It’s always by accident.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on

A Year in Reading: Kevin Nguyen

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I read a lot of books this year (around 100), but if I’m completely honest, I spent more time reading Book Twitter than anything else.

The makeup of Book Twitter resembles the makeup of publishing itself: critics, authors, booksellers, and a mix of people who work in publishing proper. Which is to say that Book Twitter is extremely white. And in a year where even people who love books had an opinion about racism, Book Twitter was patronizingly white.

With the election impending, this became the year of performative wokeness. When you see tweets of people praising The Sellout (“it’s funny!”) but not really saying anything about it of substance (“it’s about… race”), you start to wonder if people like the book or just want to be seen as the kind of person who would like Paul Beatty. Maybe it came from a place of white guilt or insecurity, but Book Twitter mostly looked like people saying, “There are bad white people, but I am a good white person because I have read Ta-Nehisi Coates.” When white people vocally identify themselves as Book People, they are assuring everyone around them that they are better than other whites who don’t read. How this declaration of allyship benefits people of color I have no idea, but I’m sure it makes a lot of Book Twitter feel better about itself.

Still, it was easy to overlook the superficial conversation taking place about these books. Hell, I think a lot of us were just glad people were talking about The Underground Railroad at all. But Book Twitter found an even flimsier look after the election. The immediate reaction turned into abundance of tweets reinforcing how important books were in country that was soon to be led by a racist demagogue. I’ll pick on Gary Shteyngart, since he has a good sense of humor:

Shteyngart was far from the only person projecting this shallow sentiment. The logic of Book Twitter is: Books are inherently good. Therefore, if we’d all just read more books, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected. If you believe that books have the power to do good, you also have to believe that they can do just as much harm. After the election, there was no soul searching on Book Twitter. No one questioned the power structures of publishing. Can we talk about how one of the Big Five publishers is owned by News Corp? Often the publishing of things like Bill O’Reilly’s twisted histories is justified as a means to support literary fiction. But does anyone ask if that trade-off is worth it?

Instead, there was just a lot of self-congratulatory tweets like Shteyngart’s that read like a call to action but really only urged Book Twitter to keep doing what it was already doing. Book Twitter doubled down on its unending positivity and back patting, which amounted to a lot of white people tweeting the equivalent of “All Books Matter.”

At this point, you’re thinking, Does Book Twitter reflect the greater publishing culture? To which I would say: It’s worse IRL.

If I sound mad, it’s because I’m exhausted. A few months ago, I mostly stopped going to book events. There is a bland sameness that has started to pervade them. You hang out with a familiar group of people — many of whom I like a lot, some I am supposed to like. And if you think Book Twitter is white, try going to a book event. These are almost exclusively white spaces, and being a person of color in them has become increasingly anxiety inducing. You drink with familiar people and strangers and just wait for someone to say something kinda fucked up to ruin your night. Just because my last name is Nguyen doesn’t mean I want to talk about Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I am not interested in hearing you talk about how attractive an Asian-American debut novelist is. And for the last time, as much as I love Ed Park, we really, really do not look alike.

2016 had one bright spot: the National Book Awards. I’ve been to the ceremony five years in a row, and this was the first time I would say it was really good. In fact, it was great, and I’ll credit that to Lisa Lucas, the National Book Foundation’s new executive director. Publishing take note. This is what happens when you put a person of color in charge of something important: it becomes more vital, more relevant.

This year’s host was Larry Wilmore, which is pretty remarkable upgrade over 2015’s dad joke machine Andy Borowitz, and an even bigger improvement over 2014’s Daniel Handler who couldn’t resist making an unbelievably racist joke on stage. Each acceptance speech thoughtfully contextualized what Trump’s America meant for them. “We have seen a black president,” poet Terrance Hayes said, “and we have seen what kind of president comes after a black president.”

Though there were more people of color than I’ve ever seen at the National Book Awards, the room was still mostly white. After Ibram Kendi gave his acceptance speech, Wilmore took the stage again to joke that “the National Book Foundation is woke.” There was laughing and clapping, lots of white people nodding along to show that they got it.

And I wonder if they did get it. That in a room — and industry and community — that is overwhelmingly white, just proving that you aren’t racist isn’t going to be enough.

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A Startup Soap Opera: On Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter

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It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that, in its early years, Twitter suffered from a lot of internal turmoil. After all, the company has cycled through three different CEOs in four years. But the power struggle depicted in Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is likely far greater than anyone could have imagined. Culling from some 65 hours of interviews with current and former Twitter employees, in addition to employee emails, IMs, and confidential legal notices, Bilton has used all his access to write a compelling exposé of Twitter’s cofounders — a startup soap opera for the Valleywag age.

From the ruins of the stalled podcasting startup Odeo, Twitter emerged in 2006 as an idea then-nobody programmer Jack Dorsey had about “status updates.” Later that year, he, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone would dismantle Odeo to work on Twitter full time, which is more or less where the good times ended. The company would struggle under Dorsey’s “incompetent” leadership as CEO, Williams would take over, and later be replaced himself by current CEO Dick Costolo, with Dorsey also being brought back onboard. Costolo and Stone are mentioned throughout the book, but remain largely background characters. Bilton centers Hatching Twitter around the relationship between Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams because that’s where all the melodrama is.

The book seems to generally come down harder on Dorsey than it does on Williams, but Bilton discovers an interesting divide in what each cofounder believes Twitter should be. Dorsey sees Twitter as an outlet to express oneself outward, while Williams’s vision is based around telling stories about people. These philosophical differences influence the site’s technical development as well. (Dorsey, for example, believes in focusing on mobile while Williams believes more time should be put toward the website.) In one of the book’s best moments, Dorsey and Williams are arguing about whether the pre-populated question in the status update box should ask the user “what are you doing?” or “what’s happening?” Bilton writes:

To many this might sound like semantics. Yet these were two completely different ways of using Twitter. Was it about me, or was it about you? Was it about ego, or was it about others? In reality, it was about both. One never would have worked without the other.

Here, Bilton is accomplishing several things at once: he’s remarking on the thoughtful subtleties that made Twitter so powerful, illustrating the conceptual divide between Jack and Ev, and developing their irreconcilable relationship to the reader.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t see more of this throughout the book. Later, it becomes clear Bilton is interested in painting Dorsey as a tragic figure, a 28 year old who came to Odeo to work with industry role models and friends, whose creation of Twitter would ironically sever those ties he sought so desperately to make. It feels like a stretch, especially at the end when, in a moment of loneliness, Dorsey dramatically checks Twitter.

In fact, the entire theme of loneliness throughout Hatching Twitter comes across as particularly facile. Bilton attributes a shared sense of isolation as the genesis for Twitter:

It could be a technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring into their computer screens. An emotion that Noah and Jack and Biz and Ev had grown up feeling, finding solace in a monitor. An emotion that Noah [Glass] felt night after night as his marriage and company fell apart: loneliness.

In a book where Bilton touts the accuracy of what he details in an author’s note, Hatching Twitter still feels like it’s constantly making leaps when it comes to its subjects’ motives and emotions. Many of these sections are notably light on quotations in a book that is otherwise so abundant with them.

It’s disappointing to watch Bilton commit to such an obvious trope: the despair of the lonely computer nerd. Dorsey is drawn as a caricature of a developer, a man-child whose desires have the maturity of an early high schooler. There’s a moment, too, when Dorsey’s relationship with Odeo founder Noah Glass is sullied when he becomes jealous of Glass’s friendship with another coworker named Crystal Taylor. Dorsey’s infatuation is solidified early on when Taylor teaches him what “texting” is — making a crush literally the inspiration for Twitter.

The moment reminded me of something Mark Zuckerberg said after seeing The Social Network. According to Zuckerberg, the most inaccurate part of the movie is the way it’s framed. Aaron Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is motivated by getting back at an ex-girlfriend; in real life, Zuckerberg had been dating the same girl since Facebook’s inception.

“It’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley — building stuff,” Zuckerberg said. “They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”

Similar comments were echoed by Dorsey’s boss at Odeo, Tony Stubblebine, in a Quora post about the accuracy of Bilton’s adapted excerpt of Hatching Twitter from The New York Times Magazine. Is the notion that Dorsey just wants to be in control of a product he’s created so unbelievable or so unconvincing that his motives need to be supplemented by adolescent jealousy?

And yet while the characters featured in Hatching Twitter feel more like archetypes than actual humans, it’s hard not to eat this stuff up. Aspects of Dorsey’s behavior are hilariously juvenile. After being ousted from the company, he continued to take any and all interviews about Twitter, feigning authority when answering questions he did not know the answer to. Dorsey would also set up meetings with his email address as a bait-and-switch to talk about his new startup Square (he would have his email address revoked).

Bilton has an excellent sense of pace, and there are several scenes — in particular, the chapter where Dorsey gets fired — that are exciting enough to be lifted word-for-word into a film adaptation. Of course, this all depends how exciting you can find a chapter cliffhanger that ends with someone calling Mark Zuckerberg. In the final pages of Hatching Twitter, I questioned whether the book really had anything meaningful to say about Twitter, its founders, or even any of the tumultuous things that transpired between them. Bilton is less concerned about what Twitter is and more interested in the human drama between its founders. The company itself is just the battleground for an ego-driven power struggle, and as gripping as it is to see some of the smartest minds in tech tell each other to go fuck themselves, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just read nearly 300 pages of privileged white men yelling at each other.

Cut and Dry: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes

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Jonathan Franzen has always been outspoken about his disdain of e-readers. In an interview with The AV Club, he said the Kindle “makes everything seem unsubstantial,” that “the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable.” Yet Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing — not to mention the perk of carrying a small electronic device instead of a 700-page hardcover copy of Freedom.

It seems fitting that Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Tree of Codes was published around the same Christmas season when the Kindle became Amazon’s best-selling product ever. The Kindle does away with all manners of a novel’s physical form and design; Tree of Codes exists solely to embrace those things, and to be embraced, but gently.

The die-cut interior of Tree of Codes is made up of select words, carefully re-assembled from Foer’s favorite novel, Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, to create an entirely new narrative. (Cut ten letters from the original title and you get Tree of Codes.) If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the book equivalent of a mash up, perhaps Tree of Codes is akin to 8-bit music: it’s both a reduction and reinterpretation of another work. Visually, the sparse prose and overwhelming negative space leaves a stunning impression, (accurately captured in what might be the least-annoying book trailer of all time). It’s a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.

What Foer has done is a little gimmicky and not entirely new — William Burroughs and Brion Gyson did a similar cut-up book in the ‘60s — but the reading experience is an absorbing challenge. The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it. I don’t mean interpreting the text — the prose, though occasionally aloof, reads as a fairly straightforward narrative — but how to physically hold the book. Because of Tree’s die-cut pages, it’s hard to tell what words belong on the page you’re looking at and what’s on the next page or two. After a few minutes, I figured out that the best method was to keep a finger under the page I was reading, bending it slightly, to give the words more depth (again, I mean physical depth).

Some readers have taken to inserting a blank sheet of paper behind each page, but doing that feels like a denial of the book’s design. There’s something haunting about seeing what lays ahead, just out of focus. Tree of Codes is intent on distracting its audience and making them conscious of the reading experience. The pages are also fragile, and I found myself holding Tree of Codes with extra care. According to Foer, the binding had to be paperback — if it was hardcover, the book would “collapse in on itself.” It shows consideration to the book not as an art object, but a book as a thing you read.

The format of a book doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult. But if authors really want to defend the idea of the physical book, they need to consider how the medium actually affects the reading experience. The example that comes to mind is Dave Eggers, who writes in QuarkXPress instead of a regular word processor, which might explain why McSweeney’s does just fine without selling books in ePub format.

Despite it’s unconventional form, Tree of Codes is actually a natural step for Foer, as a novelist who has toyed with visual elements like type, white space, and color in his earlier works. In an interview with The Morning News in 2005 (just after the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer said he “really like[d] books as objects, as little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with.”

Sculpture is a medium that is appreciated for its form, texture, its third dimension; sculpture is also a medium that isn’t necessarily interacted with, even touched, unless you want to be escorted to the curb by museum security guards. Really, the sculpture comparison does a disservice to what a book really is: a mass-produced object that you spend hours holding.

It’s just too bad that in the case of Tree of Codes, the reading experience is far more interesting than the actual novel. Holding the book, you can feel an absence of weight in the middle. Even within 3,000 words, Tree of Codes inconsistently waivers from abstract poignance (“The tree stood with the arms upraised and screamed and screamed.”) to the sort of pretentious mediocrity you might find in DeviantArt poetry (“I could feel waves of laid bare, of dreams.”). It boils down to whether or not you find Foer’s lyricism to be poetic or merely sentimental.

But credit is due to Foer for taking Schultz’s work and making it his own. Trees features the familiar fallible perspective from Everything is Illuminated and the Freudian relationships from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are also allusions to a vague disaster — is it a plague or the Holocaust? — that amounts to an equally ambiguous tragedy that is better felt than understood.

When I finished Tree of Codes, I placed it in on my bookshelf. But it felt as if it didn’t belong stuffed next to my copy of Freedom — which has endured being borrowed by three different people since August. Tree of Codes might be a much worse novel than Freedom, but it’s a delicate book. There are thousands of copies of Tree of Codes, and yet mine feels special. It’s a reminder that the book is a precious thing.