In thinking about the many excellent books I read this year, I kept circling back to the slender and wondrous Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by the equally wondrous Susan Bernofsky. What is Visitation, exactly? One could make a case for the book being a novel or a collection of short stories or a novel-in-stories, though Visitation is one of those rare books that is so spectacularly successful in its project, so fully-realized in its ambitions, that questions of form quickly become irrelevant. Visitation is bookended by accounts of the emergence -- “Approximately twenty-four thousands years ago, a glacier advanced…” -- and the destruction -- “In the case of this demolition…” -- of a landscape. More specifically, this landscape, the centerpiece of the book, is a grand house on a lake in Brandenburg, as seen through the eyes of 12 characters who, at different moments in history, make a life there. This might sound like a simple enough premise, but I am hard-pressed to remember the last time I encountered a work of fiction that captures the interior lives of its characters, in addition to the land itself, with as much complexity and brutality and love and guts and beauty and strange, piercing insight. There are an untold number of passages in this book worth quoting, some of which concern the darkest chapters of German history. Take “The Girl,” which follows Doris, a 12-year-old girl who goes into hiding, only to be discovered by Nazis; near the story’s end, Doris “takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot.” How to write what comes next? I can scarcely imagine it. Here is how Erpenbeck describes Doris’s passage out of the world: “For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.” If someone were to ask me to identify the single most powerful paragraph of literature I read this year, it is, unquestionably, this. One of the most formidable challenges that lie before fiction writers is to find language for what is unsayable and unthinkable and unknowable. In Visitation, Erpenbeck, does precisely that. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
1. When I was three, I got a pet wolf. This is a story I like to tell. “Did you grow up on a ranch or something?” the listener might ask in the beginning. “I grew up in Florida,” I tell them. “Orlando.” Strip malls, chain restaurants, 24-hour diners, highways with burning hot asphalt. Oaks draped with Spanish moss. Palm trees heavy with dates. The scent of orange peel. Avocado pits. Alligators hovering on the still surfaces of lakes (from a distance, they looked like logs). Hurricanes. Garden lizards. Water parks. 7-Eleven Slurpees, flavored Coke or blue raspberry. Gatorland. This will always be Orlando to me. What a place to bring a wolf. The story begins in 1986. Winter, a family ski trip to Park City. I was only three, too young for Utah, but oh have I heard the stories. Before returning home, they -- my parents, two half-brothers, half-sister, and her husband -- spent a few nights at a grand old hotel in Salt Lake City. My father remembers the ground being dusted with snow and that the width of the downtown boulevards had been determined by how much room was required to turn a team of horses. In a new place, my father likes to read the classifieds, and the Salt Lake newspaper was littered with advertisements for “cross-wolves.” Apparently it was illegal to advertise a full-blooded wolf, but these “cross-wolf” puppies were suppose to be 99 percent, as close as you could get. My father picked out an address an hour west of Salt Lake City. The family set out on an adventure. In the rental van, they hugged the edge of the Great Salt Lake, unfrozen due to the high salt content, then followed a road that led to a small town. Out there the snow was heavier, so deep that many of the street numbers were blanketed in white. They passed a doublewide on a hill, a cedar tree in the yard, a heavy chain looped around the trunk. From the grooves in the snow it was clear an animal had been tethered there. Sagebrush. A constellation of plastic toys on the ground. A woman standing outside, tall and pale. Severe as the weather. This woman brought out the mother, who was unmistakably wolf: huge and silver-coated. Her manner was cowed, a once wild animal made low and afraid. As the woman chained the wolf to the cedar, it occurred to my father that the Sierra Nevadas, a habitat for the gray wolf, lay to the west. If selling wolves was a lucrative business, the opportunities to dig up a burrow or trap a pregnant female would be plentiful. In an outdoor pen, there were two puppies, both eight weeks old: a reddish male and a silver female. The woman wanted $100 per wolf. Soon it was time to go. No one felt good about leaving the cubs behind, but bringing a wolf back to Florida seemed out of the question. In the van, they started toward Salt Lake City and didn’t get far before my mother called out to my father, “Look at your son!” My half-brother, the youngest of the two on the trip, was desperate for a wolf and sobbing in the back of the van. That was all my father needed to turn around. Armed with this wolf, they returned to their elegant hotel. The elder brother slipped the soft, squirming cub inside his orange ski jacket and smuggled her up to their suite. Already my father had come up with a name: Natasha. Natasha spent the night in a claw-footed bathtub. Her eyes were just like wolf eyes, or what everyone imagined wolf eyes to be: a bright, piercing blue. My mother slept on the bathroom floor to keep her from crying. The next day, Natasha was in a crate and Florida-bound. Around this time the listener’s face usually clouds with concern. “Exactly what kind of people are your parents?” I can see them thinking. Who brings a wolf to Florida? Who allows a wolf and a toddler to occupy the same space? When I press my parents on these points, they admit to having not spent much time pondering the complications. They are quick to mention my brother’s tearful outburst. My father says he was moved by the plight of the chained-up mother, who would likely spend her days being bred and bred, and was struck by a desire to save Natasha from a life chained to a tree. My mother points out that she and my father were newly married; it was her first marriage, his third. Aligning herself with the child who longed for the wolf seemed like a chance to earn the affection of her stepchildren. In my version, the truth is simpler. My parents are Animal People and Animal People, when faced with the predicaments of the furry and the feathered, cannot be counted on to behave rationally. My mother grew up on a farm in Tennessee. She rode ponies, nursed baby rabbits, reared calves for 4H. At 70, she can recall the trauma of losing her favorite childhood cow to slaughter as though it happened yesterday. My father spent his formative years in D.C. and was known as a “nature boy” at school, partly due to having raised a baby buzzard to maturity in his backyard. The Buzzard of Glover Park. My childhood pets included: dogs, cats, fish, gerbils, ferrets, and chickens. The stray cat that occasionally turned up mewling on our doorstep was readily absorbed into the household, including a beautiful black cat riddled with leukemia, who we named Midnight and nursed until his death. In 2006, my parents would divorce, bitterly, and a love of animals is one of the only things they would continue to have in common. Case in point: last summer, I called my mother with the news that my father’s beloved Jack Russell terrier had died. By then my father had remarried. My mother had returned to Tennessee. They spoke only when it was unavoidable, except on that day, when I called with news of the dog and she wept and she wrote to him, offering her condolences. 2. We are a family rich with adventure. With my parents, I have gotten lost in the wilds of Poland and ridden a horse along the edge of a ravine in a driving rain and survived a mudslide. I have shared a house with a wolf. Each of these adventures gives way to a story. Of our many family stories, Natasha is one of the most legendary. I spent years absorbing the way her story was told to me, the details that brought her to life. Her rapid growth from a cub to a creature that resembled the chained-up mother in Utah. Natasha slinking around our brick-walled backyard, head low. The black dot at the base of her tail. The long canine teeth. The enormous paws. Her prodigious pacing, which created trenches so deep, she was only half-visible when inside them. There was something lonely, something searching, about her pacing. A pack animal looking for her pack. I remember hearing about her silence. Movements so stealth, footsteps so light, you would look up and be surprised to find her there. She was at once gentle and aloof, submitting to affection without seeking it. She lived with us, in this land of heat and palm trees and slithering reptiles, but never became part of the family, like an international student pausing in our home to observe the curious habits of Americans. My own memories of Natasha are like a blur of light in the corner of a photograph, at once insistent and vague, but here is one thing I remember about her with true clarity: I can see myself kneeling on a blue sofa and looking out a window, small hands pressed against the glass, and watching Natasha skulk around the backyard, her coat gleaming silver under the Florida sun. I remember being mesmerized by this huge, beautiful creature that had been dropped into our world. I don’t recall ever being afraid. 3. Ask most writers about their literary education and there’s a good chance you’ll be regaled with stories of voracious childhood reading, of rapturous early encounters with Judy Bloom or C.S. Lewis, of the thoughtful teacher who was the first to notice their innate facility for language. My husband, a novelist, embarked on the writerly path after falling headlong for “Rock Springs” by Richard Ford while studying English at a New England boarding school. Reading saved me. Reading made me feel less alone. These are the familiar refrains. For me, these are curious conversations. They tend to make me feel alienated from the very people -- fellow artists -- who might, in theory, help relieve the feeling of outsiderness that tend to plague most writers, a feeling that has certainly plagued me. I was not a literary child. I felt very alone, but I did not read. I was a poor student and, though I must have read something, I can’t remember a single work of fiction from high school. My educational trajectory included a GED and night classes for college, where I had the great fortune of stumbling into a fiction workshop, and because of that there is a part of me that will always feel undereducated, intellectually unrefined. I still, for example, burn with shame when I remember the time a writer I admired, at a dinner with other writers I admired, laughed loudly before correcting my pronunciation of “beaux arts.” I am 31. I currently teach at a highly-ranked liberal arts college. The “beaux arts” incident was several years ago and I still am not over it and that is entirely my own hang-up. I used to think that, until I began reading and writing in college, I had no literary education, but I was wrong. I had Natasha. I was, as a storyteller, raised by a wolf. Natasha is the first family story I remember hearing and the first story I started telling myself. She is my earliest experience with the construction of narrative. In both the listening and the telling, there was much to learn. As a listener, I noticed how the details shifted from teller to teller. In one version, her coat was silver. In another, it was the color of oatmeal. In one version, the neighborhood she came from was near water. In another, it was inland. In my brother’s version, he denied being the instigator, the one who cried for the wolf. My parents’ versions focused on the grand adventure of Natasha’s acquisition and glossed over what happened after. Everyone was telling a true story. Everyone was engaging in their own acts of invention. As the teller, I watched people brighten, lean in, when I started talking about my pet wolf in Florida. I learned the importance of contrast and surprise, the pleasure in finding the unexpected in the familiar. Depending on the details I selected, the story could be comic or sad. My parents could be painted as reckless or heroic. I could accept one teller’s version over another. I could create my own. Fiction, through fabrication, finds the truth that real life tends to cover up. 4. “So what ever happened to Natasha?” the listener always asks. Like my parents, I, depending on the kind of story I have decided to tell, sometimes avoid this part. Natasha never took to Florida, or at least not our suburban incarnation of it. Her dense coat was a misery in the tropics. With her huge paws, she dug burrows in the backyard and coated herself in dirt, searching for cool. My mother says the holes were large enough for a person to crawl inside. The longer Natasha stayed with us, the more she grew hot, isolated, bored. My parents employed a landscaper to help with yard work, a tall, obliging man in his 30s. This man took a special interest in Natasha. He was always quick to remind my parents that he had a place in the country, plenty of land, and one day he took her home. For a while, there were updates, Natasha was faring well in the countryside, but eventually we lost track. No one knows how her story ended, but the ghost of her never left me. 5. “What ever happened to you?” the listener never asks. And why would they? I’m right here, telling the story. One winter, when I was 15, I made a half-hearted attempt at running away from home. I bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Tallahassee, a university town near the Georgia border. This was a few days before Christmas. I was restless and depressed and thoroughly sick of Florida. A “Natasha” in my own right. I felt myself sliding into a dark hole and I didn’t know how to climb out. I had spent time studying the northern contours on maps. The hook of Massachusetts, the wedge of Vermont, the wild frontier of Maine. The Greyhound bus to Tallahassee was my first attempt at going north. I don’t remember what I took with me or what even prompted my leaving. I came back right after Christmas, head hung, ashamed to have caused my family such grief. What I do remember is staring out the window as the bus rolled down a gray Florida highway, my own dull reflection trapped in the glass, and feeling the shattering loneliness of not knowing who I was or why I was doing what I was doing. And suddenly Natasha was there in my memory, big and silver and pacing circles. I had not seen her in over a decade, but on that bus I thought back to the image of her in the backyard and wondered if she ever looked up from her digging and glimpsed her own reflection in a window. If she recognized what she saw. What happened was this: the girl on the bus grew up. She went to college. She started to read, learned about different kinds of stories. She enrolled in a graduate program and moved to Boston, that chilly long-desired north. She rode the subway. She tasted snow. On the outside, she was changing, but that loneliness she felt on the bus, that Natasha space, would always be the place from which she would write. 6. In my current life, I spend my days in classrooms, talking about stories. At the start of the semester, I ask my students to tell me a true story and together we take these stories apart. We seek out the contradictions, the surprises, the unexpected in the familiar. We interrogate the gaps. We note the parts the teller seems most eager to perform. We confront the rough edges that have been smoothed. We talk about the secret story we can see taking shape, like shadows flickering on the smooth surface of a lake. A story is different from an event, I tell them. The event is what happens. A story is the mythology that rises from what happens. Often this mythology is where the real story, the truest story, lives. When my students want a story from me, Natasha is always the one I offer. The first time I participated in this exercise, I reached for her story without thinking, and without exactly meaning to, I never tell the story the same way twice. “Why do you tell the wolf story?” a student has yet to ask. If they did, I would say it is because Natasha contains so many different kinds of story: she tells a story about a wolf who went to Florida and a story about a family and a story about how I learned to tell stories. The story I have to tell about her is a true story and it is a fiction. It has achieved the level of myth. I might even say that I still long to talk about her. To remember that silver coat, that relentless pacing. I still wonder what ever became of her, dream up the different versions. Alice Munro once described a story as a house and each time I speak of Natasha, I feel another window in the house of that story open. I feel the air come in. I am permitted the illusion of a story without end. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
I especially loved two deliciously strange novels this year: Victor LaValle's Big Machine and Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Running Away. Big Machine was an impulse buy at the bookstore, after I read jacket copy describing a “band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God.” For obvious reasons, I was hooked by the description and curious as to how LaValle would manage to pull all this off. But pull it off he does. From the first sentence, I fell happily under the spell of the novel’s protagonist, Ricky Rice, and soon I was deep in the world of janitorial duties at Union Station in Utica, New York, and secret orders in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and haunted pasts. This is a novel of tremendous ideas and tremendous heart—and, for me, an extraordinary introduction to LaValle. One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to read everything he’s ever written. Running Away had an equally hypnotic effect. Previous Toussaint novels—Television in particular—had already made me a fan, and Running Away struck me as being at once very Toussaint-esque and startling new. While Television is largely concerned with stasis, Running Away is devoted to movement. Set in China and the Mediterranean, this novel bounds from one locale to another, laying down connections that are bewildering and enigmatic and, in the end, perplexingly enduring. A side note: the book is worth reading just for the final act, which takes place in Elba. Holy god, it’s amazing. Both Running Away and Big Machine resist practical logic; they cannot be “made sense of” in the traditional manner. And that was precisely why I found both books to be profoundly transporting: I was so swept away by Toussaint's and LaValle’s worlds, I stopped caring about the hows and the whys and the what ifs, about matters of plausibility; I only wanted to be there. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions