Trapped Between Two Worlds: The Life of John Morris


After his propulsive novels set in 1950s and 1960s Detroit and Vietnam, The Millions staff writer Bill Morris delivered a memoir about his cub reporter days in rural Pennsylvania, chronicling the “schizo ‘70s” and its “stylistic Sargasso.” In his latest nonfiction work, The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century―From the Civil War to the Cold War, Morris expands the historical scope by painting a portrait of his grandfather John Morris, a man who led an ordinary life—he was a long-time professor at the University of Georgia—but witnessed extraordinary things: “He was born into a slave-owning Virginia family during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War.” The sober philologist could hardly be called an early adopter, but the range of technological advances that occurred during his lifetime was staggering:

He was among the original users of window screens, the telephone, modern plumbing, electric lights, typewriters, radio, automobiles, phonographs, airplanes, elevators, movies, subways, safety razors, television, penicillin, pasteurized milk, refrigeration, antibiotics, and central heat and air conditioning.

Throughout this biography and cultural history, Morris tracks his grandfather’s conflicted relationship with the pace of change: “He must have felt trapped between two worlds, unwilling to go back to an imaginary past and equally unwilling to step into a mad mechanized future.” Whenever events were too overwhelming, though, he could find comfort in his recondite scholarly interests—the development of diphthongs in modern English, for instance—or work on a massive, destined-to-be unpublished German-English dictionary that occupied him for nearly 40 years.

I spoke with Bill Morris about bringing to life his grandfather and the “age of astonishment” in which he lived.

The Millions: In the book, you paraphrase Ralph Ellison, “Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors.” What made you “choose” this ancestor as a subject?

Bill Morris: There is a (now lost) picture of me as an infant in 1952 on my grandfather’s knee, when he was about to turn 90. Even as a teenager, I was thinking, wow, the life this guy lived. The things he lived through and witnessed, and the way his day-to-day life changed must have been a whiplash experience. And then back in 2016, this economist Robert Gordon published The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I read this book and I’m thinking, this guy wrote the blueprint of the things my grandfather lived through. It’s a fabulous book, and Gordon’s saying that the century from 1870 to1970 brought the most amazing changes in the history of humanity. And I thought, my grandfather’s dates were 1863-1955, almost a perfect match. And that finally got me going. I have to write this book. I’ve been thinking about this for 50 years. It’s time to sit down and write it.

TM: And the argument is that the speed and variety of technological advancements of this period dwarf those that any other generation has lived through?

BM: People say, “Oh, the world is changing faster than ever now.” Well, not really, because my life hasn’t changed all that much, except for laptop computers and all that. I grew up with the telephone and electric lights and flushing toilets and paved roads. It was all there when I was born. None of that was there when my grandfather was born.

TM: They didn’t even have the curveball! You mention how your grandfather’s brother is credited with inventing the pitch, called the “drop-shoot,” in the late 19th century.

BM: That’s right. John was the catcher on the first University of Georgia baseball team, and he kept getting his nose broken because his brother would throw these curveballs and they would hit the ground, bounce up and hit him in the face. They didn’t have masks or chest protectors.

TM: Perhaps that’s why he took refuge in the comparatively less bruising world of philology. You describe this as a “mongrel” book comprising various forms. What motivated this approach?

BM: I realized the book couldn’t be any single thing. It was not going to be a biography because the written record is sizable but not really great. It wasn’t like I had thousands of his letters. Late in the process, though, I did stumble on the manuscript of his English-German dictionary, which he spent 40 years working on. But I wanted it to be nonfiction. I wanted it to be factual. I knew there was going to be a lot of reporting involved—research in archives, letters from relatives, leads. A little bit of scholarship, little bit of reportage, and then, as I admit, when the record was thin, I had to imagine a bit, resort to fiction. All of the kinds of writing I’ve done in my life came into play. It’s a mongrel work.

TM: Your grandfather was born into a slave-owning Virginia family. Throughout the book, how do you wrestle with, and what did you uncover about, what you call this “original stain on the Morris family.”

BM: I unearthed a lot of letters that John’s father, Charles Morris, who was a quartermaster in the Confederacy, and his mother, Mary Minor Morris, wrote back and forth during the Civil War. That was the richest historical archive that I found. And from that I got a richer appreciation of what it was like day to day on a plantation where people owned human beings. I think slavery, American slavery  in particular, was an abomination. John grew up believing that, too, even though his father owned slaves. Charles was not apparently a vicious slave owner, although he didn’t apologize for it or try to abolish it. It was the world he’d been born into, it was the world his family had been in for many generations, and it was like breathing to him. He was not a man to question it. Now, that doesn’t make him evil in my eyes. And it doesn’t excuse him. But like I said, in the beginning of the book, this project was about trying to find the richer truth about what it was like for people who were born into that world to suddenly have that world crumble.

And possibly more important, what about the people they owned who were suddenly free? And that’s where it got interesting to me. Because they did not take it rolling over. They did fight back. The house [Taylor’s Creek in Hanover County Virginia] burned one time, under suspicious circumstances. The former slaves melted away, many of them, as soon as they were free. But, Charles also donated the land that would become Bethany Baptist Church, a black church that is still in existence today. He helped his former slaves who wanted to stay around, gave them loans, pieces of land. I was hoping that by looking into the family’s participation in this horrible institution of slavery, I would get a deeper understanding of what the slave owners went through and what the slaves went through.

TM: And how did John Morris, a relative progressive living most of his life in Athens, Ga,, throughout Reconstruction and Jim Crow, respond to the racial violence surrounding him?

BM: I ask this question in my book: Why didn’t they get out? Lots of people, Black and white, were leaving the South, had given up on the South as hopeless. And I think the answer is that both John and Gretchen [his wife] had seen enough in the world—he had studied in Berlin, she had travelled widely as a musician—and they came to the conclusion that it’s not any better anywhere else. It might be really bad here, but when you get down to it, during the Red Summer of 1919, there were racial killings from California to Connecticut. I think that they thought that if we stay here and try to be decent to Black people and treat everyone with respect, maybe that’s better than leaving and letting the yahoos take over everything.

Athens and places like Charlottesville and Chapel Hill have always been these bastions of somewhat enlightened culture in not-so-enlightened parts of the South. Georgia in particular was real heavy-duty. Georgia was on a level with Mississippi back in the day. You have the Leo Frank lynching. The riots in Atlanta in 1906 were absolutely appalling. But there again, we see W.E.B. Du Bois and Walter White picking up guns and getting ready to defend their homes in Atlanta in 1906, which was the beginning of the Black resistance to this wave of horror that Jim Crow had brought to the South. John and Gretchen felt they could maybe do a little bit of good if they stayed. I don’t know if they succeeded or not.

TM: There’s one scene near the end of the book in which you recall your aunt showing you the spot outside of Athens where a lynching occurred.

BM: That’s one of those moments in life you never forget. I was visiting my father’s eldest sister in Athens as I was driving cross country. I was a college drop out. One day my aunt said, “We’re going on a drive.” She drove me out to this lone pine tree outside of town and told me the story of a Black man who was lynched by that tree in 1921. And her father, John Morris, had driven her out there one day and pointed to the tree and told her the story of how they burned a man alive there, and that it was evil and that she was never to have anything to do with such things or such people. And that stayed with me ever since.

TM: Your grandfather taught for over half a century at the University of Georgia, devoted to teaching and to abstruse academic studies in which he found a “harbor and a fortress.” Throughout, you try to determine his ambitions and wrestle with how he might have defined success.

BM: I think he made his own little room and pumped in his own oxygen. He spent upwards of 40 years writing a German-English diction that was never published. He was also writing articles in obscure philological journals. He’s writing about where Shakespeare’s name comes from. He decided he was going to do his own thing, and to hell with everybody else. It wasn’t like he was sitting in a room by himself like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, writing the same thing over and over. But he was very much in his own bubble and yet yearning to connect with the world, which never really happened. And I don’t think that makes him a failure. I think that makes him an interesting case, actually, because he pursued a dream with tremendous focus and discipline. And it amounted to absolutely nothing, and I think he was perfectly at peace with that.

That’s my definition of heroic: someone who pursues what they want to do.

But it’s also not like he just retreated from all the horrors of this complicated, confusing world. He loved going to the movies. He loved the radio. He loved to drive. He loved to travel to Europe. He spoke many languages. He was a person who selectively embraced technology. He liked screened-in the windows, which was one of the first innovations he experienced at the family farm in Virginia. He liked not having mosquitoes bite him in the middle of the night. Technology wasn’t all bad to him, but then we get little problems like Hitler and the A-bomb. He was ambivalent about all the progress that was going on. He was an old-school Southern gentleman.

TM: Because you cover the half-century he spent teaching at the University of Georgia, we get a full portrait of that institution, warts and all.

BM: He went to law school there and then became a professor until the end of the Second World War. When he got there, it was really just a glorified academy, not a serious university like they had in the North. Mencken said the only true university in the South was the University Virginia. But as the 20th century rolled along, the University of Georgia did become more modern, more progressive, more seriously academic. But there was always this thing about sports—and the military. Those are big things in the South. So when Stanford Stadium was built in 1929—with convict labor, by the way, because they couldn’t afford to build it with “real” workers—they built this huge 30,000-seat stadium. And John hadn’t gotten a raise in 10 years. There was no pension. He had no health insurance. The football coaches made more than he did, and he’d been there for 35 years. So he wasn’t thrilled about these things. He thought making money through sports was the height of vulgarity. Big-time college sports made a deal with the devil, and he saw it in 1929, and I think that’s exactly how it played out. And it’s funny, because the week I finished writing the book, UGA won the national football championship. Of course, I thought, “Ah yes, if only John were still around to appreciate this moment!”

TM: He also distrusted what you call the “boosterism” of Henry Grady and the New South.

BM: Henry Grady was the big proponent of the New South. He was a newspaper editor in Atlanta. John certainly would have known him. And John was very put off by the New South, the notion that if we could just get a cotton mill in this town, everything would be great. And this created these sprawling ugly mill villages. It was supposedly salvation for the white man. They’d go to work at these mills at a young age, and this was the progress that Grady was preaching as the salvation of the South after Reconstruction. And John wanted no part of it. Grady’s vision did bring some progress and raise the standard of living, but it also brought a lot of misery. There was nothing romantic about it. It was an act of desperation.

TM: This book surveys a wide range of social, political, and cultural movements from the 1860s to the 1950s. American wars from the home soil to the Philippines to Europe. Electricity: efforts to install street lights, its use as a method of execution. The transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal, and the interstate highway system. The rise of the KKK and Nazism. Given the breadth of the research involved, what were some of the more surprising discoveries you made?

BM: Well, during the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu pandemic, everybody in the Morris family but Gretchen got sick. When I was doing the research, I learned that the town fathers in Athens had very strict rules and mandates, quarantines, and everybody in town just obeyed. Atlanta got hammered by the flu, but Athens was barely touched because people cooperated with the local government. While out in San Francisco, they were practically having riots because they had an Anti-Mask League in California during the pandemic, and people didn’t want to be told to wear a mask. There’s one for you.

And then I was learning about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the immigration laws of the 1920s, and I started thinking, Trump’s wall is nothing new. Anti-vaxxers and people who don’t want to mask are nothing new. I started to realize that if you start to dig into the history, there’s truly nothing new under the sun. This has all happened before. And it’s happening again. And it’s almost comical that we keep doing the same things over and over again. Actually, it’s kind of tragic.

The great joy of writing this book was that every day, I learned something like that. It could be something like the Confederacy imposing a draft in 1862 after one year of fighting because everyone had signed up for one year. And Jefferson Davis passed what came to be known as the 20-Slave Law. If you had 20 or more slaves, you could get an exemption and stay home to take care of your farm, and your slaves and your family could grow food for the Confederacy. And it wasn’t until a year later that Lincoln imposed the draft of 1863, which caused riots in New York and elsewhere. Wow, the Confederacy had a draft before the U.S. Army? I learned something like that every day. It was really the joy putting this book together.

TM: Personally, I had no idea about Teddy Roosevelt wielding his bully stick to try to institute phonetic spelling, which your grandfather also endorsed.

BM: When I was growing up, my father told me that his father was a big proponent of phonetic spelling. And I have a cousin also named Jon Morris, but it’s spelled J-O-N in honor of my grandfather’s passion for phonetic spelling. So this was in the family lore. And then I found some letters, and my grandfather was writing in the phonetic, like “luv.”

And when Teddy Roosevelt became a proponent of this, he was ridiculed by the press. They suggested he spell his name “Butt-in-Sky.” Teddy Roosevelt? Who knew that he was briefly a proponent of phonetic spelling and then got mocked into submission. Andrew Carnegie also spent a lot of money on the movement, but gave up on it right before he died. Carnegie was hoping that English could become the global business language. But the big impediment was that English had words like “through,” “tough,” “thou,” and there are all these exceptions. With German, what you see is what you get. Every word is pronounced exactly as it’s written. Carnegie was thinking, if you could change “through” to “thru,” anybody in the world would know how to pronounce that word. For Carnegie, this was a business thing. For John, I think it was an intellectual exercise, because he had read all these philologists and linguists, and there were a lot of brilliant people—George Bernard Shaw among them—who wanted to make the written language follow the spoken language. And I agree with them. But it didn’t work out that way. People resisted. Once people learn to read and write a language, they are very resistant to change.

TM: As you write in response to one of your grandfather’s phonetically spelled letters to his sons: “Wize werds.”

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel


This spring, I became involved in a fence dispute with a neighbor. Vegetation was cut, surveyors were called, lumber shortages were cursed, Robert Frost was invoked, and a barrier was erected. Gazing out my window now at the pressure-treated pine, I have decided to transmute any lingering resentment into literary channels, and thus my year in reading focuses on fences literal and metaphorical, wonderful books in which boundaries (generic, moral, disciplinary) are crossed. Should one reasonably argue that this conceit seems forced, I would counter that this is my coping mechanism and I’ll shoehorn these works into Contemporary Themed Reviews in any way I see fit.

In the beginning was the curse word: “Fucking’s the crux…Fucking’s the beginning. Fucking’s the end.” Robin McLean’s florid Western Pity the Beast opens with two fence-hopping misalliances: Ginny has been sleeping with her rancher neighbor; her mare has been impregnated by her neighbor’s gigantic stud, a “villainous Percheron,” and follows her stillborn foal to the grave. As her sister looks on—and indeed instigates—the adulterous Ginny is brutally assaulted and left for dead by her husband, (“a good man in a bad mood”), her brother-in-law, and the “rodeo kid.” She survives, though, to escape, and her assailants commence a long, grinding chase; one member of the posse sounds like Blood Meridians Judge Holden (“I operate at the outer bounds of human nature”). The novel is as much a spectacle of violence as an exercise in style, a beastly tale as recounted by a metaphysical poet: “Thinking was made for inversions, perversions, residue of events. The mind contracts around paradox like a pearl.” Unlike most contemporary fiction that I read and enjoy, it opts for the portentous (“The sun came up anyway. Tomorrows are blind and ruthless”) rather than the ironic as a means of representing the grotesque human comedy: “This ride,” says Ginny’s husband toward the end of the miserable pursuit, “is the king of jokes.” 

Another particular delight was Harald Voetmann’s Awake, which in its archly comic learnedness reminded me of Adam Erlich Sach’s inimitable The Organs of Sense. Here, Pliny the Elder, who perished during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and Pliny the Younger engage in a kind of dueling banjos commentary on the former’s Naturalis Historia, “an unparalleled feat to relay the world in writing, and one that I [Pliny the Younger] doubt could ever be repeated.” That feat is fueled by the “urge to name and classify the world’s miseries… Keep your eyes open and give each shade of pain and ghastliness its proper name.” With desert-dry irony, one chapter that begins with a quotation from the Naturalis Historia, “I certainly do not believe that life is so valuable that it must be prolonged at all costs,” concludes with: “When my father died, he had drunk the blood of sixteen gladiators, put his lips to their wounds and sucked. Maybe it kept him alive. I have nothing more to say on this.” The novel also touches on the futility of fences. As Pliny the Younger notes of his uncle’s exotic plant collection, “I believe that the gardens at Tusculum were my uncle’s attempt to contain the unknown, create a perimeter around it and become its master.” And I would be remiss not to include a description of a disastrous author reading at Emperor Vespasian’s summer home, which might give comfort to nervous writers two millennia later. Surely it won’t be that bad:  

Then he commenced reading from the thirteenth book of his Natural History, a mix of oldish wrath against the use of perfumes and dry listings of ingredients and trade routes. Before an audience of men who had just spent their entire morning having their bodies rubbed in exotic balms he now ventured forth in his feeble, hissing voice…Had the emperor not been sitting in the first row, emitting such strong, exotic fragrances himself, the poor perfumed men would have believed the reading had been arranged with the sole purpose of mocking them.

lining: the emperor subsequently appoints him admiral of the fleet at Misenum
to “get him out of town.”

The title story of Brian Phillip Whalen’s excellent Semiotic Love dramatizes a relationship built on structural opposites (e.g., my property, your property, not my property, not your property). Most of the tales in the collection are a page or two. Stories of parental loss like “The Father Bell” demonstrate the power to be gained by such compression. Others are droller, and even shorter: “[Est. 1929.] On Main Street, his father, pointing to a stone engraving, says, “Bad year to start a bank.” In “Semiotic Love,” a man and woman, she an academic and he a “commoner,” quarrel over the sense, or nonsense, of the “visual representation of the CONSTITUTIVE MODEL describing the elementary structure of signification.” Got it? Neither does he, and yet they do simultaneously cry “You just don’t get it!” an echo of their meet-cute at T.J. Maxx buying “identical pairs of men’s socks.” That is, they are mismatched intellectually, erotically (“I wanted jouissance, replete, never-ending. He wanted, simply, me”), and emotionally, yet bound together in tenuous unison. As with the semiotic squares depicted throughout this story, the sense of their relationship depends on the contradictory and the contrary. If reviewers often fault unsuccessful fiction for its schematic qualities, here Whalen’s logical dissection of eros wittily demonstrates the narrative potential of the schematic. This holiday season, I’m tempted to throw myself and my spouse in a semiotic square and see what happens. In the meantime, I’ll cherish this sentence summing up their doomed affair: “She could have loved him, yes, perhaps—if she’d never read Baudrillard, never had a father, never watched TV.”

Sergio Missana’s The Transentients was riveting, a tantalizingly suggestive, and immersive read. In the novel, a middle-aged Chilean adman has out-of-body episodes in which he sees and experiences the world through other people’s eyes. (A good neighborly exercise.) Are these chosen vessels—a homeless woman, a stranded mountain climber, a man working on a script for a film set in the Atacama desert—figments of his own personality or clues to some overarching structure, “causal junctions that had not yet been revealed to me but through which I would be able to eventually figure out the rules of the game”? 

Finally, I hope to write a longer piece on her in the coming year, but I’ll briefly mention here Barbara Kremen’s The Figure in the Glass and Other Stories, a beautiful edition of the 99-year-old’s darkly enchanting stories in which humans observe the natural world (especially winged insects) so intently that they risk, or are rewarded with, metamorphosis. The Damsel Fly reaches particularly lofty heights, and “Tree Trove,” the story of two children undergoing a magical arboreal education, is more winning, and condensed, than Richard Powers’s sap-filled The Overstory.

And now to begin Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian

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A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel


Autofiction and its attendant criticism having perhaps reached a saturation point, I decided to map out new avenues for autofiction writers to explore and new variants for autofiction critics to classify: a handy manual that doubles as my year in reading. 

1. Umlaut-o-Fiction: Any work taking place in, or obliquely mentioning, Germany. Jennifer Hofmann’s The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures is a metaphysical spy thriller, an expansive novel set in the claustrophobic world of the East German Republic. An ailing Stasi officer confesses his life story to a young waitress, from writing his magnum opus (the titular Standardization of Demoralization Procedures) to his interrogation of a quantum physicist who vanished under mysterious circumstances. The superannuated officer is obsessed with “ordung” even as the regime collapses and mysterious events (“spooky action at a distance” in quantum mechanical terms) occur that do not obey the iron laws of authoritarianism. 

2. Autoerotic fiction: This category, somewhat counterintuitively, has two entries. The first is The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, whose brash narrator proclaims early on: “And I don’t mean to offend you Dr. Seligman, especially now that you have your head between my legs, but don’t you think that there is something kinky about genocide?” Just what Dr. Seligman’s head is doing between the narrator’s legs—honi soit qui mal y pense—is one aspect of the drama, though the true spectacle is in Volckmer’s discomfiting provocations (including masturbatory fantasies about the Führer). The intense monologue captures what it feels like to be a stranger in one’s own land, and skin. 

The second novel poses a hypothetical scenario: What if, instead of doling out cocaine to his Viennese patients, Freud served up cocktails at a Brooklyn bar? In Hysteria, Jessica Gross’s heroine, a daughter of shrinks who exhibits compulsive sexual behavior, conjures up just such a hipster Golden Siggie. In this gripping conversion narrative, shame cedes to a liberating faith in the talking cure. 

3. AutOnetti fiction: A narrow but rich category. This year, Archipelago Books came out with Juan Carlos Onetti’s collected stories A Dream Come True, which span half a century and were translated by Katherine Silver. They are set largely in Santa Maria—a sleepy, imaginary port town in which the variety (and uniformity) of the human drama plays out: 

In spite of the years, in spite of changes in fashion and demography, the city inhabitants continued to be the same. Timid and spoiled, forced to pass judgement in order to prop each other up, always judging out of envy or fear…perhaps travelers have learned that human solidarity, under wretched circumstances, is a disappointing and astounding truth. 

stories are sardonic, oneiric, and drawn to the “convoluted nonsense” of life,
its “surplus of subtlety.” Some are lurid while others operate on a
near-Jamesian plane of ambiguity, but they all circle an unspeakable, and
unrecoverable, truth:

We all lie, even before words. But something always remains, invincible, from the first, the oldest memories, that are conserved in spite of every effort to forget them, unlikely also to be eroded by any of those deliberate attempts that we all make to remember…

4. Autochthonous Fiction: Works involving characters sprung from, or intimately tied to, the land. A boggy supernatural fable redolent of “mischief-musk,” Sue Rainsford’s excellent Follow Me to Ground features a ravenous patch of earth, The Ground, that devours, heals and creates bodies. In a different, yet no less earthy, vein is Klaus Modick’s Moss, translated from the German by David Herman, from Bellevue Literary Press. The novel opens with the death of a renowned botanist, whose decomposing corpse appears to have undergone a curious “mossification.” Discovered among his things is a manuscript, written in green ink, that is considerably more personal and speculative than the Critique of Botanical Terminology and Nomenclature he was presumed to have been working on. The scholar’s hypnotic reflections and biographical recollections disavow the “botanist’s penetrating gaze”—its “classifications without real knowledge”—to arrive at a rejuvenating, anarchic conception of the natural world: “My critique of terminology grows and thrives, though it blooms in ways that I could not have anticipated. It is almost running riot.” 

5. Auto Fiction: A distinctly American genre—not to be confused with Autobahn Fiction, in which the cars drive much faster and run on diesel—which goes back to The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road. “Like everyone with a long commute, I leave parts of myself along the way,” says the narrator of John Skoyles’s Driven. The narrator, like the author, is a poet and professor…oh wait, is this actually autofiction!?! No matter. Like his memoir A Moveable Famine: A Life in Poetry, this conceit-powered novel is witty and wistful:

I have always kept my distance, stayed in the middle lane, as a good motorist should, maybe guided by the wrong driving instructor, who taught that only as aesthetic phenomena are existence and the world really justified. Then again, maybe The Birth of Tragedy was an inappropriate driver’s manual. 

and Trembling was my manual as a teenager trying to exit a Giants game in
northern Jersey.) Driving down memory lane, as it were, the narrator is joined
by spectral passengers from his past—parents, an old flame—on his 100-mile trip
from Truro, MA, to the ominous darkness of an urban parking lot: “Tomorrow,
a man who left the Cape in the morning for Boston will be cited for driving by
himself in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane on Route 93 and will swear he is not
alone.” Liquor too is a ghostly presence, with the dry narrator conjuring up
memories of mammoth martinis and the dive bars that broke up his commute for
years. Indeed, On the Wagon could be an apt title for this superb,
plaintive ride of a book. 

6. Autocratic Fiction: All of children’s literature, children being tyrants. Here I highlight the beautifully illustrated edition of Gianni Rodari’s Telephone Tales. Traveling for business, a devoted father calls home each night to tell his child a brief story from a pay phone. Charming exercises in absurdism, the illustrated stories play with language (“The Country with an Un in Front”) and conventions (“The Blue Stoplight”) to reveal fanciful possibilities for a different world. Moreover, tyrants feature in several of the tales, most memorably in “Giacomo of Crystal,” in which a transparent boy is unable to hide his disdain of tyranny and is thus imprisoned. The dungeon, though, cannot block his disinfecting light. (I also recommend Rodari’s edgier novella, Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto.) 


7. Auto-da-fe Fiction: Novels in which the author depicts religious persecution and zealotry. Stefan Hertmans’s The Convert (translated from the Dutch by David McKay) is set in the era of the First Crusade: “The Western world is a place of growing unrest. Prophets of doom, beggars and heretics roam the land, spreading tales that agitate and confuse the masses.” Against this backdrop, a love story unfolds: a young Rouen noblewoman of Norman and Viking stock elopes with a Jewish yeshiva student, converts to Judaism and settles in the southern French town Monieux (then Moniou), where Hertmans lives today. Thereafter the newlyweds become playthings of history. The novel is as much about the titular convert’s exhausting tribulations—she is stretched upon the rack of this tough world for too long—as it is about Hertmans “groping in the seductive dark” to find some trace of her. He seeks to “touch” her life by visiting places where she sought refuge, centuries later: “My delusive longing to sense some genuine vestige of this woman has culminated in the awareness that she’s no longer present anywhere, except in my imagination.” There are also some excellent descriptions of snails mating (“…those squishy, mobile masses of undisguised instinct, bulging out of their shells, obscene and overwhelming, in slow, dreamlike intercourse”).

8. Autoimmune Fiction: Best to take a break from illness-themed fiction this year, so I’ll use this category for a (non-fiction) wildcard recommendation: Kay Ryan’s Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose. Curious, funny, idiosyncratic and occasionally oracular in the Gertrude Stein vein, Ryan is wonderful on what my old professor Stephen Booth called the “precious nonsense” of poetry.

9. Autocorrect Fiction: Any comic novel, on the theory that autocorrect mishaps reflect the essence of comedy in transforming the perfectly ordinary and legible into an amusing, often mortifying chaos. “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy,” famously said Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards. Or with a stuffed aardvark, we should perhaps add after reading Jessica Anthony’s debut, Enter the Aardvark. This marvelously sewn farce depicts grotesque (though often beautiful) specimens from the animal kingdom and the US Congress, tracing a history of repressed desire from Victorian London to contemporary Washington, DC. Hilary Leichter’s Carrollian Temporary, is another of this year’s comic wonders. The novel is about the absurdist jobs (“human barnacle” is one) the heroine takes on her quest for a mythical state of security, the “Steadiness.” And finally, I very much enjoyed Luke Brown’s Theft. In this dryly humorous update on the “Angry Young Men” novel, our hero, a bookstore worker and haircut reviewer of some fame, tries to steal the girlfriend of an established older figure from a generation ripe for being deposed: “We will be encouraged not to respond to their charm. They have what the young want and they won’t let go of it.” 

10. Autotune Fiction: Music being a universal language, I am choosing Andrea Tarabbia’s untranslated Madrigale Senza Suona, winner of Italy’s Premio Campiello, for this category. It tells the Gothic tale of Gesualdo da Venosa, a Renaissance nobleman who crafted glorious sacred music, “perfect cathedrals of sound.” He also killed his first wife, psychologically tortured his second, and was haunted by a nefarious dwarf. I was entranced by the mingling of divine and demonic in this novel, and can recommend Gesualdo’s madrigals as well.   

11. Otto Fiction: Ideally this category would include historical novels about Otto von Bismarck’s youthful Prussian romps—maybe he appears in the Flashman series?—but for now I’ll include a long-overdue rereading of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, in which the architect Otto Silenus, a ridiculous parody of Walter Gropius, nonetheless enjoys a perspective unavailable to the madcap novel’s other careless characters:

Life…is like the big wheel at Luna Park…You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all round, and in the centre the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly.  At first you sit down and watch the others.  They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too.  It’s great fun…at the very centre there’s a point completely at rest, if only one could find it.  I’m not sure I am not very near that point myself. Of course the professional men get in the way.  Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again.  How they all shriek and giggle! Then there are others, like Margot, who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that.  But the whole point of the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to… 

12. Fraud-o-fiction: Novelists have never been able to resist tricksters and con artists. Two exemplary works, each a different kind of historical novel, investigate the intellectual, cultural, and religious stakes of fraud. The first, Sigrun Palsdottir’s History. A Mess. (translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith), involves an art history graduate student transcribing the mind-numbingly dull diary of a 17th-century portraitist, S.B.: “This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast,” read most entries. Then, the momentous discovery of an entry in which the painter mentions being “busie fouldinge some linan and airinge clothes.” Surely a man of the period would not do such work, which hints that S.B. could be a trailblazing female artist. Then again, as the student remarks: “I was the true champion of over-interpreting others’ words and always to my own benefit.” What would she do if contrary evidence exploded her thesis? Refute it? Destroy it? A beguiling hermeneutical contraption, the novel jostles readers (along with the protagonist) from a triumphant moment of certainty to a phantasmagoric realm of doubt. 

The second fraud novel is Dexter Palmer’s Mary Toft: or, The Rabbit Queen (based on a real historical incident), which rightly asks: “Who would have thought that man-midwifing was a profession of such drama and intrigue?” In a curious medical case, the titular woman repeatedly “births” mutilated rabbits, or as one character puts it more crudely: “We have heard…that the woman inside has bunnies leaping forth from her cunny.” This naturally confuses doctors and theologians (“a monstrous inversion of the Great Chain of Being”), as well as affecting restaurant menus: “…due to a superstition suddenly in vogue, rabbit rarely appears on London plates as of late.” The novel reminds us that history “is an act of continuous collective imagining,” and thus always prone to instances of mass delusion. 

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The Necessary Staying Put: Beckett and Social Distancing


After reading a witty reimagining of famous first lines rewritten for social distancing, it occurred to me that one really wouldn’t have to tweak much with Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. (Though the meeting with Godot, alas, might have to be postponed.) Beckett doesn’t necessarily offer solace in these times; one can only grin, or grimace, at his buoyant pessimism: “What room for worse!” we read in one Worstward Ho. He is however, one of the great modernist chroniclers of isolation, and one who labelled his own mid-career burst of production from 1946 to 1950 as the “siege in the room.” So join me, dear, homebound reader, on a tour of Beckett’s circumscribed though capacious universe.

In an essay on Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, the critic Walter Bauer described the young hero’s coming-of-age as “Die notwendige Reise,” or “The  Necessary Journey.” Coming across this phrase as a young man, Samuel Beckett noted in his journal: “Journey anyway is the wrong figure. How can one travel to that from which one cannot move away?  Das notwendige Bleiben [The Necessary Staying Put] is more like it.” Throughout his career, Beckett’s protagonists undertake journeys that are more and more stationary, compelled by their obsessions (Krapp), their hopes (Vladimir and Estragon), or their surrounding (Winnie) to stay put.

We begin with the eponymous hero of Murphy, who in the novel’s opening has tied himself up, naked, to a rocking chair with seven scarves such that “only the most local movements were possible.” Thus bound, he comes “alive in his mind…And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word.”

Murphy is eventually thrust into “the jaws of a job” and into the “mercantile Gehenna” of London—the novel is in some ways about the tragicomic impossibility of separating oneself from the world—though we can nonetheless look to Murphy, that “long hank of Apollonian asthenia” who rocks from home to avoid all worldly bustle, as one who strove valiantly to attain bliss-in-solitude.

Molloy, Beckett’s great road novel, sees both hunter, Moran, and quarry, Molloy, reduced to increasingly hobbled or immobile conditions—the latter recounting his troubles in a Wordsworthian vein: “It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life.” Like Murphy, Molloy is torn between the desire to stay put and the compulsion to advance: “For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.” The novel tends to bear that out. We first see him bedridden in his mother’s room, where he hopes to “finish dying” after a journey that ends with him lying at the bottom of ditch.

And in this germ-conscious era, we must make brief mention of Molloy’s stone sucking. I won’t linger on his intricate, obsessive-compulsive ritual, but suffice it to say the cavalier use of saliva would give Dr. Anthony Fauci a panic attack.

The Unnameable supplies a starker version of social distancing. The Unnameable is a “caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born in a cage and dead in a cage.” He is a dyspeptic creation who spews invective at the shadowy creators who spawned both him and the other “miscreated puppets” of the novel. Among them is Mahood, who has lost all his members “with the exception of the onetime virile” and resides in a sawdust-filled jar on Paris’s Rue Brancion.

Perhaps Mahood shares a realtor with Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s ash bin-dwelling parents in Endgame. The peremptory Hamm is not brimming with empathy, begrudging them when they emerge from their cans to demand food: “The old folks at home! No decency left! Guzzle, guzzle, that’s all they think of.”  And yet if your own “accursed progenitor” insists on carelessly roaming about, it might not be the worst idea to toss them in a recycling bin for a spell. Desperate times…

Krapp from Krapp’s Last Tape is well-equipped for a prolonged seclusion, armed with his stash of bananas and tapes he has recorded as a young man. I am of the 99 percent of people mortified to hear their voice on tape, but Krapp listens to his confident younger self with an intoxicating mixture of fascination, scorn, and yearning. He is tethered to the tape recorder and the unfulfilled vision of the future it contains, even as it tortures him.

In contrast to the generally ornery Krapp, Winnie, the indefatigable heroine of Happy Days, has an obstinately roseate worldview. Her husband navigates his burrow with increasing difficulty, occasioning Winnie to reflect back on his happier, and more slithery, days: “Not the crawler you were, poor darling.” Winnie, though, is always ready to look on the bright side:  “What a curse, mobility!” she says, buried in sand up to her waist as the play opens, to her neck as it ends.

And then there are Beckett’s two most famous players, Vladimir and Estragon, rooted in place for their perpetually deferred meeting. Their entire existence depends on killing time—through improvisational “canter[s]” or squabbles or lyrical flights of fancy—between their sporadic encounters and interminable waiting for Godot: “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?,” says Estragon.  The strain, however, does wear on them, as made clear in a line some of us may have uttered over the past week: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”

Finally, there is Company, Beckett’s extraordinary late work in which a voice comes “to one in the dark,” identified by the second-person pronoun “you, and delivers a fiat: “Imagine.” Imagine what, exactly? First, a past, a series of formative vignettes involving “You” and his father, his mother, a lover, a diving board, and an unfortunate hedgehog. And second, a more companionable existence: “Devised deviser devising it all for company,” Beckett writes. “You” exists in a state of isolation and near-total sensory deprivation, and so imagines a series of pleasant additions to the monotony: a “shadowy light” in the dark; the “mercy” of an odd sound, “some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more”; or even—and here the “temptation is great”—a fly to swat away, “a live fly mistaking him for dead.” Crawling would also be a pleasant addition to company, but by this point in Beckett’s career, the mere possibility of movement becomes a theoretical, empirical, and ethical question: “Can he move? Does he move?  Should he move?”

This short novel is a highly refracted autobiography, an accomplished exercise in style and a fable of the artist’s mind, a “bourneless dark” in which creator and created, deviser and devised, create the momentary illusion of company:

With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you were always were.


Image Credit: Flickr/rich_f28

Novel Moves: Wrestling in Recent Fiction


The only two things that were real in pro wrestling were the money and the miles.—Chris McCormick, The Gimmicks
Wrestling is true and genuine and great.—Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida
The figure-four leg lock, my favorite professional wrestling move, is quite simple: spread apart the legs of your supine opponent; wrap yourself around his left leg and bend it over his outstretched right leg; fall to the ground and push down on your opponent’s left foot. His histrionic wailing will indicate that you have executed the move successfully. (Here’s how a master does it.)
From the description above, it is perhaps evident that the figure-four  requires a certain level of cooperation from the victim, who patiently waits as you pretzel him into agony. As a young fan of professional wrestling who would practice the move and others with my best friend, I loved this choreographed compliance—a compliance always in the service of storytelling, be it our basement role playing or the soap operatic spectacle of WrestleMania. When I signed up for actual wrestling, in which the opponents were decidedly incompliant, I found it less satisfying. The drama was too stark, though I did begrudgingly appreciate the brute elegance with which a superior opponent could bend my body to his will. I soon took up cross-country running.
Though I abandoned the sport and my pro wrestling fandom waned, I was excited to see several recent works of fiction that leverage the narrative power of the sport: the colorful archetypes and illusions of professional wrestling or the elemental combat of “real” wrestling. Like my repertoire of wrestling moves, these stories are supple and varied, featuring an Armenian immigrant learning the ropes of small-time American professional wrestling, a monomaniacal collegiate wrestler determined to win a national title, and an Ottoman strongman whose life is turned into a disconcerting allegory.

1.Move over baseball. Professional wrestling, per a character in Chris McCormick’s debut novel The Gimmicks, is the “true American pastime.” The reason lies not in the sport’s popularity but in its metaphorical resonance, its audacious commitment to success via flimflammery. Wrestling is doggedly committed to “the gimmick,” a wrestling term for one’s adopted persona: “What was the American Dream if not the ability to trade gimmick after gimmick until you got one over?” says a wrestling impresario in the novel. 
This globetrotting novel, however, is far from an American tale. “Armenian stories require explaining,” we read in the first chapter, and in terms of plot, there’s a lot to explain here. The action follows three childhood friends—beautiful Mina, slight Ruben, and gigantic Avo—in a story that careens around the world from Soviet Armenia to a backgammon tournament in Chantilly, France, to small-town American dives. Mina and Ruben excel at backgammon, while Avo practices a less strategic though no less symbolically weighty sport: wrestling. When Ruben’s violent political activism forces him into exile, he invites Avo to leave behind Mina, now his fiancée, and join him and a radical underground political group in America. Once there, he gains some renown as a professional wrestler called The Brow Beater (aka King Kong of the Caucasus) before disappearing on the eve of a match in Greensboro, N.C.
Certain sections of the novel are narrated by one Terry “Angel Hair” Krill, a cat breeder and former pro wrestler-turned manager who spots Avo at a Los Angeles bar called The Gutshot in the late 1970s. Blessing his “numinous fortune” for encountering the giant Armenian, whose “shoulders had established themselves like kingly epaulettes on either side of his neck,” Krill initiates Avo into the confraternity of knights errant: “As contractors, we were freelancers in almost the medieval sense of the word, fighters and jesters for hire.” Indeed, McCormick depicts the band of hard-living misfits touring the country as beefy Philip Marlowes, strictly adhering to a set of values despite their dissolute lifestyles. For one, they swear by kayfabe, or the oath to protect “the illusion of pro wrestling’s reality.” Moreover, they treat each other with courtly solicitude, “real care”:  the spectacle of violence conceals the pains taken not to hurt each other with, say, an overzealous piledriver: “From a distance you see violence. Up close you find love.”
(Hulk Hogan’s commentary about his WrestleMania III match with Andre the Giant, barely able to move because of a bad back, reinforces this view There is indeed something loving about the way the Hulk waits for the ailing giant’s consent before agreeing to bodyslam him. Or consider John Irving, the bard of “real” wrestling, discussing the “civilized aspects to the sport’s combativeness”: “I’ve always admired the rule that holds you responsible, if you lift your opponent off the mat, for your opponent’s safe return.”)
Professional wrestling appeals as a  physical form of storytelling, a pulp fiction built on broadly recognizable types, Grand Guignol villains, predictable last-minute reversals of fortune and ingrained cheating: ringside managers interfering in the action and combatants taking advantage of incompetent, distracted, or unconscious referees. These elements give rise to inexhaustible narrative permutations: “It’s wrestling, big fella. We’re only limited by our creativity and how much we’re willing to work,” explains Krill. It is also—and this is important for a novel built around the question of personal and political commitments—a moral form. “We’re in the business of delaying and delivering maximum justice, for maximum effect,” says Krill to his ingenue. The same could be said of the terrorist organization, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, that ensnares Avo. “Do you care about justice?” asks its shadowy leader upon first meeting him.
Wrestling does heavy thematic lifting in the book, even if the novel spends more time theorizing rather than dramatizing the spectacle. In wrestling, says Krill, “an elaborate fiction is staged as honest competition,” and the thematic battle between fiction and truth spills out of the ring into every aspect of the novel. Before becoming a semi-professional wrestler, Avo works in a Los Angeles factory making counterfeit silk; before leaving for the States, he proposes to Mina with a cubic zirconium ring (that is, a fake diamond); weary wrestlers mistake flings with groupies, “nights of flesh and mercy,” for true love; a medieval manuscript on backgammon strategy that Mina hopes to sell might not be as old as purported; there are true revolutionaries and those who, if not faking it, are not committed to its violent means; and finally, the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide entails a grander, more sinister illustration of alternative historical truths.
This synthetic contagion implies that professional wrestling is, by virtue of transparent illusions, the most honest thing in the world. “Call it predetermined,” pleads Krill. “Call it entertainment.” But not [fake].”

2.From the wide-ranging The Gimmicks to Gabe Habash’s concentrated debut novel, Stephen Florida, we move from the ring to the mat, as the subject is collegiate, that is, “real” wrestling, and its titular character, a college senior wrestler marked by a “foolish greedy dodo single-mindedness.” (Full disclosure: Habash was formerly my editor at Publishers Weekly.) Over the course of his final year on a rural North Dakota campus, Stephen pursues his goal to win a D4 national championship with a monkish devotion comprising endless repetitions, a Spartan diet, and in-season celibacy.
If in McCormick’s novel the wrestlers cast on and off identities and costumes until they find le gimmick juste, Stephen is a thoroughly engraved character: “I am so much myself, I could never be anyone else.” His body “was preordained to weigh 133 pounds,” the weight class in which he competes, and he willingly submits that body to the trials, and perhaps martyrdom, for which it was destined:

I’m on a one-lane road in a thick metaphorical forest with no distractions. Everything I do is intentional. To arrive at the end of the road is to know Glory in the biblical sense, to put your paternity in Glory. I put my paternity on things. I haven’t studied much on the saints, but it sounds exactly like what their lives were like.

Perhaps, though it is hard to picture St. Francis attempting to put an incensed goat in a cradle hold, as Stephen does in one muddy scene in which he takes on an opponent as stubborn and ready for a fight as he is.
Stephen is the perfect expression of concentrated energy and, because of that concentration, a cipher. He craves competition precisely because “it’s a way to disprove my lack of selfness.” Or as he puts it a little grandiloquently after a victory: “There is no Stephen Florida. I am only a giant collection of gas and light and will.” (In fact, there is literally no Stephen Florida—as he assumes that name only after his coach misspells his real one, Forster, in a recruitment letter.) Wrestling grounds his simultaneously fixed and inchoate character, directs his gaseous will. “I like to spot problems and try to figure them out, which is all wrestling really is,” he says. He does this very effectively with his opponents, but he also has “problems” of a metaphysical sort, especially after suffering a potentially season-ending knee injury. During extended time off, athletes tend to turn their thoughts to Cartesian matters. If Stephen is a wrestler through and through, and that character is tied to a body, then what happens when that body falters?

…is the link so weak that wrestling ends with the body? Does the entire feeling end just like that? The center inside me, encoded with tilts and cradles, could go up in smoke at any moment without a body willing to do its dirty work.

The work is certainly dirty. Philosophy aside, Stephen Florida is a profoundly physical book: blooming cauliflower ears, oozing pus, ripped tendons, smashed noses. Working on his prone opponent, Stephen pushes “his far shoulder like I’m crowbarring open Tut’s tomb.” He is not above gaining an advantage through unsportsmanlike behavior—biting an opponent’s hair or giving him “the old five-on-two,” that is, the surreptitious grabbing of an opponent’s testicles. (Here Stephen is in good, nay angelic company: the first cheap shot in wrestling history is in Genesis, when Jacob’s opponent “touched the hollow of his thigh” in an attempt to break their hours-long standstill.)
And yet, as with all thoughtful sports writing, there is always a sense that there is another, often indescribable plane of action. After one detailed description of the sequence of quicksilver moves leading to an escape, Stephen clarifies that

…none of this looks like how I’m explaining it, trust me, it’s little shivering steps fitted together like violence, which is so abstract as to be the desperate past, an ambulance full of context-free furniture pieces.

And when he’s in the groove, Stephen attains a kind of beatific quietude, the still point of the turning world. Placing his ear on an opponent’s back at the start of a period, he hears the doomed wrestler’s heartbeat: “I could fall asleep here if I stayed long enough.”
Being suspended in a Lotus Eater’s blissful trance of dreamy combat would suit Stephen just fine, but the match, and his college career, must end. The novel is a kind of Bildungsroman in which the hero, almost pathologically sure of his vocation, slowly wakes up to an expanded, and confusing, world outside the confines of the mat.

3.Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s recent collection The Trojan War Museum contains unsettling, multilayered, and suggestive postmodern tales in which history, storytelling, and violence intertwine. The title story, for example, fancifully chronicles curation gone run amok in an effort to commemorate a foundational battle between cultures. In “A Cautionary Tale,” she presses on this theme, exploring a literal and figurative clash of civilizations in the story of a famed 19th-century Ottoman wrestler. (Tania James also has a wonderful story in her collection Aerogrammes that similarly uses wrestling as a metaphor for imperial attitudes and the misreading of cultures.)
There are few identifying details in the story, but the narrator of “A Cautionary Tale” is an unnamed immigration officer, presumably Turkish, considering the paperwork of an unnamed citizen applying to leave the country. Rather than asking the “proper questions” in such circumstances, the agent tells a fable-like historical story about Yusuf Ismail, “the first of a line of legendary, savage, monstrously large wrestlers all called, one after the other, the Terrible Turk.” Every so often, the agent breaks off the tale to ask the applicant about their reaction to the tale or to establish the hermeneutical mystery confronting both applicant and reader: “I tell everybody these stories. I’m telling you everything for a reason.”
After gaining fame in his Ottoman homeland, Yusuf travels abroad, demolishing European and American opponents. Outlandish tales of his strength and dedication abound: “It’s said he promised to cut his own throat if he was ever beaten,” and so on. In the West, he is portrayed in the press as a noble savage, a brute with a “sluggish Oriental brain” whose physicality is as impressive as it is ungovernable. Abroad, he can communicate with the crowd and the referees solely through pantomime. 
Returning home from two fiasco-like, possibly fixed bouts in Madison Square Garden with an American opponent, his ship sinks. The story goes that laden with the 40 pounds of gold he liked to wear around his waist, he frantically tried to pull himself onto an already overloaded life raft. In one version, a sailor, cuts off Yusuf’s grasping hands—silencing the pantomiming Turk in more ways than one.
Apart from the Terrible Turk’s Western tour and gruesome end we also hear the agent describe Yusuf’s halcyon days as a young wrestler, establishing his reputation at a multi-day, open-air tournament at Kirkpinar, the old summer hunting grounds of the sultan. Here amid festive drinking and dancing, hundreds of oiled-up combatants compete for the Ottoman crown in a kind of wrestling Burning Man festival. The camaraderie and honor stand in stark contrast to the sullied matches and ostracism he faces abroad.
The tale completed, the vital questions is posed: “Do you think, in choosing to immigrate, the Turk made a mistake?” The applicant is rightly bemused and bothered by the agent’s bizarre, Socratic line of questioning, which given the role of gatekeeper takes on an authoritarian tenor: “This isn’t right. It’s not for you to decide,” the applicant says at one point.” Is the agent a petty tyrant with a stamp or a kindly dispenser of prophetic wisdom about the perils of xenophobia?
A question to wrestle with.
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– A Year in Reading: Gabe HabashTwo Writers, One Marriage: The Millions Interviews Julie Buntin and Gabe HabashA Year in Reading: Chris McCormickA Year in Reading: Ayşe Papatya Bucak‘The Trojan War Museum’: Featured Fiction from Ayse Papatya BucakA Year in Reading: Tania James
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Renewable Books Leads Industry with Green Initiatives

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Random House parent company Bertelsmann recently announced the admirable goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. We here at Renewable Books applaud the initiative, though we would also like to take this opportunity to highlight our revolutionary advancements in eco-publishing.

Renewable Books prides itself on being the greenest publishing house in the world. Our books are printed domestically, we use only post-consumer waste paper, and Greta Thunberg responds affirmatively to 95 percent of our blurb requests. But that’s not all: Renewable’s devotion to the environment extends to all facets of the publishing process.

Our Offices:

Renewable’s Platinum LEED offices boast high-efficiency lighting, appliances, and plumbing, as well as state-of-the-art solar panels. A bike path directly links the downtown light rail station to our courtyard; our decorators only use low VOC paints; and the majority of our energy needs are met by our in-house publicists, who spew the hot air required to power two steam-engine generators.

Our Books:

Renewable Books publishes daring works of literary fiction, environmental noir, and composting erotica.

As we are of the opinion that the current threat posed by climate change more than justifies a principled rejection of copyright law, we actively encourage our authors and editors to recycle plots, characters, and dialogue from previously successful books.

Not Our Books:

While we value and advocate for transgressive literature, we prohibit the following material: scenes in which a car is needlessly idling; plot twists involving GMOs; any expression of lustful feelings for an offshore driller.

Editorial Philosophy:

We at Renewable Books feel that typos, misspellings, and consistency issues are vital components of a sustainable literary ecosystem, and that pencil-wielding humans should in no way tamper with the written word’s thriving biodiversity. This policy has saved us from needlessly printing millions of errata slips over the past decades.


To cut down on paper-wasting correspondence, our editors never confirm that an author’s submission has been accepted, even after the writers come across their published work in a bookstore.

We invite rejected authors to visit our offices, where their tears are funneled into our desalination plant to provide water for drought-stricken communities.

We only consider submissions from free-range, grass-fed writers who are permitted by their employer or MFA thesis adviser to walk outside for several hours a day.

Doing Your Part:

Being part of a green literary community means doing your part. To that end:

Renewable Books encourages readers to enjoy our books on public transport or at home with all the lights turned off.

In an effort to cut down on polluting chemicals and colorants, we have developed a patented ink-conservation technology that prints every other word of the text, omissions that you shouldn’t notice if you take our suggestion to read in the dark.

Review Copies and Blurbs:

Rather than sending galleys across the country, Renewable Books makes one copy of each book available in its offices to pre-qualified local reviewers. We ask critics to refrain from leaving marginalia and not to bother our publicists when they are busy in the steam-engine room.


We do not publish e-books at this time.

Sailing Ahead:

In lieu of 401(k)s, all employees—along with authors who meet certain sales figures—receive guaranteed berths aboard the Proof of Life, a seaworthy printing press built to withstand the coming flood. Sooner or later, she will set sail on the rising oceans, producing timeless works of literature for the end times.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Writers to Watch: Spring 2020


1.Kevin Nguyen: Crash Override

Say what you will about New York City’s oft-delayed transit system, but the subway helped Kevin Nguyen write his first novel, New Waves (One World, March). Riding the train, Nguyen jotted down sci-fi stories, dialogue, and aperçus about technology on his phone. “I wrote all of this in one note, and then one day the note got so long that the app crashed,” he says.

Pasting the nearly 20,000-word note into a document, Nguyen, 33, thought, “Just as an exercise, maybe I should try to connect these dots through fiction.”

Nguyen’s agent, Sarah Bowlin, says, “When he mentioned shyly over drinks a couple years ago that he had been writing a novel—on the subway! on his phone!—I was certain that whatever he was working on would be urgent and alive.”

The resulting novel is about mourning and the moral abdication of technology companies. It tells the story of Lucas, an Asian-American content moderator at a messaging app startup, who is grieving his deceased coworker, Margo, an African-American server engineer. “It has a lot of ideas in it, but it’s not an ideas book,” Nguyen says.

Originally envisioned as a secure communication tool for dissidents and reporters, the fictional app explodes among teenagers using it to lob vicious messages. “It’s really easy when you’re on the inside of a tech company to not grapple with or take responsibility for the implications of what you’re doing,” says Nguyen, who, after graduating from the University of Puget Sound in 2009, worked various “start-up-adjacent jobs” before landing at Amazon’s books division in New York City. He then pivoted to journalism, first at GQ and now at the Verge.

At the novel’s core is the relationship between Lucas and Margo, who leaves behind a trove of speculative fiction she has written. “There’s this wealth of her that he never saw and is still able to explore,” Nguyen says. “But with grief, the sad part isn’t that the person is gone. It’s that they’ll never do anything new or surprise you again.”

2.Mary South: All Too Human

For Mary South, who worked as an ad writer for Google, composing SEO copy was instructive for how not to write fiction: “SEO writing is the opposite way of how I work with text—just optimizing for an algorithm, not even necessarily for a reader. I naturally didn’t like it very much.”

South’s debut collection, You Will Never Be Forgotten (FSG Originals, March), offers piercing explorations of technology’s impact on humanity. “Even though we have access to more information than ever before in history, we’re still dealing with the same trauma,” she says.

South’s agent, Cynthia Cannell, says she was “in thrall to her uncanny humor and lively voice,” and her editor, Julia Ringo, praises the “delightfully alien curiosity about and insight into human behavior.”

The collection ventures into the internet’s collective id, most notably in a story about a camp for recovering internet trolls. “A lot of these characters are repressing their feelings, so it’s interesting to me fictionally how those feelings eventually come out,” South says.

Raised in Minnesota, South attended Northwestern and later Columbia’s MFA program. She then became an assistant at Noon, a literary journal run by Diane Williams. “Seeing her edit was incredible for me, because every sentence has to be perfect,” South says. “Once you observe someone doing that, it rubs off on you. Or so I’d like to hope.”

The stories offer frank portrayals of human desires. In one, stunted man-children clamor for breast-feeding privileges, and in another, elderly patients call phone-sex hotlines from their assisted living facility. “That story is about very overt, sometimes raw, comic sexuality, as well as the need for connection and solace and companionship,” South says. “It’s very valid that they have those needs, and they deserve them.”

3.Marcial Gala: A Monumental Novel

The Black Cathedral (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January), the first of Marcial Gala’s novels to be translated into English, is a choral tale of architectural folly and serial violence in Cienfuegos, Cuba. “I was drawn to the possibility of a different kind of storytelling, of giving a voice to those who generally don’t have one, and of being able to narrate the plurality of the Cuban national being,” says Gala, 56.

That delirious style intrigued Gala’s translator, Anna Kushner. “The process of translating this novel was a bit like trying to take apart and reassemble something in order to determine what it is that makes it work so well,” she notes.

Gala was born in Havana, “in the same old palace on the Prado where the great Cuban poet Julián del Casal died in the 19th century,” he says. “Sometimes, I think that that coincidence marked my fate forever.”

At the age of 10, Gala moved to Cienfuegos, where he still lives part-time. He began studying architecture in Santa Clara when he discovered Borges. “His stories seemed so good to me that they may have even driven me a bit mad, to the point that I was putting aside my work as an architecture student in order to go write,” Gala remembers.

The cathedral of the title is a messianic project conceived and undertaken by a town newcomer, the zealous father of a strange family. Gala describes the ambitious endeavor as “an architectural object imprisoned in the most disparate and exaggerated interpretation,” one that is emblematic of the “tendency toward exaggeration and the Pantagruelian that characterizes the Cuban people.”

4.Meng Jin: Cosmic Characters

“I’m a fiction writer so I’m not as comfortable talking about my own life,” says Meng Jin, whose debut novel, Little Gods (Custom House, January), revolves around a similarly reticent character: Su Lan, a physicist who emigrates to the United States with her toddler daughter who was born on the night of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

With Su Lan, Jin wanted to portray someone from the “huge waves of scientists and engineers” coming from China to the States—a character Jin says she “hadn’t really seen represented in Chinese American literature.”

After Su Lan’s death, her teenage daughter travels to Shanghai and Beijing to learn about her inscrutable mother’s past and the two men once infatuated with her. “The story would be told by people orbiting Su Lan, and she would be like a black hole at the center of it,” Jin says she realized early on.

“It is deceptively distanced and cool, when in fact, it feels increasingly emotional as the reader moves further along in the novel,” says Jin’s agent, Jin Auh.

Born in Shanghai and currently living in San Francisco, Jin, 30, moved to the U.S. when she was 5. She adjuncted in New York City after receiving an MFA from Hunter College, then secured a writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia, in Great Britain.

Jin examines historical events on an individual scale. “I spent a lot of time in my childhood listening to my Chinese grandparents’ stories,” she says. “In the American classroom and in the media, I would encounter the history of China with a capital H. It took me a long time to understand that actually those two stories were overlapping.”

The novel draws on scientific metaphors to illuminate human mysteries. Jin recalls the impact of reading the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. “He’s standing at science and looking at art,” she says. “I want to be standing at art and looking at science.”

5.Hilary Leichter: Going Steady

“I let the language of the gig economy take me to the most fantastical places I could imagine,” says Hilary Leichter of the absurdist exploration of the working world in her debut novel, Temporary (Coffee House, March). Perhaps no place is as fantastical as the “adventure capital” pirate ship to which the heroine, a temporary worker desperately seeking the steadiness of permanent work, is assigned.

“[Leichter] takes on expected tropes and themes and makes them unexpected, and to me, there is nothing harder to do as a writer,” says her agent, Monika Woods. Ruth Curry, Leichter’s editor, recalls her delight at receiving the witty, honed manuscript, which “emerged from Hilary’s gigantic brain fully formed, painted, wallpapered, and in move-in condition.”

Interspersed among the heroine’s picaresque adventures is a tale of how the gods, when exhausted, farmed out their labors to temporary workers. “We use mythology to understand love, to understand politics, to understand war,” Leichter, 34, says. “Why not work?”

After graduating from Haverford College, Leichter says she worked for seven years on and off as a personal assistant to a “very funny, wise, elderly New Yorker.” The job planted the seed for Temporary. “I started thinking about work as this thing that has emotions connected to it that we’re not necessarily allowed to express.”

Along with the humor and wordplay, the novel examines the moral and emotional costs of work. “I always find myself caught between these two ideas of having to survive in terms of actual survival and also of preserving yourself,” Leichter says.

The novel builds toward a future in which the distinction between temporary and permanent workers blurs. “Because the temp is such an expert at replacing people,” Leichter says, “the question of what will replace us after we are all gone is interesting to me.”

6.Megha Majumdar: Heated Rhetoric

Megha Majumdar conceived of A Burning (Knopf, June), about a persecuted young Muslim woman in India, as a response to the “very dangerous turn to right-wing politics throughout the world,” she says. “I wanted to write a book about how individuals with loves and ambitions survive that turn.”

Majumdar, 32, grew up in Kolkata. She studied social anthropology at Harvard and then Johns Hopkins at the gradual level, doing fieldwork in Senegal. She is now an acquiring editor at Catapult, though she still draws on her anthropological training. “Those experiences of listening to other people’s stories and trying to understand their perspectives has informed my work,” she says.

According to Majumdar’s editor, Jordan Pavlin, A Burning “has the force of an epic tragedy and the economy and restraint of a poem.”

Majumdar’s agent, Eric Simonoff, praises her mixture of the propulsive and the poetic: “She is that rare writer who shines on a virtuosic line-by-line level and also as a compulsively readable storyteller.”

The novel follows a Muslim woman accused of aiding a terrorist attack and two characters called to testify at her trial. “I wanted to create the sense that this is not just a story of three people but the story of a whole nation,” she says. Apart from Jivan, there’s a gym teacher ascending the ranks of a populist political party and a hijra, or intersex person, who dreams of becoming an actor.

“The hijra are marginalized in so many ways, and I wanted to see how someone who is oppressed at the intersection of all these kinds of marginalization never surrenders her humor and her intelligence and her big, big dreams,” Majumdar says.

7.C Pam Zhang: All That Glitters

C Pam Zhang heartily defends writing fan fiction. “I stand by that as the best teacher for learning how to write, because you have this world you don’t have to build up,” she says.

In her debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Riverhead, April), Zhang conjures the rough terrain of gold rush–era California, in which two Asian-American orphans struggle to survive. Her editor, Sarah McGrath, says, “I saw not only a ferocious new voice and a vivid, propulsive plot, but also a storytelling approach that offered me a fuller understanding of America, past and present.”

The novel sifts through a tragic family history marked by ambition and dissimulation. “It’s almost what defines a family are the secrets that divide and bind them,” says Zhang, 30. “I think this comes from being born into an immigrant family myself.”

Zhang was born in Beijing and immigrated to the United States when she was a child. Her father died when she was 22—a loss that still affects her writing. “I felt like the fiction I was writing after my father’s death was richer, more honest, raw,” she says.

After being laid off from a copywriting job in San Francisco, Zhang moved to Bangkok, the first place in Asia she’d lived. “There was something wonderful about being able to be anonymous and blend into the crowd,” she recalls.

A rough draft soon poured out of her. “I write a first draft with the goal that it will be a raging tire fire,” Zhang jokes. She eventually refined the work into a vivid portrait of a family and the unforgiving landscape they inhabit.

“I have a great fear and respect of the outdoors,” Zhang says. “I navigate that fear by imagining it in excruciating detail. I don’t know if that’s healthy.”

8.Fernanda Melchor: Bewitching Prose

Fernanda Melchor, a 37-year-old Mexican author and journalist, has a predilection for American writers including Dennis Cooper, Bret Easton Ellis, and Cormac McCarthy. “I’ve always been drawn to dark stories where violence plays a strong part,” she says.

Hurricane Season (New Directions, March) is Melchor’s first novel to be translated into English, and it chronicles the brutal murder of a recluse named the Witch in a small Mexican town. “You can find crazy violence everywhere,” she says. “It’s just that Mexico’s violence has this carnivalesque, burlesque, or grotesque side.”

Stylistically, Hurricane Season, represents a break from Melchor’s previous work, which includes a novel and a forthcoming English translation of essays. “The events in this novel are so crude and difficult that I needed this strong style to hold it together, like the centrifugal force of the hurricane,” she says.

“Melchor tells horror and violence with grace and purpose, never arbitrarily and always cleverly interwoven within complex psychologies,” says Sophie Hughes, her translator.

The chapters are told in a torrential narration that flits in and out of various characters’ minds. “The first two chapters came out like this,” Melchor says, “and then it was a technical challenge to see if I could keep on doing that.” As a result, the reader feels “immersed and implicated in the depraved and superstitious community of a destitute Mexican coastal village,” she adds.

“I was in a very pessimistic place when I wrote it a few years ago,” recalls Melchor, who despaired over solutions to the region’s “violence, femicide, homophobia, and misogyny.” More broadly, though, the novel is about “being young and having no future—and feeling this incredible urge to escape through any means possible.”

9.Ho Sok Fong: Narrative Buffet

“Our multiculturalism is like a sampler platter, from which you can pick and choose, but it’s not a melting pot,” says Ho Sok Fong of Malaysia’s religious and linguistic divisions. “The flavors have not assimilated.”

The Chinese-Malaysian author of the story collection Lake Like a Mirror (Two Lines, March), Ho, 49, was born in Kedah, Malaysia, and trained as an engineer. She left her electrical engineering job at age 30, first for a career in journalism and then to pursue graduate degrees in Chinese literature.

Ho had long immersed herself in Mahua (sinophone Malaysian) literary journals, which generally avoid addressing the repressive policies of the ruling regime toward its Chinese population. “The impression I took away from those journals was that politics could not be literary,” Ho says. “So it was hard to conceive of fiction as a means to express the limitations imposed by the regime.”

In Ho’s collection, by contrast, there are several stories whose protagonists butt up against the state’s repressive apparatuses. “As a writer, I’m reaching inside myself for something that will resonate,” she says. “Even if this means touching on politics.”

The stories feature spectral characters disassociated from the waking world. “I think a lot about the incompatibilities between humans and the world around us,” Ho notes. “There are things we cannot explain or point to that we are forced to experience in invisible, illegible ways, perhaps as traumas or psychological wounds.”

“Like translating underwater”: that’s how Natascha Bruce describes the experience of rendering Ho’s distinctive style in English. “There’s a visceral quality to the ambiguity running through the stories, which means they often hit me first as intense, wordless feeling.”

Ambiguity is a structuring principle of these dreamlike tales. “The things that entice us to read, and to write, are not the things we already know but the things we cannot yet identify—the strange questions it takes time to explore,” Ho says.

10.Sue Rainsford: Healing Touch

“I’ll start writing a very naturalist piece, and then something strange will come through to inflect it,” says Sue Rainsford, whose debut novel Follow Me to Ground (Scribner, January) thrums with the uncanny.

While in a visual arts practice master’s program in Dublin, Rainsford became interested in the language of female experience as expressed by writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva. “The novel’s fantastical elements came out of trying to put all of this strange imagery that gets ascribed to the female body through psychoanalysis or horror film and make those things live in the world,” she says.

The novel’s heroine is Ada, a glacially aging supernatural healer who springs from a mysterious patch of earth called the Ground. “I love how Sue has created a world that operates completely according to its own rules, but that she has the confidence and stylistic verve not to overexplain,” says her agent, Amelia Atlas.

Ada lives apart from the human population, or “Cures,” and enters into a secret affair with one. “Sue has a very distinct voice,” says Rainsford’s editor, Sally Howe, “and she writes about desire, transgression, and the body with insight and nuance.

Rainsford, 31, grew up in Dublin. “When I was in my teens, it felt by turns comfortingly and asphyxiatingly small,” she recalls. She completed an MFA at Bennington College and is currently a writer-in-residence at Maynooth University in Ireland. “Walking through the woods and coming out at Shirley Jackson’s house in North Bennington was something that got under my skin,” she says.

Though its central theme is healing, Follow Me to Ground also portrays harmful familial bonds. “I’m really interested in how a relationship becomes toxic,” Rainsford says. “Families are fascinating because people try so hard to make these relationships work, often to their detriment, over a lifetime.”

This post was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel


1.I’ve spent most of the year exploring (dictionary in hand) French and Italian contemporary literature, including Adeline Dieudonne’s La Vraie Vie. This engrossing, horrific coming-of-age tale involves a tyrannical father, taxidermy, time travel and the mortal dangers of ice-cream trucks. Luckily, the English translation, Real Life, is coming out this February. On the Italian (and as-yet-untranslated) side, Ezio Sinigaglia’s Il Pantarei features a young writer composing an idiosyncratic account of the 20th-century novel. It is about how novels shapes not only one’s style but also one’s life, and it doubles as a neat little primer on literary history. Il Pantarei, originally published in 1985 and reissued this year in Italy, would make an excellent addition to the list of an Open Letter Books or Dalkey Archives Press.

Three other works that stuck with me this year involved men in trouble, one farcical take on contemporary society and two sly, meta-literary comedies.

In the Uruguayan Mario Levrero’s Empty Words, a man embarks on a regimen of “graphological self-therapy” on the suggestion of a “crazy friend.” The idea is that beautifully formed characters reflect, or help shape, a beautiful character. His goals are both modest and comically ambitious. On the modest side, he hopes to replace his “microscopic scrawl” with a “large, expansive handwriting”’ and to write a “continuous” cursive in which the pen never leaves the page, thereby aiding the “continuity of thoughts.” His more outsized hopes are delivered with an irony that undercuts the project even before it begins:

I know these daily exercises will do wonders for my health and character, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.  

The narrator is a Tristram Shandy figure diverted from his ambitious course of self-improvement by a stream of interruptions: “I live from one urgency to the next.” He is perennially distracted by his obligations as a writer and crossword setter, the misadventures of his dog, Pongo, and his girlfriend, a “fractal being,” so much so that he develops a persecution complex: “I know full well that every step I take toward self-affirmation on the inside is harshly punished on the outside.”  

Sometimes, the pestered cruciverbalist distracts himself, neglecting his graphology to program a computer to make chirping noises. And yet he perseveres with heroic resolve, sounding eerily like A Confederacy of Dunces’s Ignatius J. Reilly: “…I decided to prioritize this [handwriting] activity and put off—at no small personal sacrifice—my lunch.”   

the narrator does set down to work on his handwriting, another problem
surfaces. Nature, and narrative, abhors a vacuum. Despite his resolute efforts
to keep the exercises as mechanical as possible—pure exercises in calligraphic
style—content, or “discourse,” seeps in. His “narrative urges” overwhelm his
self-discipline. Or as he puts it in terms to which even the non-creative can
relate: “The blank page is like a big chocolate pudding; I’m not allowed to eat
it because I’m on a diet, but I can’t resist.”

crosswords is the opposite process in a way. In that work, he constructs a
hidden order out of blankness; in the writing exercises, he blindly stumbles up
against an unknowable order: 

I feel trapped inside a mechanism I know nothing about, gripped by the magical fear that my apparently private, personal, and innocent act has put me in touch with a formidable and dangerous world, a world I can’t control and can only barely, uncertainly, feel is there.

Then, at the very end, he matter-of-factly reveals a crucial piece of information that explains some of the anxiety, depression and self-loathing (he sees himself as physically and psychically grotesque) that motivated the project in the first place. After reading this self-referential twist on the self-help book, I’m awaiting the forthcoming translation (also by Annie McDermott) of another of Levrero’s works, The Luminous Novel.

2.From a narrator who forces himself to write, we move to one who is compelled to write, despite his yearning for silence. Sam Savage’s debut novel The Cry of the Sloth was an epistolary blaze of literary rancor; “My Life in Writing: A Confession in Fable,” one of the most memorable pieces in his posthumous collection An Orphanage of Dreams, is another lament of, or curious paean to, the writerly life. 

narrator is a thoroughly Beckettian figure: a clochard accustomed to
“proddings and nudgings administered by guardians of the law.” He stumbles
along in search of a former lover whom he wouldn’t recognize even if he should
come across her. Because of “erosions of time and blows to the head,” he has
forgotten, among other things, his name, though one fellow traveler informs him
he looks like a Ned. He is never without at least one notebook, a pencil and a
sharpener. The notebooks contains either 44 or 48 pages, presumably because of
a production inconsistency, which prompts the narrator to wonder whether he has
been ripped off or has cheated the shopkeeper with each purchase: “I never know
whether to count my blessings or curse my fate.” This is also the key question
surrounding the true, that is inescapable, literary vocation: is it a gift from
the gods, a torment, or, as suggested by this fable, both?  

he feels overcome by the “thicket of words” crowding his brain, the narrator
writes them down, an “orderly production and disposal of dreams and

So I go on writing, laying down one sentence after another. I lay them down like sponges hoping they will soak up the noise, the howling, the mumbling, the creaking, the chattering, that they will become swollen with the noise, grow fat on the absurdity of the noise, and come to an end. 

he crosses out the text (but not completely), rips out the page and tosses it
on the street, sibylline leaves scattered to the wind: “I leave them legible
out of vanity, I suppose, or loneliness, imagining as I walk along that
somewhere behind me someone will pick up the page…” Some people do, as it turns
out, but mostly because they think it’s litter. 

what then, causes him to forge on, despite the obstacles (“bad luck, a bad leg,
a lost bike, blows to the temple, tendencies to inebriation and sloth”) and
despite the clear view of all those promising ephebes who came, and failed,
before him (a “mountain of carcasses”)? The answer is simple: the hope,
inexhaustible if quixotic, for some glint of recognition, a readerly

…a person reading it, if there is such a one, will be looking at my soul through the wire of its cage, or the other way around, that my soul is peeking out through laced fingers at the mystery of the world.

3.In Peter Mehlman’s #MeAsWell, Arnie Pepper is a wise-cracking sports columnist for the Washington Post with a growing disdain for sports (“The NFL’s biggest impact on society is that now dumb people donate their brains to science”), media coverage (“Turn to ESPN and there’s so much laughter, you’d think Rodney Dangerfield is giving the scores”) and fans, “putrefying savages” with a “wantonly false sense of entitlement.” Kibitzing with other reporters at Marlin’s Park during batting practice, he delivers a one-liner about an injury-prone basketball player: “How long does a guy usually stay on the injured list for a hysterectomy?” The male reporters find it funny, but then someone posts the joke on social media, landing Pepper—“content and carefree as a white, wage-earning, statin-popping, middle-aged American male could be”—at the center of a minor controversy.

After the joke stirs up moral outrage, a protester using the nom de guerre Bruce Bader Ginsburg sprays Pepper with “artisanal estrogen mist…with a drizzle of Malaysian sterilization powder.” Worse, the Post brass call him up to the carpet for what could be the end of his career. But what, Pepper protests, of his impeccable bona fides? “I named my daughter after Althea Gibson, for Chrissake!” and that’s just for starters. His columns have earned the admiration of stars like Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, and Brandi Chastain: “I’ve been on the right side of their every issue…NOW cited me as an example of forward thinking in the primitive tar pits of Sports Journalism,” he cries. 

novel would be less convincing if it merely echoed complaints about cancel
culture. “Giving people a break has become un-American,” says Pepper for
example, bemoaning a population high on “Moral Outrage Oxycontin.” Melhman’s
humor saves the novel from being an enervating lament—I should note here he
wrote for Seinfeld—and because Pepper’s righteous anger is tempered by doubt,
a sense that his self-pity might be overblown. Indeed, his patient but
exasperated daughter delivers the sagest hot take on l’affaire Pepper: “This is
the world now and you’ve finally gotten your first taste…a tiny taste….life
is unfair, but if you hang around, you can still steal a game here and

The novel is also too busy to descend into bathos. Pepper gets a scoop involving one of the Trump administration’s odious members saying something odious; a Madoff-like friend on the lamb contemplates a return; he receives a mildly credible death threat; and dips his toes in the dating pool. And as if to prove the notion that sports are the great uniter, over one 24-hour period, the maligned sportswriter comes into contact with Kirsten Gillibrand, Bob Woodward, a prelapsarian Les Moonves, and, wait for it, Jamal Khashoggi. 

The turmoil shakes Pepper but doesn’t affect his antic garrulousness, and indeed his voice—wisecracking and quick-witted—makes the novel. Ironic, then, that Pepper’s breakthrough involves him discovering his “inner mute button.”

Ten Writers to Watch in 2019


This list of 10 writers to watch features the authors of five translated works—from the French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Even the American authors’ books have a distinctly international flavor, with a collection riffing on Turkish history, a Cold War intrigue, and a sweeping novel about a historically black community in Nova Scotia.
1. Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Turkish Delights
“As a creative writing teacher, I read so many short stories,” says Ayşe Papatya Bucak, a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “Nothing seems original to me unless it’s pretty out-there, so I was trying at least to do stories I hadn’t seen before.”

The result is Bucak’s debut collection, The Trojan War Museum (Norton, Aug.), which spins sly, inventive stories from Turkish history. “Her work is historical and contemporary, real and imagined, a blend of myth and fact,” says her agent, Julie Barer.
Alane Mason, Bucak’s editor, praises the “freshness and power of the prose—never a word wasted or a risk shied away from.”
The title story imagines a series of museums dedicated the Trojan War, some curated by the Greek gods and some of which are horrifyingly immersive. “I wanted to write a story that had multiple stories in it, like the layers of Troy, and where the setting performed the narrative structure,” Bucak, 48, explains.
Other stories animate colorful 19th-century figures—wrestler Yusuf Ismail, diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey—and grapple with their Orientalist depictions in the West.
Bucak, whose father is Turkish and whose mother is American, attended Princeton University and studied with novelist Russell Banks before working in publishing for several years. “I learned pivotal lessons as an undergrad, but then it took me a really long time to execute them,” she says. “Writing is like a lot of things—you have to learn over and over.”
Though Bucak was initially cautious, writing about her father’s homeland opened up new possibilities. “The only Turk I knew for most of my life was my dad, so I wondered if I was entitled to write about Turkey,” she says. “It really took me until my 30s to realize, ‘Oh, I’m mixed!’ That let me write about Turkey the way I experience it.”

2. Jeffrey Colvin: Sister Cities
“I can still remember segregation in the Alabama education system,” says Jeffrey Colvin, 61, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A former Marine who holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and now lives in New York City, Colvin was working on series of stories set in and around his racially divided hometown when he learned about Africville, a black community in Halifax, Canada, “that no longer existed, wiped out during a thing called urban renewal.” He thought to incorporate his Alabama stories into a larger narrative about Africville, first settled in the 18th century by freed slaves and exiled Jamaicans. The idea developed into his debut novel, Africaville (Amistad, Dec.).
“I’ve been wrestling with how to write about the South in my own way,” Colvin says. “This allowed me to talk about the South, but also stand apart from it and think about how it connects to the larger world.”
Opening in 1918 during a fever epidemic, the novel relates the ordeals of the Sebolt family. “I was in awe that Jeffrey sustained that balance of a shadow—literal and metaphorical—always looming over the Sebolt family,” says Colvin’s editor, Patrik Bass. “And yet there’s a resilience—rooted in a sense of home—that takes them, and readers, to other places,” he adds.
“Once I started reading, I was instantly drawn in by his story of a family and the town that both defines and confines them,” says Colvin’s agent, Ayesha Pande.
Race is similarly defining and confining for the Sebolts, one of whom passes as white after moving to Alabama. “One of the things I find fascinating is the way in which people cast off their past,” Colvin says.
Colvin cut his novel down significantly, sometimes painfully, over the various revisions. Laughing, he paraphrases James Baldwin: “You don’t get the novel you want, you get the novel you got.”
3. Jean-Baptiste Del Amo: Nostalgie de la Boue
“Mine wasn’t a family of readers, and I never expected to write books,” says Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, who grew up in southwest France. When he completed a draft of what would become his first novel, 2008’s Une Education Libertine, he had no connections to the Parisian publishing world and a miniscule postage budget to work with. “I didn’t have enough money to send the book to more than four publishers,” he says.
Del Amo chose wisely; two weeks later, he received a positive response from the venerable Éditions Gallimard. “My life changed completely,” he recalls.

Animalia (Grove, Sept.), Del Amo’s fourth novel, his first to be translated into English, is a century-spanning, mud-splashed epic about a clan of hardscrabble pig farmers in a small French village. “I wanted to tell a story about family and how violence can be transmitted from one generation to the next,” Del Amo, who is 37 and lives in Paris, explains. “I could use pigs and breeding as a metaphor for the human condition.”
In the book, Del Amo mixes lyrical passages of the French countryside with merciless descriptions of the sights, smells, and barbarism of industrial pig rearing. “The first half of the novel is like a landscape painting and the second half has a more documentary feel,” says his editor, Peter Blackstock.
“I want the reader to be physically involved,” Del Amo says. “Sense is the best way to bring the reader into my universe.”
“Jean-Baptiste’s hypnotic, poetic and sometimes terrifyingly visceral prose shimmers and quivers on the page,” adds his translator, Frank Wynne.
Cruelty, toward humans and animals, is the novel’s central theme. Since writing the book, Del Amo has taken a more activist stance on animal rights. Animalia, though, was not written to be a political statement. “The book led me to the activism, and not the contrary,” he says.

4. Juan José Millás: Domestic Help

Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows (Bellevue, Aug.) features one of the most memorable closets since C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the book, Damián, a middle-aged, recently unemployed handyman, fashions himself a cubby hole behind the antique wardrobe in a family’s home.
“He is a sort of modern Robinson Crusoe, trapped on an island that turns out to be a closet,” Millás says of his handy, ghostly protagonist. “He in fact controls the movements of the family, which gives him a feeling of power that he had never possessed.”
When the house is empty, Damián leaves his redoubt to tidy it up. Millás, 73, says he shares his protagonist’s Zen-like approach to cleaning: “It’s one of my favorite activities. As I polish the cups and glasses, I enter a special state of consciousness, from which I understand the world and its problems better.”
A strange character, Damián stages an imaginary talk show, of which he is the star, in his head. “The contrast between his reality—the closet—and fantasy—the set—seemed to me to be very symbolic of the isolation in which people live and the hunger for fame to which they aspire,” Millás says.
From the Shadows, translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, is Millás’s first novel to be published in North America. (Two works were pubbed in the U.K., but both are out of print.) Millás lives in Madrid and is a columnist for the newspaper El País, contributing “hybrid pieces” called articuentos: “They are hybrids because they have the appearance of a journalistic column, but they hide a short story inside them,” he explains.
Millás’s editor, Erika Goldman, says she was captivated by his “whimsy and the logic of his imagination” and praises his “lively, mordant social satire that gives us what we look for in the best of international literature: insight into another world that deepens our understanding of our own.”
5. Hiroko Oyamada: Corporate Bestiary

Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory (New Directions, Oct.) is an oneiric satire of corporate life in contemporary Japan. In the novel, three employees—a document shredder, a copy editor, and a scientist who classifies the moss growing on a factory’s massive campus—struggle to make sense of their company’s opaque mission.
“Even the smallest pond has its own ecosystem,” Oyamada says. “The same holds true for any workplace.”
After graduating from Hiroshima University with a degree in Japanese literature, Oyamada worked as a temp at a sprawling car factory with a massive staff. “Just being there in the middle of it all left me feeling anxious,” she says. One day, she started writing on the clock. “At first, it was practically a diary, but soon it became something much closer to a novel.”
Oyamada, 35, explores the unsettling parallel between the employees and the eerie creatures roaming the company’s grounds, each of which has adapted to corporate life and the facilities. This fantastical animal element was inspired by a surreal moment from her factory job. “I looked up and saw a woman by one of the printers, holding a giant black bird by its wings,” she recalls. “When I looked back, what I saw wasn’t a bird at all. It was a part for the printer—maybe a toner cartridge. Still, the image of that bird in the basement stuck with me.”
David Boyd, who translated The Factory, says, “Every time I go back to Oyamada’s writing, I find something new—something major that changes the entire story.”
Oyamada’s tale conveys the economic insecurity felt by a generation of Japanese. “I finished the book in 2010—a time when young people were working as hard as they could in exchange for woefully low wages,” she explains. “These deplorable conditions have become so normal that no one even talks about them anymore. What may have immediately struck some readers a decade ago as comically awful working conditions may now seem less terrible and more tolerable.”
6. Kimberly King Parsons: Lone Stars
Frustrated by her progress on a novel, Kimberly King Parsons says that she started “cheating by writing these really fun, illicit short stories”—a form that has always appealed to her. “There’s something about the compression that does it for me in a way that most novels don’t.”

Those stories coalesced into Black Light (Vintage, Aug.), Parsons’s debut collection. They are set in Texas, where she was born and lived until she attended Columbia’s fiction MFA program. “It’s kind of ridiculous, but it took my agent to tell me that they all took place there,” says Parsons, who is 40 and currently lives in Portland, Ore.
That agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, says she was struck by Parsons’s “Texan-twanging voice” and how “despite shades of sharp-tongued truth-telling, feral desperation, white-hot rage, and often giddy narcotic abandon, the stories also somehow capture the magic, warmth, and enchantment of hope.”
“I think the bed is the place I can write the most comfortably for the longest amount of time,” Parsons says. But despite her Proustian writing habits, the tales hum with a jittery energy.
“Her unique sentence structure makes you want to stop dead in your tracks and listen, the way an unusual guitar hook does,” says Parsons’s editor, Margaux Weisman.
The collection features iridescent characters “trying to get at what’s underneath real life,” Parsons says. “There’s a lot of game playing in these stories, whether it’s children or whether it’s adults behaving badly to get to a place where they can feel that glow.”
One such game takes place when two married colleagues call out sick and spend the day in a seedy motel. “I personally love hotels,” Parsons says. “There’s something magical to me about how it becomes a stage and what happens in that room is potentially performative.”

7. Lara Prescott: Hot off the Cold War Presses

One of Lara Prescott’s prized possessions is a CIA-printed copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, whose publication history is the subject of her debut, The Secrets We Kept (Knopf, Sept.). “It’s a tiny second or third edition printed on Bible stock and small enough to fit in your pocket to conceal,” she says.
Prescott’s novel focuses on the role that women agents played in the CIA’s effort to secure, publish, and distribute the U.S.S.R.-banned novel behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1950s. “It seemed like a novel while I was reading all these declassified documents on,” Prescott says. Her protagonists are a young typist in the CIA typist pool and a glamorous woman skilled at extracting secrets from powerful men.
The story immediately grabbed her agents, Jamie Chambliss and Jeff Kleinman, who describe the novel as “A Gentleman in Moscow meets Hidden Figures.”
While researching the novel, Prescott, 37, realized that she “just couldn’t write from the Western perspective” and decided to chronicle the difficult life of Pasternak’s mistress and muse, Olga, twice sent to the gulag because of her lover’s subversive novel.
Prescott—who lives in Austin, Tex., where she received her MFA in creative writing at the Michener Center—studied political science and international relations at American University. Before turning to fiction, she was a communications writer for various political campaigns. “I didn’t have the fortitude or the underlying passion for being next to power,” she says.
Prescott’s tale also weaves in the Lavender Scare, the government’s Cold War–era persecution of gay and lesbian federal workers. “Though the CIA was promoting freedom through these works of art, at the same time they were persecuting their own employees,” she says. “Censorship and persecution exist on both sides.”
8. Veronica Raimo: Utopia and Its Discontents

Set on the fictional island of Miden, Veronica Raimo’s first novel to appear in English, The Girl at the Door (Black Cat, Oct.), recounts a sexual abuse allegation that upends the lives of a professor and his pregnant girlfriend.
Raimo’s editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, likens the novel to Kristen Roupenian’s “infamous” short story “Cat Person” in that it “considers a narrative other than a clear-cut perpetrator vs. victim one in a story of sexual transgression,” she says.
The professor and his girlfriend narrate in alternating chapters as a citizen committee determines whether they can remain on the utopian island. As she worked on the novel, Raimo became more drawn to the girlfriend’s experience. “I thought it would be more interesting to have this woman, neither the victim nor the perpetrator, forced to live this conflict from an external point of view,” she explains.
For years, Raimo, 41, bounced between her hometown of Rome and Berlin, which she first visited on a graduate scholarship to study East German cinema. “You can feel the tension between a society like Germany, which is richer and works better and is more progressive, and Italy’s,” Raimo says. “I needed the conflict that you experience every day in Rome.”
The darkly ironic tale pokes fun at bureaucratic procedures regulating sexual misconduct and desire, even as it honors “the inner truth of someone feeling that he or she was abused,” says Raimo, who is currently working on Italian translations of Octavia E. Butler and Ray Bradbury. “You can’t really have a protocol for love, even in a society that has a protocol for everything.”
9. Karina Sainz Borgo: Survivor’s Guilt

“Sometimes I think I have been writing this novel my whole life,” says Karina Sainz Borgo, a Venezuelan journalist living in Barcelona. In It Would Be Night in Caracas (HarperVia, Oct.), Adelaida mourns the death of her mother while fighting to survive in a Caracas beset with paramilitary marauders and debilitating inflation.
“I’m trying to explain how one of the most important countries of the region became a very primitive society,” Sainz Borgo says. “Dictatorships create differences between people, and one of those is between those who left and those who stayed.”
Sainz Borgo knows this firsthand, having left Venezuela 13 years ago at age 24. “I wanted to write about why I feel guilty because I’m no longer there.”
Capturing Adelaida’s shifting voice challenged Sainz Borgo’s translator, Elizabeth Bryer. “Sometimes her utterances are staccato in nature, truncated as they are by grief,” she says. “At other times her voice is all energetic resilience, fueled by her determination to survive.”
Adelaida’s mother’s death is emblematic of Venezuela’s collapse, Sainz Borgo explains. “It was supposed to be a mother country for all these people, but it didn’t work.”
Sainz Borgo’s editor, Juan Milà, acquired the novel for the new HarperVia imprint focused on translated fiction. “It had everything,” he says—“a gripping voice and plot as well as a deep emotional intelligence that allows us to connect with the human stories in newspapers and on television.”
Sainz Borgo stresses, though, that the novel is not necessarily a tale specific to Venezuela. “Many have said that this is a topical novel, but I do not say ‘Venezuela’ very much,” she says. “I was trying to maintain the universalist nature.”
10. Lila Savage: Written with Care
Lila Savage didn’t write any fiction until her 30s, when she started a novel based on her experience as a care worker. “I was interested in exploring the intimacy that develops between the caregiver and the family,” says Savage, who grew up in the Twin Cities and now lives in San Francisco. “I became very close with so many people, but I also had to start protecting myself emotionally.”

Savage eventually quit care work to focus on writing her debut novel, Say Say Say (Knopf, July). “The work that I did offered a lot of emotional reward, but it’s also tedious and stressful,” she says. Savage, 38, was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later secured a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. “For folks from professional backgrounds like mine, it makes such a big difference to have funding to write.”
In Say Say Say, Ella, a young queer woman, cares for a rapidly declining woman—the novel’s title comes from one of her verbal tics—and develops an intense bond with her patient’s dutiful, undemonstrative husband. In portraying his male stoicism, Savage interrogates what she describes as the “cultural expectations for masculinity and the belief that caregiving is women’s work.”
“The novel takes on decline and grief with tremendous courage, honesty, and insight,” says Savage’s editor, Robin Desser. “Lila writes with a delicate restraint that belies how hard this book hits.”
Savage’s agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, hadn’t seen a novel on the subject, despite the fact that caregiving is “one of the most common, and fastest-growing, professions in the country.” He adds, “It felt like the sort of novel Alice Munro might write, if Alice Munro were a queer millennial who wrote novels and had perhaps read some affect theory.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on

Dear Match Book

- | 1

In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.

1.Dear Match Book,

like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.


advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.

2.Dear Match Book,

I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!

Fourth Wheel,

I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)

Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.

What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!  

3.Dear Match Book,



Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.

4.Dear Match Book,

I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.


Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.

could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
Please advise.

5.Dear Match Book,

A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.

Voracious Reader,


6.Dear Match Book,

books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.

Bot Book,

You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!

Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.

7.Dear Match Book,

I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.

Dear Multitasker,

I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.

There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.

8.Dear Match Book,

I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?

Michael Chabon,

As I
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s

9.Dear Match Book,

been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.

problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?

(Middle)Marching Orders,

Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.

10.Dear Match Book,

recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?


N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.

you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.

11.Dear Match Book,

was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….

Dear Thrown for a Loop,

Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.

Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.