Elisa Gabbert Wants Interesting Thinking, No Matter the Subject

I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive. The Word Pretty—Gabbert’s fourth book, following two books of poetry and one book of very short prose pieces—collects 22 previously published essays on a wide variety of themes. The subjects range from notebook-keeping to the guilty pleasure of reading only the front matter of books to the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Each is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.

Gabbert generously answered my questions about The Word Pretty over email.

The Millions: On Twitter, you described The Word Pretty as “a collection of [your] critical essays, rarities, & B-sides.” I love that description, in part because of the way it uses the language of music rather than literature. I’ve been wondering about the way that collections function as books, which seems different from the way that book-length works do. The Word Pretty is a good case for thinking about this, because you acknowledge its heterogeneity, and the book itself makes no claims to, say, thematic unity, yet it does feel to me like a whole. Does it feel that way to you? If so, is it in a different sense than your previous books, which are also wholes made of isolatable parts?

Elisa Gabbert: I often feel that where books start and stop is essentially arbitrary. I start to think of something as a book when it’s clear to me that I’m repeatedly returning to a certain set of concerns and a certain shape or structure or form as an approach to those concerns. Once I’m able to describe the concerns and the form to myself, it’s fairly easy to imagine the shape of the finished book. But it could always be a little shorter or longer, or arranged slightly differently and so on—at some point I just decide it’s done, maybe only because I get sick of the project and want to work on something new! The Word Pretty didn’t quite make sense to me as a book until I figured out the three sections. Then, if I wanted to add a new piece, for example, I knew which section it would go in, and I didn’t have to rearrange the whole table of contents. Sections and structure are important to me. I don’t write fiction, but I’m really interested in chapters, too, and I have a fantasy course mapped out in my head called “Chapter Studies.” In any case, after the fact of writing, I find that a book feels like a book partly because it’s time-delimited: I started it in a certain month of a certain year and finished it in a certain month of a later year. So whatever the genre, the book feels to me like a record of my thinking during that period.

TM: You told me, also on Twitter, that this book is “the kind of thing [you] always wanted to do but thought you had to be famous first.” What did you mean by that? And how did the book come about?

EG: I tweeted once—not that long ago actually, in early 2016—“I want to do one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” I was thinking of these collections that come out by J.M. Coetzee or Siri Hustvedt or Zadie Smith or, when they were living, John Updike or Gore Vidal—basically people who are some combination of “working writer” and “public intellectual” so that every few years, they’ve published enough essays or criticism to be packaged up into a book, and the fans buy it because they’ll read anything by that author, they just want the point of view. But debut collections of essays are usually not that freeform, unless maybe they’re on a small press. As it happens, later that same year, I had a small press approach me asking whether I had a manuscript of essays they could consider. Around the same time, I learned that my poetry publisher planned to launch a nonfiction series. So I got my wish via the small press route.

TM: I’m curious about the sequencing of the book. The essays are divided into three unnamed sections. Resonances abound, but there’s no clear thematic demarcation. In at least some instances, it seemed as if the ordering of essays within a section might be guided, in part, by shared references. For instance, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” follows “The Inelegant Translation” (though there’s a section break in between), and both mention Lydia Davis’s introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary; “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is followed by “Seeing Things,” both of which mention Howards End; “Seeing Things” is followed by “Impossible Time,” both of which mention The Catcher in the Rye. Am I right that you had this in mind? What other priorities guided the sequencing?

EG: In my mind, the middle section is made up of all my little “I noticed a thing” essays (a term I borrow from my friend Catherine Nichols) in the literary criticism category. Most of those started when I noticed a thing in a book I was reading (an idiosyncratic use of paragraphs, say, or a kind of POV), then thought about that thing as a thing, then started noticing how other books handled or achieved that same thing. Within that section I tried to sequence them in such a way that you might get a hint of an idea in one essay and then read an expansion on that idea in the next essay, as you suggest. That said, I’m not one of those people that tries every conceivable order of parts in a book to see if one permutation turns out better than the others—not that that’s actually possible. (Google tells me 12! ≈ 479 million—can that be right?!—and that’s just the essays in the second section.) I think on some level I’m just letting the juxtapositions do their own work. The first section and the third section could really be one section, but I wanted to split them apart, so there’s a more personal voice at the beginning and again at the end, with the more pure (-ish) criticism in the middle. Really, there’s plenty of I throughout. I got thoroughly sick of myself while proofing it.

TM: You began your career as a poet. How did you come to write essays? Do you think of your poetry and your essays as related or overlapping projects, or as discrete?

EG: I think essays are basically chunks of prose (nonfiction prose to be a little more exact), and I’ve been writing chunks of prose my whole life—papers, reviews, blog posts, whatever, they’re all essays if essays involve thinking about something for a while and then writing about it. At some point I decided to be more purposeful about calling them essays, and calling myself an essayist, probably around the time editors started asking me to write essays. Later, when I was working on a book proposal (not for The Word Pretty, but for the book I’m writing now), my agent asked me if I was committed to calling it essays—rather than, just, you know, a book—and I decided that yes, I really wanted to align myself with that tradition specifically. I think you approach a book of essays differently than a nonfiction book in chapters, and I wanted people to approach my essays as essays. (Incidentally, my second book was a collection of chunks of prose, and because, as you note, I started off as a poet, many people think of that book as prose poetry. It was actually marketed as a book of essays, but regardless of how it’s officially catalogued, it’s very obviously made of chunks of prose, and I think it reached a much larger audience than my collections of pro-forma poetry for that reason. More people read prose than poetry! No question!) But to get back to what you asked—I think my poetry and essays do have overlap in terms of my voice and sensibility and obsessions. But it feels very different to write prose versus poetry. It’s kind of like, I can either think in sentences or lines, in poetry or prose, but they’re distinct and exclusive modes. And my default mode is prose. Poetry is harder work. (At least in the drafting phase.)

TM: While I was in the midst of reading The Word Pretty, at a moment when I wasn’t actually reading it, I had this thought (which I considered tweeting, but decided not to): People talk a lot about overwritten prose, but what about the more common problem of underwritten prose? When I returned to The Word Pretty, I was surprised to find, in your essay “Writing That Sounds Like Writing,” first a discussion of overwritten prose, and then this: “of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten.” This could be a coincidence, or maybe I had read this essay of yours before (I can’t remember if I had) and was anticipating it. But another explanation would be that your essays so effectively convey your style of thinking that reading them helped me to have an Elisa Gabbert-style thought. What do you think of my hypothesis? Is that at all in line with what you think your essays accomplish, or what you intend them to?

EG: Oh, I love this story. It’s hard for me to think of a better compliment than “recognizable style of thinking.” But yes, what I look for in essays, and what I try to do in my essays, is interesting thinking. And sometimes I like when writers really show every step of the proof, as it were. Maybe they’re revealing all their missteps or false starts or the bad ideas they had on the way to a better idea. Or maybe they aren’t missteps exactly, but a series of small but necessary steps to get to something more profound. That level of thinking can be so interesting, even if you don’t really know what the writer is talking about! Like this paragraph I read yesterday, from a brief essay about Shostakovich’s 15th symphony by Tom Service:
Weird. Yes, Shostakovich has set up a sort of pre-echo of the William Tell tune in some of the rhythms we’ve heard; but when the trumpets play the tune, it’s a shock. So is it ironic? Not really, there’s a genuine musical connection, a reason for it being there. A parody? Again, it’s not that simple; Shostakovich doesn’t frame this moment as a separate kind of discourse from what we’ve heard so far, this quote isn’t in quotation marks. And in fact, I don’t actually think this is a quotation at all: what I mean is that the effect of hearing this music at this point in the symphony is so utterly removed from the original function, expression, and associations of Rossini’s tune that it becomes, in fact, a totally different object. Instead of infectious operatic cheeriness, we’re in a place of existential symphonic crisis. If anything, you hear the disjunction in meaning and context even more precisely because the pattern of the notes is so familiar. Make sense? Possibly not – but these are the kind of labyrinths Shostakovich’s symphony leads you into… (Even Shostakovich himself couldn’t properly explain the reason for the quotes in this symphony: “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them,” he told his friend Isaak Glikman in a tortuous bit of triple-negativity.)
I know almost nothing about classical music (does Shostakovich even count as classical?) but I read this three or four times. It’s such a great example of attention, representing the act of attention within the text, along with the uncertainty that follows attention, the questioning of what you thought you knew. Also, your story makes me think of that bit at the end of the Anne of Green Gables essay, where I talk about binge-watching TV and then feeling like I look like a character from the show, like looking at a face so much has warped my self-image. It sounds like you experienced a version of that!

TM: It’s clear that your writing is informed by a robust reading life, in which you take seriously the choice of what to read when as a part of living. Is developing a certain kind of reading life something you’ve worked at, or has it come naturally? How is your reading life related to your writing life?

EG: I have worked at it! I’ve loved reading all my life, but I made a conscious decision about five years ago to be more disciplined about it. I felt like approaching my reading in a haphazard, undisciplined way wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I made all these little, or in some cases not so little, habitual changes in order to make reading more central in my life. I started going to the library all the time—this has at least two positive effects. One, there are always stacks of unread books around, so there’s never the problem of having “nothing to read.” Two, due dates are deadlines, so I can’t put off reading a book forever. I also pretty much stopped watching TV. I know it’s supposed to be the golden age of prestige TV blah blah, but for me, good TV still isn’t as good or rewarding as a good book, and even bad TV is addictive. It’s just too easy to get sucked into, so I avoid it entirely. Another thing I started doing is documenting all the books I finish, then publishing little mini-reviews of all of them at the end of the year. I like writing them and I like when people read them so it gives me extra incentive to finish books. As for how my reading life relates to my writing life, it definitely feeds it, but lately I feel like the balance is a little off. Too much writing and not enough reading!

TM: I love the way the essays in The Word Pretty ground the acts of reading, research, and citation in your life and in the world. For instance, you thematize the act of finding something to quote in “Meditation on the Word Pretty”: You write, “I flipped through my copy of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic from grad school; I had not recalled that it paints Edmund Burke-ian sublimity as practically a loathsome side effect of testosterone,” and then you quote it. I think this is related to the way, in “Seeing Things,” you write about picturing characters and spaces in novels by drawing from people and spaces from your life. Essays that engage texts often give the impression that the essayist is a brain in a vat encountering texts in some abstract way. Yours never do that, even when you don’t explicitly dwell on or dramatize the physical or imaginative encounter. Is this grounded textual engagement a way of achieving a certain effect? Are you writing against a tendency in essays or criticism?

EG: Ah, this is one of my signature moves, incorporating notes on the process of writing an essay into the essay itself. It feels more authentic, or maybe I should say truthful, to reveal that process, which can involve chance and randomness, or cursory, passing interest in things. I don’t want to create the false impression that every time I cite a book, I’ve necessarily read the whole book or that author’s whole oeuvre. (But I’m trying not to do this move reflexively or let it turn into a tic. There’s a danger of understanding your own style too well, and then imitating yourself.) I think I’m also using, in a sense, critical or topical essays to write about my self in the world. I’m always trying to situate who and where and when I am in relation to the books or other things I’m writing about. Partly it’s an ethical position, a way of highlighting my subjectivity, and partly it’s just ego.

TM: Do you have a favorite essay from the book?

EG: Yes. My favorite essay is the last one, “Time, Money, Happiness.”

TM: I know you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about it and how it’s going?

EG: I just finished the penultimate essay, so I think I’m allowed to say it’s almost done. Writing it while also working a pretty demanding full-time job has been incredibly stressful and difficult, but it’s a good kind of pain, I guess you could say. (As I just tweeted the other day, writing it is taking years off my life, but seeing as it’s about disasters, it’s making me want to die sooner anyway.) Working on it is giving me forward movement and purpose at a time when it would be easy to succumb to the whole “LOL, nothing matters” ethos. Nothing does matter, but also this book is important to me. I want to finish it, and I want people to read it.

An Element of Perversity: The Millions Interviews Katharine Kilalea

OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris.

As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass:
Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.
Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew.

Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email.

The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became?

Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.”

TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing?

KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep.

TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you?

KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself.

TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project?

KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry.

TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be?

KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really …

TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel?

KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags.

TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with?

KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be.

TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two?

KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa.

TM: What are you reading and working on now?

KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.

On Carmen Maria Machado’s Body Horrors

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, an exhilarating collection of literary retellings of fables and fairy tales, Kelly Link describes the book’s indelible effect on her work:
The things that I needed when I was beginning to think about writing short stories were the things that I found in The Bloody Chamber. I needed to see how stories could be in conversation with other stories. I needed to see how playfulness and generosity and friction—of ideas, in language, in the admixture of high and low, the mythic and the psychologically realistic—were engines for story and structure and point of view.
Link partly attributes the vital hybridity of Carter’s work to the self-conscious storytelling inherent to supernatural literature. “The literature of the fantastic,” she writes, “is peculiar in that stories are necessarily in conversation with other stories, dependent on other stories to achieve their effect. There is no such thing as a vampire, except in stories, because of stories.” These stories cannot hide that they rely upon other stories and are, in some sense, about storytelling itself. Such work thrives by embracing this history in order to transform it.

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, brilliantly continues Carter’s and Link’s tradition of literary fabulism. In line with the relationship Link proposes between the inherent intertextuality of fantastical literature, it’s also a Pandora’s box of bold re-thinkings of the short story form. The title subtly announces Machado’s experimental intentions by twisting the standard story collection title template—X and Other Stories. The titular “Her Body” refers not to a single story in the collection, but rather to the stories’ collective concern with women’s bodies and the narratives that constrict them.

Machado begins the collection with “The Husband Stitch,” a magnificent retelling of the story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. Machado uses this retelling to reflect on the history of ghost stories and urban legends. “Everyone knows these stories—that is,” the narrator says, “everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them.” Of particular concern is the fate of women in such tales. “Brides never fare well in stories,” the narrator concludes, foreshadowing her own fate.

This explicit concern with narrative returns in “Especially Heinous,” the collection’s masterful centerpiece, which reimagines the first 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as an uncanny police procedural haunted by doppelgängers and ghostly girls with bells for eyes. It’s a rich investigation of a wildly popular contemporary narrative centered on pernicious representations of women. Machado brilliantly subverts the show’s overwrought and readymade horrors into creeping figures of the uncanny by digging deep into the show’s own logic. One mode this takes is dark parody. Pillorying the show’s use of sex workers, Machado writes:
“GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.
“RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit.
“PURE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit.
Elsewhere, Machado enriches and expands tropes of the show, bringing them into full dark bloom. The “theories” about cases the detectives constantly bat back and forth descend into nihilism: “‘My theory,’ [Benson] says to Stabler, ‘my theory is that I have a theory.’ Stabler offers to come over. ‘My theory,’ she says, ‘my theory is that there is no god.’” The show’s unending hunger for victims becomes a physical, supernatural feature of New York City, which is revealed to be built upon the back of an ancient and monstrous god, hungry for blood. By trading the show’s formulaic “realism” for phantasmagoric fabulism, Machado better approaches the abject horror of sexual violence.

Machado explores toxic cultural narratives with the same intelligence and imagination. In “Eight Bites,” the narrator undergoes invasive weight loss surgery. The story—a bitter fairy tale, complete with three unnamed sisters—is rife with the grotesque cultural rhetoric that restricts women’s eating. The narrator’s sisters, happy recipients of the surgery, proselytize: “‘I feel so good,’ they all said. Whenever I talked to them, that was what always came out of their mouths, or really, it was a mouth, a single mouth that once ate and now just says, ‘I feel really, really good.’” The weight-loss argot of transformation plagues the narrator even after she has had the surgery and awaits its effects. “Will I ever be done,” she worries, “transformed in the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?” She is transformed, but there’s a twist. The flesh she has banished returns to haunt her like a ghost inverted: pure corporeality. The narrator attacks her own flesh and rejoices in the act. “I am a new woman,” she announces. “A new woman does not just slough off her old self; she tosses it aside with force.” The story literalizes the logic of mandatory weight loss to make manifest its violence. 

Her Body and Other Parties also addresses the ways women’s lives have been and continue to be constrained by narratives that consign disobedient or unmanageable women to categories of madness or monstrosity. “The Resident” follows a novelist to a rural artist residency near the site of a mysterious childhood trauma. Chief among the narrator’s feverish worries is the reduction of her experience to a trope: “perhaps,” she says to the reader near the story’s end, “you’re thinking that I’m a cliché—a weak, trembling thing with a silly root of adolescent trauma, straight out of a gothic novel.” The story cleverly considers the troubled line between the tropifying of women in literature and life:
Lydia filled my glass to the brim. “Do you ever worry,” she asked me, “that you’re the madwoman in the attic?”“What?” I said.
“Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic story?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know. That old trope. Writing a story where the female protagonist is utterly batty. It’s sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done”—here she gesticulated so forcefully that a few drops of red spattered the tablecloth—“don’t you think? And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Do you ever wonder about that?”
When the narrator clarifies that her novel’s protagonist is a version of herself, Lydia responds, “So don’t write about yourself.” “Men are permitted to write concealed autobiography,” the narrator responds, “but I cannot do the same?” Later, she carves her name into the tablet above her writing desk, as the residency’s previous guests have done: “C—— M——.” The initials: Carmen Machado—a wink and an added layer of eerie resonance.

Though Her Body and Other Parties centers on women’s lives, at the margins lurks the ultimate source of the horrors that haunt them: men. One of the epigraphs, from a poem by Elisabeth Hewer, reads: “god should have made girls lethal / when he made monsters of men.” The men in these stories are often monstrous. But more often their acts of cruelty fade into the normal course of narrative and of life. This is the truer monstrosity of these tales and of our world. In the final scene of “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator, who has given her husband everything he has ever asked for—with the sole exception of permission to untie the green ribbon around her neck—realizes that he will not be satisfied by anything less than everything he demands. Worse: “He is not a bad man,” she reflects, “and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet—”

For all their formal and political complexities, Machado’s stories also return me to the elemental pleasure I felt sitting in the back of my family’s minivan absorbed in an anthology of children’s horror stories, or swaddled in a sleeping bag at summer camp listening to a counselor whisper ghost stories. And for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.

Molding Something in Our Image: The Millions Interviews James Sturm

I’ve become transfixed by the golem. This figure from Jewish folklore — a man made from clay and brought to life by a mystic — raises central Jewish questions: How can human beings participate in the creative power assigned to the divine?  What are the limits of human endeavor? What role do power and rage play in the history of a marginalized people? Whose body gets to be seen as human and whose as a soulless monster?

In his 2001 graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing, out in a new edition from Drawn and Quarterly, James Sturm brings a golem to life to animate questions about the meaning of Jewishness in America — and the meaning of America.

The Golem’s Mighty Swing follows the Stars of David, a barnstorming, Depression-era Jewish baseball team, as they travel through rural America. To make ends meet, they accentuate the spectacle of their otherness, playing into the figure of the nomadic “wandering Jew.” When car troubles put them in sudden need of a big payday, the Stars of David accept an offer from Victor Paige, a sleazy baseball promoter, to outfit one of their players in the golem costume from the hit film The Golem: How He Came Into the World. The poster for their next match proclaims: “The Jewish Medieval Monster! See Him With Your Own Eyes!” The story the team tells about themselves becomes a story about the monstrosity of their irreducible otherness.

As the team settles into the next town, tensions mount. An editorial in the local paper declares, “The excitement of Saturday’s game should not disguise a simple fact: The Golem is not Putnam’s most dangerous adversary. There is a greater threat that the Putnam All-Americans must vanquish, the threat posed by the Jews.” The game eventually erupts into a violent riot. The uncontrollable rage often associated with the golem emerges, though here the golem is not its source.

The Golem’s Mighty Swing poses central questions about what America has been, what it is, and what it might become. Sturm spoke with me over email about the novel and the broken America into which it has been rereleased.

The Millions: The questions that The Golem’s Mighty Swing asks about racism and xenophobia are perennial American questions, but they seem newly relevant today. Do you see the book differently as it reemerges into today’s political climate? Has it been strange to revisit your work during the rise of Trump?

James Sturm: I do see the book differently. In writing it, it felt more personal; I was trying to work through my own issues of identity and relationship to being a Jew to America. Rereading the book in preparation for the new edition, what struck me is how this story is basically an anatomy of a race riot that strongly evokes current events: a race-baiting, crass salesman manipulating the media for profit. The character of Victor Paige wasn’t a character I took that seriously in writing the book — now that character is president.

TM: In his introduction to the new edition, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang writes, “James shows us what America wishes it had been, and what America actually was. By rubbing the rose tint from our memories, he uncovers our nation’s truest self.” Was this your intent? How do you think the novel engages with the interplay of those two Americas — the one it wishes to have been (and perhaps aspires to be) and the one it truly has been?

JS: Most of the book’s Jewish characters are immigrants or first-generation Americans — they fled from pogroms, hostile empires, and emerging nations. They desperately wanted to believe in the ideals of America. For the team’s black player, Henry Bell, his view of America is far different — his family came to America in chains. A baseball story set in the 1920s is especially susceptible to evoking that rose-tinted strain of American nostalgia. I did want the book to challenge this view. I keep coming back to the present political moment and this creepy notion of “making America great again.” Talk about rose-tinted glasses! Who was it great for? And if so, on whose backs was that “greatness” generated?

TM: In that introduction, Yang mentions a lecture in which you called comics the intersection of poetry and graphic design. Could you say more about that? How do you find that narrative emerges out of that intersection?

JS: I think of comics as images you read, not just illustrations. With every panel I am trying to communicate something specific. Or several things and in this case there is thought given to information hierarchy. This to me is graphic design. And when I think of poetry, I think of conflating language and then artfully positioning text on a page, which is what a cartoonist does when filling caption boxes and word balloons.

TM: The golem is a figure from Jewish folklore that has captured imaginations far beyond the communities in which it originated. I love how The Golem’s Mighty Swing activates various moments in the history of the golem, from its origins in Jewish mysticism to its popular depiction in the 1920 film The Golem: How He Came Into the World. What initially drew you to the golem? What do you find compelling about it? Did the story you wanted to tell come out of the golem, or did the golem present itself as a way to tell the story?

JS: Marvel comics initially introduced me the golem legend (The Invaders #13, to be specific). Though now it is obvious that the Marvel universe is a very Jewish universe, that was not apparent to me at age 12, and seeing the Golem and knowing it came from my religious tradition made me take note. I think most artists and writers relate to the golem legend as we attempt to mold something in our image (or collective image) and try to imbue it with life.

TM: In his book The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, historian Eric L. Goldstein writes about “how Jews negotiated their place in a complex racial world where Jewishness, whiteness, and blackness have all made significant claims on them.” The Golem’s Mighty Swing carefully thinks through Jewishness in the American context as it relates to whiteness and blackness: the Stars of David play for segregated audiences, and the player who ultimately takes on the role of the golem is black and not Jewish. When writing the novel, how were you thinking about navigating this complex history of American Jewishness and racialization?

JS: In the first half of the book, the Stars of David were presented as Americans first and foremost. Their position in society is precarious, but they are never seriously threatened. In the second half of the book, they are seen as Jews first and foremost, and being seen through that lens leads to the violence. I was also trying to call attention (and to counter) prevalent stereotypes with the mention of Joe Hush, the chatty Native American.

TM: In The Golem’s Mighty Swing, the Jewish baseball players occupy a space between assimilation and otherness. The narrator — manager and third baseman Noah Strauss — says, “My father would be gravely disappointed knowing we are playing on the Sabbath…His imagination lives in the old country. Mine lives in America and baseball is America.” Yet the success of the team depends on playing up their exoticized Jewishness: they’re advertised as “the bearded wandering wonders,” Strauss goes by “The Zion Lion,” and ultimately the golem embodies the perceived monstrosity of their otherness. What do you hope the novel says or asks about diasporic Jewish experiences?

JS: When you become an American, what does it then mean to be Jewish (or Irish or German or Chinese)? What part of one’s identity has to be sacrificed to be part of the “melting pot?” And who ultimately decides whether you are an American or not? There are cycles of history where Jews can wear their heritage proudly on their sleeves and other times they will be beaten and murdered for doing so. As good as America has been to Jews, we know that can change quickly.

There’s also a mention in the book of black ball players dressing up as Zulus that isn’t all that much different from what the Stars of David do. What is one’s “authentic” identity? This was a question I took seriously in writing the book.

TM: Two pivotal scenes in the novel center on baseball games, which are the site where a lot of the novel’s underlying psychological drama occurs. As someone who isn’t much of a sports person, I was particularly impressed by the way you brought those scenes to life on the page — they’re incredibly absorbing. How did you think about how to represent the drama, motion, and suspense of those games in the medium of comics?

JS: I learned most about depicting baseball in comics from Japanese Manga. Though I couldn’t read the Japanese, I could follow the action very clearly. The storytelling through the artwork was so clear and precise. I could tell when a batter was expecting a fastball and got a curveball. There would be pages of a pitcher trying to pick a runner off of first base. Each character had a very specific body type and body language. Japanese baseball manga was light-years ahead of any American baseball comics.

TM: What are you reading, thinking about, and working on these days? What’s next for you artistically?

JS: I recently read Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 and a recently translated Korean graphic novel, Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong. I also just read Eleanor Davis’s comic book, Libby’s Dad. All of these books were excellent. And after 30 years, I reread Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.

I’m currently working on my next graphic novel, Off Season. It’s contemporary fiction about a father of two young kids recently separated from his wife against the background of this past election season. Excerpts of the book were published in Slate.

It is hard not to keep thinking about politics these days.

The Danger in Cohesion: Tom Perrotta’s Nine Inches

Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand.

Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold.

As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed.

As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story.

And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like.

This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple.

Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.