It’s been a somewhat slow, muddy-brained reading year for me—likely due to the intense distractions of both ugly news media and challenging life happenings. But thankfully and nonetheless, some wonderful books got read (intentional passive voice, enacting the struggle here via syntax). In fact, since I needed a strategy this year—to battle the muddy distractedness—a handful of books even got read twice. Two unexpected favorites were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both of which I began reading as if venturing into a musty basement, pinching my nose and bracing myself for dead rodents. In other words, I went in with all the baggage of a latecomer (to the hype), primed to find these seminal autobiographical novels both overrated and so socio-politically regressive that I would be unable to read them without a screen of irony. But in fact, nothing, not even cultural evolution, can stamp out beautiful writing; and one thing I’ve been most drawn to in fiction these days is a palpable sense of an author’s skin in the game. With both Plath and Miller, one cannot deny the precariously and deeply lived lives incarnated in these pages. In addition, Tropic sent me off to read Anaïs Nin’s gorgeous diaries (the years when she and Miller were intimates) which then sent me back to re-read Tropic. Two other so-called classics I loved this year were The French Lieutenant’s Woman—John Fowles’s wonderful narrator, breaking the fourth wall and recounting the story of Victorian sexuality as much as that of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff—and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Of this pair, it was the D.H. Lawrence that got read twice—once in print, once via audio (you’ve just got to hear Mellors’s Derbyshire dialect, as read by Emilia Fox, in your ear). Next up, to square the circle, I’ll be tracking down Anaïs Nin’s D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. I am deeply grateful for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I felt was written for “people like me,” who are, unfortunately, legion: we know this-and-that about the vast injustices of mass incarceration but needed Alexander to write the book that would coherently map out the cause and effect and thus activate us more concretely (I hope to have more to say/write about this next year). Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy ditto—a book that, in addition to educating you, will do that impossible thing: remind you that good, smart people set themselves to the hardest uphill life work imaginable and do this work regardless—regardless, that is, of all the shit that paralyzes people like me. [millions_ad] Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life made such an impression I can hardly talk about it. This one, too, I began rereading the minute I read the last word. It’s puzzle-piece, helix-like form left me in awe, and I dare say it is the most truly feminist novel I have read in a long time. It might take me a while to figure out what I mean by that, but I’m comfortable putting it out there. Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn deserves every ounce of praise and honor it’s received. I’ve been telling people that if you liked the Elena Ferrante books, you'll love Another Brooklyn. Oh, and did I mention I was a judge for the Center for Fiction’s first novel award? This meant reading cartons-full of debut novels this summer—which was a great privilege, and also rather brain-breaking for this slow reader. You can see the shortlist here, but I’d like to shout-out a few that did not make the list: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (a tour-de-force of raw originality), Matthew Klam’s Who Is Rich? (characters you will love to hate and maybe even just love), and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (devastating, unflinching; a young-writer-to-watch). More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. The buzz around Matthew Weiner’s debut novel, Heather, the Totality, began nearly a year ago, with the news of its acquisition by Little, Brown. Such is the advantage of debuting as a novelist after having created, helmed, and written many episodes for the cultural phenomenon that is Mad Men. What we learned last year was that the novel’s inception traced back to a note in Weiner’s notebook about an unsettling interaction he’d observed while walking in Manhattan: “It was a little story where I was like, ‘I wonder what that is; maybe I’ll use it sometime.’” The “little story” involves Mark and Karen Breakstone, an affluent couple living on the Upper East Side; their daughter, Heather, as she grows into adolescence; and Bobby, a young man from a poor area of New Jersey, recently released from prison. It’s interesting to consider that, apart from TV, Weiner has written mostly poetry and plays; and to note Little, Brown editor-in-chief Judith Clain’s comment that “He’s really literary.” I myself have written and spoken about Mad Men’s “novelistic” qualities—how we follow a large cast of characters over time, witnessing both the external (cultural) transformations and internal (psychic and emotional) ones that make for a satisfying dramatic experience. And yet, with Heather, we see Weiner exercising alternative creative muscles: he crafts story and character using primarily a narrative tool unavailable to or little used by the TV writer, poet, or playwright; and that is interiority. What’s more, Weiner uses this tool with such balletic intentionality—the effect of which is as unsettling as it is compelling—that my consciousness of him as “award-winning TV writer Matthew Weiner” fell away quickly as I read. Heather, the Totality—a slim volume that moves swiftly through time and incisively into the minds of its four principle characters—totally absorbed me. 2. I suspect however that mine may not be the unanimous or even prevailing experience; it would not surprise me, in fact, if responses to Weiner’s debut were somewhat polarized. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am no book reviewer. Which is to say, I like what I like when I like it. I also change my mind and cannot imagine otherwise/would be terrible at the job of making definitive pronouncements about the quality of a work and imposing those pronouncements authoritatively upon The Culture. When recently I was asked to judge a literary award, I accepted on the basis that there would be four others (and thus I could judge unapologetically as myself—as we all would, I presumed). During the process, a friendly conflict arose among us: the basic question of what makes for “excellent prose”—what makes a sentence arresting (or even competent), how does the writer wield language for optimal effect. Some of us were drawn to and praised terse, plain prose. Others found this prose flat and amateur. It is a large nose which cannot be hidden. In addition, his teeth are bad. Are these good sentences? Bad ones? I think they are rather virtuosic—teeming with tension and narrative presence via an exterior glimpse. They plod along and surprise us, despite ourselves. (Why would a nose need to be hidden? If it cannot be hidden, the wearer of it must be at some disadvantage, a particular vulnerability. “In addition” puts a nail in some sort of coffin; what sort of death are we talking about? What permanent status of badness, of denial or dissatisfaction?) Both sentences beg the question, “From whose perspective?”, which is the real mastery here: the reader is inside the layered perspectives of character, narrator, and author all at the same time. These are not sentences our committee judged, nor those of Matthew Weiner; but rather they belong to the late James Salter, to whom Weiner presented the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Weiner said of Salter, “His investigation of the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone, is unflinching and brave.” I am struck by how aptly these words apply to Heather, and by the ways in which the prose styles of both authors—with their plain, seemingly flat surfaces—both efface and suggest so much. And as is the case with both Salter’s and the prose our committee judged, Weiner’s ostensibly homely sentences may excite both passionate fans and ardent detractors. 3. This intentional flattening is evident also in Heather’s structure: narrative shifts from character to character, along with movements forward and backward in time, occur in a seemingly lateral manner: transitions are not marked or flagged other than by a new paragraph. In addition, paragraphs are uniformly half-a-page to a page in length, mostly expository. The “camera” pans smoothly, along the perimeters of a quadrilateral story frame and dipping into each of its four character’s viewpoints. Before they left [Mark and Heather] quickly made a beaded necklace for Karen so she would not feel left out. Mark and Karen got drunk and did it [had sex] again that night while Heather slept in the next room and it was somehow less, but followed by a whispered conversation about how long they’d been together and what a miracle Heather was. The last day the three of them sat far from the breakfast buffet, overlooking the man-made lagoon, so conspicuously happy that a passing woman insisted she take a picture for them. While the Breakstone family was on vacation, Bobby was laid off from the lumberyard. He was told he would get his job back and they had let everyone go for a few weeks only to rehire them to avoid some labor laws and he was happy to spend some of the money he’d been earning or maybe go somewhere. But his Mother had broken up with her latest and Bobby agreed to give her a loan so she could feed her habit, knowing full well he would never see the money again. It didn’t matter because where would he go anyway and wandering around Harrison and Newark would be fine in the spring before it got sticky. Here the narration contrasts The Breakstones as a unit with lone Bobby; more typical in the novel are longer sections narrated through the eyes/emotions of Mark, Karen, and Heather individually, as in Bobby’s second passage above. But in this brief example we see Weiner’s method of flat surfaces—dispassionate clauses belying emotionally loaded statements, and strung together by conjunctions. Weiner also achieves interesting prose textures by dipping into characters’ voices—melding and layering third-person and first-person narration: what a miracle Heather was; where would he go anyway. In the language of writing classes, Weiner is constantly “showing” us his characters’ deepest disturbances, but in the guise of “telling” us what’s happening externally or what characters are feeling in the most simplified terms. Shades of Ernest Hemingway, yes; but it’s the four-perspective, merry-go-round effect that not only reminds us, but creates an actual experience, of just how distant we are from each other when we are ostensibly very much “together.” These slides from perspective to perspective demand the reader to keep moving, to participate actively in both pivots and permeability. One can imagine an editor asking the author to go easier on the reader, provide signals or chapter breaks that allow for full stops and restarts. I like to imagine Weiner refusing absolutely. 4. The Matthew Weiner of Mad Men makes himself known in Heather via sharp and complex character insights. Weiner’s eye for fine, particular details transforms the Type that each character initially incarnates into a real human being. Mark Breakstone is an above average corporate banker, disappointing (insufficiently athletic) son of a high school football coach, lean bodied and chubby faced, with a dead sister (an anorexic who starved herself) haunting the edges of his existential solidity. His ambition is to make “at least enough [money] for a country place and one of those awards people got for being generous.” Mark wins over Karen—a good catch who “had no idea how beautiful she was”—on their first date by saying, earnestly, “People don’t get me sometimes.” In addition to beautiful, Karen is professionally capable: “Deeply behind the scenes, she booked travel and appearances for authors and editors and after once covering for her boss with a perfectly purchased apology of handmade chocolate and ash-striped cheese, she began to design themed gift baskets so specific and exquisite that many urged her to start her own business.” Karen has limited enthusiasm for her work however, and, Unlike her boss, she was incapable of shaking her suburban manners or showing sudden charm to strangers with her sunglasses on her head and thus upon realizing that Mark might insist she change her profession to wife and mother she was pleasantly excited. Karen likes that Mark makes big money. She also does like Mark. Weiner is careful, with both Mark and Karen, to hew the line of messy motives when it comes to love and money: we understand that they both have and have not built every aspect of their lives, and their marriage, on the assurance of wealth. As with all the characters in Mad Men, it is tempting but not-so-easy to either judge or dismiss them. Bobby—who in the second half of the novel joins the construction crew that renovates the Breakstones’ apartment building—comes from poverty, neglect, and addiction. Bobby’s character manifests a precarious if familiar cocktail of intelligence, inflated self-perception, and pent-up physical intensity. In the case of this outsider figure, Weiner presents the facts of his transgressive behaviors matter-of-factly, but also details Bobby in a way that destabilizes both the reader’s, and the other characters’, inclination to dehumanize him: “It was the first time Bobby was in jail and he kept to himself and even got some antibiotics for where the ashtray cut his head, which was already infected.” At a moment toward the end of the novel, when the reader has likely written Bobby off as villainous and unhinged, obsessed with possessing/vanquishing teenage Heather, we get: He could never go back to school but was good at saving money and he could get Heather a house, no a home. She was born rich, so her parents would never want to see her go without and so they would help them out, and happily, because Bobby would be working his hardest and everyone respected that. Weiner does risk failing to transcend Type with each character—Bobby’s down-and-out backstory, Karen’s Manhattan-mom vanities, Mark’s wounded masculinity, Heather’s millennial do-gooder perfection—and at times he falls a hair short. There are moments when the authorial voice limits characters to their prescribed corners of this squared universe. But what saves these moments from addling the novel as a whole is the way in which Weiner’s flattened structure and style begin to pay off thematically: if characters themselves feel intermittently flat, the depiction (I believe) is part of the larger intention, i.e. to expose our shared, primal tendencies to self-preserve, oversimplify, take the shortcut, project and misunderstand, possess others for our own needs and purposes. We recognize the essential democratizing force of the novel’s form when it comes to “the desire or the ambition to be better, to be honest, to find love, to kill one’s enemies, to not be alone.” 5. Tensions mount as Mark’s paternal-protector instincts morph perilously into energized irrationality; Bobby and Heather misread each other in perfectly, dangerously inverse fashion; Karen’s self-absorbed (arguably “feminist”) concerns about Mark shoot so far off the mark, she misses the signs that lead them all to climactic disaster. Our path to this climax exposes perhaps a bit of Weiner’s TV-writing impatience. We sense for example there is more to Mark’s inner makings and outward journey that would knock him so far and so fast from civilized man to all-instinct brute; and I craved this deeper, slower development. The nature and degree of disconnection between Mark and Karen too—as parents of such a beloved child, potentially in danger in these final pages—strains credibility. In its swiftness and manipulation of key moments of character intersection, the ending’s big events, their chilling finality, fall just shy (an itchy, so close kind of shy) of a satisfying inevitability. But the facts of the ending—each character’s fate—resonate resoundingly and along multiple vectors of complexity. In Heather we see clearly, disturbingly, how universally fluid and messy is human development and moral character, across social class and background. Weiner’s scalpel-like access to each character’s interiority reveals their civilized and uncivilized selves, trading and warring from moment to moment: here, Bobby both fantasizes and enacts violence, there he dreams reasonably of the placid, domestic future anyone deserves; similarly—too similarly—Mark and Karen each oscillate between reaching for some version of noble love on the one hand and indulging the persistent underside of possession and self-compensation on the other. Heather’s equalizing form speaks volumes toward its moral center—we are all essentially the same; our fates are not—thus the novel’s success lies in its deceptive orderliness. The story disturbs, sentence by sentence, with incisive intention. Based on Weiner’s existing fan-base, one can anticipate its likely audience, i.e. those who would seem to share more in common with the Breakstones than with Bobby. In this sense the novel transcends the status of a mere sleek, domestic thriller, and contributes meaningfully, unexpectedly, to resistance.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Cole Lavalais’s debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, had me from page one; more accurately, page two. “She sharpened Cecilia’s preferred poultry knife until the mildest touch to its edge yielded a perfectly formed line of blood across her fingertip. The bathtub sat half filled with water.” What follows is a scene both graphic and spare, alarming and lucid. There is something awfully familiar about this opening scene, and yet somehow I knew I was about to read something I’d never read before, enter a world and encounter a character I needed to understand better. “Vi wasn’t a Carver, couldn’t care less about the interworkings of her high school or the leagues of Ivy that would follow. The only thing Vi cared about was Cecilia ..." Cecilia is Vi’s mother. Vi and Cecilia are very close -- in some ways troublingly close -- and yet deep secrets and misunderstandings separate them. Now, miles will also separate them as Vi -- who survives the first pages both scarred and reborn -- leaves her home in Chicago for college at Florida’s A&M, an historically black university. Writes Danielle Evans: “Cole Lavalais brings Viola’s journey to us with her gift for language that is at once sharp and soothing, asking from the very first page that we not look away from what hurts, and that we not stop asking what might heal it.” It’s one thing to “ask” the reader to not look away, it’s another to captivate us -- intellectually, emotionally, even physically -- with said gifts. Lavalais’s rich, concise, confident writing mesmerizes; and Vi’s inner world of truthful confusion and yearning, as she seeks to understand her mother’s trauma and her own emotional and historical untetheredness, seizes us wholly with its intelligence and honesty. As Lavalais drops the reader into the world of A&M, our immersion in Vi’s perspective becomes our lifeline. The Millions: I was so immersed in your prose style -- the voice of the novel -- which I would describe as “propulsive” -- compressed and staccato, while also densely imagistic and at times lyrical. For example, right from the beginning: The air in Tallahassee didn’t move. In Chicago she’d fought to stay on her feet. Lake Michigan’s winds blew hardest through the South Side, pushing one way and then the other, rendering movement agentless. But in this new place, nothing pushed. . . In this new place she would either be self-propelled or static. Her limbs chopped through the thickness like a toddler on new legs. Can you talk about literary influences that may have shaped or inspired this narrative voice? Who have you been reading throughout your formal literary education, and before that? Cole Lavalais: The first piece of literature I can remember reading is James Weldon Johnson's The Creation. The memorization and recitation of the poem was an integral part of my mother's Southern education, so it became a part of mine. I'm not sure how old I was, but I had to memorize and recite it for my mother. The poem was in an anthology called Black Voices, which was chock full of poetry, short stories, and essays by all sorts of black writers, so it really was my first lesson in the depth of black literature, and I instantly fell in love with Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks’s love letters to the black community. One of my favorite fiction writers is Gloria Naylor. Her novel Mama Day changed the way I read. The way she rendered multiple points of view, magical realism, and setting as character was genius to me. I would return to it time and time again, and always, always, the narrative would extend a new and glorious gift to me as both reader and writer. So very early on in my writing journey, I did my best to emulate her, even though I didn't completely understand how and why she made the choices she did. At some point while I was working on my M.F.A. at Chicago State University, my mentor and teacher, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, encouraged me to work to separate my own voice from my influence. I was finally able to do that, years later, while working on Summer of the Cicadas. My voice really was honed out of frustration in my Ph.D. writing workshops. I didn't feel heard, so I stopped needing to be heard, and thus was able to discover my own voice. TM: Can you say a little more about the nature of that frustration with those writing workshops? CL: You may have heard of night blindness. It's an inability to see in darkness or at night. Those workshops were night blind. Anything featuring black people, they reacted as if they needed a seeing-eye dog or special guide to walk them through it. It was really frustrating and tiring. The things I needed them to focus on -- plot, point of view, setting -- you know, the elements of fiction -- came second to their need to know about the "type" of people I was writing about, or the "type" of place. They refused to let themselves enter the particular "fictive dream" I was creating because they were unfamiliar with the surroundings. TM: You founded the Chicago Writers Studio: what do they do differently/better than the workshops you’d participated in previously? CL: The Chicago Writers Studio is dedicated to helping a writer fulfill his or her intention, not the instructor's. My job as a writing teacher is to help writers tell the stories they want to tell, not to censor those stories. No experience is treated as foreign or anthropologized. That doesn't mean we don't challenge writers to move past stereotypes and cliché. Those types of shortcuts don't get you closer to your intention; they move you further away. What it means is that we don't question use of another language because it's not English, and we don't demand explanation for cultural references. I tell my workshops if you don't need mashed potatoes and gravy explained, then don't ask for an explanation of eloté. Google is your friend. Use it and keep reading the story. TM: A central thematic and existential idea in Summer of the Cicadas is legacy. Your protagonist -- an African-American college student named Vi who was raised by a single mother -- is propelled by the question, Where do I come from? Who are my people? This question has been explored in stories about African-Americans before, but often in a white-America context, i.e. the legacy of fractured lineage via forced migration and slavery. Tell us about the decision to explore the people/no-people divide within an African-American context, via the varied backgrounds of students at an historically black university. CL: It really grew out of my tendency to explore the mother/daughter trope. It took me a while to realize how much of my work circled this relationship and the idea of a daughter's obligation to her mother. And I guess I just took that idea and worked the metaphor for all it was worth. At the center of it, that is what privileging history is, this belief that we owe the past something. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, but in reality, the jury is still out that knowing actually stops anything. And as a fan of Freud, I'm also really interested in repressed memories, why we repress memories, and our society's insistence on uncovering everything. And the HBCU just becomes the perfect lab to experiment in. History is like a God in African-American Studies and the HBCU. What the African-American people were before our "erasure" by the Middle Passage and everything that came after sits at the center of educated blackness. TM: What did you, personally, discover in the process of exploring head-on this question of whether knowing your history changes anything/prevents repeated mistakes? CL: I discovered that it is all very complicated, and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, and it depends on the particular situation and particular person. I do believe that there is a reason that memories fade and stories are lost. It's difficult to move forward if we carry every pain and microaggression forward with us, and for black people in America that pain is massive. Sometimes forgetting is the greatest act of self-care, but forgetting can also be the greatest act of self-destruction. So it's all very complicated. TM: Without giving too much away (and hopefully to create some intrigue and suspense for readers)...Vi’s search for a resolved, more whole sense of self via her history does not yield what she thought or hoped. And at the end, the reader learns something that Vi never does -- a sort of “key” to her search’s misguidedness. Tell us about your decision to reveal historical reality to the reader, but not to the character. CL: I struggled with adding the historical information. Part of me felt as if the audience should be left in the same position as Vi and feel the same sense of fragmented knowledge, but I also know the novel is a very specific art form, and it seemed "coy" to deny the audience that small bit of information, especially in my debut novel. TM: A related question -- you do not at all “explain” the culture of an HBCU school, and the non-black reader has the sense of being a sort of voyeur and an outsider. An example is the slave auction event: this seems to be a tradition at the college, with a deep and complex history, to which the non-black reader is not privy; and so it feels both intriguing and unsettling to witness it. How much, if at all, did you think about audience as you wrote? CL: It's funny that you chose that scene, because I believe auctioning off eligible bachelors is something I've seen dozens of times on white television shows, but when the bachelors are black, it changes everything. Everything. And I had fun exploring the intersectionality of what most would see as a harmless and fun charity auction if the bachelor were white. In terms of audience, there is no universal black audience, so I just tried to leave enough room for anyone to climb into the experience and get next to Vi, if they are willing; but I refused to Other Vi or any of the other characters. I wanted to make sure the audience would have to do the work to get to know her, not the other way around. TM: Can you say a little more, then, about audience-consciousness while writing? In recognizing there is no “universal black audience,” pre-empting what you call “Othering” a character, and being aware of the work the reader must be willing to do, there does seem to be some idea(s) of potential audience at work for you. What does it mean to write for “everyone?” And have you received any interesting/surprising feedback from readers? CL: In terms of audience consciousness, I guess I can go back to my graduate workshop experience. It made me resolute and steadfast in my vision. I was conscious of audience in the sense that I ignored them. I wrote from the position of an insider to an insider, but I think that's what most white writers do, and it's never questioned. Does Hawthorne explain? Does Twain explain? Does Poe explain? Nope, but that's the invisibility of whiteness. For me blackness is invisible. I don't see stereotypes. I see people. I present a world, an experience. It's up to the audience, be they black, white, or brown to allow themselves to enter or not. TM: In the acknowledgments, you refer to “Vi’s story in many of its incarnations.” Can you share with us what some of those incarnations were? What were your greatest challenges in telling Vi’s story? And related to that, how long did Summer of the Cicadas take you to write? CL: Because I was working, had a family, and was in graduate school, there were long periods of time when I didn't get a chance to work on Summer. I finished the first draft in about a year, then I went to graduate school, and realized it needed some work, so I finished another draft or two while working on my Masters. Then I finished another draft while working on my doctorate, so from first to final draft it was probably 10 years. Because I was forced by life to take so many long breaks between drafts, each time I returned to the novel, I had grown as a writer, and it was almost like beginning again each time. TM: Are you working on another novel? Is the process similar, or are you able to work more consistently this time around? If the latter, is that a better way of working in terms of character development and revision? CL: I prefer consistency because I'm always growing and changing as a writer, and for a novel I believe a consistency of vision is important. I am currently working on a novel and two short story collections. It's much better for me to completely immerse myself in the world I'm revealing. Right now, I'm prewriting. I'm thinking about structure and plot and backstory. I'll be taking a couple months off this winter to start writing the first draft of the novel. TM: I would guess you work with a lot of young writers. Do you have any thoughts about what it meant for you to debut after the age of 40, versus what it might have looked like to launch a book-length work into the world, say, 10 years earlier? CL: I actually have more over-40 writing students than under-40. Actually most of my students are over 50, and it doesn't surprise me at all. I never really thought of my age as a defining factor in my writing, and I hope others don't either. I wrote a book when I was ready and published it when it was ready. My age was not a factor. I have an aunt who just self-published her first book, and she is a woman of a certain age. I'm not sure who decided 30 to 40 was the prime time to write or publish your first book, but it's all bullshit. TM: There are so many battles to fight right now since Trump took office. Or, perhaps there aren’t any more than there were previously, it’s just that now they’re more visible and polarized? Do you feel any more, or less, devoted to novel-writing given the time, focus, and energy they require to write? CL: I'm a big believer in the old adage "If you stay ready, you don't have to get ready." Constant access to news and social media makes us reactive to each new battle and distracts from the war. There is nothing happening that hasn't been happening for centuries. Find your lane and figure out how to integrate your talents and access every day. Don't be distracted. I'm focused on writing and teaching. It's what I have to give. It's what I'm best at. With every word I write and every would-be writer that I'm able to encourage or strengthen, I'm changing the world.
1. I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously. This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said: My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me...is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating...a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity. Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage. 2. Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range -- subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests -- over a long career. The earlier novels -- The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star -- form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga: I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly...even if The Exquisite wouldn't, I imagine, be caught dead with it. The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One -- inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south -- a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female -- a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts -- by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry -- of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel. What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret: He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road. Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing -- and too familiar -- in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions. Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge -- whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included -- criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology -- “cornflower” -- for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice -- acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people -- has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts. Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background -- stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life -- amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels. Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed. The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested -- as have you -- that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc? Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America. At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published. TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you -- professionally, creatively -- if anything? LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit. TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization -- are we doing better? Worse? Both? LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually -- with care and determination -- we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction. Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.” TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring? LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels. TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear. LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear. Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear. TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular -- not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns? LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right. In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same. All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at. TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one? LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation. I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it. TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors -- trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from -- is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy. LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good? Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions. TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?” LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did. I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was "Modern Family," and the moderator posed the question: "What literature influenced you as a young person?" My fellow panelists -- the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam -- named beloved, important books and authors. My answer -- which I think came as a surprise to most -- was that I hardly read as a child and youth. My parents are immigrants -- English is not their first language -- and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over -- something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos. The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college -- relatively late for someone who now writes and reads "professionally." Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience -- I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe -- and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn't put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I'd call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about "mystical susceptibility," the experience of books and language as "irrational doorways... through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them." I'm so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment -- because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I've picked up since then. It's true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago -- the project of frantically "catching up" with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill -- in James's words, "states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect... illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain" -- when reading. In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time -- "catchup" reading I'll call it still -- captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a "too late" (in fact, there may be a "too early") when it comes to the reading life. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley ... He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there . . . He had style, but his audiences didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement." I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author's concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn't take to it as much as Hammett. I've just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler's recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I'd read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I'd identify with Jo -- if you're reading the book at all, you're Jo! -- but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female -- a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender. Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it's all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here -- four score and a decade later -- still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel's themes -- social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness -- have room to come forward. King Lear, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn't actually sure if I'd read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I'd "read" it, I definitely hadn't read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare's dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter's Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn't ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays -- Henry IV is currently on deck. Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin's stunning feats of compassion -- for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: "Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking...finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world --" (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni's Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment -- Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness -- inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I'm still asking them. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be "selfish," which is to say centered around one's creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin's/Edna's attraction to heterogeneous culture -- cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility -- is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call "gentrification": affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin's descriptions of Edna's nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: "There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested...Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life - that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions." Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience -- those moments when the inward life questions -- that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration -- collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read -- whole-soul read -- being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier's. Image credit: Wikipedia
In August of this year, my president, Barack Hussein Obama, wrote: We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear. We need to keep changing the attitude that punishes women for their sexuality and rewards men for theirs. We need to keep changing the attitude that permits the routine harassment of women, whether they’re walking down the street or daring to go online. We need to keep changing the attitude that teaches men to feel threatened by the presence and success of women...And yes, it’s important that [Sasha and Malia’s] dad is a feminist, because now that’s what they expect of all men. (Glamour, August 4, 2016) Sigh. This year my Year in Reading selections are themed: fathers and daughters. The topic is close to home: the father-daughter relationships in both my novels -- Long for This World and The Loved Ones -- are central. Not all the following fictional father-daughter bonds are as beautiful or evolved as the first family’s, but they are all complex and memorable. These fathers and daughters are flawed, some painfully so, yet there is an honesty and a messy striving in these depictions that I find compelling. The 1955 novella Bonjour Tristesse -- a delicious, devastating anti-coming-of-age tale written by Françoise Sagan when she was 17 years old -- tops my list. Cécile (also 17), her father, and his mistress du jour take a villa on the Mediterranean for the summer. In her own words, Cécile’s father Raymond, a 40 year-old widower, is a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and very attractive to women. It was easy for me to love him for he was kind, generous, gay and fond of me. Father and daughter are similarly flawed -- self-centered, hedonistic, driven too much and too often by a need for “physical charms” at the expense of intelligence or moral depth. Thus Cécile “cannot imagine a better or more amusing companion.” American readers in particular -- now as then -- will judge Raymond harshly, as indulgent and inappropriate and oblivious to fatherly responsibility. For these very reasons, I confess I find Raymond, Cécile’s relationship with him, and the narrative perspective on both (Cécile’s retrospective but not fully illuminated first-person point-of-view) not just refreshing, but persuasive. In an era of helicopter parenting and an oppressive parenting industry, the absence of all that striving by this duo to be anything but themselves means an implicit bond/trust between them that one can’t help but give its due: it’s them against the world. Both do behave badly, and others suffer seriously as a result. The brilliance of the novel, I think, is its power to reflect back to the reader how much you care about the damage the pair causes versus the assertion of their essential selves. Diane Johnson, in her introduction, implies that the reader unequivocally does, is meant to, read through the narrator -- assess her failures from a wiser, morally superior vantage point -- and internalize a cautionary tale of weakness of soul. I’m not so sure, myself; ambiguity teems in the subtext, and as far as I’m concerned, herein lies the elegant technical achievement of a prodigy’s debut -- the first of Sagan’s 30 novels to come. Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel, Home Field, shows us just how tragic the unbridgeable gap between a father and daughter can be, when connection is desperately needed and the disconnect no one’s fault. Under the best of circumstances, Dean and his teenage daughter, Stephanie, would fail to connect: he is the high school football coach, a hero in a small town and wholly absorbed in his devotion to his players, while Stephanie doesn’t much care for the sport at all. When Dean’s wife/Stephanie’s mother, Nicole, commits suicide, all bets are off as each family member is sent reeling into remote grief. Stephanie goes off to her freshman year in college, which lets Dean off the hook, sort of. In the short-term he reaches for another woman, as well as a kind of unconscious replacement for Stephanie in his niece. Then, when Stephanie suffers a bad acid trip while at school, and he isn’t home to receive the emergency call from Stephanie’s roommate, Dean’s uselessness comes into stark relief. Gersen doesn’t tidy any of this up easily. Her novel has been compared to the TV series Friday Night Lights, but whereas the show -- of which I am a huge fan -- leans YA in its goodness-prevails outlook, Home Field allows characters to scatter and come together more quietly: the violent loss hits each family member uniquely, and in the end it’s mere proximity and watchfulness that they can offer one another: “Dean got a glimpse of what [Stephanie] would look like when she was older, and for the first time he could picture her in the world, the adult world.” In Rion Amilcar Scott’s “202 Checkmates,” my favorite story from his powerful debut collection, Insurrections, a 12 year-old girl and her downtrodden father find absorption and shared passion in the game of chess: “We both hunched over the board. There was no world outside the both of us, outside of this game.” The layering of a coming-of-age, working-class, black family struggle, and the complicated, aching need children have to both admire and conquer their parents is beautifully done here. The mother character is somehow both backgrounded and heartbreakingly blaring as she whisper-harangues her husband for encouraging their daughter toward chess instead of schoolwork, and for spending money on a marble chess set when he is chronically underemployed. Father and daughter reach together toward something beyond mere survival -- toward mental vitality and mastery and delight. The tension that builds toward the story’s end anticipates the reader’s conflicting investments perfectly, and the resolution satisfies just as well. One stunning father-daughter portrayal this year came not through a book but across my screen, via French maîtresse-filmmaker Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum. Here -- as in her wonderful earlier film U.S. Go Home, which focuses on a brother-sister relationship -- Denis explores her interest in the romantic shades of familial love. Lionel -- a widowed métro train driver and West African migrant -- and his daughter, Josephine -- a university student in anthropology whose mother was German -- might be seen as a working-class version of Sagan’s Raymond and Céline: they have a special intimacy, it’s them against the world, and they’re each fearful of imagining life without the other. Unlike their privileged, indulgent counterparts, however, Lionel and Josephine see that they must try harder to connect with humanity, and their own hearts' desires, beyond the safety of their love. Denis -- a master of complex emotional layers in the guise of simple stories -- seems to laud that effort while simultaneously rendering its emotional cost and the uncertainty of its result. Re: Daniel Paisner’s A Single Happened Thing, published this past spring, I’d like first to set the record straight: despite its cover art and the characters’ extreme passion for the sport, it is not “a baseball novel.” Not solely or primarily, anyway. (Paisner and I share a publisher, which is how I came to read the book, and I’m thankful, since, given its basebally veneer, it may otherwise have passed me by.) Rather A Single Happened Thing is a poignant and whimsical story about a man, David Felb, stalled at middle age, who anxiously doubts then gives himself over to the possibility of a fantastical visitation upon his unremarkable life. The central question Paisner asks via Felb’s story is, What happens when you are carried into a nether realm of anything-goes, and your loved ones are not willing to come along with you? In David Felb’s case, it is his wife, Nellie, who becomes wary of him; but his daughter, 15 year-old Iona, hitches her heart to her father’s leap of faith. Paisner’s novel walks the sad, beautiful line that children walk when they love both parents and know that “sides” are forming; it also allows us to feel for Nellie all that Felb himself feels -- love, longing, disappointment. Iona’s evolving originality and girl-power intelligence leap off the page, reminding us that parents often pour the best of their own remarkableness into their children; and that ain’t nothin. Plus, if the same happens also to apply to Sasha and Malia Obama vis-à-vis their parents’ best, then look out, world: we absolutely do have hope for the future. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Take one or two steps into the world of literary marketing and commerce, and you will likely encounter the name Caitlin Hamilton Summie. In particular, if you are a champion of independent publishing and bookselling, the degrees of separation to Summie will be few. For literary writers coming out with a debut, or perhaps seeking to improve their second or third book’s visibility, the search for an independent publicist will likely begin with personal recommendations; and it’s via that word-of-mouth chain that Summie -- a lover of books but also, clearly, of the human side of literary creation and marketing -- rises to the top of the referral list. It’s commonplace these days for authors to participate actively in publicity efforts, and, while doing so, to comment on the fact that publicity requires an extremely different temperament and skill set from writing. And so it’s not often that publicists double as authors. Here, too, Summie, age 47, is exceptional: next spring, her debut collection of stories, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, will be published by Fomite Press. Bloom: You’re a books and lit person through and through, that much is clear. When and how did it start? Did you grow up in a bookish family? Caitlin Hamilton Summie: I grew up in a household filled with books, and both my parents are avid readers. I remember falling in love with writing before I fell in love with reading, oddly enough. I started writing as a preschooler. I wrote stories and gave them to my mother to read, but since I couldn’t write yet and had only scribbles, she quite smartly asked me to read my stories to her instead. I have always appreciated the respect she gave me, even then. I can’t remember when books became as important to me -- lifeblood -- but I believe I was an adult. Bloom: You’ve worked as a bookseller, a marketing and publicity director for a corporate publisher, a marketing, publicity, and sales director for an independent publisher, and as an independent publicist for both individual authors and small presses. We who love books but have never worked inside the business don’t realize how complex is the web of book publishing and selling. But we authors do hear stories of how dysfunctional the publishing world can be. I wonder if, as someone who loves books as much as you do, knowing so much of the inside baseball -- the “sausage-making” as they say -- is ever discouraging or demoralizing? CHS: Yes, it can be discouraging. There are several things about the industry that can wear one down, especially for those of us deeply involved in the small press world -- the fight for review space being one. There is the continual vast difference in resources in general -- financial, staff -- that make small press life more of a challenge. But I am interested in what books and publishing can become. I am quite energized by the revolution in books, the different ways people can now publish -- POD [print on demand], hybrid, traditional, large press, small press, self. There used to be only one real way to share stories, but now we have stories being published in a variety of ways, and I think we as an industry will benefit, that it will spur continued innovation. Every discouraging moment comes with a moment of success or joy -- a great and important review, the discovery of a new talent, that perfect pitch to a niche outlet -- and so we here in this firm get up and turn the lights on to make certain those voices are heard. Bloom: Of all the jobs above, which would you say is/was the most challenging, and why? CHS: I think that publicity is the hardest right now. Things are changing quickly, as we go mobile and more communities and publications proliferate online, and more books hit the marketplace. But those very challenges keep it exciting, too. One has to keep learning, and I believe that is a great thing in a job. Bloom: Most of your work has been in the indie world. Has that been a deliberate choice, or just how it turned out? CHS: I began in the big house world, in editorial at Vintage. But I am not a New Yorker, and so my focus changed the day I started counting the trees in my neighborhood. I thought I was leaving books for good when I left New York, but of course I didn’t. I worked at an indie bookstore, then slowly found my way back to publishing by joining MacMurray & Beck. At the indie bookstore I handled events and also maintained the biography section. Sadly, I could never decide how I wanted the section to look: should I alphabetize by author or subject? On the floor, I hand sold the same two novels over and over (Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons and Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi) so I learned the power of handselling, the importance of independent bookstores, and what they mean to a community. I remember that when we closed, I was somehow tasked with the job of announcing the discounts over the PA system. I felt such resentment as people swept through the doors, people I had never seen before. My dad came in looking guilty, and I told him to buy away. He was a genuine, regular customer, and he of all people should get a discount. At MacMurray & Beck, I was the marketing director, but I was also the publicity director, and for two years roughly I managed all sales nationwide, from Barnes & Noble to mom-and-pop stores. My college major was in Middle Eastern history, so basically I learned everything about marketing on my feet. As my career progressed, I developed a growing love of small presses, and so yes, it became a conscious effort on my part to remain involved in the small press community. Bloom: What made you decide to open up your own book marketing and publicity firm in 2003? CHS: Ah! I was laid off from Penguin Putnam and looking for jobs. But quite quickly, the phone began ringing. First, a small press publisher needed publicity help for a really literary novel. I had done publicity, marketing, sales, and bookselling so I felt ready to assist in a variety of capacities, which is what I did whenever someone called: I determined where they needed me on their team (and still do.) I really enjoyed my freelance work, and about the third time the phone rang, it hit me: I have started a business. Bloom: What advice would you offer to authors who are considering hiring an independent publicist? What have you learned about how/whether a book “breaks through” to get press attention and sales? CHS: I advise any author who wants to hire a publicist to treat this as a business. Develop a set of expectations and a budget prior to speaking with publicists, and make certain they fit your needs and plans. I believe publicity is all about fits, so an author should interview people, review their websites, speak with them to make certain working with them on a day-to-day basis is possible, get references. Ask questions. Sometimes breaking out an author is actually a ten-year process, a slow build from book to book. Sometimes it comes in a lightening-flash of bookseller and media love. I have seen it happen both ways. What I have learned is that for the books I represent, there is no set formula. There are definitely things that we know will be helpful -- starred trade reviews, other reviews in publications that really fit the book’s audience, a striking cover, handselling -- but I believe in remaining creative because you can develop all those things for an author and still not break out. Bloom: I confess that for a long time, when you and I were corresponding about Bloom, and book biz, and other subjects, I assumed you lived in New York City. Talk about that common misperception -- that all literary work and life happens in New York -- and the ways in which it’s wrong, misguided, possibly even damaging to literary life? CHS: You are not alone! When people find out I live in Tennessee, there is usually an awkward pause. People forget too easily the importance of the South to American literature, and even more so forget the importance of Tennessee itself to American letters. We have Parnassus Bookstore, and Burke’s, and Union Avenue Books. Vanderbilt and UT both have MFA programs. Also, we host The Southern Festival of Books and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. And so many writers are here! Pamela Schoenwaldt, Joy Harjo, Marilyn Kallet, Michael Knight, Amy Greene. Alex Haley was originally from Nashville, Charles Wright was from Pickwick Dam, James Agee was born in Knoxville as was Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy set his first four novels in East Tennessee. William Gay lived in Tennessee as well. Poets Laureate Allen Tate and James Dickey went to Vanderbilt, and Robert Penn Warren, also a Poet Laureate, taught there. The fact is that for the majority of my career in books (all but one year), I have not been in New York. There is a vibrant, different literary world outside New York—and some incredible work being done—and I think the presumption that the best of literature is in New York or that New York is the center of literary life is in fact damaging. MacMurray & Beck published the first novels of Steve Yarbourgh, William Gay, Patricia Henley, and Susan Vreeland, among others, out of small offices in central Denver. Free Spirit Publishing, with whom I was an intern the summer after I graduated from high school, is in Minneapolis. When I interned there, they were publishing books for gifted and talented kids that address real life issues, something they began back in the 1980s to fill a gap. They’ve continued to innovate. She Writes Press in Berkeley is succeeding with a new publishing model. Don’t get me wrong. New York is important, of course. But as book lovers and readers we are more than what one city discovers. Bloom: What would you say have been some of the most significant changes and trends in bookselling, marketing, and publicity over the last 20 years? 10 years? What do you think might be the Next Big Change? CHS: I have seen tons of changes: the shrinking of book review pages, the development of paid reviews, the rise of the Internet and Internet media, the development of the citizen (consumer) reviewer, and the creation of online engagement through social media. I’ve begun to think the next change will be in delivery -- in the methodology itself as well as in how current delivery options are perceived. I am so intrigued by the book vending machines abroad. I imagine soon we will be delivering books in great, fun new ways here, too. I think POD ought to be more acceptable than it is in some quarters. It is a smart choice for smaller houses. Bloom: A Next Big Change for you is that you are about to become a published author of a collection of short stories. A lot of folks who work in publishing -- as editors, publicists, booksellers, etc. -- have creative projects going on the backburners, in hopes that their time will come. And it has for you, after many years of working steadily and quietly on your fiction. Tell us about those years, that journey, and what this moment means for you. CHS: I earned my MFA from Colorado State in 1995 and had had a few stories published in 1995 and 1996. Since then, I have continued to write. I even sent a few pieces out, though none were accepted. Like many, work and motherhood were happy distractions for many years (and still are.) The recent acceptance of my short story, “Sons,” at Mud Season Review, was a sweet moment. I wrote that story in 1992. I have always loved it, and for someone else to find merit in it was really exciting. For as long as I have been writing, the book acceptance happened very quickly. As tickled as I was to get the news, I was also stunned. A few days later, when my family met to celebrate, I was more joyous than the night I had read the acceptance email. It is tremendously exciting! Bloom: What do you think lit the fire under you to begin pursuing publication more seriously recently? CHS: I had been working on a middle-grade novel and needed a change, so I decided to revisit my stories. I had sent a couple out, including “Sons.” When it was accepted, I thought, “Why not go for it?” I sent more stories out and then decided to go for it wholeheartedly and sent the collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, off to Fomite. Bloom: What can you tell us about the stories in your forthcoming collection? CHS: The stories are about family -- often about loss and about accepting each other as we are, sometimes about accepting ourselves as we are. Many of the stories are set in Minnesota and involve snow. I grew up in Minnesota and Massachusetts -- snow everywhere during the winter. That may sound like a trivial detail, but snow, and weather in general, are important to my writing. The collection begins with the story of a kid, follows people as they age, and ends with the story of an old man. But what links them isn’t as much age or aging as it is the themes of family, loss, and hope. Bloom: How will it feel to put the marketing, sales, and publicity of your book in the hands of someone else? How do you see yourself being involved? CHS: Fomite is a press with a small team and asks authors to do a lot of the marketing, so I will be working on my own book, with the assistance of my husband, who is also a book publicist. We chose the cover image with the publisher shortly after the book was accepted and just chose the book title and that has been a great process. We made team decisions, which I like. I have no problem letting others in on the marketing. In my experience, teams are best. Even when a team disagrees, we all refine our thinking and get better. Also, I may be too close to these stories and so having the Fomite team share their perspectives is essential. Bloom: Are you working on new fiction now? CHS: Yes! I am taking the middle-grade novel through a last rewrite and then revising a couple of children’s picture books. I still have a few short stories to reconsider. Also, because some of the stories link, I want to revisit a manuscript that is a novel-in-stories—a few pieces for that book are from the collection and then there are a bunch of others to add. Bloom: You have so much experience with book release triumphs and disappointments; and you’ve already said that a book’s reception is unpredictable. What will you consider a “success” for the roll-out of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts? CHS: Reviews. Good reviews will mean the book is a success to me. Sales would be sweet, but short story collections are always a tough sell. The critical reception matters most in building my brand as a writer.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers: What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade? We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds. The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened -- beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” -- that rape was the price one has to pay for staying on...they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves. Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid...about what human beings do to other human beings” -- such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” -- yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote: Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it...A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel...I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion...The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life. For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility. Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre: For the South African novelist...how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing? Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: "[C]ontemporary political novels -- the ones that sell, at least -- are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through...is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.” Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist -- David Lurie is -- her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal -- are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Lydia Kiesling In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver's copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence. That's a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men -- which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop -- and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much. Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described -- the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck -- all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.” But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn't be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life's Work, although again it's not fiction. But I don't suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant -- finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now. Edan Lepucki I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn't participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again...on and on, and I haven't even gotten into international issues! I don't want politics to be a source of entertainment -- there is too much at stake for that -- and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don't misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let's keep them separate. But maybe that isn't possible. Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel's novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it's whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn't feel overtly political; it's concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn't shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth -- with black slaves, for starters. The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family's history: for instance, one mother's goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can't have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming. That's...political. Michael Schaub Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the "finest form of free entertainment ever invented." It's a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain't makin' carpenters who know what nails are for." And this year, crazy has gone national, though it's New York, not Texas, to blame. That's why I've been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer's wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur "Goddamn" Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There's a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it's the perfect Austin novel. The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something's gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there's not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it's happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump). The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it's a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y'all. Or at least we meant to. Janet Potter One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics -- with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall. Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head. I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about. At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk. Cara DuBois Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale -- once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable. As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world -- to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman -- feels like a slow death. Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice -- the most important political weapon there is. Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
In my last semester of graduate school, I sat in my advisor’s office discussing with him my struggle with plot. I didn’t much care about it, and it felt unnatural to graft it onto my stories. He said that my strength was “an ear for language,” which was something I’d heard before. Toward the end of the meeting, he declared, a bit too casually, “You know, maybe you’re actually a poet.” My heart sank. Too little too late, I thought. I was 25 and had never written a poem in my life. To this day, I confess the idea haunts me a little. But prose writers don’t up and become poets. It just doesn’t happen. Or does it? It certainly happens the other way around, and that’s always fascinated me. Whenever I teach Denis Johnson’s work, for example, I often save “the big reveal” for the end of the discussion: “Johnson started out as a poet. Can’t you tell?” The students nod and consider; some of them light up. There is a sense in which I am making a subtle argument -- that “literary fiction” as a genre is in fact the fiction of poets: language-rich, language-precise, language-driven. Secretly, I want to fake like I actually was a poet before I started writing fiction; because that’s how you develop the full range of skill and originality. Enter April Bernard, Idra Novey, and Jennifer Tseng -- three talented poet novelists (among many more, I should say) who kindly took the time to answer some questions about moving between the genres, blurring the genres themselves, authorly identity, and their most recent works. The Millions: Origin stories may or may not be revelatory here, but nonetheless: tell us how you started out as both a writer and reader. Were you most drawn to poetry, or prose, or both, or neither? Jennifer Tseng: I began my writing life as a poet. Growing up in a bilingual household -- one in which the relationship between sound and meaning was constantly being contested -- plus years of classical music training, primed me for this. As a reader, I’ve always drawn equal (if different sorts of) pleasure from poetry and prose. Idra Novey: I was equally drawn to poetry and prose as well, and to playwriting. I’d write scripts and perform them in the backyard with my stepbrother and kids from the neighborhood. I remember sitting in the grass scratching out lines that didn’t ring true once I heard them out loud. Even in fourth grade, I was a compulsive reviser. April Bernard: I liked all words, but I loved poetry. My mother read to us -- there were four children, I was the third -- all the time. Recently I found something I wrote in very big printing on lined paper, about the sound of the ocean snoring in its sleep; my first prose poem, when I was six. I always experienced poetry as something that needed to be heard as well as seen, that was in a way "public." Fictional prose, especially by the time I was reading novels you can get lost in, like Jane Eyre, was a much more private affair. I never planned to write fiction; my one or two early efforts embarrassed me. But I never minded my own voice in my poems, even when I knew they were simple. The Millions: Writers who start out writing poetry more often step over/switch into fiction writing than the other way around. I’m wondering how much you think this has to do with the nature and process of writing poetry itself, and/or how much this has to do with something else -- and what that would be? JT: As a writer’s experience deepens, it can become increasingly difficult to articulate meaning within the confines of a short form. Our greatest poets do this. Writers whose poetic impulses drive their prose (e.g. Borges, Anne Carson, Fanny Howe, Michael Ondaatje, Maggie Nelson) and writers whose story-telling instincts propel their poems (e.g. Ai, Claudia Rankine, Lois-Ann Yamanaka) further complicate the task of making distinctions. Indeed, another reader could reframe or reverse or refute these categories entirely. IN: Yes to refuting categories entirely! Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, so many of the most groundbreaking writers in the U.S. right now have eschewed traditional notions of genre. Most MFA programs in the U.S. require students to apply in one genre and stick to it, which I found incredibly inhibiting. Before getting boxed into the genre of poetry as an MFA student, I wrote mostly prose poetry. I also played around with languages, writing a draft in Spanish and the next in English while I was teaching in Chile after college and later in Brazil. It took me two poetry collections and four translations to get back to that kind of experimentation in Ways to Disappear. AB: While I would never legislate the distinction for others, I find that fiction and poetry do function very differently for me as a writer and come from utterly different impulses. The novels and short stories I have written are very much fictions, very much made up, and the difficult pleasures I had in writing them comes mostly from the thrill of making up whole worlds. In poetry, I am trying to describe the given world -- however round-aboutly, however mischievously. The Millions: Idra and Jennifer, your official biographies might suggest a linear movement from writing poetry (to significant acclaim) to writing fiction, chronologically speaking. April, you’ve written and published two novels and five poetry collections, and one of those novels was your second book. Can you each give us the “real,” less simplified version of your movement between writing poetry and writing fiction? (“Movement between” may even be oversimplified.) JT: I’ve been writing poetry and fiction since I was in my 20s. Because I’ve spent many years working on the same novel (still in progress) and I rarely write short stories, I’ve published very little fiction. Before my first published novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, which I wrote to escape this other novel, I was “known” as a poet. IN: The murky area between genres has always been the place where I feel most at home. As for how others viewed me as a writer, I suppose I was “known” mostly as a translator before my novel Ways to Disappear came out, or maybe as a poet-translator, and now as a poet-novelist-translator-essayist, occasionally. But regardless of which genre I have in mind, my attention is foremost on the sentences, how to inhabit them more deeply and risk something new in an image or a question that I hadn’t written toward in any sentence before it. AB: The "real" story is that I never know what I am going to work on next, but that poetry is always cooking on the back burner and sometimes on the front burner as well. I wrote my first novel, Pirate Jenny, on a dare to myself (I was about to turn 30 and it was sort of a now-or-never moment) and then -- while muddling along with poetry, working at magazines, then learning how to become a teacher and then also a mother -- I wrote three more books of poetry that were published and at least two and a half novels that no one wanted to publish, probably because they were pretty bad. As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in Sleepless Nights, "Even bad artists suffer," and the bad fiction writer in me suffered a great deal over those 15 years. Then my second novel, Miss Fuller, possessed me entirely for seven years, until it was published in 2012. Once that was written and I knew it was okay, I started writing my first short stories and have published two -- I want to write many more eventually. I love the short story form and feel more like myself in that form than in the longer novel form. A very long answer to a complicated question -- but I need to add that I now do typically write poetry and fiction "at the same time," meaning, during the same month. Not on the same day. The Millions: I’m curious about the question of writerly identity: does it matter to you whether you are considered primarily a poet, or a novelist (or an essayist, or screenwriter, or critic, or teacher, or translator)? Maybe the more relevant question is how you think about crafting your list of writerly identities in various contexts: privately, in your head, versus on a website or in a bio that is out there for a specific purpose? JT: Privately, it matters little to me whether I’m considered a poet or a novelist. In the public sphere, one’s “identity” impacts one’s readership. The American mainstream, accustomed to reading prose, tends to view poetry as esoteric. Quite often, native English speakers in America perceive English-language poetry as foreign. IN: In my head, I identify with whatever unfinished writing I feel the greatest urgency to work on. It shifts monthly, sometimes daily. A bio generally reflects what a writer has already published and after a book comes out it has to be your public identity for a certain amount of time, even if, in your thoughts, you already belong to some other book-in-progress. It's not of great importance to me whether others view me as belonging primarily to one genre or another. What is important to me, however, is to have an identity within the international conversation happening between writers, readers, and translators all over the world, to take part in that larger global conversation and not only in the conversation happening in my own country. AB: I'm a poet -- one who also writes essays and is still (forever) learning to write fiction. I wear the poet badge defiantly. Greatest movie line ever, in The Big Short -- it's actually printed on the screen -- one businessman overheard saying to another: "Truth is like poetry. And everyone fucking hates poetry." The Millions: Does your primary literary community figure at all into this sense of identity? JT: In my imagined transnational, transhistorical, multilingual community of beloved writers, all sorts have influenced my sense of identity. Of writers whom I know and who inspire me, poets have exerted the heaviest influence. My longstanding friendships with poets have been forged through a love of poetry and the exchange of work. IN: I’ve stayed close to writers working in a number of genres and languages. For almost 20 years, I’ve been exchanging work and making dinner with the Chilean fiction writer Andrea Maturana. I’ve also shared all my writing since college with the poet Gerald Jonas, who reviewed science fiction for The New York Times Book Review for 25 years. My intense connection to them is driven more by the exciting conversations we have about each other’s work more than what we have in common in terms of genre or audience. AB: I have several good friends, living writers, who see my work in draft and help me keep going. My other friends -- and they are every bit as real to me -- are dead, and they are the great poets I am reading and conversing with all the time. I always say to my students, "The dead want to hear from you." Send a poem on to G.M. Hopkins; Shakespeare needs something new to read today; have you written to Emily Dickinson or Bashō lately? My true writing community centers on my twice-yearly teaching in Bennington's low-residency MFA. I've been doing it a long time; my colleagues in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in that program are dear to me, and their many successes fill me with familial pride. The Millions: And now, a question for each of you individually. April, early praise of your recently published poetry collection Brawl & Jag invokes comparatives and superlatives -- "the most powerful, intimate, lucid, and indelible she’s ever written” (Wayne Koestenbaum), and "as if the poet set fire to all her earlier work and wrote these new ones in the light of those flames” (Mark Wunderlich). Blurbs are blurbs, but tell us about Brawl & Jag in the context of your body of work and/or your life. Is this a “letting loose” collection? The title would suggest so (along with the opening poems “Anger” and “Blood Argument" and an unflinching poem about merciless parents and a cat murder). AB: We do not always know what we have "done" when writing -- though since my two readers/blurbers, Wayne and Mark, note a new direction in this book I am happy to agree with them. I feel much freer in my life -- bolder, less apologetic in disagreeing with so very much in our culture and in my own history. My working title for this collection was "Arguments and Elegies" -- then, as the book was finishing, I switched out the Latinate for the Old English. But something I assert in the final poem is important to me as well -- that there is a "sluice of sweet delight" running through my work and my life that accompanies all the brawls and the jags. It is inexplicable; but I know I have experienced, do experience, a kind of grace. I love the world, hard love though that is. The Millions: Jennifer, the review that most lured me to Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness was the Kirkus, in which the novel is described as “at once voluptuous and spare.” Then, when you and I got in touch, I saw that your email address includes the words “ardor” and “austerity.” Can you talk about these twin forces -- in Mayumi, in your literary interests, in your way of life? JT: I’m so glad you asked about ardor and austerity -- two of my favorite “twin forces” (and also the twin stars of my book Red Flower, White Flower). The word pairing comes from Iyengar’s definition of the Sanskrit word tapas, which he defines as “ardor and austerity.” (Italics mine.) As a biracial reader/writer/human being who has spent a lifetime critiquing dualism, I gasped when I read that. It proposes that two things commonly known in English as opposing forces, are, in fact, kindred actions. While Iyengar applies ardor/austerity to the practice of yoga, we can apply it beautifully to the practice of writing, to the practice of any art. Often, even the most ardor-driven work is born of an austere practice. We sit down to write, we encounter emptiness, we wait, we sit down to write, we encounter emptiness, we wait, and so on. Over time, we make discoveries. Somewhere along the way, this practice, this sitting, this encountering, this waiting, this returning to make discoveries, becomes a pleasure. Instead of having to discipline ourselves to practice, we develop a longing to practice. It’s an ideal state for an artist to attain, one in which discipline and longing are one. The Millions: Idra, since we’re talking about genre here, tell us about the influence of mystery/noir on you as writer and reader. When did you know that this novel’s plot was going to be driven by a genre-esque disappearance? Are you a mystery novel reader, or a Hitchcock fan, or a Law and Order junkie? I’m also curious about your process of developing the novel’s wonderful collage form. IN: My dad is an Agatha Christie junkie. I watched endless Hercule Poirot mysteries on the BBC with him when I was growing up. After I left for college, I never watched those Agatha Christie shows again and I think something in me longed for the noir-y pleasure of them. I knew from the first draft of Ways to Disappear that I wanted to work in something about online poker and the ways that publishing writing and translations often feel like a crapshoot. As for the definitions and radio announcements and the novel's mashup of forms, if a section didn't push the world of the novel outward in some way, if it didn't surprise me as a writer, I deleted it and tried something wilder. I wanted the form of the book to be the continual subversion of form. The Millions: And lastly -- Jennifer, I understand you are currently working on another novel. April, your new poetry collection has just been published, and the book before this was a novel. Idra, you’re going to be teaching in an MFA program in the fall, and I’m wondering if you’ll be teaching fiction or poetry or both. So my question for all of you is whether poetry or fiction is “winning out” for your time/attention right now and going forth; and how you balance the two impulses/interests? Are any of you able to work in earnest on poems and fiction at the same time? JT: For the first time in my life, I’m writing poetry and fiction in tandem. This will sound insane, but the other morning I was literally working on a poem and on my novel, writing a line or two on one manuscript then switching to the other manuscript to write a line or two and so on. It scared me a little, but it was thrilling. IN: I also enjoy working on poetry and fiction in tandem. The other day I was editing a short story and then turned to a prose poem about a man who gives birth to a panda, which I’d already sent to an editor who accepted it. But as I worked on the story, something occurred to me about the man and his experience of gestating an endangered animal that I hadn’t thought of earlier. Like Jennifer, I find it thrilling to jump back and forth between various manuscripts and surprise myself with the ways one might lead to new meanings or questions in the other. AB: I guess I already answered this in another context. I do them both at once -- (but not on the same day! Jennifer, that does sound divinely mad!) -- and I have plans for new poems and for new stories going on right now. The Millions: And related to this -- the true final question -- while I’m framing this as if the two endeavors are in opposition, please do share the ways in which you think they nourish and instruct each other. JT: In its finitude, poetry revives the prose writer in me like a rest stop during a long journey. The sense of completion one feels after finishing a poem is especially gratifying for a novelist. The novel offers freedom, a break from intense scrutiny; one can roam its frontiers in a more anonymous way, as someone else. (Though poets too find ways to be anonymous.) A writer can learn a lot about her own motives and priorities by turning a poem into a paragraph or a paragraph into a poem, by turning an entire novel into a single poem and vice versa. IN: I’ve found the process of turning a poem into a paragraph or vice versa to be profoundly illuminating also. And the break from intense scrutiny that the novel offers hadn’t occurred to me, Jennifer, until I read your response, but I think that was probably one of the reasons I found it so pleasurable to work on Ways to Disappear. I worked on it for four years before showing it to anyone but a few close friends. I think that period of time writing without taking part in a workshop, without figuring out what genre it might be, or who might read it, was tremendously freeing. AB: Fiction frees the liar in me; poetry entraps the truth-teller. But fiction is a trudge and poetry is a dance. I need both. Image Credit: Pixabay.
1. Of the many high-drama events that occur throughout Alexander Chee’s second novel Queen of the Night, my favorites are identity theft via cancan shoes, murder by fire-breathing, a hot-air balloon escape, and a scandalous curtsy. Queen is a Big Book in every way: within its 550 pages, a lot happens, and it’s “about” a lot of things. Big Books are back, it seems, though I confess I’ve started and chosen not to finish several over the past few years. On the other hand, once I started reading Queen, I could not put it down. Paris, 1882. A decade into the Third Republic. Our heroine, the celebrated “Falcon” soprano Lilliet Berne -- née a Minnesota farm girl whose real name we never learn -- makes her entrance at a ball in Luxembourg Palace. Lilliet is also our narrator, and within the first pages she tells us she has had a “premonition” about this return to Paris after an extensive European tour: “I would be here for a meeting with my destiny.” Enter the writer Frédéric Simonet, who corners Lilliet and conveys a proposition: he has written a novel, the novel will be staged as an opera, and she must play the starring role. Unbeknownst to Simonet, the story he describes -- of a circus performer, later a courtesan, who sings for the Emperor and so moves him that he bestows upon her a ruby brooch -- is Lilliet’s own. She is duly spooked: how does this man know these details of her secret past? Who has prompted him to approach her with the role? What sort of trap is this? “In an opera this moment would the signal the story had begun, that the heroine’s past had come for her, intent on a review of her sins decreed by the gods.” And so launches our heroine’s recounting -- infused with this decidedly operatic sense of fateful retribution -- of her farm girl-to-diva tale. Interspersed with a flashback narrative, which takes place between 1867 and 1872 and features the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 as its central historical crisis, are present-time (a decade later) scenes in which Lilliet confronts characters from that past; for if someone is in cahoots with Simonet, perhaps with malicious intent, she must find out who, and why. 2. Writers and readers alike will recognize this narrative structure as both familiar and sound: the past and the present move forward simultaneously, criss-crossing at strategic moments, generating suspense upon suspense. Lilliet herself literally, anxiously, turns the pages of Simonet’s novel as she investigates its ulterior intentions, while the reader becomes absorbed in Lilliet’s tale -- her unlikely and at times outlandish journey from orphan to opera star, which she recounts in a voice somehow both taut and melodramatic at once: “I slunk from the bed and stood again in the cold. As I dressed myself in that dim kitchen light, I felt the opposite of ruined. I felt strong again, ready to cross the ocean again. “I was sore, that was all. And so this felt like a triumph over death, as if I had been dealt a murderous blow and lived.” The “murderous blow” -- her first sexual experience -- occurs shortly after her entire family dies from fever. She is alone and hungry; she takes up with a widower who shelters her. The transaction of sex becomes then inevitable, as does the pattern of Lilliet’s life henceforth -- bargaining for survival, over and again. Herein perhaps is a key to Chee’s success in crafting a captivating protagonist: our heroine is a celebrity in the Paris opera world, yes, but she never forgets her hardscrabble Methodist roots. Her love of opera -- its outsized gestures, symbols, and emotions -- is real, while at the same time she has no delusions about life’s essential requirements. When later in the novel, during the Siege of Paris, Lilliet must survive weeks of hunger, we have no trouble believing that she could in fact do so -- no matter what gowns and jewels she now dons. And we love this sort of protagonist, don’t we? In Lilliet, Chee has done that thing that all historical novelists must do well: draw the modern reader into a past world via the glamor of that past (we enjoy detours into evenings at the opera and Rules of the Game type gatherings, as well as cameos from Ivan Turgenev, George Sand, Cora Pearl, Giuseppe Verdi, and others) but also with contemporary ideas and conflicts. Her twisty-turny journey takes Lilliet from farm girl to orphan to circus performer to courtesan, back to orphan, then to servant, again to courtesan, finally to opera singer (there’s more, but no spoilers here); and as she drifts from the street to the conservatory to the ballroom and back again, we are aware that our heroine has a complicated and heterogeneous identity, with all the attending, familiar dilemmas. Lilliet is ultimately a distinctly modern American heroine: the child of parents who “came to settle America for God,” Lilliet must, and can, continually reinvent herself. In this vein, the episode with the widower sets another pattern: it is from a dead child’s gravestone near the widower’s farm that our heroine takes her name, Lilliet Berne. In a later scene where Lilliet steals yet another identity -- from a girl with whom she shares a jail cell and who dies in her sleep -- we see Lilliet switching clothing (parting with the aforementioned cancan shoes) and calculating her opportunity: “[S]he couldn’t use her future, and I could.” At this point one can’t help but think of another historically-conceived protagonist of recent years who hit a contemporary nerve: Don Draper. Like Don, Lilliet is a consummate opportunist and chameleon; unlike Don, of course, she is female in a world where what she desires most -- independence, love on her own terms -- is impossible. 3. There is a curious way in which Queen of the Night wears its feminism -- by which I mean portrays and expresses the timeless female struggle to be free -- so heavily that it ultimately wears it lightly. The book does not read so much as an “argument” for female power or independence, nor as an activist cry in the face of female oppression; rather, Chee expresses himself authorially in such a way that you are just enough aware of him -- an enlightened, empathic, culturally heterogeneous male in the 21st century crafting this tale -- to simply take for granted, even enjoy, the dramatic ways in which this female protagonist’s struggle for self-determination plays out. Voice is an obvious central trope here: Lilliet is deemed a “Falcon” because her voice is as fragile as it is strong (the soprano Cornélie Falcon lost her voice at age 23); thus, the female voice as both power and liability. As she navigates her successive identities, Lilliet learns that feigning muteness is a useful disguise. In this way Lilliet, and Chee, reclaim traditional female voicelessness in service of self-preservation. Jewels and dresses figure prominently throughout the plot: jewelry is gifted and worn in acts of love, dominance, charity, regret, rebellion, and terror, and a woman’s choice of gown has the power to determine not only individual but national fates. None of this strikes the reader as particularly farfetched: While Chee may have been having fun with the characters of Louis-Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie, it seems perfectly plausible, and pleasingly so, that it was indeed a rivalry between Eugénie and Louis-Napoléon’s mistress the Comtesse to Castiglione (which involved both jewels and dresses) that catalyzed the Franco-Prussian War. This is just one example among many where Chee fulfills with gusto yet another crucial, if hackneyed, obligation of the historical novelist -- to make history “come alive” through human personality. In this sense Queen joins ranks with the best historical novels and made me think, not infrequently as I read, of one of my all-time favorites -- E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Lilliet’s dividedness when it comes to romantic prospects is perhaps the most explicitly feminista thread of her story, the one that seems to want to “say” something to our current culture. One man seeks to possess Lilliet, another she falls for “at first sight” -- at first listen, actually, as he is a pianist who plays a mesmerizing Frédéric Chopin. While the choice between them seems conventionally obvious throughout most of the story, there is an unsettling moment when she considers romantic love and abusive obsession not so far apart: perhaps the man who essentially imprisoned and raped her, and the man who manipulated her to manage his own fears, are not so different in the end. In trying to more fully inhabit her role as Carmen, Lilliet concludes: “She loves neither the toreador nor the killer,it came to me as I went on the stage. More than these men, she loves her freedom.” In other words: Up with single women; down, once and for all, with the derisive notion of a spinster. For the most part, though, the strain of feminist messaging does not bog the novel down. This is a particularly subjective assessment, I recognize: it did matter to me as I read that the author is male. This character did not seem like someone Chee had to force into a psychology of freedom-seeking: she is a woman the author seems to know better than any, and one the reader thus recognizes instantly. Her desires, conundrums, strategies, and strength are all, at this moment in time -- the reader’s historical moment -- wonderfully and completely familiar, and written into this story as The New Normal. It’s exhilarating to follow Lilliet, over the course of 550 high-drama pages, as she simply does what needs to be done -- as any woman with talent and intelligence would. 4. Speaking of subjective, this wouldn’t be a piece written by me if I didn’t acknowledge my initial interest in Queen of the Night based on its long-blooming history. Chee’s first novel, the award-winning Edinburgh, was published nearly 15 years ago, in 2001. By lit-world norms, and for someone as visible and active in the literary community as Chee -- he teaches, has written for The Rumpus and The Morning News among other publications, won a Whiting Award and an NEA grant, was named one of Out's 100 Most Influential People, hüber-active on social media, and is an editor of LitHub -- 15 years is quite a long time. There was also a first novel preceding Edinburgh -- a “Great American Novel” type as he puts it -- that he was unable to publish. Queen of the Night is itself the protagonist of a twisty-turny narrative -- much of which Chee describes in his recent interview with our own Claire Cameron. The novel began with inspiration from a real historical figure, Jenny Lind, aka the Swedish Nightingale, and a fruitfully mistaken notion on Chee’s part that she had sung with a circus. When I asked Chee if the novel had always been conceived in the first person, and/or if he had hesitated to take on a female voice, he wrote: There were seasons of hesitation and apprehension. I put the novel down for three years before I finally sold it because I was both drawn to and afraid of the idea, sure that I knew that woman on the train very well and then later sure that the vision had tricked me into making a terrible mistake that I just couldn’t see. When he did sell the novel, it was sold based on 115 early pages and a synopsis, with a manuscript due date of 2006. In 2008, the novel still very much in progress, Chee’s editor at Houghton Mifflin was laid off; thus began Queen’s fittingly itinerant quest, including a total of four different editors to date. Cameron’s interview focuses on Chee’s coping with the low points and dismay of Queen’s odyssey. As a fellow novelist who struggled mightily with novel #2, I felt the following like a punch in the gut: The longer the novel wasn’t published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life -- my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years. But Chee endured; and so, I believe, will the critical acclaim that has and will be showered on Queen of the Night. The novel thus has a personal resonance for me as a testament to persistence, and to the pursuit of a driving, ambitious artistic vision that just won’t cooperate with conventions of time and career progress. 5. A Big Book asks a lot of the reader, who is also a busy person eager to get on to other books and her own projects. When a Big Book doesn’t satisfy, the reader feels especially betrayed: in the contract between reader and writer, the stakes are higher. Some might feel that the bigger the book, the more forgiving we are as readers: surely among so many pages, there will be bagginess and flaws and plot points that ring false. The truth is I did put Queen down -- for a couple of days at the point where the past and present-time threads converged. This occurs approximately three-fourths of the way through and felt like the moment to take a breath. Lilliet readies herself for the dramatic finale, and so do we. When I picked it back up, I found that the final 130 pages read differently: with so many plot points finding their resolutions, mysteries solved and threads reaching back toward details that both Lilliet and the reader brushed over, I became confused and frequently flipped back and forth to earlier scenes. I also found myself less engaged by extended descriptions of operatic plots. Faust, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lamermoor, La Sonnambula, Carmen, Orphée aux enfers, The Magic Flute, among others, all figure significantly into Lilliet’s story. The novel is true to Lilliet’s initial premonition, that her life is an opera and vice versa, so the material is utterly relevant. Still, if you are like me -- a listener and a fan, but not a buff -- those sections may feel more opaque than others. Chee is at his best, I think, when he is doing opera, via Lilliet’s life, as opposed to describing it. I am not one to be more forgiving of a Big Book when it comes to the interruption of John Gardner’s notorious vivid continuous dream; but what is notable about these so-called “flaws” is that they are also part and parcel of what makes Queen worth reading. It’s a challenging novel in addition to a page-turning one. You feel, as you read, that you are being swept away by this delicious plot and voice, and that the novel wants to be read slowly -- is actually smarter and deeper and more intricately constructed than can be appreciated at its decidedly propulsive pace. Great books satisfy in that particular way, leaving you sated and spent, but at the same time craving to do it all over again. Queen is a book that I look forward to rereading, savoring, studying for my own novelistic purposes. And when I do, it would not surprise me if those flaws were revealed as my own.