1. Peter Parker was born in 1945 and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, under the care of his uncle and aunt. Ben Parker was a gentle man. May was a doting but naïve caregiver. Peter was a prodigy and Ben and May Parker encouraged his scientific aspirations. It was a happy home, but at school Peter was the target of low-key verbal bullying and though an outside observer would have considered the taunts mild, they amounted to a form of abuse that haunted him well into his adulthood. In the early 1960s, several young men and women in the New York City area gained superhuman powers thanks to a series of nuclear experiments held in violation of rudimentary safety codes. That was Peter’s story. He was at a certain place at a certain time and a radioactive spider bit his hand. Within 24 hours, his body underwent a metamorphosis. He was now faster, stronger, and more agile than most members of the human race and possessed a sixth sense which warned him of danger. He sewed a red-and-blue suit which showed off his new thin-muscled body, a body he was proud of and for which he had done nothing to deserve. He entered and won a wrestling contest. He was a great success, but he was too young to appreciate his good luck. In a moment of self-absorption, he failed to stop a thief. By coincidence that criminal would later kill Ben Parker, and upon discovering the consequences of his selfishness, the teenager decided he would use his powers to help others. He invented webbing fluid, a potent but non-lethal weapon which allowed him to swing across the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan and trap opponents in viscous nets. He became Spider-Man, an amazing addition to the New York skyline. A hyphen separated the two parts of his name. 2. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in December 1962. In his debut, he was friendless, miserable, and smarter than everyone in every room he ever walked into. Ditko, a former horror comics artist, had learned to draw humans at their most vulnerable and grotesque and his Peter Parker was an attenuated figure, handsome but not too good-looking, a little damaged. In the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man Parker proved to be a very good superhero, but he wasn’t slick and that was part of his charm. “Isn’t there just a little of Peter Parker in all of us?” That’s the final line of The Amazing Spider-Man #27, from August 1965. In that issue, he loses his uniform and had to make do with a cheap version he picked up in a costume shop. Spider-Man lost his mask in fights. He also lost fights. He fought common colds while in the middle of fights. The superhero who could be you. Peter Parker was Spider-Man for many reasons and not all of them could be named. He suffered an oppressive guilt for the death of his Uncle Ben, but guilt wasn’t enough for him to do what he did; Parker doesn’t even mention his uncle for three years following the origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15. The truth is that Peter Parker enjoyed being more powerful, better than his peers who made fun of him and better than the criminals he fought. His social circle knew nothing about his abilities, and he took an arrogant pride in his secret identity. He was a sadist, within limits. He never killed anyone, but he enjoyed humiliating and hurting his opponents, taunting them with one-liners -- he was a Woody Allen fan but he lacked Woody Allen’s talent -- and he rarely softened a punch even when fighting those he could crush with two fingers. He started fights with Johnny Storm, the good-looking member of the Fantastic Four and the subject of Parker’s envy and admiration. He was a narcissist. He was also Spider-Man because he needed money. He sold photographs of his fights with criminal misfits and ugly men to J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of Now! and The Daily Bugle, who wrote editorials prejudicing the general public against the young superhero. Peter’s freelancing helped his Aunt May survive her widowhood and earned him spending cash. But in the end, he was profiting off of violence, on fights that he sometimes started. He was also a dishonest journalist. After he failed to photograph a battle with Sandman, he restaged it using large piles of sand. Yet he was, at heart, a good man and he suffered for his goodness. In Amazing Spider-Man #1 he flirts with the idea of crime in order to help his Aunt May save their house, but he eventually takes pride in his basic decency. He privately acknowledged the good in even his worst bully, Flash Thompson. He was devoted to his aunt. He continued his work as a vigilante even while facing a public that hated him. He honored that role no matter how much it disrupted his personal life. He grew older, his posture improved, and he found himself in a series of relationships with beautiful women who noticed his charm and his blue eyes. But he was an incompetent and absent lover, more loyal to his secret identity than he was to his women, though he did save their lives on numerous occasions. In the context of the time, he was strangely under-eager to take advantage of the sexual revolution. His life as a superhero could be exhilarating, but it brought him only so much joy. He was a loner. He was also a lonely man. Thanks to the open-ended, half-planned nature of comic-book serial storytelling, Lee and Ditko could discover new facets of Peter Parker’s psychology in small ways from one month to the next, allowing the man to contradict and amend himself to the point where his heroism was as strange as the anti-heroism of Walter White, his pop-cultural antithesis. John Romita took over for Ditko in Amazing Spider-Man #39 in August 1966 and completed Parker’s transformation into a romance-comics heartthrob, discovering the depression inherent in the young man’s doleful charm. So no, it’s not so much that Spider-Man was the superhero who could be you, though Lee used that very phrase in the comics. Spider-Man was one of the few superheroes who was more interesting than the supervillains he fought. 3. Spider-Man and Peter Parker were inventions of New York, not the New York of our world, but a New York, despite all Lee and Ditko’s use of proper landmark names, that was as foreign as Metropolis or Gotham City. When Marvel Comics introduced a new Spider-Man in its Ultimate Universe a few years ago, one who had a black father and a Latino mother, the decision only highlighted one of the weirder elements of the world Lee and Ditko created 50 years before. Parker was a working-class teenager growing up in 1960s Queens and yet his social circle -- Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds -- did not include anyone with an obvious white-ethnic marker, an Irish, Italian, or Jewish name. The interior of Parker’s high school was based on the one Ditko attended in Johnstown, Penn. When Parker graduated high school he entered Empire State University, an amalgam of Columbia and City College, which again, oddly, had strikingly few non-white-ethnics. He mostly fought petty hoods who spoke like '40s B-movie gangsters. Parker’s world was lily-white until issue #51 (August 1967), when Robbie Robertson, a black man, takes a city editor position at The Daily Bugle, and drug-free until issues #96 through #98 (May-July 1971), when Harry Osborn faces the consequences of his acid trips. And as much as he fancied himself an outsider, he was very much at home in his version of the city. This New York provided a template against which Peter Parker, with all his self-doubts and all his angst, could invent himself. The superhero genre had existed for at least three decades before he showed up, and part of Parker wondered if he was a kind of Don Quixote, dressing up and playing out a fantasy for a world that did not need his heroism. But this particular New York did need him. The presence of supervillains, of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, always prepared to kill thousands, suggested that this shadow New York was under constant threat of annihilation. In our world, Peter Parker would be a true madman. (Actually in our world, the U.S. government would have captured and held him in a terrible facility and re-engineered him into a super soldier. It also would have figured out a way to turn his webbing fluid into either a torture or lethal weapon on a massive scale. Imagine a giant thick substance designed to cover entire cities and suffocate all of its inhabitants.) But Parker challenged his homogenous version of New York and made it more interesting. In his New York, he could be a most beautiful man, like Don Quixote or Jean Valjean or Samuel Pickwick -- Dostoevsky’s three famous examples of the archetype -- a figure whose greatest creation, born out of neurosis and genius, is himself. This is why he is loved. This is why you want to be him. And this is why he is not the superhero who could be you. 4. The problem with Spider-Man is the same problem with all popular comics heroes. Eventually, after several hundred issues, he hit a moment of stasis in which he stopped evolving, stopped discovering the strange hidden facets of his personality. Still, writers and artists attempted and sometimes succeeded in putting their signatures on Parker. In July 1973, Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and Romita killed off Gwen Stacy in the middle of a fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. There is a consensus among fans that she died from whiplash from the web Parker shoots to save her, thus providing a space for a new form of a guilt for Parker to explore. I was 10 when I got into reading my older brother’s collection from the late '80s. That Spider-Man was still interesting. He was a college dropout, fighting to make rent, seriously wondering how he wasted his intellectual talents in the interest of crime fighting. But within a few years, after he married Mary Jane Watson, he ceased to be credible. In the early '90s, Todd McFarlane’s artwork exaggerated Spider-Man’s contortionism, while his writing accentuated his sadism and diminished his wit, transforming one of the great geek heroes into a dumb jock. By the 2000s, the storylines within the regular Marvel continuity had achieved a level of absurdity that demanded retconning. In one limited series set in the future, Parker’s radioactive semen kills Mary Jane. Marvel writers in their attempts to be gritty, had become the equivalent of literary novelists who reach for Holocaust references as substitutes for gravitas. Their fascination with ultra-violence obscured the essence of Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man, which launched in September 2000, started everything over again, and attempted to return the hero to his roots. In Bendis and Bagley’s version, Parker was a millennial and his Uncle Ben and Aunt May were aging hippies. And Parker looked to John Hughes movies for inspirations for his one-liners. “It’s almost Shakespearean in the sense that the theme of it, the morality of it, all of it holds true,” Bendis told me in an interview that appeared in Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimatum. “And you can change the setting, you could put it all on a space station and the story of Peter Parker getting bit by a spider would resonate all these ideas. So once I came to terms with that, that I’m adapting a work by Shakespeare, it became very freeing.” Bendis and Bagley did capture Peter Parker’s morality. Their stories were cleanly plotted, Bendis’s writing was slick, and Bagley’s pen, and later that of Stuart Immonen who replaced him in the 111th issue (September 2007), looked more to Romita’s romance than Ditko’s horror ethos for inspiration. And yet that slickness and Peter’s unquestionable decency formed the title’s main flaw. Bendis’s Parker was a little too charismatic. The characters in the Ultimate Universe loved him more than any of the comic’s readers could. I liked the comic myself, but a true Spidey agoniste would have preferred the Peter Parker of the Ditko and Romita years. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was a throwback to the Ditko and Romita years. All three of his movies, even the much maligned Spider-Man 3, have fine moments, though they spend far more time studying Peter Parker’s guilt than the other more disturbing aspects of his personality. Raimi’s horror-movie pathos turned Spider-Man’s villains into tragic figures. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, in his final moments, rediscovers a moral clarity and sacrifices himself in order to undo his evil plans. Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman attempts to grasp his dead wife’s wedding ring even as his fingers dissipate into tiny molecules. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man is sweet, naïve and gentle, and a fine presence, but he exists to counterbalance the weight of evil and age more than to exert his awesome self. Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker in Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man movies, themselves modeled on the Bendis/Bagley and the Bendis/Immonen runs, is the most physically interesting one we’ve seen on screen. He’s discovered the line between Parker’s teenage awkwardness and Spider-Man’s athleticism, Parker’s brooding charm and Spider-Man’s power, and beneath it all there lies his constant melancholy. He’s a young-adult hero with a riot of conflicting rages that recall those suffered by Lee and Ditko’s Parker. Working with a by-the-numbers screenplay, Garfield reimagines a beautiful man, a flesh-and-blood being, that otherwise would have been nothing more than a symbol, or, considering the nature of Sony and Disney/Marvel’s competing interests, a trademark. 5. The Peter Parker of the regular Marvel Universe has no real fears in any of his battles, which he always manages to survive. He’s barely aged 10 years in the 52 since he first appeared. Immortality has erased the stakes of his existence. He has no reason to evolve. These are the kinds of story-telling decisions, made in the interest of the profit motive, that can rob a character of his soul. The best thing about the Peter Parker of the Ultimate Universe is his mortality. He dies at the age of 16 in Ultimate Spider-Man #160 (August 2011) saving his aunt, his friends, and his neighbors from the Green Goblin. Unless something happened in between the panels that Bendis did not mention, he dies a virgin. And he does not come back. Death makes his sweetness and his goodness tragic and beautiful. It makes Peter Parker human, and, in at least one particular way, a superhero who could be you. I don’t imagine the Spider-Man Lee and Ditko created in 1962 dying in any major battle, but I do imagine an alternate reality for him, one that diverges from the Marvel storyline sometime in the early '70s, when Parker is still in college. He realizes at that point that he’s gone about as far as he could go as Spider-Man, which was always a fun but immature project. He learns to dislike violence and prefers helping people in more peaceful ways. He spends more time in costume at children’s hospitals, and eventually starts showing up out of costume. More superheroes have shown up in New York, and most of them, he’s now humble enough to realize, are better at crime fighting. He goes for one last night-swing, comes home to his apartment, folds up his costume and places it in a box at the back corner of his closet. He starts dating more and notices that he has fewer inhibitions. After breaking up once with Mary Jane Watson, he starts dating a handsome man he meets in a chemistry lab. It goes on for a few months, he discovers a form of affection he didn’t realize he was capable of, but he returns happily to Mary Jane. He graduates college. He forgoes a hard career in science after he discovers an allergy to corporate structures and a love of teaching. He teaches in one of New York’s magnet programs while at home he tinkers with his brilliant inventions, creating all sorts of wonders far more interesting than web fluid. He decides to keep his work to himself. He marries Mary Jane and they have children. They enter into a routine by the time they hit their 40s. On Friday nights, they go up to the rooftop of their Park Slope home. Mary Jane lights up a joint. He performs some mild acrobatics. Then they go back downstairs. The kids graduate high school. They graduate college. They get married and give him grandchildren. And then Peter Parker, the most beautiful man New York has ever known, dies. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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The Digital Reader rounded up a list based on Amazon's end of year book sales. Some interesting factoids: Dan Brown's Origin: A Novel was the most read and gifted book this holiday season, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was the year's most borrowed book from Prime Reading. Pair with: our cheat sheet for Kindle (and other e-reader) owners.
Well-heeled critics take a kind of offense when writers of David Mitchell’s caliber experiment with genre fiction. Nonetheless, the release of 2014’s The Bone Clocks, with its body-jumping Horologists and systematic references to most of his previous novels, proved that Mitchell has embarked on more than an experiment; he is on a Yeatsian search for unity. Late in his life, W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, published A Vision, a collection of cultish metaphysical writings that cast the whole of history as a cycle between order and chaos, the barbaric and the civilized. His poetry of the period also represented the world this way: his famous piece “The Second Coming” culminates with the image of a “rough beast...slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born,” a kind of un-Christ who represents the beginning of a barbaric period in history, the inversion of the Christian era. The purpose of all Yeats’s late writing, as the scholar Richard Ellmann pointed out in Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was to offer a “unified personality,” to give his readers a sense of cohesion that everyday life lacks by using a consistent set of symbols to discuss, praise, mourn, and process a disjointed reality. For Yeats, symbols like beasts, roses, and winding staircases were touchstones: no matter where his writing wandered, these landmarks offered a sense of direction -- they brought him back to A Vision's unified historical scheme. The poems he made with those images are beautiful and timeless. But A Vision is another story. Supposedly sourced from automatic writings Yeats’s wife received from the spirit world, it reads like an acid trip in a Catholic church, or -- appropriately enough -- like a scene from David Mitchell’s Slade House: a horror novel set in a dark corner of the newly-minted meta-world that unites all of Mitchell’s books. Mitchell told fans at 2014’s Edinburgh Book festival that his writing has become “an exercise in world building and cosmology.” With the lengthy and ambitions Bone Clocks, he revealed the extent of that exercise by referencing characters from all of his work, back to his 1999 debut Ghostwritten. Though it would be difficult to gage the extent to which his megaverse was planned, Mitchell has made it clear that a single plot overarches everything, down even to his most quotidian Black Swan Green. Lovers of Cloud Atlas are familiar with Mitchell’s tendency to write novels as a series of interlacing plots, where a young character in one segment might be an old man in another. But what Bone Clocks introduced was design on an altogether different scale: a set of death-defying interlopers engaged in a cosmic war across time, whose antics, it turns out, have been crashing through the scenery of each successive novel. When he announced that a new, shorter book was set to debut only a year after The Bone Clocks, fans correctly anticipated that Slade House would deepen Mitchell’s investment in that larger scheme. Released just in time for Halloween, Slade House has quickly sparked comparisons to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw -- a literature critic’s ghost story, a haunted-house yarn the glamor of which was underpinned by plot and language that could bear up under the stuffiest academic scrutiny. Mitchell has been upfront about his exasperation with critics who pit realism against everything else, as if the sort of writing where souls can be eaten and bodies shed like cicada shells needed to earn special literary stripes in order to be taken seriously. He told the Edinburgh Book Festival he likes “to use genre as a tool, like style, structure or a character. Where does it say a book has to remain within a single genre?” and The Paris Review that “When something is two-dimensional and hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, implausibly, into the brew.” Mitchell has proved himself a master of the improbable brew, but the question is whether the books that have resulted are freshening agents, or just a cheap attempt to spike the punch. Slade House cooks up its mixture with euphoric technical complexity and flourish. Set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015, it is composed of five interlocking narratives centered around a mysterious “small black iron door,” and the magnificent, trippy, horrifying mansion to which it leads. A succession of sympathetic loners are lured into Slade House by its malevolent occupants, treated to a disorienting phantasmagoria that mixes their deepest fantasies of popularity and inclusion with their worst fears, and finally tricked into bringing about their own demise. We hear the story through their voices, and each is masterfully rendered, deeply human. The 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose autism makes him insensitive to the subtle difference between a quirky hostess and a murderous schemer, the oafish lonelyheart policeman whose subtle racism he would blame on hard experiences on the beat, and the self-conscious college student Sally Timms are each cohesive and distinct. For every character, Slade House morphs into a tailor-made nightmare. I found Sally’s haunting at a raucous party the most alarming and immediate, perhaps because I grew up listening to some of the same music. But more likely the sting came from her voice’s mixture of devastating self-examination and quippy humor: “Slade Alley can’t be more than three feet across,” she observes on approach to the house, “A properly fat person -- fatter than me, I mean -- couldn’t get past someone coming the other way.” And when she snuffs a proposition from an attractive partygoer: “Off he goes, and screw you, Isolde Delahunty at Great Malvern Beacon School for Girls and your platoon of body-fascist Barbies...screw all of you, wherever you are this evening, because I...just turned down a bronzed Australian surfer demigod...” Yet the culmination of each story contains an obligatory nod the meta-world of Bone Clocks, and it is there that Mitchell’s ambition starts to make a messy feast of his talent. Examining Slade House’s grandfather clock, whose face bears no hands but only the words “Time is, Time Was, Time is Not,” Sally Timms quips that the clock is “Highly metaphysical; deeply useless.” At worst, this epithet could be applied to Mitchell’s language just at the passages when Slade House reaches its highest emotional pitch. At key moments in each character’s adventures there are debilitating pauses for exposition, linking Slade House’s dark little nightmare world to the wider one we heard all too much about in Bone Clocks. Words like “lacuna,” “orison,” and worst of all, “psychovoltage” diffuse the physical terror of Mitchell’s best scenes with obtuse, jargony pinpricks. That the term “lacuna” is lifted from medieval metaphysics and “orison” from Hamlet’s banter with Ophelia in Act III scene i makes them no more interesting: pedigree adds little when species are awkwardly crossed, and there is nothing of Hamlet’s earthy nightmare in the clinical use to which Mitchell puts his meta-world’s argot, explaining away the wonderful ghost stories he’s taken such care to weave in each successive chapter. At best, “highly metaphysical; deeply useless” might still be said of the interlaced world Mitchell is making. Metaphysical and useless, yes, but nothing is as essential as the inessential, and a little willful suspension of distaste allows us to luxuriate in Mitchell’s superfluities. The Yeats-like unifying project he’s taken on is initially thrilling in its apparent scope. And though his machinations are luxurious, underneath the heavy-handed codswallop is the pungent flavor of raw voices, coming from characters we recognize from the street. As long as his books are populated by such real people, Mitchell will deserve his following, but he is in danger of a fatal shark-jumping accident. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Mitchell allowed himself to suggest the unknown, and the scenes where Orito explores Enomoto’s caves are therefore riper with terror than any of Slade House's “lacuna” scenes. Narrow paths curve into darkness, statues drip with blood, and Orito takes away only her fear and a growing list of questions about the people who built the tunnels. But Mitchell’s ambition to weave a meta-narrative has forced his newer books to reveal what is best left hinted. With their many external references, The Bone Clocks and Slade House are artsier novels than those that came before, but far less artful. In them Mitchell reads like a remodeler who stubbornly insists that the gaudy corridors he’s built between his mansions are the real architectural triumph. Admirably, he has left nothing sacred in his conquest of genre-fiction territories, explicitly comparing his work to that of J.R.R. Tolkien, the master world-architect himself. Mitchell even included a character called Bombadil in Slade House's final chapter, as if to assure us he knows what he’s doing, that no shrines to Tolkien will be left to gather dust during his incursion into hallowed ground. But to throw down that gauntlet is to invite comparison with a man who was a consummate novelist first, and mythology-spinner second. According to accounts from his friends, it took Tolkien 12 years to write and revise The Lord of the Rings, and obsessed with background as he was, most of that time was not spent tightening up a meta-scheme of cohesive self-references (otherwise why would there be so many Unfinished Tales, so many loose ends in The Silmarillion?), but making sure the characters and language were rich, authentic, and human. By contrast, Mitchell looks like a hobbit-sized challenger talking through a tall hat. Above all, Tolkien knew what to leave unsaid. To name a specific example, the “Watcher in the Water” that guards the entrance to Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring is horrible precisely because we know neither what it is nor how it came to be there, apart from some scrawled suggestions in an abandoned journal. The entry reads: “The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out.” More terror is crammed into those two lines then into the whole of Slade House, because Tolkien has left space for our imaginations to populate the darkness. But Mitchell is addicted to ripping back the veil. His evil Grayer twins become less frightening the more we know about them, and their soliloquizing at each chapter’s climax makes them something worse than poorly-written antagonists: they become well-written antagonists too well explained. Their nightmare mansion ultimately disappoints, like a haunted house with all the lights turned on. With each successive, elaborately explained novel, there is a paradoxical sense that Mitchell’s world is shrinking, because the rigging he’s so intent on fastening between storylines is clogging up the gaps that should be occupied by the unknown. Nothing can swoop down on us without getting caught in the wires. Titles like Cloud Atlas hint that Mitchell is undertaking a quest to map the changeable world, to search for suggestions of coherence among what is cloudy, turbulent, and disordered. But just as the psychedelic gobbledygook of Yeats’s A Vision added nothing to the power of his poetry (it only gave theorists the opportunity to point to some prose passage that was supposedly the origin of a poem, as if that proved anything), Mitchell’s Horologist wonderland seems like an escape from the literary into the clever. Discovering one of his linked plots gives you a Sudoku-solver’s thrill, but this pleasure would be hard to call artistic. Billed as a suggestion about the interconnectedness between us all, such moments register instead as self-satisfied technical flourishes, easter eggs. As Mitchell gains power and the volume of his work expands, we have to hope he exercises a proportionately large restraint. Tolkien’s world-creating mechanism began with people and with language: He and C.S. Lewis used to play Scrabble in Elvish, a cultural artifact which grew organically alongside Tolkien’s lands and characters, instead of being thrust upon them in literary retrospect in the manner of Mitchell’s Horology. In terms of creative impetus, this retrograde fiddling with Mitchell’s own world could prove to be, as Sally Timms puts it, “a fatal mistake, like Orpheus looking back...” To demand that Mitchell walk the same road as even his greatest predecessors would be inane when his explicit desire is to innovate, but as he said himself, the watchword of the world-builder, even as he mixes improbable elements, must be a plausibility that outwrestles the improbable. Plausibility means a sense of rightness to experience, and Slade House, in spite of its pristine characterization, forgets that the experience of horror starts with the unknown. Instead of dark shadows, he gives us exposition, and as tempting as it must be to forget, Mitchell should have remembered that readers will always prefer to wander the maze’s edges than to sit down for a lecture at its center.
John Boyne’s The Absolutist is a slim, tightly wound novel of love and disaster in World War One, narrated in a claustrophobic first person by Tristan Sadler, a young soldier who returns to England after the war with a secret that is too horrifying to share and too heavy to bear alone. The story unfolds through flashbacks to Tristan’s war training and trench life, during which he falls in love with a fellow recruit, Will Bancroft, the “absolutist” of the title. A soldier turned conscientious objector who refuses to do anything to further the war effort, Will is eventually executed by a firing squad, leaving Tristan to fight on for a morally bankrupt cause. After the war, Tristan meets up with Will’s sister, Marian, to rake over the questions of love and guilt, right and wrong, and the struggle to preserve them against the onslaught of the trenches. I spoke with Boyne about the challenges of creating a fresh story out of well-worn history, and finding a voice to describe the unimaginable. The Millions: I’d like to start by asking about Tristan’s voice. How did you find that balance, a voice that sounds contemporary but also authentic to the time period? Did you go back to letters, diaries, and memoirs of World War One? John Boyne: I like to go back to novels that were written at the time my novel is set. I’ll fall into the idiom of the time, and find phrases that have fallen into disuse, and if I immerse myself in those, I find a voice starting to appear. I knew that because Tristan was going to be narrating his story from old age, and because he was going to be a novelist, he would have to speak in quite an elegant style—very proper and English. That was a challenge too, because it was about paring down the language, nothing superfluous. It’s a shorter book than any of my other adult novels. For the trench scenes, I spent a lot of time at the Imperial War Museum in London, and I read a lot of letters not only from the front but also from the families the soldiers were writing to. I was trying to find the themes running through those letters, and the ways that a voice would change. There’s only a short space of time between the scenes where Tristan is a young man before the war, the scenes where he’s in the trenches, and immediately afterwards, in 1919—but emotionally he was going to have changed in so many ways, that he would have to sound different, but the same. Same person, but experience is going to have to have come in on him. TM: It’s so revealing to look at letters from families and not just from soldiers. Perhaps it upsets Paul Fussell’s claim that communication is always one way: his idea that the soldiers can’t communicate and stop trying, and that the people at home can’t understand, and also stop trying. The character of Will’s sister Marian, for instance, is a complicated and traumatized figure in her own right. JB: In any novel I’ve ever read about the First World War, you never seem to read about what’s happening back home, the effect of the war on the family. In the previous novel I wrote for adults, The House of Special Purpose, which is the next one coming out here, I started with the idea that I hadn’t previously written a really strong female character, and I wanted to rectify that. When I wrote this I wanted to go further—I wanted a female character who was stronger than either of the two boys. She would be articulate, she would be a woman out of her own time, a woman who was capable of so much, but not allowed to do anything. I really invested in her as a character, probably more than any other character I’ve ever written, including Tristan, because I didn’t know how she was going to react. In those long chapters in the cafés, when she meets and talks to Tristan, I didn’t know how she was going to respond to him, and I knew it would change as the day went along: there would be moments where she would be suspicious, moments where she would be warm and funny, moments where she would be aggressive. I wanted that conversation to just go where it went, but for her to be always one step ahead of Tristan, putting him in his place a lot. She talks along the way about things like the fact that she doesn’t have the vote—she’s a victim of these politics along with everybody else, but she’s not allowed to vote out the politicians who start the wars. I named her after Marian Maudsley, from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which is one of my favorite novels, and a great character. I wanted her to leap off the page. TM: She’s so active, even in those static scenes in the café. You have this wonderful detail of the ubiquity of cigarettes—how important they are to how people manage their emotions during a conversation. JB: I felt she would be someone who wanted to help the soldiers coming back to the front, but at the time would be so conflicted about the fact that they killed her brother. I mean, emotionally, what does that do to a person? That’s the key to novel writing for me: putting characters into situations where you don’t know how they’re going to respond, and letting the story take you where it takes you, to show you that. I thought that was an interesting conundrum for her: great anger, great pain, but still helping. TM: Not just for her character, but for Tristan as well, there’s an enormous sense of frustration about what they can possibly do with these situations that are not in their control, and they don’t emerge heroically. Rage, for instance, becomes the emotion that drives Tristan. Even in fiction about war, I imagine rage is a difficult emotion to work with, as a novelist—it doesn’t really have a forward motion. JB: Those climactic scenes were very difficult to write. It’s hard, in the printed word, to achieve that sense that you have in real life, where something just snaps—to create a moment where the reader will honestly feel that a character’s gone too far. TM: Like the challenge of writing about the violence of the war—you reach these limits. One of the things you did so well in the trench scenes was to convey how the soldiers have to keep going, the next day, and the next day, even though every day seems to be a limit case of what can be endured. JB: I deliberately made those into very short scenes, which could almost have been taken out of the book, juggled in different directions, and put back in. I wanted to create a sense of disorder and confusion, no linear structure to it all. When you write about the First World War, you’ve read so many books that you have to be careful not to simply replicate what you’ve read before. It’s one of the things this book has in common with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which deals with the Holocaust: when you’re approaching a subject as big as this, that’s been written about so many times, you’ve got to find some fresh way to tell it. So I knew when I started that I was going to spend more time in a café in Norwich than I was in a trench in Northern France. TM: So you get rid of the idea that the events of the war are part of an arc, a conflict-to-resolution story. The war blows that up. JB: I felt there shouldn’t be a beginning, middle and end, but that Tristan should be at the heart of the action all the time. Even when Tristan and Will’s story ends, when their wartime story ends, it’s not the end of the war—that continues off the page. TM: Right, and his survival is just a matter of chance. You create that sense of chance, of randomness, as the characters we get to know in the training scenes are gradually picked off. We feel the shock every time someone we’ve met dies. JB: I had to keep a chart of who was still alive and who wasn’t. TM: I wanted to ask about the role of homosexuality in the book. Of course it’s important in the literature of World War One for writers who were gay, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but I was also thinking about Pat Barker, and her character Billy Prior, in the Regeneration trilogy, who was a gleefully boundary-crossing character in both class and sexual terms. Yet Tristan doesn’t have that kind of freedom. So what does thinking about sexuality in this context allow you to do with a character that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise? JB: It occurred to me I hadn’t really read anything about gay soldiers in the trenches—there must have been gay soldiers there, and surrounded by so much horror, relationships must have struck up. But that wasn’t something I had read, so it was a new way into a familiar story. What interested me was the idea of two boys where one has already started to come to terms with who he is, and the other hasn’t, so it would be an ambiguous relationship between them. Tristan gets angry with Will for rejecting him, but Will can’t understand this, because as far as Will’s concerned it doesn’t matter. In France, Tristan is all about this obsessive love, and Will is about the politics, and he finds this conversation that he’s forced to endure every so often to be an embarrassment, and to be almost trivial compared to what it is that’s going on there. I wanted there to be moments where you think that Will would open up, and let Tristan in, and moments where he would shut down. It was important to me that at the end you wouldn’t really know who this boy was. TM: The term Will keeps coming back to is “comfort.” That’s all the relationship is for him, a purely temporary alleviation—it’s not love, it’s comfort. JB: And Tristan can’t accept it. But that’s how it is in life, isn’t it? In most relationships, one person is much more into it than the other—in my experience, anyway—until you find someone who’s at the same place as you. Tristan’s just in love. TM: To come back to the Shot at Dawn politics—as you know, after a long campaign in the UK we finally have a memorial to the men who were killed in this way. But there’s still so much we don’t know about what happened to these men. The term “absolutist,” which gives you your title—that was a technical term used at the time? JB: It’s not a very common term, but I came across it one day when I was researching conscientious objectors and immediately thought, “there’s my title.” I knew that a lot of conscientious objectors would do some work on farms, or in field hospitals, or—as I talk about in the book—a lot of them were made to be stretcher-bearers. But there was this small group of people, absolutists, who wouldn’t do anything. It was important that Will would be a soldier and would be fighting when he becomes an absolutist. I didn’t want any charge, any confusion, that he was a coward, that he just wasn’t willing to fight—he had to be out there fighting, and seeing that the moral absolutes for which the war was being fought were being corrupted. If they can murder a German boy in cold blood, it’s a different kind of killing, to him, than the shooting in war. It’s interesting because Tristan is the person in the book who cares about truth, and wants to express himself and his love, and he feels that Will is being dishonest in not doing that. But when it comes to a political situation, when a captured German boy gets murdered by group of British soldiers, Tristan doesn’t see that that’s a problem. It’s the same thing turned around: in the romance, Tristan is one place and Will is in the other, but in the morality and the politics they’re also in different places. Will’s morality has become much more finely tuned. He can’t just go shooting people without some kind of emotional response. Tristan is also completely honest when he says, I don’t get it, it’s just another—what does it matter? TM: That line that seems so faint to Tristan is absolute to Will. JB: So they’re both absolutists—Will in a literal sense, and Tristan in terms of his love affair. It’s all or nothing to him.
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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Between the World and Me 6 months 2. 2. A Little Life 6 months 3. 6. Fates and Furies 4 months 4. 3. Purity 5 months 5. 4. Slade House 3 months 6. 5. Go Set a Watchman 6 months 7. - Fortune Smiles 1 month 8. 10. The Big Green Tent 2 months 9. 9. The Heart Goes Last 4 months 10. 8. City on Fire 3 months After being crowned the 2015 National Book Award winner, Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson has received an even greater honor: entry onto The Millions's December 2015 Top Ten list! The collection was described in our second-half Book Preview* as being “six stories, about everything from a former Stasi prison guard in East Germany to a computer programmer ‘finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States,’” and it was said to “echo” the author's “early work while also building upon the ambition of his prize-winning tome.” Elsewhere on the list, small shakeups abound. Fates and Furies and The Big Green Tent rose three and two spots, respectively, while Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire moved from the eighth spot to the tenth. Beyond that? There isn't too much to report. Next month, however, three fixtures on our list— Between the World and Me, A Little Life, and Go Set a Watchman — will likely head to our Hall of Fame, and their ascendance should free up space for fresh blood. They'll join Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, which joins the Hall this month. If past is prologue, most of those newcomers will have been culled from our Year in Reading series. If so, do you have any guesses on which ones will become fan favorites? Will it be another installment of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet? (The first one's already in our Hall...) Will it be Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts? And whatever it may be, will it have a Florida connection?** Stay tuned to find out. * Speaking of Previews, have you checked out the first installment of our Great 2016 Book Preview, which posted this week? ** Probably. Everything does. This month's near misses included: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Turner House, Undermajordomo Minor, The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and A Strangeness in My Mind. See Also: Last month's list.
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