BoingBoing's holiday gift guide has lots (and I mean lots!) of great things for just about anyone in your life. They even highlighted two different whiskeys. Then again, if you're only looking to give gifts to your favorite writers, Hannah Gersen has you covered.
1. Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, is a descent into a netherworld of convicted sex offenders, banished to the outer edges of a seedy Florida city called Calusa, beside the primordial “Great Panzacola Swamp.” It’s a novel of the ruin and possible renewal of the Garden of Eden, where “maybe the Internet is the Snake and pornography is the forbidden fruit.” It’s a novel about the interpenetration of real and digital skin, and of self-hatred and self-gratification, in their basest and most exalted forms. Banks here is an old American master taking on a new world run not by the gossip and slander of small towns, as in many of his earlier works, but by Facebook and YouTube, Pay-per-View and the bottomless archive of online porn, coursing through communities of individuals who are at once infinitely connected, lost in some huge shared dreamscape, and, at the same time, fundamentally incapable of confronting the reality of other people. As such, Lost Memory of Skin is a pretty harrowing look at loneliness in America today, following the long path away from being “a mere loner” toward being “someone desperately lonely.” The novel leaves us with the hope that, beyond this point, reality might finally begin, even as we get deeper and deeper into the 21st century. Like most of Banks’ work, Lost Memory is about the inner turmoil of American men. It combines elements of social realism with an intense inquisition into its characters’ collapsing and regenerating inner lives. In many ways, it’s classic Russell Banks, but it’s more than the shift in setting from frozen north to sultry south, and from hushed small town to roiling big city, that sets it apart from Banks classics like Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, and makes it a book that demands to be read, substantially enriching the already-overflowing Banks canon. Just as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the main character here is a young man known only as “The Kid,” a lost soul that, at the beginning, prefers the apathetic ease of being lost to the hard responsibility of being “found.” He prefers to remain a Kid, despite the fact that he is drifting into his twenties, which helps explain why he never quite accepts the guilt for the crime he was convicted of, as if he and the fourteen-year-old girl he attempted to have sex with were internally the same age, even though externally, in the eyes of society, they very much are not. Furthermore, like McCarthy’s Suttree, Lost Memory takes place on the bottom rungs of an unglamorous American city, down by the water where trash and sewage pile up and ooze away. Here, the sex offenders live like animals under a causeway because they are forbidden from residing within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might congregate. Also like McCarthy, Banks uses italicized text rather than quotation marks to set off his dialogue, giving the narrative a feverish, melting quality, as if the descriptive prose and the dialogue were all of the same essence. What his characters think and try to conceal, and what they say about themselves versus what others say about them – none of these are separable into an ordered, permanent record. On these pages, lies can take root anywhere and dissembling is the rule rather than the exception. 2. Although Banks’ world is less sweepingly Shakespearean than McCarthy’s, adopting instead a shaky conversational tone built from scraps of Facebook postings and chat room dialogue, his work, like McCarthy’s, is marked by its insight into American manhood, and its aspirations to permanence beyond time and place. Unlike McCarthy, however, and unlike Banks’ previous novels, Lost Memory of Skin is about sexual criminals rather than violent ones, and so the ways in which it thematizes manhood are different. It’s about men locked in cycles of desperate make believe, men who can only “picture having sex with... people who couldn’t reject them. Like dead people. Or little kids.” Earlier Banks novels tend to be about the ways in which men commit and get away with acts of violence, in a society that tacitly tolerates them. The sex crimes in Lost Memory are likewise products of American society, but now the tacit tolerance has been replaced with vindictive hysteria. There is a commonly held belief, I think, that violence is not something we all do, and thus, paradoxically, something we can do, when we must, because it’s already contained in its own separate category. Our understanding of sex, on the other hand, because it is such a common part of commercial and private life, cannot tolerate any such deviance. Thus, society produces sex offenders – nurturing the requisite starving loneliness, and then offering the entire pornographic and predatory infrastructure of the Internet to satiate it – while at the same time exercising extremely punitive power over them. The power of Banks’ premise comes from the volatile nature of this paradox. As Banks construes it, society’s decision to banish sex offenders into its most unseen corners is yet another form of self-deception, a vast cultural unwillingness to engage with other people, as vast as the Kid’s unwillingness to find a mature, reciprocating partner. Thus, the colony under the causeway is a hiding place for what society does not want to see: it’s a deep, police-enforced lie. 3. More than a study of societal hysteria, what Banks has written is a meditation on the cultivation of lies over time. The truth about the Kid is available online to anyone who has his real name and wants to look him up in the National Sex Offender Registry, and yet, without porn’s lies about sex, his name never would have been in that Registry in the first place. So the Kid is trapped in the midst of this network of lies. A “white guy in his early twenties,” unemployed and estranged from his single mother, he shares plenty of traits with typical Banks characters: he’s an alienated outsider, looking into society with a mixture of fear, disdain, jealousy, and longing. He’s self-taught and self-reliant, determined to maintain “strictly enforced surface relations with people.” From telling others that he’s just returned from Afghanistan, to disguising his real name like a paranoid ex-spy, the Kid hides behind smaller lies to mask the giant lie that hovers over him: that he does not know who he is, nor even how to be certain that he’s alive and not dead. It is this larger lie that recoils from the nuances and ambiguities of love and sex, and craves pornography’s static, one-sided comfort. While online, he’s connected to the outside world and everything in it, and yet, at the same time, he’s profoundly alone, lacking even his own company. He cannot imagine what to do while not watching porn, and, while watching it, he hangs suspended between worlds, imagining himself participating in the virtual sex act on his computer screen, while actually participating in a very different act just in front of it. Although in many ways “an Innocent,” he is in no way innocent. He is, rather, like all the men under the causeway, both a victim and a victimizer. He has been victimized by his mother’s indifference, by a school system that failed to reach him, by the military, which discharged him for giving away a few porn DVDs, by “brandi18,” the young girl he went to visit who told her father to ambush him when he arrived at her house, and by the justice system that sentenced him to ten years of exile for a single offense. Victimization is a common theme in Banks’ fiction, especially the victimization of children by adults, and the ways in which this both stunts moral development and also, frighteningly, stimulates it, as if the very process of passing into adulthood were necessarily one of being victimized by the adults who’d passed that way before. 4. The Kid’s fall into damnation is hard and sudden: the moment he shows up at brandi18’s house, it’s all over. After being burned on his first attempt to reach out, it will be a long time until the Kid works up the courage to try again. The process by which he begins to do so makes for a dramatic coming-of-age story, but what really fleshes out Lost Memory’s considerations of truth and falsity is the Professor, one of the most intriguing characters in all of Banks’ fiction. When he appears beneath the causeway, ostensibly to study the Kid as part of a project on homelessness, and begins to coerce him into giving candid, taped interviews, the novel shifts toward exponentially weightier mystery. Morbidly obese and colossally brilliant, the Professor’s ideal life is “one with no witnesses,” lived “at the extreme outside edge of human interaction.” Addicted to binge eating alone in the middle of the night, and unshakably convinced of his right to tyrannize everyone he encounters, the Professor introduces something grotesque, even bizarre into the novel. His disquieting effect exceeds even that of the worst and most unrepentant of the sex offenders. Like the Kid, who comes under his wing but never learns whether or not to trust him, the reader has to scramble to keep up with the Professor’s constantly changing intentions and explanations. He is not the Kid’s foil, nor his double, nor, quite, the novel’s antagonist, although he fills all of these roles. A walking “quarter ton of flesh,” he’s at once an almost unbearably physical presence, and also a specter, someone about whom so little can be known that even the fact of his existence feels tenuous and provisional. Ultimately, he becomes a kind of gross manifestation of the unknowability of absolute truth, as hard to reach in reality as the porn actresses deep in their digital lair. Like the Judge in Blood Meridian, who has a similarly threatening hand in helping or forcing McCarthy’s Kid to grow up, and like the victimizing adults in other Banks novels, the Professor serves as a highly unstable model of adulthood. Because of this, he stands as living proof of the inherent instability of being an adult, the acceptance of which may itself be the rite of passage that the Kid must undergo. Through his failed efforts to establish the truth about the Professor, the Kid begins to appreciate how maddening uncertainty can be, and to devise some rough belief system to preserve his sanity against this. 5. When real danger starts to infect this uncertainty, a sense of acceleration and impending cataclysm gathers, especially after a hurricane wrecks the colony under the causeway. As the Kid sees it, the hurricane is “like Noah and the Flood.” It is, essentially, the bottleneck through which the novel’s spirit must pass. It is also the culmination of a long series of biblical motifs that underscore the Kid’s attempts to move from guilt and willful blindness into innocence and self-recognition, aided by his discovery of a Bible in the tent of a deranged former senator. These motifs sharpen Banks’ portrait of the causeway colony as a land of lepers, or a polluted Garden of Eden (much like the snake-infested Panzacola Swamp). One could well see the Kid’s move away from porn, through the limbo of his exile, and finally toward the possibility of love, as a journey away from idol-worship and into a sturdier, harder-won religious faith, one as crucial today as ever before, but also harder than ever to arrive at. During one of their interviews, the Kid asks the Professor, “You ever wonder why they call them skin mags and skin flicks, by the way? ...I mean they’re not really skin, they’re just pictures of skin. The only skin they get you touching is your own.” Pondering this question, we come to see that the novel’s title refers not only to the Kid’s distance from reality at the moment of his crime, but also to a hope that this lost skin – his own and that of others – might not be forever lost, but might one day be “remembered,” or found for the first time. As the hurricane recedes and the Professor’s fate rushes toward him, snaring the Kid in its undertow, the novel approaches its harsh but by no means hopeless conclusion. Still under the causeway but beginning the work of climbing out, the Kid leaves us with the possibility that he may one day emerge from the Internet’s murk of avoidance, and accept the difficulty of reckoning with other people, understanding at last that the price of not doing so is more than he can pay.
Dave Eggers has a new novel out this week, while Neil Gaiman has an illustrated version of a previously published story on shelves. Also out: I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy; The City Son by Samrat Upadhyay; and The Last Magazine by the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel-in-stories is populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them. And if A Visit From the Goon Squad was a traditional story collection, Egan may have titled it Out of Body, after the 10th story-chapter; for we see these characters in blips over time, often muddling through an unsavory, perplexing present and looking back on youth from a vantage point both above and below ghosts of their former selves. The book, for example, opens with a one-night stand between two characters and ends with a fantasy revisitation, some years later: “Alex imagines walking into her apartment and finding himself still there – his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.” But Goon Squad is not a traditional story collection. Its form brings to mind Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a story cycle in which a minor character from each story becomes the protagonist of the story following (or is it that the protagonist of each story is plucked from the cast of minor characters in the previous story? A question of both process and intention, I suppose; thus the term “cycle.”) The difference is that Goon Quad is not so much a neat cycle (despite the return described above), as it is a 3-D ven diagram; with chapters/characters darting about both laterally and vertically in time, point of view, and detail. It is very much a New York City novel – six degrees of separation everywhere, more often two or three degrees, and not virtually, but in-the-flesh – and it is perhaps Egan’s most decidedly contemporary work, with its headlong dive into the convergence of media, product promotion, hyper-celebrity, and the atomization and gadgetization of our lives. Bennie and Scotty are high school friends in San Francisco who have a band called the Flaming Dildos. Rhea, Alice, and Jocelyn are their groupies. Scotty and Alice eventually marry, but then divorce. Jocelyn starts up an affair with an older man named Lou, who is a powerful music executive. Lou goes through two marriages, various girlfriends (and Jocelyn, too); his children are Charlene (“Charlie”) and Rolph, the latter of whom, emotionally troubled as he grows into adulthood, “doesn’t make it.” Later, Lou mentors Bennie, who himself discovers a band called the Conduits; the band hits it big, and Bennie founds a successful label in New York called Sow’s Ear Records. For 12 years, his assistant is Sasha (the woman in the opening chapter) – a kleptomaniac and multiple-suicide-attempt survivor whose college best friend Rob also attempts suicide (and also fails) and then drowns on Sasha’s then-boyfriend/eventual husband Drew’s watch. Bennie’s first wife Stephanie works for a PR grand dame named Dolly, and Stephanie’s brother Jules is a gossip journalist who’s just served five years in prison for attempting to sexually assault one of his subjects, a young starlet named Kitty Jackson. Later, as a jaded 28 year-old notorious in the tabloids for on-set tantrums, Kitty participates in a desperate, nearly fatal PR scheme to improve the image of a dictator – a scheme developed by Dolly, who is now persona non grata in the PR world because of a disastrous party she once threw in which an elaborate ceiling decoration went dangerously wrong (Dolly also does some prison time, six months for criminal negligence). Dolly’s daughter Lulu – 9 years old at the time of the Kitty Jackson scheme -- eventually becomes Bennie’s new assistant, post Sow’s Ear (and post-Stephanie) after Bennie’s gone back to producing indie musicians (and remarried to a young woman named Lupa). In the novel’s finale, Lulu teams up with Alex – Bennie’s new potential protégé, and Sasha’s one-night-stand from Chapter 1– to promote Scotty’s return to the music scene as an indie soloist. Phew. I drew a flow chart myself to sort it all out, which I found helpful. Take that, agents and editors who warn novelists against “too many characters.” And I haven’t even named here all the children. Ah, the children. The eponymous goon here may be time (“Time’s a goon,” the washed out, former lead singer of the Conduits says, as does Bennie later on) – time passes, time disorients, time wears and tears; and in no other universe does time trample on souls and bodies more ruthlessly than in that of entertainment – “This is the music business,” Sasha reminds Bennie. “Five years is five hundred years.” Egan’s eyes and ears for the world of appearances – glitz, glam, and all that is required to churn the celebrity machine – is acute (territory that Egan readers will recognize from her first story collection Emerald City and from her second novel Look At Me), and she does take particular interest in exploring the particular brand of ruin that befalls the formerly famous/pseudo-famous. But she’s also got her sights set on the future – on the children, on their particular experience of this same disorienting, media-fied and atomized world of experience-on-demand. How are they responding to all of it, and how are they being shaped? I’m not sure that Egan answers that question, as much as she asks it; but she does render child characters – and child flashbacks of adult characters -- with a striking reverence for both their genius and sensitivity. Lulu -- “Overhearing her daughter on the phone with her friends, Dolly was awed by her authority: she was stern when she needed to be, but also soft. Kind. Lulu was nine” – Rolph -- “At eleven years old, Rolph knows two clear things about himself: He belongs to his father. And his father belongs to him…Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He is in Africa with his father. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right” – Sasha at age 5 -- “...the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time, distracting them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she really was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life’s burdens to even mention them” – and Sasha’s daughter Allison and “slightly autistic” son Linc – these are the real stars of A Visit From the Goon Squad. And, to put a fine point on it, Egan gives us “Pure Language,” the final chapter: a futuristic glimpse into the inevitable creep of precociousness-meets-technology. In addition to the children themselves, I found the brother-sister relationships – and the portrayal of platonic love between male and female in general (between, for example, Bennie and Sasha, and Sasha and Robert) – moving and poignant. Chapter 12 is told from young Allison’s perspective, in “slide journal” form (a kind of poetic-diagrammatic Powerpoint), and provides for us a child’s view of her parents’ estrangement; which is at root the estrangement of her father from her beloved brother Linc, a mathematical/musical idiot savant, who intuits the goonishness of time even at his young age via his obsession with musical pauses: “[Linc’s] crying makes sounds like scraping / Hearing him cry makes me cry, too. / Dad tries to hug Lincoln but he flinches away and hunches his back into a ball. / Mom’s face is white and furious. / She leans close to Dad, and says very softly: / The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” Fans of Egan’s previous novels will be intrigued and excited, I think, to delve into her work in this new (for her) collage, time-shifty, polyphonic form. What the form does have in common with a traditional story collection, however, is that each chapter on some level stands on its own and thus the reader experiences the same unevenness as when reading a series of stories. “Safari,” in my opinion, is far and away the novel’s strongest chapter (having read it in the New Yorker, I was primed and jonzing for Goon Squad); but its characters are not as narratively central as others, and so its strength tips the work in a slightly disorienting way. Without revisiting Charlie or Rolph or even Mindy, Lou’s girlfriend at the time, in any substantial way, we’re left a bit dissatisfied. I was myself eager to see how the novel-in-stories form would serve and showcase Egan’s particular talents as a sharp observer of modern families and culture, along with her idea-driven approach to fiction. In the end, Goon Squad delivers on all the pleasures of Egan’s gifts as we’ve seen them displayed in the past – crisp and pulsing prose, extraordinary psychological insight, finely-specified characters seen from various points of view, a dark and yet vibrant wit, and off-the-charts observational intelligence. But the strain apparent in much of Egan’s work, i.e. the plotty feeling of her plots, is also still evident here, perhaps even more so given the myriad strands she pulls together in order to connect all of her dots (credible degrees of separation notwithstanding). Egan’s work often contains hard turns of the steering wheel (I am thinking here of Phoebe’s one-in-a-million run-in with Wolf in Munich in The Invisible Circus, and Egan’s puppeteer’s handling of the characters/meta-characters in The Keep), and readers will feel steered and handled in Goon Squad as well. But as a student of mine has put it, “It feels a little like she’s putting a fat kid in a tutu; but boy, that kid can dance.” And: “It feels like she’s moving furniture; but you’re sort of in awe of the fact that she has the balls to put the sofa in the kitchen.” In my own work, I find I am also less interested in story than idea or character, and have been known to make strategic (some might say liberal) use of the coincidence; so it's inspiring to see Egan careen and maneuver with a sure hand. A Visit From the Goon Squad ultimately secures Jennifer Egan’s place as a personal touchstone for me, and I would guess for many emerging novelists. Her work is (skillfully, decidedly) equal parts brainy and empathic, hyper-realist and fantastical, gritty and luminous; it is both so-damned-good and identifiably flawed. I teach her stories often and encourage my students (and myself) with her example: “Be brave; sometimes you just need to grab the reins and try stuff.”
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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 November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Sellout 4 months 2. 2. Ninety-Nine Stories of God 5 months 3. 3. The Trespasser 2 months 4. 6. The Underground Railroad 3 months 5. - Moonglow 1 month 6. 5. Barkskins 6 months 7. 10. Commonwealth 2 months 8. 8. Here I Am 3 months 9. 7. Pond 3 months 10. 9. Innocents and Others 5 months How fitting it is for Don DeLillo's Zero K to move on to our Millions Hall of Fame in this, the month of November, the time of no baseball and, thus, no Ks. (I will not apologize for this joke; No I Said No I Won't No.) Speaking of baseball, others have pointed out the accuracy of Back to the Future II's foretelling of our current American predicament -- the Cubs winning the World Series; Biff Tannen ascending to a position of unimaginable power -- and so in that regard, it's fitting that an author who got his start around the time that movie came out would grace our latest Top Ten. Michael Chabon, of course, requires no introduction, and least of all from someone who'd build a strained Back to the Future II reference upon the foundation of a corny baseball joke. Nevertheless here we are. Moonglow, is a welcome addition to this month's list. In her preview for our site last summer, Tess Malone wrote: We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date. A few weeks ago, Chabon expanded on this balancing act between novel and memoir in an interview for our site: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it. That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen. Elsewhere on the list, a few titles jostled around, but nothing dropped out altogether. Stay tuned for next month's list, which will likely be influenced by our ongoing Year in Reading series. This month's near misses included: The Daily Henry James, The Nest, Heroes of the Frontier, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and The Girls. See Also: Last month's list.
Even those who detest the sport can feel the joys of reading Roger Angell’s baseball writing. Case in point: his latest dispatch, in which he remarks on a recent triple play by saying, “What’s great about [triple plays] isn’t really their scarcity but the fact that they beautifully illustrate the invisible force that hovers about each pitch and play and inning and game in this pausing, staccato, and inexorably accruing pastime: the laws of chance.”