Every decade or so, writes George Packer in his review of Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth, it’s the same old line: “[George] Orwell got it wrong. Things haven’t turned out that bad. The Soviet Union is history. Technology is liberating.” But these arguments miss the point: “Orwell never intended his novel to be a prediction, only a warning.” For The Atlantic, Packer asks what 1984 means in today’s America.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Benjamin Dreyer, Juliet Lapidos, Ben Winters and more—that are publishing this week.
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Dreyer’s English by Benjamin DreyerHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Dreyer’s English: “Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, presents a splendid book that is part manual, part memoir, and chockfull of suggestions for tightening and clarifying prose. These begin with his first challenge to writers: ‘Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ’ (‘Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ ’ he says.) Dreyer goes on to write with authority and humor about commonly confused or misspelled words, punctuation rules, and ‘trimmables,’ or redundant phrases (the most memorable he ever encountered was, “He implied without quite saying”; Dreyer was so ‘delighted’ he ‘scarcely had the heart’ to eliminate it from the manuscript). But Dreyer’s most effective material comprises his recollections of working with authors, including Richard Russo, who after noticing a maxim posted in Dreyer’s office from the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs—’Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style’—later called him to ask, ‘Would you say I am an author? Do I have a style?’ This work is that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”
Talent by Juliet LapidosHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Talent: “In her snappy debut, Lapidos questions cultural obsessions with productivity and maximized potential that date back to Jesus’s parable of the talents. A graduate student at Collegiate University (a thinly veiled Yale) and on the cusp of thirty, Anna struggles to complete her languishing dissertation on artistic inspiration, already looking ahead to ‘the life of a professor emerita” before her career has even begun. A chance encounter with Helen Langley at the grocery store puts her in ‘physical proximity to genetic proximity to fame’: Helen is the niece of Frederick Langley, a deceased author of some renown who stopped writing after a promising early career. Helen is involved in a legal battle with Collegiate over its possession of Langley’s unpublished notebooks, which the idling graduate student hopes to mine for material to kick-start her dissertation. The novel proceeds briskly as Anna delves into Frederick’s papers to explain his premature retirement and as the impoverished Helen angles to secure the valuable manuscripts. Anna’s voice is sharp and humorous, capturing the jaded graduate student’s mix of posturing, snark, and self-loathing, but Frederick isn’t as enigmatic as he’s intended to be, and his scheming niece Helen is insufficiently drawn, which weakens the pull of the literary mystery. However, the novel is redeemed by its intelligent musings on the responsibilities of literary culture: what do talented authors owe their readers and themselves?”
Golden State by Ben WintersHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Golden State: “This disappointing postapocalyptic thriller from Edgar winner Winters (Underground Airlines) boasts an irresistible setup: in the near future, California is a sovereign state governed by absolute truth, and telling a lie can result in jail time or worse. Laszlo Ratesic, a veteran police officer whose innate ability to know when someone is lying helps him piece together unsolved crimes, investigates the death of a construction worker who fell off of a roof during a job. The seemingly accidental fatality is filled with anomalies, which leads Ratesic and the young female officer he’s mentoring to uncover a grand-scale conspiracy with staggering implications. While the story, in which every second of the populace’s lives is meticulously recorded, is tonally comparable to Orwell’s 1984, the thematic impact simply isn’t there. Some of the societal elements seem contrived, such as how every citizen must archive every single life event in a journal, and the reveal at the end is too nebulous to be completely effective. Winters’s exploration into the nature of truth will grip many readers, but this ambitious novel misses the mark.”
The Weight of a Piano by Chris CanderHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Weight of a Piano: “In her elegiac and evocative novel, Cander (Whisper Hollow) explores the legacy of loss, the intersections of art and music, and what happens when physical objects assume outsized symbolism. As a young girl in the Soviet Union in 1962, Katya admires her neighbor’s Blüthner piano; when he leaves it to her after his death, Katya pursues her musical passions and becomes obsessed with maintaining possession of the piano, even when given the opportunity to flee as a dissident. In California in 2012, Clara is a 26-year-old auto mechanic. Her boyfriend has just ended their relationship and demanded that she move out—along with the Blüthner that is her only remaining link to her dead parents. When a piano-moving accident leaves Clara with a broken hand and unable to work, she impulsively puts the piano for sale on Craigslist—and the response she receives sends her deep into the barren beauty of Death Valley and into a new relationship that may shed light on her family history, and on the cursed history of that piano. Reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, Cander’s novel delves into the often unexplainable genesis of artistic inspiration and examines how family legacy—the physical objects people inherit, the genetic traits people carry on, and the generational lore people internalize—can both ignite imagination and limit its scope. Cander brilliantly and convincingly expresses music and visual art in her writing, capturing both within a near-alien but surprisingly stunning landscape.”
99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan KochaiHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about 99 Nights in Logar: “Kochai’s debut is an imaginative, enthralling, and lyrical exploration of coming home—and coming-of-age—set amid the political tensions of modern Afghanistan. Twelve-year-old Marwand returns to his family’s village of Logar in 2005—and on the very first day, has the tip of his index finger bitten off by the compound’s fearsome guard dog, Budabash. Marwand, with his cousin, two ‘little uncles’” and younger brother, then vow ‘jihad against Budabash’—as soon as they can find the runaway hound. The seemingly Huck Finn–like tale, however, slowly evolves into a mesmerizing collection of stories, first narrated by Marwand (who recounts the vicious beating he gave an old mutt when the family first settled in Afghanistan in 1999) and set against the backdrop of a war-torn region. Through nightly conversations in the family compound, Marwand discovers that talk ‘always seemed to circle back to war.’ His 99-day-long search for the devil dog Budabash is filled with the stories of events both real and imagined: a family wedding, a mysterious illness that takes down the household, and finally the dreamlike clash between Marwand and Budabash. Kochai is a masterful storyteller, and will leave readers eager for the next tale.”
The Eulogist by Terry GambleHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Eulogist: “Gamble’s third novel (after Good Family) concerns the lives of the Givens siblings, Irish immigrants who start over in 1819 Cincinnati. Olivia, the book’s strong-willed narrator, takes a shine to like-minded doctor Silas Orpheus, who admires her distaste for religion and allows her to surreptitiously dissect corpses with him. Olivia’s older brother, James, a successful candle maker who married rich, is initially reluctant to give his blessing for their marriage, as Silas’s disreputable brother, Eugene, sends a slave, Tilly, in lieu of a proper dowry. Olivia and Tilly become friendly, and Tilly helps her set up her own business doing hair. Olivia’s ambivalence toward slavery dissipates when Silas dies and she meets Eugene’s family on their Kentucky property. When Olivia enlists the help of her younger brother, Erasmus, now a Methodist preacher living on a river encampment, to help lead one of the slaves to freedom, Eugene retaliates by demanding that Tilly be returned. Since Ohio is a free state, an ill-fated trial ensues. Olivia and her family are thereafter pulled into the movement to smuggle slaves to freedom. Gamble adeptly chronicles Olivia’s transformation from a free-thinking but unaffected young woman into a determined widow who wants to indirectly avenge Tilly. This is a standout depiction of family dynamics, and will appeal to fans of fiction set in pre–Civil War America.”
Also on shelves: Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé and Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea (which you can read an excerpt of here).
My English department colleagues and I can spend a whole lunch break making fun of To Kill a Mockingbird. A literary roast punctuated by sarcastic regurgitations of Atticus Finch’s sanctimonious advice. Just, you know, take a walk in her shoes, dude, I might sneer, interrupting a teacher’s account of an encounter with a difficult student’s unpleasant parent. Most of us have to teach the novel every year, and our irreverence springs from discomfort. We’re tasked with teaching a book that doesn’t live up to its longstanding responsibility.
In ninth-grade English classes around the country, To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to deliver a reckoning with American racism. In the 2012 documentary Hey Boo, Oprah Winfrey calls it “our national novel.” Written by a white woman, To Kill a Mockingbird was published at the dawn of a civil rights movement distant to high school students accustomed to dutiful but shallow observations of Black History Month. The teenagers of today, in my experience, chortle (and bristle) at racist memes on Instagram, explore trollish sectors of Reddit, and absorb frequent police shootings of unarmed black men. As a chronicle of our country’s racism, To Kill a Mockingbird is quaint, ill-equipped to deflect turds flung by an evolved state of bigotry. Even before the 2015 publication of a controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, and a more recent legal battle over Aaron Sorkin’s newly opened Broadway adaptation, writers have scrutinized Atticus Finch’s flaws, some suggesting that the novel be excised from high school curricula.
The problem isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird as much as how teachers have learned to teach the novel—the way our teachers taught us when we were in high school, which reveals more about our past and present relationship with race than the book itself. I agree with much of the contemporary criticism I’ve read (although not complaints that the book is too audacious in its message or raw in its language). Still, To Kill a Mockingbird lets students assail a book’s long-proclaimed importance, which is common in college, but less so in high school, where literature is usually presented as something to “get” more than attack. With To Kill a Mockingbird, I can help students, like Scout Finch, lose some innocence (and ignorance) about their country. A book exemplifying our ailments may be a better starting point than one that claims to have transcended them.
I teach very few black students in Marin County, a punchline for moneyed liberal dippiness, home of hot tubs with Mt. Tam views, elk reserves, and George Lucas. Yet my public high school’s student body is 65 percent Latinx, and in the days after the 2016 presidential election, a handful of these students reported heckling by town residents as they walked to school. Both white and Latinx students marched out of class in protest of the election results, but a contingent of white counterprotesters wore familiar red hats and swaggered among them. Three boys whooped in a jeep booming the late, racist country singer Johnny Rebel. Months later, a Latino student accidentally grazed one of their cars in the school parking lot. Via slur-riddled Snapchat posts, the owner of the car, let’s call him Darren, threatened to deliver a beatdown. After serving a suspension, Darren left school to avoid tension with classmates and teachers. His friends considered a retaliatory walkout. Some faculty fretted over Darren’s diminished college prospects while others wondered how bigotry could bubble over in enlightened Marin. But most knew racism had always been there—in the isolation of newcomer immigrant students, in the white students’ domination of student government and Homecoming courts. Brown students walk to the bus station after school as white classmates steer newish cars out of the lot. After the Darren incident, the school convened student panels and hired consultants to lead professional development lessons, but I figured that my approach to teaching could help heal my school too. From experience, I knew a classic (and mandated) text like To Kill a Mockingbird could make discussions less immediately confrontational. The responsibility felt even more urgent at the beginning of the 2017 school year when unrest over a Confederate monument saw a self-professed neo-Nazi kill a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, when a racist jury threatens to condemn a black man for a crime he didn’t commit, defense attorney Atticus Finch valiantly tries the case he’s supposed to throw, insisting upon the purity of an obviously flawed American justice system. “Some men were born to do our unpleasant work for us,” says Finch family friend Miss Maudie. Lawyers, like former FBI Director James Comey for instance, or former President Barack Obama, often revere Atticus. Perhaps in homage to both Gregory Peck and the character he immortalized, actor Casey Affleck named a child after him. In 2017, Atticus was one of the most popular American baby names, a testament to his towering status. Still, nearly 25 years ago, in my Louisville, Kentucky high school English class, the Finch family patriarch was badly miscast as a civil rights crusader. From listening in on the lessons of teacher colleagues at multiple schools, despite the recent critiques, I’m pretty sure many (probably most) teachers in the United States still peddle some version of the worshipful narrative I was expected to embrace at age 14: Atticus, a hero for his time (the 1930s), his author’s (the late 1950s and early 1960s), and our ever-shifting present.
This pedagogical tradition reflects a lazy analysis of the book. Transforming Atticus Finch from icon to naive man of fundamental decency but narrow vision doesn’t require a deviation from the text, just an honest interpretation.
For a well-read lawmaker whose family name is synonymous with fictitious Maycomb County, Atticus poorly understands how much bigotry shapes its inhabitants. He relentlessly, gravely sees the essential good in people who present to contemporary teenage and adult readers as various strains along the spectrum of villainous to ignorant and misguided. In the book, he’s almost lynched along with his client, Tom Robinson. His children are nearly knifed by a racist, drunk sex criminal Atticus refuses to ever consider a serious danger despite his repeated threats. When Jem asks about the influence of the Klu Klux Klan in mid-1930s Alabama, Atticus dismisses his concerns with privileged detachment. The Klan may have lost members in the late 1920s, but it didn’t feel like “a political organization” without “anybody to scare” to the families of four black girls murdered in Birmingham three years after the novel’s 1960 publication. In a mockery of evidence, Atticus supplies the story of a lone Jewish citizen embarrassing some faint-hearted Klansmen with the revelation he’d sold them the sheets covering their faces. Even Scout’s half-literate classmates (themselves young bigots-in-training) understand that “old Adolf Hitler” is evil, but Atticus makes a grand show of telling her and Jem that it’s not okay to hate him—or anyone for that matter.
As a member of the Maycomb County elite, Atticus has little experience with being on hate’s receiving end, and once he gets his taste, unlike Tom Robinson, he sustains relatively minor wounds: insults from Ms. Dubose, spittle in his face courtesy of Mayella Ewell’s real tormentor, and injuries to his children’s bodies that leave them bruised, even, in Jem’s case, slightly disfigured, but certainly alive. Atticus saves his fiery passion for threats to the courts (those “great equalizers”) because they theoretically involve white law enforcement officers, judges, and jurors doing the right thing; readers have no evidence the book’s events reshape his view of Maycomb and America. Considering Atticus emphasizes the essential niceness of “most people” to a convalescing Scout on the last page of the book, it seems likely, Go Set a Watchman’s unpopular revisionism notwithstanding, that Atticus maintains his status quo. He luxuriously learns nothing, hardly coming of age at all, and although Martin Luther King arrives in a few decades and America trips forward, it’s pretty clear that Tom Robinson will presage other deaths, real deaths.
Harper Lee gives students alternatives to Atticus. In her only appearance in the book, Lula confronts Scout and Jem when Calpurnia brings them to church for Sunday service. The Finch family housekeeper, Cal, has applied Atticus’s maxim about walking in the shoes of others, a worn piece of advice that most years I simulate by asking students to document routines in one another’s homes. At the town’s black church, where white people gamble weeknights, Lula is the sole member of the congregation to question the white children’s presence. Rebuking her, the congregation proves as welcoming as the white community is exclusive. At Tom Robinson’s trial, after Atticus concludes his stirring closing argument about the importance of fair courts, the congregation stands respectfully from their prescribed section. Does Lee mean to show that black people reject segregation because they know the pain it causes? That Lula’s separatist impulse mirrors the sentiments of white people who question her humanity and intelligence? Maybe we’re supposed to clap when the community backs Jem and Scout intruding on a rare black safe space for healing, for solidarity, for strength-building, but I prefer to have faith in Lee’s talent. For all her supposedly “contentious,” “haughty,” and “fancy” ways, Lula never reduces the humanity of Scout and Jem. She just notes that they’re invaders, giving them a tiny taste of what she has always known (and also pointedly asking if Cal is considered “company” at the Finch house). Lula and Cal would never be welcomed into a white congregation, regardless of who brought them.
Ironically, when I ask students to compare, in a response essay, Lula’s prejudice with that of white townspeople, typically a slim majority of them see no difference. To many, judging someone on the basis of skin color is wrong, and the power of white people to define and exclude black people doesn’t make racism worse than the self-preserving actions of black people. Maybe Lee wants us to see that prejudice is a two-way street (as some of my students claim in their writing). But given Lula’s limited screen time, Lee does too masterful a job at portraying her as powerless as well as impassioned, incapable of being heard by her own people, much less altering the white power in her midst, even when its envoys are two timid children. As Reverend Sykes harangues his congregation for abstracted sin with the same fervor as the white preachers Scout knows (and collects money for the Robinson family), Lula comes across as brave and realistic, attacking the essential unfairness of the scenario.
Students are usually surprised when I remind them that Atticus never explicitly denounces racism or impugns the characters of townspeople who revel in it. His warning that his children’s generation may have to “pay the bill” for crimes against black people smacks of fear, not hope. He stands against hate, but not, specifically, white people’s hatred of black people. Everyone has their blind spot, Atticus likes to say. Yet he proclaims to Jem that it’s “sickening” to take advantage of a black man. He places black people in the role of wayward children—ignorant, foolish, gullible. This is not an empowering message.
I don’t want to ban To Kill a Mockingbird. While there are novels I’d certainly rather teach, in her portrayal of Atticus and his community of hypocrites and bystanders, Lee wrote a book far more relevant than she’s often given credit for by teachers. Bombarded with daily evidence that the United States remains hobbled by institutional racism, a contemporary reader may come to a pessimistic conclusion: The noblest adult with any power in the novel offers up no assault on bigotry itself, just the notion a spectacularly innocent client doesn’t even deserve counsel. Chipping away at Atticus elevates the book to bitter tragedy, both about the legacy of racism in this country and our inability to identify and combat it effectively.
Every year, I am more enthusiastic about sharing Beloved with my seniors. Its “malevolent phantom,” far grimmer than Boo Radley, comes to torment a formerly enslaved mother who made the profoundly human decision to try to kill her children instead of allowing them to be enslaved. The horrors of Sethe’s past have scattered mines throughout her present, walled off her future, and fragmented her autobiography. The book ends on an ambiguously ominous note. Yet in giving us Denver, her (possibly) Oberlin-bound adult daughter who finally steps off the porch of the old haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road, Toni Morrison offers some hope. Even with Denver’s bedridden mother adding a question mark after the pronoun “me,” as if she’s not quite sure of the self Paul D assures her she freely possesses. Once incapacitated by fear of an enslavement she never experienced firsthand, Denver brims with potential, a reminder to students that tattered stories can be stitched. In contrast, To Kill a Mockingbird leaves wounds gaping and, more offensively, ignored. Tom Robinson’s hopeless trial and eventual off-screen death is, as Roxane Gay suggests in this recent NYT piece, a formative event in the childhood of a precocious white girl. His imprisonment and casual annihilation is swallowed up by Ewell’s attack on Scout and Jem. Tom’s wife and three children live on, and I always wonder what it’d be like to read their pain, to trace the vacuum in their lives. I ask students to envision it. Beloved allows students to imagine how the surviving Robinsons live with that vacuum and the accompanying bitterness, for generations to come. As Sethe says, some things go, pass on, others just stay.
Predictably, white students often clam up during the Beloved unit. “I can’t relate to it,” shrugged Nick, a good student, when I asked why his quiz grades on Beloved had slumped. He’d probably never wondered why his Guatemalan and Mexican classmates might have struggled to connect to 1984 or The Stranger. He could not find himself in Beloved unless he wanted to slip into the white skin of a slave owner, aging abolitionist cynic, or abused teenage girl. He was used to finding himself, if not in the behavior of Meursault or Winston Smith, at least in their bodies. Tracy, a transgender student who once pointed out the unfairness of teachers addressing class as “boys and girls,” insisted that slavery was over and that dwelling on its horrors didn’t help anyone. An English major friend from college has never read Toni Morrison, and when I once asked why, he responded almost exactly like Nick. Melanie, conscientious and quirky, seethed when I pointed out that the Bodwins’ boarding arrangement with Baby Suggs borders on slavery, and that Mr. Bodwin himself characterizes his radical political phase as a romantic episode that, by the end of the war, and with his advancing age, has lost its luster. Bodwin fights against slavery without understanding its evil. Atticus fights for the law without understanding the people expected to obey, serve, and be abused by it.
Race is such a severe line of demarcation for the quality and character of the American experience, white students find contemplating it daunting and disquieting and try to avoid it as much as most white adults. In an interview published shortly after the book’s publication, Morrison called slavery our “national amnesia” and suggested that she struggled to write Beloved because she felt like she was “drowning” in a history she’d gone out of her way to duck.
“We haven’t forgotten; we never knew,” says lawyer John Cummings in a short New Yorker documentary about the Whitney Plantation, the unique Louisiana slavery museum he founded in 2014. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told, Cornell professor Edward Baptist compares slavery to the first crucial years in America’s retirement portfolio; it juiced our economic strength and permitted political and military power to expand in the 20th century. Sharing such ideas over the course of the Beloved unit is my way of asking students to entertain the tattered narrative from which they initially recoil. What’s much harder is having them feel invested in its repair.
I’ve sometimes debated amicably with colleagues, the same who join me in tweaking Atticus, about the extent to which class material should be tailored to the interests and lives of students. To foster buy-in, teachers need to make material relevant. Sometimes that means students essentially only end up thinking and writing about themselves. Facing To Kill a Mockingbird, Latinx students often turn the discussion toward immigration. White girls tend to focus on gender, LGBTQ students on sexual orientation, and so on. As a conclusion to my To Kill a Mockingbird unit, I have students write appointed and elected officials proposing potential solutions to symptoms of America’s continuing struggle with racism. To date they have received responses of varying depth from Department of Education representatives and Sen. Kamala Harris’s office. When I assigned the project, students had no qualms asking if they could avoid writing about race and instead focus on marriage equality or the environment. One girl picked an alternative topic and submitted a letter without asking permission. The point of my assignment is not to strip students of agency. I want them to get out of their comfort zones and practice empathy. To imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus says.
My colleagues agree with me: a teacher can provide bridges between the unfamiliar and the known, but to be serious students (as well as decent human beings), kids have to learn to be curious and uncomfortable. They can’t loll in the padded cells of their own personal experiences and social media feeds.
I came to my current school from a school in Los Angeles that served only low-income students of color. When I made the move, I told a grad school friend that I felt a little guilty, like helping relatively more affluent students embrace their power and potential might make my work feel less meaningful. He saw no discrepancy. “Your white students need to understand power maybe more than anyone,” he said.
For six decades, To Kill a Mockingbird has been taught with the comfort (and power) of white students (and their mostly white teachers) in mind. Ensuring this comfort has led millions to an absurd reading of a seminal work of literature. It’s this misreading, and misteaching, ironically, that truly makes it our national novel. A To Kill a Mockingbird unit needs to be about the way this book was taught to students’ parents, and those parents’ parents, and why that problematic understanding of the book hasn’t benefited any generation. The repetition of the teaching mirrors the repetition of errors, from Selma to Charlottesville, the narrative tapestry shredding again and again. It’s good if, through English class, all students—Darrens as well as those they might target—come away with a rich understanding of how racism is foundational to America and how it affects the lives of black and brown people. It’s better if they recognize that all marginalized groups in the United States and abroad can find common ground. It’s a profound thing if they come away more empathetic, less likely to contribute, as a hound of Twitter or meme-sharing troll, to a culture of ignorance, callousness, and knee-jerk antagonism. It’s worth noting that Atticus, who preaches such magnanimity, never once suggests his kids slip into the skin of someone who isn’t white. Students in 2019 can learn from his weakness even more than his wisdom.
Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.”
What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale.
It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary.
Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family.
Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia.
Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation.
Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations.
Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood.
The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself.
Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child.
None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.”
Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations.
In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.”
As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents.
To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met.
As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda.
For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell.
Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia.
If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared.
But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there.
Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
In “Teasing Myself Out of Thought,” from her excellent last collection of essays and reviews, Words Are My Matter, the recently departed and much missed Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “Kids are taught writing in school as a means to an end. Most writing is indeed a means to an end: love letters, information of all kinds, business communications, instructions, tweets. Much writing embodies, is, a message.” Not surprisingly, Le Guin despised writing as “merely…the vehicle of a message,” because for her writing’s purpose was to write “as well as we can.” And in another essay, “The Operating Instructions,” she writes:
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
That last sentence hammers at my head. I worry about getting made up by other people’s language; and I worry about the same for my students, my friends, my community. How should one address this? Through science fiction. And while science fiction novels and stories have a long history of dealing with language (1984, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” and China Miéville’s Embassytown), I think a cult film serves us best right now.
I’m referring to John Carpenter’s sci-fi movie They Live (1988). Here’s why: the plot and dialogue talk right back to Le Guin’s concern about who gets to invent whom nowadays. The plot of They Live is plain as pancakes. A drifter arrives in Los Angeles and stumbles upon a world-wide alien-robot conspiracy to keep the human race in submission through subliminal messaging through all forms of media. The drifter discovers the alien-robots with woo woo science sunglasses. A battle between undeceived humans and alien-robots ensues. So the plot is nothing if apt to the world in which we find ourselves. Sort of.
The film was based on Ray Nelson’s (very) short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963. The story has nothing to recommend it (other than sheer bloody forward momentum), as it’s more of what Le Guin called “a vehicle,” an extended scene that allows the flat main character, George Nada, to act simply as an idea (rebellion, waking up to authority and consumerism) charging through the landscape murdering disguised and oppressive aliens. (It was turned into a much more interesting and funny graphic story called Nada with artwork by Bill Wray.)
But I want to give They Live a bit more room to breathe. I want to look at it as Le Guin would’ve, as a way not to have “our lives get made up for us by other people.” Mostly because I think the film comes off (unfairly) as schlock. It is, no doubt, a clumsy movie. A product of its time: a reactionary (if cartoony) condemnation of Reaganomics and ’80s hyper-bourgeois materialism. It’s also admittedly a B-movie (alien-robots, guns, violence, cursing, blatant and needless nudity), one that doesn’t take itself too seriously or try excessively to prove its credentials. That sort of insouciance is in the movie’s favor.
To me, the oddest trait of the movie is a lack of dialogue. Again, much of the film silently follows the main character, now styled John Nada (Roddy Piper), in his travails around the down and out of Los Angeles. Famously, there’s a six minute fight scene between the two main characters in the middle of the movie. (Slavoj Zizek has humorously made much of this scene regarding the role of ideology. Do with that what you will.) There are a couple of scenes where I jolt and go, What the hell was that dialogue for? And what can it tell me about how language is working for me and working on me?
Odd Scene #1: Frank (the badass Keith David) asks Nada if he wants some hot food and shelter. If he does, he knows a place. Nada silently declines. Frank, rebuffed, cuts his losses and leaves. Nada trails behind more like a confused dog than someone with a lot of confidence. After a half-minute of this on screen, Frank turns and makes it known he hates being followed. Nada replies stoically: “Well, I don’t join up with anyone, unless I know where they’re going.” My immediate reaction to this was Yeah, okay, Big Shot. Nada’s so independent and hardy. What a stud. But as I thought back on it, this doesn’t make any sense in relation to the rest of the flick. It’s an outright political and ethical statement nailed right into the script without any softening or rhetorical care. Just, thwack!, right in there. Deal with it.
Odd Scene #2: Here’s dialogue from the movie. The main characters are hiding out in a hotel room after escaping the alien-robots.
Nada: A long time ago things were different man. My old daddy took me down to the river, kicked my ass, told me about the power and the glory. I was saved. He changed when I was little. Turned mean and started tearin’ at me. So I ran away when I was 13. He tried to cut me once. Big old razor blade. Held it up against my throat. I said “Daddy please”… Just kept moving back and forth… like he was sawin’ down a little tree…
Frank: Maybe they’ve always been with us… those things out there. Maybe they love it… seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our own cold fuckin’ hearts…
Nada: I got news for ‘em… There’s gonna be hell to pay. ‘Cause I ain’t daddy’s little boy no more.
Again, I thought What the hell is this doing here? None of it really lines up with the rest of the movie, and in and of itself, doesn’t make much sense. (Moreover, the dialogue was more “believable” in Nelson’s story.) But I kept thinking that there had to be some connection between the dialogue and the violence (both on screen and in the movie). Again, the Long Fight Scene between Frank and Nada was (perhaps) a way to show how deeply rooted and difficult it is to change ideologies. When Nada falls into this reverie about “a long time ago” I thought maybe he was trying to connect this up with the fight. And maybe he is. Maybe his dad’s rough handling was a change of ideology. Clearly the father had gone from wanting to save his son (with religion) to wanting to kill him (for whatever reason—one assumes that 13 is a classic age for rebellion and questioning authority). His father saw him as a thing (a little tree, a sapling) not as a person. So it was a negative change of ideology—that is, Nada lost his ideology through violence; he didn’t gain an ideology in return.
If we follow the idea that Nada’s father wanted to threaten him at 13 for doing what 13-year-olds do, then it makes sense that Nada has been a drifter. A quester. A journeyman. He’s skeptical. He questions everything.
To say that this is commentary on “staying awake” or “paying attention to propaganda” or (god forbid) getting “woke”—is an overstatement at best and a banal observation at worst. So then, what can we do with it?
I’d prefer to use it, as I’ve said, as a way to think about language. Most of Nada’s lines are goofy, and now famous, (“I came here to do two things: kick ass and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”) but memorable for that exact reason. (And, as has been pointed out to me, many are in popular culture now, especially through video games or Shepard Fairey’s OBEY artwork.) Nada’s language is tortuously precious in its idealism (see the exchange between Nada and Frank above) and awkward in its earnestness (“Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat.”). In a way, Nada is speaking through memes (even if no one spoke of them in the ’80s) and talking in the way of magazines and ads, short memorable snippets, the sort of language he reviles and which the magical resistance sunglasses translate as coded messages of consumerism and obedience (OBEY, CONSUME, CONFORM). So where does Nada’s language fall? Nowhere? Into nothingness?
John Nada’s language is a warning. If you want, call it Le Guin’s Warning: a warning to those who dare to break away and question and turn skeptical—and the warning is this: “If you reject following, of any sort, don’t banish all language of power, because you then end up taking on whatever is around.” And that move is just as dangerous as obeying because you have to have language to function. But how to tell which language is oppressive and which isn’t? Especially when one might be “ideology-less”—if such a position even exists. What kind of language is a function itself of propaganda or bullshit, and what is Trying to Get It Right? (I’m not sure what that last phrase means, but it seems correct to have it in all caps.) The conclusion I come to with They Live is that we can follow John Nada and Frank (who, himself, is just that: frank and forthright and pulls no punches, literally) and use them as models: Question, but have trust. Do good work, but don’t let others take advantage of it. And so on.
As for the alien-robots, it seems that they are whatever hi-jacks or forces language on us. Are we to obey or follow what’s around us just because we see it? How much pressure is there to follow and ape it? And how much of that pressure is real or made up? How much of forced or obedient language is in your work, professionally or artistically or otherwise? When I ask questions of my own writing, e.g. What does this sound like? I’m often thinking of answers like: “This sounds like a bank teller, or a barista, or a grandmother, or a presidential candidate.” Or I’m thinking, “This sounds like an economic report from the Secretary of the Treasury or a salesman on QVC or it sounds like the guy at the end of the bar who’s been drinking for too long.” John Carpenter got it because Ray Nelson got it. John Nada got it. And Le Guin got it. Learn how to invent your own life through language and don’t get made by another. The Voice of Ursula is, and always will, gently hammer inside my head. Who do you sound like, and why do you want to sound like that?
Science fiction often presents two nightmare visions of the future: one when the world has ended, and one when the world hasn’t, where “progress”—technological, typically—determinedly continues, for better but mostly worse. Whichever you find least frightening probably depends on your faith that humanity will make the right decisions when it has to, like deciding not to implant computers inside our brains or outsource our fate to algorithms. Sometimes, the world ending isn’t the worst thing in the, well, world.
The world ends twice in Nick Clark Windo’s new dystopian science fiction novel, The Feed. It ends first as society destroys itself, anonymous hackers wreaking havoc with the titular technology—the Feeds implanted inside (mostly) everyone’s brains. It ends again as society destroys the planet, exorbitant energy consumption—to power the Feeds—turning Earth into an inhospitable oven. Windo is most interested in these doomsdays and their aftermaths; how we get there, less so.
The Feed opens on the precipice of the first apocalypse. The Feed, for a moment, remains functional. Essentially a smartphone embedded inside the skull, the Feed provides an intracranial stream of information, content, and communication. Targeted advertisements appear behind your eyes based on fleeting emotions and the people around you. The Feed measures everything from your hormone levels to the revolutions of a looter’s heaved rock, and presents the world in an onslaught of personalized metrics. Memories are stored in the cloud and shared with others as virtual reality-esque sensory experiences. People let out “unintended real laughs” instead of LOLs. It’s the Internet, but if mainlined directly into a person’s consciousness.
Tom and Kate Hatfield, The Feed’s protagonists, sit in an upscale restaurant, going “slow.” They’ve turned off their Feeds for the evening, fighting addiction to the technology in their brains. A short while into dinner, the restaurant’s patrons panic as their Feeds are bombarded with videos of the U.S. president’s assassination—along with a helpful link showing where to purchase the sweater he’s wearing for yourself, hopefully without the bloodstains. Chaos ensues as people are “taken” in their sleep. With the Feed, getting hacked means being totally erased from your own body, like a wiped hard-drive. No one knows if the people inside their brothers, sisters, fathers are actually who they claim to be. More assassinations follow, perpetrated by the presumed taken. Society and the Feed quickly collapse.
Six years later, the remnants of humanity—those who didn’t kill themselves in the void left behind by the Feed’s absence—live in camps. Food is scarce, and electricity is nonexistent. Without the instantaneous access to information provided by the Feed, people have forgotten common words and rudimentary concepts of how the world works. They have to relearn how to use their brains, how to create memories, and Windo illustrates the struggle with computer terminology: brains “stall” and “judder,” feeling for the Feed like a ghost limb.
Eventually, the plot of The Feed stirs into motion. Tom and Kate’s daughter is kidnapped, and they must traverse their hollowed-out world to find her. What follows is fairly typical post-apocalyptic fare. There are cars overgrown with vegetation and foxes chewing on bones, run-ins with mysterious fellow survivors. Time travel is brought into the mix, and, subsequently, parallel dimensions. The Feed provides a rather literal deus ex machina.
Windo’s novel focuses most of its attention on this apocalypse the technology has wrought, rather than the technology itself. In The Feed, the nightmare is in the ending: the destruction of the Feed, those left grappling with the gaping hole it has left in their minds. The central question of The Feed is how to survive without it.
In a different novel with the same technological premise, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, published in 2002 with a Sean Parker-approved title, the question is how to survive with it. The technology is generally the same as Windo’s—ceaseless ads and lowest common denominator content beamed into the brain—presented in a satirical young adult novel narrated by a teenager named Titus, because Anderson understands that a generation’s technology is best experienced with teens as tour guides. The world of Feed is ruthlessly commercial: one character is described as the “little economy model” of another, suburban chain restaurants have made it all the way to the moon, and Schools™ have been taken over by corporations because it “sounds completely like, Nazi, to have the government running the schools.” In Feed, unlike in Windo’s novel, the Feed is very much working as intended.
Anderson’s satire is not always the most nuanced, but then again, neither is the world he is roasting—even less so 16 years later. In flashes of news stories intermixed with commercials, environmental disaster is ignored while the president defends big business and—as if Anderson had a premonition of the current POTUS—publicly debates the meaning of the term “shithead.” What makes Feed compelling, however, is when it reveals the future our data-addicted present portends.
We see that present in Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, a bestseller in 2016 that details how big data and its algorithmic tendrils already “encod[e] human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias” and “punish the poor and the oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.” O’Neil works industry by industry to reveal how digital advertisers see consumers begging for targeted ads, how for-profit colleges use data to set up the most desperate students with predatory loans, and how companies use unregulated “e-scores” as a stand-in for job applicants’ employability. The data-driven programs and products O’Neil investigates “deliver unflinching verdicts, and the human beings employing them can only shrug.” Just take a look at the social credit scores already introduced in China that rank individuals’ eligibility for loans and dating apps. In 2018, your data is your fate.
Titus is the narrator of Feed, but the novel’s true protagonist is his girlfriend, Violet. She spends the book torn between resisting the Feed’s influence and succumbing to its pleasures, and ultimately suffers the fate that O’Neil shows us is not a far-fetched science fiction. Violet was implanted with the Feed as a young child—still late for her generation—because her reluctant father knew it was an economic necessity, that she would need to be a consumer to get a job. But her father could only afford the cheaper model, and so when Violet and the others are hacked (in a nightclub on the moon), it’s Violet’s feed that begins to malfunction, taking her brain with it. Feed follows as Violet deteriorates, losing control of her body.
Violet is left with one option: appeal to the megacorporations that dominate the world of Feed for surgical repairs that will save her life. But she has spent the novel “trying to create a customer profile that’s so screwed, no one can market to it.” She attempts, as John Herrman recently suggests in The New York Times Magazine, to “fool our algorithmic spies.” Herrman writes of the “intentionally deceptive,” antagonistic actions we take prompted by the knowledge of big data’s omniscience. This knowledge prompts Violet to browse for a disparate collection of products, never purchasing. She purposely eludes the Feed’s gaze, and this rebellion condemns her to death. Her request to the Feed’s conglomerates is denied, as explained by the Feed’s bot-like avatar, Nina:
Unfortunately FeedTech and other investors reviewed your purchasing history, and we don’t feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time. No one could get what we call a ‘handle’ on your shopping habits.
Instead, Nina suggests checking out “some of the great bargains available to you through the feednet,” telling Violet, “we might be able to create a consumer portrait of you that would interest our investment team.” The Feed’s answer for Violet is to become a better kind of consumer to survive.
It sounds a bit maudlin, but is it so different from the GoFundMe version of healthcare that has become so popular, where life-saving care depends on your virality? Only for Anderson, it’s faceless corporations we have to impress for medical care, rather than our fellow Internet users. This is the future Feed presents to us and O’Neil sees breathing down our necks: consumerism not as self-actualization, but as self-preservation.
Like the world of Anderson’s novel, The Feed is most interesting when providing glimpses of its pre-apocalyptic backstory. We see a world populated by QR codes that personalize each and every product to a person, while there are references to continental water wars and environmental decay. Post-collapse, Tom laments how people let technology “evolve faster than their morals could keep up,” their belief that “when self-preservation kicked in, when business and survival meshed…[that it] was just a question of when that solution would be found” to keep the Feed in check. In an early scene, Tom comes upon what once was a warehouse of memory servers, and another character reminds him, “these are people”—with a person’s essence stored on a microchip, Windo literalizes the idea of people as the sum of their data. The Feed ultimately hinges on an exploration of whether or not this is true, whether or not identity is the corporeal form we inhabit or the data—emotional, behavioral—we produce. In Weapons, O’Neil shows us how that question has largely already been resolved in the affirmative for big data.
In both Feed and The Feed, big data offers the possibility of salvation: a chance to rewrite the past, treatment for an otherwise terminal fate. In both novels, salvation is denied and devastation comes while waiting for the benevolence of the corporations behind the algorithms and content. The lesson, then, is clear: Don’t wait. (Although it’s perhaps too late for Windo to follow his own advice, as The Feed has already been sold to Amazon as a television series.) But Windo makes the drama of The Feed intensely personal. Tom’s father invented the Feed, and so our narrator is the son of Zuckerberg or Bezos; he’s resisting his family legacy. Tom plays a personal part in the time-shattering twist that comes mid-book. The characters of Feed, in contrast, are commonplace. They’re any of Facebook’s billion users, any of the millions of Amazon Prime subscribers—people just trying to be the right kind of consumers. In this way, Feed is more immediate. It’s easier to imagine ourselves binge-buying pants online as consolation than ransacking our way to the penthouse apartment of the Feed’s CEO in search of time-travel-assisted resolution.
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death provides the two ways, as he puts it, “culture may be shriveled.” There’s the fate of George Orwell’s 1984, where “culture becomes a prison,” or the fate of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where “culture becomes a burlesque.” Postman published Amusing in 1985, before technology remade our cultural landscape yet again, into the world O’Neil’s Weapons shows us. Now, there seems to be a third option: culture as math problem, stores of data and finely tuned algorithms dictating what we see, what we do, and what we are. “The only thing worse than the thought it may all come tumbling down is the thought that we may go on like this forever,” Violet says in Feed. It’s both teenage melodrama and science fiction dichotomy: The Feed finds horror in the former, Feed the latter. As for the rest of us—well, I’m sure there’s an algorithm to sort that out.
It was my then-girlfriend (now wife), G, who spotted the unassuming flyer by the door of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, just a few steps away from the elegant dome of the Radcliffe Camera. There was something about Philip Pullman giving a talk, and it was the next day, and there wasn’t anything about an admission price. We had to go.
G and I were studying abroad in the U.K. that year and visiting Oxford for the first time. G would later go on to study at Oxford, which was a longtime dream. We’re part of the generation that grew up with great fantasy series: the Harry Potter books came out when we were Harry’s age, and we both read The Lord of the Rings voraciously as children, snubbing those who only saw the movies (which we also loved). Oxford, as the home of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the filming location for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, held a special magic for us. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with its reimagined version of Oxford, was also part of that magic.
What we should’ve realized about Philip Pullman’s talk that morning in Oxford, and the fact that he was giving it in a church on a Sunday morning, was that it was in fact a sermon. Which meant we had to sit through mass in order to hear him speak. The place was packed, and we heard some local ladies mention that they noticed many young new faces in the pews. I’d never attended an Anglican mass before, and I was glad to find out that much of it consisted of listening to beautiful singing.
Pullman is an outspoken agnostic, so it’s a credit to the Church of England and to this church in particular that he was invited to give the sermon. He climbed up the pulpit in his trailing black robe, wisps of white hair framing his round head, rimless glasses around his eyes. Philip Pullman has said that if he had a daemon—a kind of animal companion the characters in his books have, a physical manifestation of their souls—it would be a raven. He certainly looked like one that day. Instead of talking about God or analyzing a quote from The Bible, Pullman used his mellow storyteller’s voice to talk to us about the motivating force in his own life: intellectual curiosity.
Pullman has been promising his readers a sequel to His Dark Materials for a long time. We’ve even known the title for several years: The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is a mysterious substance, conscious matter that clusters around human ingenuity, that is a driving force behind the plot of the original trilogy. Pullman, as if to help us wait for his new opus, has published two short stories and an audio story in the intervening years, but these amounted to pleasant collectibles that excited briefly but could not fully satisfy.
Now, finally, with the publication of the new trilogy’s first volume, La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s readers are seeing the fruits of his work these last 17 years, and I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it.
Authors do well to limit the scope of the first book of a trilogy. With the exception of a few short scenes, The Golden Compass sticks to the point of view of Lyra, a scrappy orphan with a knack for lying, as she travels north from her home in Oxford, in search of her kidnapped friend, Roger. She befriends witches, armored bears, and a Texan aeronaut along the way, and, of course, learns who her real parents are. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra crosses into another world, using a bridge in the sky opened by her father in a horrific scene in which he sacrifices Roger, tapping into the energy that connects Roger to his daemon to wrench open the heavens. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, Pullman puts his omniscient third person narrator to greater use by expanding the cast of characters and the setting. That book begins by following Will Parry, a young man from our own world, as he runs away from home. The change in perspective is so stark that I remember wondering if I was really reading the sequel to The Golden Compass when I first opened it or if there had been some kind of printing error. Eventually Will meets Lyra and they become close friends. As The Subtle Knife progresses and leads to The Amber Spyglass, the action gets bigger and madder, introducing a defrocked nun physicist, angels split into two warring factions, tiny knights who ride dragonflies, creatures from another world who get around on wheels made of large seeds. All the action drives towards a cosmic conflict, a moment of redemption, and a heart-wrenching scene between our two protagonists.
Pullman has certainly kept things (relatively) intimate for the first volume of The Book of Dust, which takes place exclusively in Lyra’s world, and largely in and around its alternate version of Oxford. La Belle Sauvage recounts the (mis)adventures of Malcolm Polstead, about a decade before the events of The Golden Compass, with Lyra present as a baby. Malcolm is a capable boy, quiet, sensitive, serious, and crafty. He’s equally at ease talking to adults, repairing broken windows, or canoeing out onto the river to watch birds. He’s the perfect young hero, very much in the mold of Will Parry, although Will had an inner darkness because he grew up without a father and had to take care of his mentally ill mother, whereas Malcolm lives with loving parents. The darkness in La Belle Sauvage comes from Malcolm’s unexpected ally Alice, a withdrawn girl who’s capable of defending herself when necessary, and who, because she’s older than Malcolm, is also more aware of what the adults are up to. Tellingly, though, her daemon hasn’t fixed into its final form yet, which suggests that she still hasn’t quite figured out who she is.
The villain, once again, is organized religion, which takes the form of a powerful, dogmatic, and politically implicated Catholic Church and its tentacular agencies, such as the ominously named Constitorial Court of Discipline. In Pullman fashion, everyone who’s associated with the church is automatically suspicious, with the exception of a few good nuns across the river. Yet the one character who actually stalks our heroes and endangers their lives isn’t an agent of the Church: he’s a psychopathic, manipulative, relentless French scientist called Bonneville, and he’s out for revenge. Bonneville’s daemon is a horrendous, maimed hyena that symbolizes his violent impulses, and it’s telling that he’s often in conflict with her, at one point even striking her. I was reminded of a scene Pullman wrote for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, in which the character of Mrs. Coulter hits her golden monkey daemon. As the characters keep saying in La Belle Sauvage, only the very deranged would hurt their own daemon.
After a pleasant but slow-moving first half, La Belle Sauvage climaxes with a dramatic flood, not of biblical proportions—although several characters refer to its scriptural precedent—but rather of biblical implications, since it unexpectedly carries away Malcolm and Alice, along with baby Lyra, and we know that Lyra’s survival will lead to the world-changing events of His Dark Materials.
Journeys are an essential element of Pullman’s original trilogy: to the north, between worlds, even to the land of the dead. But whereas the travels in those books took their mythological underpinnings from the Old Testament, along with a smattering of Nordic imagery and a sheen of science fiction, here the fantasy elements are decidedly folkloric. The journey itself is less epic in scale, and even a little rushed as Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra paddle from island to island in a changed landscape. The flood strips away the veneer of modernity and unleashes the magic of old Albion. Malcolm becomes an Odysseus-cum-gallant knight who encounters, in quick succession, vicious nuns in their fortress-like priory, fairies that must be tricked like Rumpelstiltskin, enchanted riverbanks where a thick fog causes adults to forget their past, and a pagan river god who guards his tributary of the Thames. Finally, we reach a “quiet rode” inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a figurative place of rest that is both a pause in the journey and a break in the story. In these dreamy, feverish scenes, Philip Pullman is tilling the same creative soil at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s the soil of English myth, and of English country folklore. So less high fantasy, and more of what Neil Gaiman would call English fantasy.
In earlier chapters the novel flirts with other genres, especially thanks to the character of Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar who works with the Bodleian’s alethiometer, a mysterious truth-telling device that Lyra will eventually use herself. Careful readers will recognize Dr. Relf from short scenes in the original trilogy when she enquires about Lyra’s education early in The Golden Compass, and then offers her a place at a boarding school and the chance to study with her to read the alethiometer at the very end of The Amber Spyglass. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relf works for a secret service agency that protects democracy against the agents of the Church, who are bent on stifling free speech and personal freedom. We’re plunged into a light spy novel: there are secret levels of government at war with each other, tradecraft, double-dealings, spy masters ready to do the very worst to bring about good—right out of the pages of the world’s most famous spy novelist, another Oxford-educated writer, who happened to study at a college on the same street as Lyra’s beloved Jordan.
There’s also a more sinister undercurrent, whiffs of an Orwellian brand of dystopia. In dispiriting early chapters, one of the Church’s organizations called the League of Saint Alexander takes over schools in the Oxford area, with the aim of having children snitch on parents and teachers who don’t follow the church’s dictates. Pullman was inspired by the kind of tactics used in Soviet Russia; I was reminded of the terrifying children in 1984 who are trained to spy on their parents and report them as bad party members. Pullman, who worked as a middle school teacher before writing full time, has an excellent ear for schoolyard arguments.
The prerogative of the curious protagonist of a YA novel is to observe and half understand the world of adults. Think of the number of scenes in which Harry Potter overhears an interesting conversation from underneath his cloak of invisibility. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm is rather conveniently always at the right place and time to witness important events and talk to the right people. That convenience could be explained on the one hand by the fact that he lives and works in a pub his family owns, The Trout, and so gets to meet and talk to many adults who frequent it, and on the other by the fact that greater powers—Dust, perhaps—bind him to the task of protecting Lyra, just as Lyra herself will one day be nudged into action by the alethiometer and the prophecy that foretells her role in replaying humankind’s fall.
Yet I was somewhat bothered by the role Pullman has Malcolm play within the larger story. Although Malcolm is the protagonist of this book—his precious canoe even gives the volume its title—we know that his place is inevitably at the fringe of the greater drama of Lyra’s story. Lyra’s parents, Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel, who both have arresting cameos in La Belle Sauvage, are powerful, charismatic individuals. They’re also beautiful and noble. So it seems almost inevitable that their daughter will grow up to become someone important. Similarly, Will Parry’s father, unbeknownst to Will, is a world-crossing scientist and shaman. Will’s story is entangled with Lyra’s, but as the bearer of the subtle knife and, later, as the figure of Adam, he takes his place as Lyra’s equal.
What about poor Malcolm? Well, he’s a publican’s son, and for all his craftiness and courage, and the fact that Dust appears to play some role in guiding his actions, he will always be subservient to Lyra. When he meets baby Lyra for the first time, his immediate thought is that he will be “her servant for life.” Before the end of the book, he will have risked much to make sure that she’s alive to fulfill her destiny in a decade’s time. I can only hope that Malcolm will return in the next volumes of The Book of Dust to get some credit for everything he’s gone through, and that he’ll grow up to be more than a servant. He deserves a story of his own.
It’s only with the publication of the second and third volumes of The Book of Dust that we’ll be able to recognize the figure in the carpet, and to see if Pullman has been able to create a story that holds together in his new trilogy. From the information Pullman and his publishers have made public, I assume that it will be a baggier series than His Dark Materials because it has to cover a longer time period. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, will apparently be set 20 years after the action of La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra as an undergraduate student. Pullman has the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes he made in The Amber Spyglass, whose plot, though enthralling, hung together only with an added dose of suspended disbelief.
At least with La Belle Sauvage Pullman has avoided the biggest pitfall: by expanding his cast of characters and nodding to his past books while keeping this novel different in tone, he’s avoided sounding as if he was writing his own fan-fiction. Pullman’s novels communicate big ideas, and some have criticized him for the relentless dogmatism with which he pursues them, but for all the god-killing and evil priests, Pullman is first and foremost an extremely skillful storyteller—the warmest, fuzziest kind that takes readers by the hand and guides them with sharp prose and a fast moving plot. There was some violence and some fairly dramatic moments in His Dark Materials, yet I found La Belle Sauvage more mature because it explores psychological darkness as well. There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.
The Amber Spyglass ends with Lyra declaring that she will build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth, in a celebration of the physical world and its joys. That’s exactly what Pullman is doing with the universe he’s expanding with each new book, except he’s building his republic with words, with stories, with human characters brimming with curiosity.
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons