As you learned last week, The Millions is entering into a new, wonderful epoch, a transition that means fretting over the Preview is no longer my purview. This is one of the things I’ll miss about editing The Millions: it has been a true, somewhat mind-boggling privilege to have an early look at what’s on the horizon for literature. But it’s also a tremendous relief. The worst thing about the Preview is that a list can never be comprehensive—we always miss something, one of the reasons that we established the monthly previews, which will continue—and as a writer I know that lists are hell, a font of anxiety and sorrow for other writers.
That said, the technical term for this particular January-through-June list is Huge Giant Monster. Clocking in at more than 120 books, it is quite simply, too long. (If I were still the editor and he were still the publisher, beloved site founder C. Max Magee would be absolutely furious with me.) But this over-abundance means blessings for all of us as readers. The first half of 2019 brings new books from Millions contributing editor Chigozie Obioma, and luminaries like Helen Oyeyemi, Sam Lipsyte, Marlon James, Yiyun Li, and Ann Beattie. There are mesmerizing debuts. Searing works of memoir and essay. There’s even a new book of English usage, fodder for your future fights about punctuation.
Let’s celebrate very good things, and a lot of them, where we find them. The Millions, its writers, and its readers have been some of my very good things. I’m so grateful for the time I’ve spent as editor, and with all of you. Happy new year, and happy reading. I’ll be seeing you around.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: Millions Contributing Editor Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is a merciless beauty and one of my favorites of 2015. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: The Fishermen garnered universal critical acclaim with its recasting of biblical and African mythos to create a modern Nigerian tragedy. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s Odyssey blended with Igbo folklore that has received similar glowing notice so far. As Booklist says in a starred review, An Orchesta of Minorities is “magnificently multilayered…Obioma’s sophomore title proves to be an Odyssean achievement.” (Adam P.)
Hark by Sam Lipsyte: In Lipsyte’s latest novel since The Ask, we meet Hark Morner, an accidental guru whose philosophies are a mix of mindfulness, fake history, and something called “mental archery.” Fellow comedic genius Paul Beatty calls it “wonderfully moving and beautifully musical.” While Kirkus thought it too sour and misanthropic, Publishers Weekly deemed it “a searing exploration of desperate hopes.” Their reviewer adds, “Lipsyte’s potent blend of spot-on satire, menacing bit players, and deadpan humor will delight readers.” (Edan)
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Fever Dream, published in America in 2017 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was, excepting Fire and Fury, perhaps the most frightening book of the last two years. Schweblin has a special knack for blending reality and eerie unreality, and she provides readers more nightmare fuel with Mouthful of Birds, a collection of 20 short stories that has drawn advance praise describing it as “surreal,” “visceral,” “addictive,” and “disturbing.” If you like to be unsettled, settle in. (Adam P.)
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin: VQR columnist and essayist Ruffin now publishes his debut novel, a near-futurist social satire about people in a southern city undergoing “whitening” treatments to survive in a society governed by white supremacy. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls this a “singular and unforgettable work of political art.” For Ruffin’s nonfiction, read his excellent essay on gentrification and food in New Orleans for Southern Foodways or his work for VQR. (Lydia)
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: It took Hadley 46 years to publish her first novel, 2002’s Accidents in the Home. In the 17 years since, she has made up for lost time, publishing three story collections and six novels, including Late in the Day, about two middle-aged married couples coping with the death of one member of their tight-knit quartet. “Hadley is a writer of the first order,” says Publishers Weekly, “and this novel gives her the opportunity to explore, with profound incisiveness and depth, the inevitable changes inherent to long-lasting marriages.” (Michael)
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: House of Stone is a debut novel by Zimbabwean author Tshuma. The book opens with the narrative of a 24-year-old tenant Zamani, who works to make his landlord and landlady love him more than they loved their son, Bukhosi, who went missing during a protest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In his book review for The Guardian, Helon Habila praises Tshuma as a “wily writer,” and says that her book is full of surprises. House of Stone not only takes unexpected turns in terms of plot lines, but also bears no single boring sentence. It makes the violent political scenes and circumstance-driven characters vivid on the page and thus renders Zimbabwean history in a very powerful and yet believable way. (Jianan)
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren: In what Publishers Weekly describes as an “impressive debut replete with luminous prose,” Maren’s Sugar Run tells the story of Jodi McCarty, unexpectedly released from prison after 18 years inside. McCarty meets and quickly falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother, and together they set out towards what they hope will be a better life. Set within the insular confines of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing, gritty novel about escape—the longing for it, the impossibility of it—and it announces Maren as a formidable talent to watch. (Adam P.)
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay: Searching for answers about her late mother, Shalini, a 30-year-old privileged woman, travels from Bangalore to Kashmir in search of a mysterious man from her past. In the remote village, political and military tensions rise and threaten the new community she’s immersed herself in. Publishers Weekly, in starred review, wrote: “Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.” (Carolyn)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A scholar who has earned acclaim both within her discipline of Sociology and outside of the academy for her book Lower Ed, on the predatory for-profit college industry, Cottom has a huge following that looks to her for her trenchant analyses of American society. Now she publishes a collection of essays on race, gender, money, work, and class that combines scholarship and lived experience with Cottom’s characteristic rigor and style. (Lydia)
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rebeah Ghaffari: A story of the family of a retired judge in Iran just before the Revolution, where the events that roil the family are set against, and affected by, the events that will roil the nation. Kirkus calls this “an evocative and deeply felt narrative portrait.” (Lydia)
Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea: Protagonist Sophie Swankowski’s journeys in Tea’s Young Adult Chelsea Trilogy will come to an end in Castle on the River Vistula, when the 13-year-old magician journeys from her home in Massachusetts to Poland, the birthplace of her friend “the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena.” Tea is an author familiar with magic, having penned Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and she promises to bring a similar sense of the supernatural in Sophie’s concluding adventures. (Ed)
Mothers by Chris Power: Smooth and direct prose makes Power’s debut story collection an entrancing read. In “Portals,” the narrator meets Monica, a dancer from Spain, and her boyfriend. “We drank a lot and told stories.” A year later, Monica messages the narrator and says she wants to meet up—and is newly single. Power pushes through the narration, as if we have been confidently shuffled into a room to capture the most illuminating moments of a relationship. Lying on the grass together, Monica stares at the narrator as she rolls onto her back. “It was an invitation, but I hesitated. This was exactly what I had come for, but now the tiny space between us felt unbridgeable.” Mothers is full of those sharp moments of our lives: the pulse of joy, the sting of regret. (Nick R.)
Nobody’s Looking At You by Janet Malcolm: This essay collection is a worthy follow-up to Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In this new collection, readers can catch up on the masterful profiles of Eileen Fisher, Rachel Maddow, and Yuju Wang they may have missed in The New Yorker, as well as book reviews and literary criticism. (Hannah)
Talent by Juliet Lapidos: This debut is a literary mystery/campus novel set into motion by a graduate student, Anna Brisker, who can’t finish her dissertation on “an intellectual history of inspiration.” When Anna crosses paths with the niece of a deceased writer famous for his writer’s block, she’s thrilled to discover that the eminent writer has left behind unfinished work. Anna thinks she’s found the perfect case study for her thesis, but soon learns that the niece’s motives aren’t what they seem and that the author’s papers aren’t so easily interpreted. (Hannah)
Golden State by Ben Winters: With The Last Policemen Trilogy and Underground Airlines, Winters has made a career of blending speculative fiction with detective noir. His next in that vein is Golden State, a novel set in California in the not-too-distant future—an independent state where untruth is the greatest offense. Laszlo Ratesic works as a Speculator, a state force with special abilities to sense lies. (Janet)
Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé: Prix Goncourt winning French playwright Gaudé’s philosophical meditation on human foibles and violence makes its English language debut. Bracketed around the romance of a French intelligence officer and an Iraqi archeologist, the former in pursuit of an American narco-trafficker and the latter attempting to preserve sites from ISIS, Hear Our Defeats ultimately ranges across history, including interludes from Ulysses S. Grant pushing into Virginia and Hannibal’s invasion of Rome. (Ed)
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian: The short story collection whose centerpiece is “Cat Person,” the viral sensation that had millions of people identifying with/fearing/decrying/loving/debating a work of short fiction last year. (Lydia)
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen: This writer from Greenland was 22 when she won a prestigious writing prize, and her subsequent debut novel took the country by storm. Now available for U.S. readers, a profile in The New Yorker calls the novel “a work of a strikingly modern sensibility—a stream-of-consciousness story of five queer protagonists confronting their identities in twenty-first-century Greenlandic culture.” (Lydia)
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer: A guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic (please don’t copyedit this sentence). George Saunders calls it “A mind-blower—sure to jumpstart any writing project, just by exposing you, the writer, to Dreyer’s astonishing level of sentence-awareness.” (Lydia)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: Following up his Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has written the first book in what is to be an epic trilogy that is part Lord of the Rings, part Game of Thrones, and part Black Panther. In this first volume, a band of mercenaries—made up of a witch, a giant, a buffalo, a shape-shifter, and a bounty hunter who can track anyone by smell (his name is Tracker)—are hired to find a boy, missing for three years, who holds special interest for the king. (Janet)
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li: Where Reasons End is the latest novel by the critically acclaimed author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Li creates this fictional space where a mother can have an eternal, carefree conversation with her child Nikolai, who commits suicide at the age of 16. Suffused with intimacy and deepest sorrows, the book captures the affections and complexity of parenthood in a way that has never been portrayed before. (Jianan)
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang: Wang writes brilliantly and beautifully about lives lived with mental illness. Her first novel, The Border of Paradise, traces a family through generations, revealing the ways each becomes inheritors of the previous generation’s isolation and depression. In The Collected Schizophrenias, her first essay collection (for which she was awarded the Whiting Award and Greywolf Nonfiction Prize), Wang draws from her experience as both patient and speaker/advocate navigating the vagaries of the mental healthcare system while also shedding light on the ways it robs patients of autonomy. What’s most astonishing is how Wang writes with such intelligence, insight, and care about her own struggle to remain functional while living with schizoaffective disorder. (Anne)
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson: It’s the mid-1980s and American Cold War adventurism has set its sights on the emerging west African republic of Burkina Faso. There’s only one problem: the agent sent to help swing things America’s way is having second, and third, thoughts. The result is an engaging and intelligent stew of espionage and post-colonial political agency, but more important, a confessional account examining our baser selves and our unscratchable itch to fight wars that cannot be won. (Il’ja)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: The two-time
finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award has written a road novel
for America in the 21st century. In the book, a family of four set out from their home in New York to visit a place in Arizona called Apacheria, a.k.a. the region once inhabited by the Apache tribe. On their way down south, the family reveals their own set of long-simmering conflicts, while the radio gives updates on an “immigration crisis” at the border. (Thom)
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith): In 2016, Kang’s stunning
novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize; in 2018, she drew Man Booker attention again with her autobiographical work The White Book. There are loose connections between the two—both concern sisters, for one, and loss, and both feature Han’s beautiful, spare prose—but The White Book is less a
conventional story and more like a meditation in fragments. Written about and to the narrator’s older sister, who died as a newborn, and about the white objects of grief, Han’s work has been likened to “a secular prayer book,” one that “investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.” (Kaulie)
Bangkok Wakes to Rainby Pitchaya Sudbanthad: NYFA Fellow Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, has already been
hailed as “important, ambitious, and accomplished,” by Mohsin Hamid, and a book
that “brilliantly sounds the resonant pulse of the city in a wise and far-reaching meditation on home,” by Claire Vaye Watkins. This polyphonic novel follows myriad characters—from a self-exiled jazz pianist to a former student
revolutionary—through the thresholds of Bangkok’s past, present, and future. Sudbanthad, who splits his time between Bangkok and New York, says he wrote the novel by letting his mind wander the city of his birth: “I arrived at the site of a house that, to me, became a theatrical stage where characters…entered and left; I followed them, like a clandestine voyeur, across time and worlds, old and new.” (Anne)
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison: A new collection of nonfiction–speeches, essays, criticism, and reflections–from the Nobel-prize winning Morrison. Publishers Weekly says “”Some superb pieces headline this rich collection…Prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment…” (Lydia)
Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolano: Spirit of Science Fiction is a novel by the critically acclaimed author of 2666, Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Apparently it is a tale about two young poets aspiring to find their positions in the literary world. But the literary world in Bolano’s sense is also a world of revolution, fame, ambition, and more so of sex and love. Like Bolano’s previous fiction, Spirit of Science Fiction is a Byzantine maze of strange and beautiful life adventures that never fails to provide readers with intellectual and emotional satisfaction. (Jianan)
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: It’s hard to believe it’sbeen 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House,perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short storycollections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fanswill no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows threegenerations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to acandlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls“almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determineprosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praisesMcCracken’s “psychological acuity.” (Edan)
Good Will Come from the Sea by Christos Ikonomou (translated by Karen Emmerich): In the same way that Greece was supposedly the primogeniture of Western civilization, the modern nation has prefigured over the last decade in much of what defines our current era. Economic hardship, austerity, and the rise of political radicalism are all manifest in the Greece explored by Ikonomou in his short story collection Good Will Come from the Sea. These four interlocked stories explore modern Greece as it exists on the frontlines of both the refugee crisis and scarcity economics. Ikonomou’s stories aren’t about the Greece of chauvinistic nostalgia; as he told an interviewer in 2015 his characters “don’t love the Acropolis; they don’t know what it means,” for it’s superficial “to feel just pride;” rather, the author wishes to “write about the human condition,” and so he does. (Ed)
The Heavens by Sandra Newman: This novel connects analternate universe New York in the year 2000 with Elizabethan England, througha woman who believes she has one foot in each era. A fascinating-soundingromance about art, illness, destiny, and history. In a starred review, Kirkuscalls this “a complex, unmissable work from a writer who deserves wideacclaim.” (Lydia)
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos (translated by Alice Whitmore): Argentinian writer Dimópulos’s first book in English is a novel that focuses on a narrator who has been traveling for a decade. The narrator reflects on her habit of leaving family, countries, and lovers. And when she decides to commit to a relationship, her lover is murdered, adding a haunting and sorrowful quality to her interiority. Julie Buntin writes, “The scattered pieces of her story—each of them wonderfully distinct, laced with insight, violence, and sensuality—cohere into a profound evocation of restlessness, of the sublime and imprisoning act of letting go.” (Zoë)
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah: An account of 19th-century Ghana, the novel follows twoyoung girls, Wurche and Aminah, who live in the titular city which is a notoriouscenter preparing people for sale as slaves to Europeans and Americans. Attah’s novelgives a texture and specificity to the anonymous tales of the Middle Passage,with critic Nadifa Mohamad writing in The Guardian that “One of the strengthsof the novel is that it complicates the idea of what ‘African history’ is.”(Ed)
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: This much sought-afterdebut, which was the object of a bidding war, is based on the life of LeeMiller, a Vogue model turned photographer who decided she would rather “take apicture than be one.” The novel focuses on Miller’s tumultuous romance withphotographer Man Ray in early 1930s Paris, as Miller made the transition frommuse to artist. Early reviews suggests that the novel more than lives up to itspromise, with readers extolling its complicated heroine and page-turningpacing. (Hannah)
Northern Lights by Raymond Strom: A story about the struggle for survival in a small town in Minnesota, the novel follows the androgynous teen run-away ShaneStephenson who is searching in Holm, Minn., for the mother who abandonedhim. Shane finds belonging among the adrift and addicted of the crumbling town,but he also finds bigotry and hatred. (Ed)
Adèle by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourtin 2016, became famous after publishing Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which is nowbeing translated and published in English as Adèle. The French-Morocconnovelist’s debut tells the story of a titular heroine whose burgeoning sexaddiction threatens to ruin her life. Upon winning an award in Morocco for thenovel, Slimani said its primary focus is her character’s “loss of self.” (Thom)
The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung (translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl): Known as “one of the most beloved masterpieces in Korean literature,” The Nine Cloud Dream (also known as Kuunmong) takes readers on a journey reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno combining aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and indigenous Korean shamanic religions in a 17th-century tale, which, rare in Buddhist texts, includes strong representation of women. Accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and an introduction, notations, and translation done by one of my favorite translators, Heinz Insu Fenkl. Akin to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, an intriguing read for readers interested in Buddhism, Korea, and mindfulness. (Marie Myung-Ok)
Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary by Kathleen Collins: Notlong after completing her first feature film, Losing Ground, in 1982, Collins died from breast cancer at age 46. In 2017, her short story collectionabout the lives and loves of black Americans in the 1960s, Whatever Happened toInterracial Love?, was published to ringing critical acclaim. Now comes NotesFrom a Black Woman’s Diary, which is much more than the title suggests. Inaddition to autobiographical material, the book includes fiction, plays,excerpts from an unfinished novel, and the screenplay of Losing Ground, withextensive directorial notes. This book is sure to burnish Collins’sflourishing posthumous reputation. (Bill)
Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper: A collection of essays on therelationships between family members and friends, with background on the author’schildhood in an evangelical family. The collection garnered a starredreview from Kirkus and praise from essayist Leslie Jamison, who calls is “extraordinary.”(Lydia)
A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits: Markovits is aversatile writer, his work ranging from a fictional trilogy about Lord Byron toan autobiographical novel about basketball. He returns to athletics in AWeekend in New York, where Paul Essinger is a mid-level tennis player and1,200-1 shot to win the U.S. Open. Essinger may be alone on the court, but he hasplenty of company at his Manhattan home when his parents visit during thetournament. Upon its British publication, The Guardian praised the “light,limber confidence” with which Markowits handles sporting knowledge and hisacute treatment of the family tensions amid “first-world also-rans.” (Matt)
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev: This debut is the memoirof a young woman’s life shaped by unrelenting existential terror. The story istold in fragmentary vignettes beginning with Shalmiyev’s fraught emigration asa young child from St. Petersburg, Russia to the United States, leaving behindthe mother who had abandoned her. It closes with her resolve to find herestranged mother again. (Il’ja)
Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (translated by Lisa C. Hayden): It is 1930 in the Soviet Unionand Josef Stalin’s de-kulakization program has found its pace. Among thevictims is a young Tatar family: the husband murdered, the wife exiled toSiberia. This is her story of survival and eventual triumph. Winner of the 2015Russian Booker prize, this debut novel draws heavily on the first-personaccount of the author’s grandmother, a Gulag survivor. (Il’ja)
The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi Laskar: This novel’sinciting incident is a police raid on the home the daughter of Bengaliimmigrants, told from her perspective as she lies bleeding and running throughthe events, experiences, and memories that have led her to this moment. KieseLaymon calls Laskar’s book “as narratively beautiful as it isbrutal…I’ve never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages.Laskar has changed how we will all write about state-sanctioned terror in thisnation.” (Lydia)
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis: Imagine if Malcom Lowry’shallucinogenic masterpiece Under the Volcano, about the drunken perambulationsof a British consul in a provincial Mexican village on Dia de Los Muertos, hadbeen written by a native of that country? Such could describe Aridjis’snovel Sea Monsters, which follows the 17-year-old Luisa and her acquaintanceTomás as they leave Mexico City in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves whohave defected from a Soviet circus. Luisa eventually settles in Oaxaca whereLuisa takes sojourns to the “Beach of the Dead” in search of anyone who “nomatter what” will “remain a mystery.” (Ed)
Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela: The 13 stories inAboulela’s new collection are set in locales as distant as Khartoum and London,yet throughout they explore the universal feelings of the migrant experience:displacement, longing, but also the incandescent hope of creating a differentlife. (Nick M.)
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields: Mildred Groves, TheCassandra’s titular prophetess, sometimes sees flashes of the future. She isalso working at the top-secret Hanford Research Center in the 1940s, where theseeds of atomic weapons are sown and where her visions are growing morehorrifying—and going ignored at best, punished at worst. Balancing thoroughresearch and mythic lyricism, Shields’s novel is a timely warning of whathappens when warnings go unheeded. (Kaulie)
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen: A new title from ShadeMountain Press, Tonic and Balm takes place in 1919, it’s setting a travelingmedicine show, complete with “sideshows,” sword-swallowers, anddubious remedies. The book explores this show’s peregrinations against thebackdrop of poverty and racist violence in rural Pennsylvania. Allen’s firstbook, A Place Between Stations: Stories, was a finalist for the Hurston-WrightLegacy Award. (Lydia)
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (translated by Leri Price): “Most of my friendshave left the country and are now refugees,” Khalifa wrote in a recentessay. Yet he remains in Syria, a place where “those of us who have stayed aredying one by one, family by family, so much so that the idea of an empty citycould become a reality.” If literature is a momentary stay against confusion,then Khalifa’s novels are ardent stays against destruction and decay—and DeathIs Hard Work continues this tradition. The novel begins with the dying hours ofAbdel Latif al-Salim, who looks his son Bolbol “straight in the eye” in orderto give his dying wish: to be buried several hours away, next to his sister.The novel becomes a frenetic attempt for his sons to honor this wish and reachAnabiya. “It’s only natural for a man,” Khalifa writes, “to be weak and makeimpossible requests.” And yet he shows this is what makes us human. (Nick R.)
Aerialists by Mark Mayer. For those gutted by the news ofRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closing in 2017, Mayer’s debutcollection supplies a revivifying dose of that carney spirit. The storiesfeature circus-inspired characters—most terrifyingly a murderous clown-cum-realestate agent—in surrealist situations. We read about a bearded womanrevolutionist, a TV personality strongwoman, and, in the grand tradition of petburial writing that reached its acme with Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, thefuneral of a former circus elephant. Publishers Weekly called it a “high-wiredebut [that] exposes the weirdness of everyday life.” (Matt)
Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri: Published for thefirst time in the U.S., this is the seventh novel by the renowned writer, awork of autofiction about a novelist named Amit Chaudhuri revisiting hischildhood in Mumbai. Publishers Weekly says, “in this cogent andintrospective novel, Chaudhuri movingly portrays how other people can allowindividuals to connect their present and past.” (Lydia)
A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams: An anthology of 25 speculative stories from a range of powerful storytellers, among them Maria Dahvana Headley, Daniel José Older, and Alice Sola Kim. LaValle and Adams sought stories that imagine a derailed future—tales that take our fractured present and make the ruptures even further. Editor LaValle, an accomplished speculative fiction writer himself (most recently The Changeling, and my personal favorite, the hilarious and booming Big Machine), is the perfect writer to corral these stories. LaValle has said “one of the great things about horror and speculative fiction is that you are throwing people into really outsized, dramatic situations a lot…[including] racism and sexism and classism, biases against the mentally ill”—the perfect description for this dynamic collection. (Nick R.)
Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten: Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha,is the first and last Trump novel I’ll ever want to read. Doten started writingthe novel in 2015, when our current predicament, I mean, president, was a mereand unfathomable possibility. Doten’s President Trump brings about the nuclearapocalypse, and in its aftermath a journalist takes an assignment to researchInternet humor at the end of the world. The result? An “unconventional anddarkly satirical mix of memes, Twitter jokes, Q&As, and tightly writtenstream-of-consciousness passages,” according to Booklist. From this feat, saysJoshua Cohen,“Mark Doten emerges as the shadow president of our benightedgeneration of American literature.” (Anne)
Nothing but the Night by John Williams: The John Williams ofStoner fame revival continues with the reissue of his first novel by NYRB,first published in 1948, a story dealing with mental illness and trauma withechoes of Greek tragedy. (Lydia)
Famous Children and Famished Adults by Evelyn Hampton:“[Evelyn] Hampton’s stunned sentences will remind you, because you haveforgotten, how piercingly disregulating life is,” writes Stacey Levine ofHampton’s debut story collection Discomfort, published by Ellipsis Press. Ifirst encountered Hampton’s fictions through her novella, Madam, a story of aschoolteacher and her pupils at an academy, where memory is a vehicle and somuch seems a metaphor and language seems to turn in on itself. Hampton’sforthcoming story collection Famous Children and Famished Adults won FC2’sRonald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and continues with the quixotic. Inthis collection, Noy Holland says, “the exotic and toxic intermingle.” (Anne)
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell: Described as the “Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for,” this debut novel, from the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing, tells the story of three Zambian families—black, white, and brown—caught in a centuries-long cycle of retribution, romance, and political change. Serpell asks, “How do you live a life or forge a politics that can skirt the dual pitfalls of fixity (authoritarianism) and freedom (neoliberalism)? And what happens if you treat error not as something to avoid but as the very basis for human creativity and community?” Recipient of a starred review from Kirkus and advance praise from Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Sebold, and Garth Greenwell, The Old Drift is already well positioned to become the Next Big Thing of 2019. (Jacqueline)
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi became a criticaldarling in 2014 with Boy, Snow, Bird, a retelling of “Snow White.” She takes usback into fairy tale world with Gingerbread, the story of mother and daughter,Harriet and Perdita Lee, and their family’s famous, perhaps…magical,gingerbread recipe. Along with Harriet’s childhood friend Gretel, the Leesendure family, work, and money drama all for the sake of that crunchy spice.(Janet)
The Reign of the Kingfisher by TJ Martinson: Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’sone of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologuereads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detectivefiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanlystrong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until hismutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once againbegan to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death?If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way,the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of theold one. We must save ourselves. (Emily)
Lot by Bryan Washington: Washington is a talentedessayist—his writing on Houston for Catapult and elsewhere are must-reads—andLot is a glowing fiction debut. Imbued with the flesh of fiction, Lot is aliterary song for Houston. “Lockwood,” the first story, begins: “Roberto wasbrown and his people lived next door so of course I went over on weekends. Theywere full Mexican. That made us superior.” Their house was a “shotgun withswollen pipes.” A house “you shook your head at when you drove up the road.”But the narrator is drawn to Roberto, and when they are “huddled in hiscloset,” palms squeezed together, we get the sense Washington has a keen eyeand ear for these moments of desire and drama. His terse sentences punch andpop, and there’s room for our bated breath in the remaining white space. (NickR.)
The New Me by Halle Butler: If Butler’s first novel,Jillian, was the “feel-bad book of the year,” then her second, The New Me, is askewering of the 21st-century American dream of self-betterment. Butlerhas already proven herself a master of writing about work and its discontents,the absurdity of cubicle life and office work in all of its dead ends. The NewMe takes it to a new level in what Catherine Lacey calls a Bernhardian “darkcomedy of female rage.” The New Me portrays a 30-year old temp worker whoyearns for self-realization, but when offered a full-time job, she becomesparalyzed realizing the hollowness of its trappings. (Anne)
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander: Pulitzer finalist Englander’s latest novel follows Larry, an atheist in a family of orthodox MemphisJews. When he refuses to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead,for his recently deceased father, Larry risks shocking his family andimperiling the fate of his father’s soul. Like everyone else in the21st century, Larry decides the solution lies online, and he makes awebsite, kaddish.com, to hire a stranger to recite the daily prayer in hisplace. What follows is a satirical take on God, family, and the Internet thathas been compared to early Philip Roth. (Jacqueline)
Minutes of Glory by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Thiong’o, the perennial Nobel Prize contender who once got through a prison sentence by drafting a memoir on toilet paper, has collected his best short stories in this collection, which spans half a century. From “The Fig Tree,” which Thiong’o wrote when he was an undergraduate in Uganda, to “The Ghost of Michael Jackson,” which he wrote while teaching at Irvine, these stories affirm the wide range of a global sensation. (Thom)
Guestbook: Ghost Stories by Leanne Shapton: A collection of haunting stories and illustrations from the writer and visual artist Shapton, of which Rivka Galchen says, “Guestbook reveals Shapton as a ventriloquist, a diviner, a medium, a force, a witness, a goof, and above all, a gift. One of the smartest, most moving, most unexpected books I have read in a very long time.” (Lydia)
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike: A couple of months ago I zipped through this funny and poignant collection of stories about women grappling with motherhood in many different ways: one struggles with infertility, for instance, and another gets pregnant by accident. Throughout, I was struck by the depth of feeling, not once compromised by the brevity of the form. In its starred review, Kirkus calls it “an exquisite collection that is candid, compassionate, and emotionally complex.” Meaghan O’Connell says, “Each story in Look How Happy I’m Making You is a lovely universe unto itself — funny, intimate, casually profound — but there is something transcendent about reading them together like this.” (Edan)
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Ostensibly a memoir.Yet the idea of a Beat poet rhapsodizing, eulogizing or—God help us—memorizing his life as a Beat would be a defeat difficult to recover from.Don’t worry. There’s plenty of indignation, wry observation, and inevitableprognostication as Ferlinghetti looks back on his near-century on the planet toremind us to—among other matters—stop griping and play the hand we’redealt. (Il’ja)
If, Then by Kate Hope Day: In a quiet mountain town, four neighbors’ worlds are rocked when they begin to see versions of themselves in parallel realities. As the disturbing visions mount, a natural disaster looms and threatens their town. From a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Day’s well-crafted mix of literary and speculative fiction is an enthralling meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.” (Carolyn)
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden: With a sparkling blurb from Mary Gaitskill—“Sad, funny, juicy and prickly with deep and secret thoughtful places”—and a sparkling cover (literally—see her website), T. Kira Madden’s debut memoir, a coming-of-age story set in Boca Raton, is primed for buzz. As a grownup, Madden self-describes as an “APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician”; as a child, “Madden lived a life of extravagance, from her exclusive private school to her equestrian trophies and designer shoe-brand name. But under the surface was a wild instability . . . she found lifelines in the desperately loving friendships of fatherless girls.” One of the best, most evocative titles of the release season, IMHO. (Sonya)
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum: Isra, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl in 1990, prefers reading to suitors, but after her family marries her to an American deli owner she finds herself living in Brooklyn, trapped in a losing struggle against his oppressive mother, Fareeda. Eighteen years later, Fareeda attempts to pressure Isra’s oldest daughter into an early marriage, but an estranged family member offers Isra a chance to determine her own life. Rum, who was born to Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, has written that she hopes her debut novel moves readers “by the strength and power of our women.” (Kaulie)
The White Card by Claudia Rankine: The author of Citizen, Macarthur Genius grant honoree, and founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute will publisher her first play, one that examines the concept of whiteness and white Americans’ failures to acknowledge it, through a series of interactions between an artist and an affluent couple. In the play’s introduction, Rankine writes “The scenes in this one-act play, for all the characters’ disagreements, stalemates, and seeming impasses, explore what happens if one is willing to stay in the room when it is painful to bear the pressure to listen and the obligation to respond.” (Lydia)
EEG by Dasa Drndic: I first encountered Daša Drndic through her novel Belladona in June, unwittingly a mere two weeks after the author’s death from lung cancer. I was struck by the character Andreas Ban, and his idiosyncratic reflection upon ears, that “marvelous ugly organ,” accompanied by a diagram of an ear marked with the body’s points. This character Ban continues into Drndic’s next and final book, EEG, where after surviving a suicide attempt he goes on to dissect and expose the hidden evils and secrets of our times. He’s stand-in for Drndic herself, who wrote emphatically and had stated that “Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” (Anne)
Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda: Poet Terese Svoboda brings a lyrical intensity to her collection of short stories in Great American Desert. Svoboda examines the excavations that we perform on ourselves and on the land, with her stories ranging from the ancient North American Clovis people, to a science fiction description of a massive pink pyramid arising from the prairies far into the future. Author of Swamplandia! Karren Russel describes Great American Desert as “A devious and extraordinary new collection of stories from one of our best writers.” (Ed)
King of Joy by Richard Chiem: Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person, which was named one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Essential Books of the American West, and now he brings us King of Joy, an experimental narrative that explores fantasy, trauma, survival, and resilience. The novel follows Corvus, a woman that can imagine her way out of any situation–until she experiences a grief so profound that she cannot escape through fantasy. Foreword Reviews recently gave it a starred review and Kristen Arnette describes the novel as “a brilliant, tender examination of the unholy magnitude of trauma. It shows how pain can simultaneously destroy and preserve a person. Most of all, it is just goddamn beautiful writing.” (Zoë)
Instructions for a Funeral by David Means: Means’s last publication, Hystopia, was a Booker-nominated novel, but he is still best known for his short stories. Instructions for a Funeral is therefore a return to (the short story) form, 14 pieces, previously published in the New Yorker, Harpers, The Paris Review, and VICE, that display the intelligence and questing range for which Means is known. From a fistfight in Sacramento to a 1920s FBI stakeout in the midwest, Instructions for a Funeral invites readers on a literary journey with a master of the modern short story. (Adam P.)
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor): Writes Priya Parmal in her 2014 New York Times review of Maylis de Kerangal’s first novel translated into English, The Heart, “These characters feel less like fictional creations and more like ordinary people, briefly illuminated in rich language, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, that veers from the medical to the philosophical.” In the The Cook, a “hyperrealist” tale centered around a self-taught professional cook, we are treated to “lyricism and [the] intensely vivid evocative nature of Maylis de Kerangal’s prose, which conjures moods, sensations, and flavors, as well as the exhausting rigor and sometimes violent abuses of kitchen work.” The Cook is her 10th novel, her second translated into English (also by Taylor); Anglophones can be grateful that we’re finally catching up with this many-prize-winning author. (Sonya)
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan: A speculative novel about the “end of the Internet,” and what comes after for a society increasingly dependent on Big Data, surveillance, and the other sinister trappings of the 21st century. From the author of this vivid take on Santa Claus and his elves in the age of Amazon. (Lydia)
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young: A memoir in essays by the co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.com, heartfelt and bursting with humor. In Young’s words, “it’s a look at some of the absurdities, angsts and anxieties of existing while black in America,” and includes deeply personal material, including about the death of his mother, which was rooted in racism in America. (Lydia)
The Parade by Dave Eggers: No one can accuse Eggers of playing it safe. Last year, in The Monk of Mokha, he profiled a Yemeni American who dreams of reconstituting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee. A couple years before that, he wrote a novel, Heroes of the Frontier, about an American dentist road-tripping around Alaska with her kids. In his latest novel, two Western contractors, one named Four, the other named Five, travel to an unnamed country to build a new road intended to mark the end of a ruinous civil war. It’s “a parable of progress, as told by J.M. Coetzee to Philip K. Dick,” says Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. (Michael)
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: For her seventh novel, the celebrated Siri Hustvedt goes meta. A novelist of a certain age, known as S.H., discovers a notebook and early drafts of a never-completed novel she wrote during her first year in New York City in the late 1970s, some four decades ago. The discovery allows S.H. to revisit her long-ago obsession with her mysterious neighbor, Lucy Brite. Weaving the discovered texts with S.H.’s memories and things forgotten, Hustvedt has produced a rich novel built on the sand of shifting memory. As a bonus, the book includes a sampling of Hustvedt’s whimsical drawings. (Bill)
Sing to It by Amy Hempel: Hempel, the short story legend best known for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” is back with her first new collection of stories in over a decade. From “Cloudland,” which depicts a woman’s reckoning with her decision to give up her child, to “A Full-Service Shelter,” which follows a volunteer at a shelter where abandoned dogs are euthanized, the stories in Sing to It are fitting additions to Hempel’s work. (Thom)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Lalami, whose previous novel, The Moor’s Account, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, returns with a “structurally elegant mystery” (Kirkus). At the opening of this highly anticipated new novel, Morroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui is killed by a speeding car on a California highway. The book then follows a number of characters connected to and affected by his death, including his jazz composer daughter, his wife, and an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident. J.M. Coetzee says, “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.” (Edan)
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf: When a huge, garish home called the White Elephant infiltrates Willard Park, a quiet suburb, the neighborhood falls into utter comedic chaos. In the shadow of the home, neighbors begin to fight, lives are upended, and their once-peaceful town becomes anything but. Meg Wolitzer calls the debut novel a “smart, enjoyable suburban comedy.” (Carolyn)
The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser: The intellectually peripatetic Brad Leithauser—poet, novelist, editor, translator and MacArthur fellow whose interests range from Iceland to insects, American music and ghosts—has produced a sharp comic novel about a monster of a mid-life crisis. Louie Hake, a 43-year-old professor at a third-rate Michigan college, comes undone when his actress wife is discovered performing acts of “gross indecency” with her director. Bipolar Louie sets off on a tour of great world architecture, but he has stopped taking his lithium (though not all psychotropic substances), so he can get erratic. He can also be very funny—and very touching on those great American taboos, shame and failure. (Bill)
The Altruists by Andrew Ridker: Touted as “an international sensation” and sold in many countries, this debut novel follows the quest of a down-on-his-luck professor to get his mitts on his children’s inheritance. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “a painfully honest, but tender, examination of how love goes awry in the places it should flourish.” (Lydia)
When All Else Fails by Rayyan al-Shawaf: Past Millions contributor and NBCC critic al-Shawaf is out with his own novel, an absurdist tale of a lovelorn and luckless Iraqi college student in the States whose life is upended by 9/11 and who later moves to Lebanon. (Lydia)
Good Talk by Mira Jacob: A graphic novel about raising her mixed-race son in a white supremacist society by the author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, built around conversations with a curious six-year-old. Jacqueline Woodson says “In Jacob’s brilliant hands, we are gifted with a narrative that is sometimes hysterical, always honest, and ultimately healing.” (Lydia)
Working by Robert A. Caro: Widely known—and celebrated—for his monumental biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, Caro steps out from behind his subjects in Working, a collection of personal writings about, well, working. Here he describes his experiences searching Johnson’s presidential archives, what it was like to interview some of the major figures of the last half century, and how exactly he goes about structuring those massive, award-winning books. Think of it as a behind-the-scenes look at how “the greatest political biographer of our time” gets the job done. (Kaulie)
Morelia by Renee Gladman: It’s been said again and again that no one writes quite like Renee Gladman, whose writing and drawing explore movements of thought. Gladman’s Ravicka series of novels, published by Dorothy Project, traverses the fictional city, where “everything is vivid and nothing is fixed.” In Gladman’s essay collection Calamities, she writes toward the experience of the everyday where nothing of importance happens (which are most days, she has commented). Gladman’s latest, short novel, Morelia, “is an expansive mystery,” Amina Cain writes, “but I don’t think it exists to be solved…. There is a city with structures in it that multiply or are ‘half-articulated,’ where climate dictates how the city’s inhabitants move.” (Anne)
Women Talking by Miriam Toews: Canadians have come to accept that we can’t keep Toews to ourselves any longer. After her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, became an international sensation, the timely and urgent Women Talking is set to do the same. It’s a fictionalized telling of real life rapes that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. After repeated attacks, a group of women are told they are lying about the violence or being punished by Satan. The narrative unfolds as they meet to decide what they will do: forgive, fight, or run. (Claire)
Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: This story collection by the author of the acclaimed epic novel, Kintu, is centered on the lives of Ugandans living in Britain, where they are both hyper-visible and unseen, excluded from British life as they work jobs in airport security, in hospitals, in caring for the elderly. In the title story, when the protagonist’s husband dies in England, her fellow Ugandans start a fund-raising drive to pay for transporting the body back home. Their motivation beautifully captures the dislocation of exile: “We are not burying one of us in snow.” It has been said that Makumbi has done for Ugandan writing what the great Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian literature. (Bill)
Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş: Of her family, global citizen (of Turkish descent) Savaş writes, “They share a ruthless knack of observation and an eye for the comedic . . . This is a family of runaway bandits and conspiring matriarchs, where uncles swagger around with pistols, illegitimate children emerge at every turn, family heirlooms . . . are nicked from brothel fires.” Evidently drawing on her own life, Savas’s debut novel is set in Paris (where she lives) and features a young Turkish woman who tells her family’s stories to a novelist friend. “Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu’s fear of revealing too much . . . fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she’s told to protect herself from her memories.” Writes Helen Phillips, “This quietly intense debut is the product of a wise and probing mind.” (Sonya)
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar: A story about a young woman who is lured to an intentional community in the North Carolina mountains by an enigmatic man, only to find out that her community members are disappearing one by one. Samantha Hunt says “Dektar’s unstoppable tale of a country beyond is an addictive read so engrossing I forget where I am.” (Lydia)
I Miss you When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott: An debut essay collection from the Emmy-winning TV host and beloved bookseller at Parnsassus Books in Nashville. Philpott’s inspiration came from readers who would beeline to the memoir section to pick up Eat, Pray, Love or Wild, then ask, “What do you have like this, but more like me?” With essays that Ann Patchett calls relentlessly funny, self-effacing, and charming,” the result is a kind of wisdom that comes from making so many wrong turns they strangely add up to something that is exactly right. (Claire)
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead): Critically acclaimed Argentinian writer Maria Gainza’s first book translated in English. The story interweaves the narrator’s fascination and obsession with art and art history and her intimate experiences involving her family, romantic relationships, and work life. Mariana Enríquez declares, “In between autofiction and the microstories of artists, between literary meet-ups and the intimate chronicle of a family, its past and its misfortunes, this book is completely original, gorgeous, on occasions delicate, and other times brutal.” (Zoë)
Naamah by Sarah Blake: In a stunning, feminist retelling of Noah’s Ark, Blake’s debut novel focuses on Naamah (Noah’s wife) and their family in the year after the Great Flood. Full of desire, fury, strength, and wavering faith, Naamah becomes the bedrock on which the Earth is rebuilt upon. Written in poetic prose, Lidia Yuknavitch praises the novel as “a new vision of storytelling and belief” and “a new myth-making triumph.” (Carolyn)
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: With accolades from all-stars like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie—Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short-story collection promises to wow us. “Set against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado–a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite–these women navigate the land the way they navigate their lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force.” A two-book deal with historical novel to follow. (Sonya)
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: This debut has it all—a novel of the Korean immigrant experience, a courtroom thriller, an exploration of controversies over autism therapies (specifically here, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, HBOT). Kirkus calls it “deeply satisfying” and says “it should be huge.” (Marie Myung-Ok)
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s previous novel The Animals, was downright masterful, and I’ve been anticipating Phantoms ever since. In this new novel, veteran John Frazier returns shaken from the Vietnam War to witness a dispute between his family and their former neighbors, a Japanese-American family that was displaced during World War II and sent to an internment camp. The jacket copy calls it “a fierce saga of American culpability.” Luis Alberto Urrea says, “Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” I, for one, cannot wait! (Edan)
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: In this novel’s opening section, Dave and Sarah, two new students at a prestigious performing arts high school, fall madly in love under the watchful eye of a charismatic acting teacher. But in a second segment, set 12 years later, a change in narrative viewpoint calls into question everything the reader has understood to have happened before. Early reviews are highly polarized. Publishers Weekly says the novel is “destined to be a classic” while a reader on Goodreads, speaking for a number of other dissatisfied early readers, complained “the payoff wasn’t worth the ick.” (Michael)
Normal People by Sally Rooney: Rooney, the Irish author known for the acclaimed Conversations with Friends, has written a second novel about the lives of young people in modern Ireland. The protagonists of Normal People are teenagers named Connell and Marianne, who develop a strange friendship that both are determined to hide. Years pass, and as the two get older, their relationship grows steadily more complicated. (Thom)
The Gulf by Belle Boggs: The author of a trenchant inquiry into fertility and maternity in America, Belle Boggs turns to satire in her debut novel, a divinely witty look at the writing industry and religion. A job is a job, and so Marianne, a struggling Brooklyn poet—and atheist—agrees to direct a Christian artists’ residency program, “The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch,” in Florida. (One of the residents is working on a poem cycle about Terri Schiavo, the comatose woman in the “right-to-die” case that galvanized religious groups in 2005.) There’ll be skewering aplenty, but also a comic hero’s conversion toward acceptance of her new community. (Matt)
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie: How do our charismatic teachers set the stage for the rest of our lives? That’s one of the questions that Ann Beattie tackles in this novel. When a former New England boarding school student named Ben looks back on his childhood, he starts to questions the motives of his superstar teacher. Later on, his teacher gets in contact, and Ben has to grapple with his legacy. (Thom)
The Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno: Sometimes, you don’t stop being obsessed with something just because the book’s written. The Appendix Project takes up where Kate Zambreno’s last book, Book of Mutter, left off, examining, as Kate Briggs describes it, about “how things – interests, attachments, experiences, projects – don’t finish.” The Appendix Project is a genre-crossing work about grief, time, memory, and the maternal, which is also a work about writing itself. Oh, and she’s also got a collection of stories and a novel coming out this year – no big deal. “I try to work on many books at the same time,” Zambreno has said. Same. (Jacqueline)
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker: Meet the Chandarias. Premchand is a doctor. His wife Urmila imports artisanal African crafts. Their son Sunil is studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. But for all their outward success, theirs is a family riven with secrets, and when the family is forced to return to Nairobi, where Premchand and Urmila were born, Sunil reveals an explosive secret of his own: his Jewish girlfriend, who has accompanied the family on the trip, is already his wife. (Michael)
Cape May by Chip Cheek: A novel about a 50s couple from Georgia on what turns into a louche honeymoon in Cape May. It sounds like whatever the literary opposite of On Chesil Beach is, with lots of sex, gin, and intrigue. (Lydia)
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate: A collection of essays about subjects too painful or explosive to broach among families. Based on Filgate’s essay of the same name, about being abused by her stepfather, the essay features work from a stellar lineup of writers like Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, Brandon Taylor, André Aciman, and Leslie Jamison, among others. (Lydia)
Furious Hours by Casey Cep: Did you know Harper Lee wanted to write her own true-crime story à la In Cold Blood? That following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee spent a year living in the Alabama backwoods to report it, and many more years in research, but ultimately never completed the work? In Furious Hours, Casey Cep completes the work Lee couldn’t, writing a vivid portrayal of a killer, but also exploring the effects of fame and success on one of the most famous writers in U.S. history. (Nick)
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Home Remedies, forthcoming in May 2019, is a debut collection of stories by Xuan Juliana Wang. The characters in the 12 stories vary from an immigrant family living in a cramped apartment on Mott Street who tries very hard to fit in, to a couple of divers at the Beijing Olympics who reach for their success. Wang conveys a promising message through her mind-boggling stories that whoever they are and wherever they are from, they have their rights to live extraordinary lives. (Jianan)
Lanny by Max Porter: The follow-up to Porter’s highly lauded Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. This follow-up gives readers all the experimental typography and poignant insight they might expect—with a twist of gut-wrenching suspense thrown in. Lanny is a mischievous young boy who moves to a small village outside of London, where he attracts the attention of a menacing force. Porter has done it again. (Claire)
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores: Move over, chupacabra—there’s a new mythical Southwestern beast in town: the trufflepig, a creature worshipped by a lost Aranana Indian tribe in this exuberant novel set on a trippier version of the American border. Drugs are legal in this near-future society, but the new (illegal) craze is “filtered animals,” extinct species revived, Jurassic-park style, and sold at great cost. The novel follows Esteban Bellacosa, trying to live the quiet life amid the region’s traffickers, obscenely rich pleasure seekers and legends. This is Flores’s first novel after a short story collection, wonderfully titled Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. (Matt)
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: A Taiwanese family of six struggles to make a go of it in far-flung Anchorage, Alaska, but tragedy strikes like a stone in a still pond, rippling out to affect each family member differently. Lin’s debut novel is a raw depiction of grief and resolve set against the terrible beauty of the Alaskan north. (Nick M.)
The Farm by Joanne Ramos: This debut novel takes us to Golden Oaks Farm, where the super-rich begin life in utero with the best of everything, including balanced organic diets in young, cortisol-optimized wombs. The surrogate Hosts offer their wombs in exchange for a big payday that can transform their marginal lives. But as the Hosts learn, nine months locked inside the Farm can be a very long time. The story roams from the idyllic Hudson Valley to plush Fifth Avenue to a dormitory in Queens crowded with immigrant service workers. Echoing The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel explores the tensions between ambition and sacrifice, luck and merit, and money and motherhood. (Bill)
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman: In a New York penitentiary, a doorman-turned-inmate has barricaded himself inside the computer lab while a prison riot rages like hell. Alone, the inmate confesses, recounting the twists of fate that landed him in this predicament, and pondering the many—often hysterically funny—questions he has about it all. Chapman’s satirical jab packs a full-fledged punch. (Nick M.)
China Dream by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew): A new novel from the Chinese novelist who lives in exile in the U.K. and whose books have never been allowed to appear in China. A dystopian satire where the dystopia is today, and an exploration of totalitarianism in China. Madeleine Thien writes for The Guardian: “Ma has a marksman’s eye for the contradictions of his country and his generation, and the responsibilities and buried dreams they carry. His perceptiveness, combined with a genius for capturing people who come from all classes, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs; for identifying the fallibility, comedy and despair of living in absurd times, has allowed him to compassionately detail China’s complex inner lives.” (Lydia)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: Fulbright alumna Phillips has written a literary mystery about two sisters who go missing on the Kamchatka peninsula, an isolated spot and one of the easternmost points of Russia. Jim Shepard called this “a dazzlingly impressive first novel.” (Lydia)
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Ybarra’s critically acclaimed first novel, which won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Her novel makes connections between two losses in her family: her mother’s private death from cancer and her grandfather’s public kidnapping and murder by terrorists in the 1970s. Drawing on research and personal experiences, the book creatively blends nonfiction and fiction. The Irish Times praises her work as a “captivating debut…written with the forensic eye of a true crime writer.” (Zoë)
Exhalation by Ted Chiang: A new collection by the beloved science fiction writer, winner of many Hugo and Nebula awards, whose story “The Story of Your Life” formed the basis of the movie Arrival. (Lydia)
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer: Lots of people grow up loving horses; few of them end up competing (and winning) in the “world’s longest, toughest horse race.” Lara Prior-Palmer, the niece of famed British equestrian Lucinda Green, is just the person to attempt that challenge, galloping across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland, competing in a country so adept at riding that they once conquered the world from the backs of horses. In Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer follows in the hoofs of Genghis Khan and becomes the first woman to win the challenge. (Ed)
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In her much anticipated second novel, the author of the acclaimed Here Comes the Sun—a Young Lions, Center for Fiction, and John Leonard National Book Critics Circle finalist, and Lambda Literary Award winner, among other honors—Dennis-Benn plumbs the wrenching, too-real inner (and outer) conflict that women face when self-fulfillment is pitted against nurturing loved ones. Immigration, mother-daughter estrangement, sexuality and identity; “Frank, funny, salty, heartbreaking,” writes Alexander Chee. What else could you ask for? (Sonya)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Poet Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, returns with his highly anticipated debut novel. When Little Dog writes a letter to his illiterate mother, he reveals the family’s past as well as parts of his life he had hidden from his mother. With his tender, graceful style, Vuong’s family portrait explores race, class, trauma, and survival. (Carolyn)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Winslow’s debut novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through the story of Azalea “Knot” Centre, a fiercely independent woman, and Otis Lee, a helpful neighbor and longtime fixer, the narrative explores community and love with compassion and a singular voice. Rebecca Makkai describes Winslow’s voice as “one that’s not only pitch-perfect but also arresting and important and new.” (Zoë)
Vincent and Alice and Alice by Shane Jones: There’s always a hint of play and whimsy in Shane Jones’s fictions. His previous novel, Crystal Eaters, was a wonderfully sad and tender story where what remained of a character’s life could be measured in crystal counts—and where a young girl attempted to save her sick mother by reversing her diminishing numbers. In his latest, Vincent and Alice and Alice, Vincent’s life has hit some doldrums with a divorce from his wife Alice and a mindless job with the state. However, things turn weird when work enrolls him in a productivity program and Alice returns, but changed. Is she a clone? A hologram? Possibly. It’s a book that Chelsea Hodson calls both “laugh-out-loud funny and knife-in-your-heart sad.” (Anne)
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: In her Twitter bio, Arnett, known for her award-winning fiction and essays, describes herself thusly: “writer, librarian, lesbian willie nelson. 7-eleven scholar ™.” I assume you are already sold, but just in case: This debut novel starts when Jessa walks into the family taxidermy shop to find her father dead. Though grieving, she steps up to manage the business while her family unravels around her. Besides dead things, Jami Attenberg points out this novel includes all the best things, “messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida.” (Claire)
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann: In the essay “Spill Spilt,” T Fleischmann writes of itinerancy, languorous Brooklyn summers, and art-going, with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) at its center. The artwork is a pile of candies piled high in a corner that visitors are invited to take from and consume, and I am struck how sensual and alluring and and contemplative and intimate both the artwork and Fleischmann’s writing feel, how this pairing seems essential. I can only imagine that essential is the word to describe Fleischmann’s forthcoming Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a book-length essay which reflects on Gonzalez-Torres’s artwork while probing the relationships between bodies and art. Bhanu Kapil says the book “is ‘spilled and gestured’ between radical others of many kinds. Is this love? Is this ‘the only chance to make of it an object’? Is this what it’s like to be here at all? To write ‘all words of life.’” (Anne)
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: The bestselling author of The Signature of All Things—and of course, Eat, Pray, Love—returns to historical fiction with a novel set in the theater world of 1940s New York City. Ninety-five-year-old Vivian Morris looks back on her wild youth as a Vassar College dropout who is sent to live with her Aunt Peg, the owner of a decrepit, flamboyant, Midtown theater, called the Lily Playhouse. There, Vivian falls in love with the theater—and also meets the love of her life. (Hannah)
How Could She by Lauren Mechling: A novel about women’s friendships and professional lives within the cutthroat media world that Elif Batuman called “as wise and unforgiving as a nineteenth-century French novel.” (Lydia)
Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge (translated by Frank Wynne): A perverse love story about two victims of traffickers in an unnamed country who become traffickers themselves, by the renowned novelist from Mexico. The Guardian says “Monge’s realist, deadly topical fiction is a weighty metaphor for our world gone mad.” (Lydia)
The Travelers by Regina Porter: A debut novel-in-stories with a large cast of characters from two American families, one white, one black, flung across the world—in America, France, Vietnam, and Germany—from points in time ranging from 1950 to the early 2000s. Garth Greenwell calls this “an innovative and deeply moving debut.” (Lydia)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: A new collection of essays by Native writers using the art of basket-weaving as a formal organizing principle for the essays and collection. Featuring work by Stephen Graham Jones, Deborah Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Eden Robinson, and Kim TallBear. (Lydia)
Oval by Elvia Wilk: In Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, weird things have been happening in Berlin: strange weather, artists hired as corporate consultants. Young couple Anja and Louis move into an “eco-friendly” community on an artificial mountain, The Berg, where they live rent-free in exchange for their silence on the house’s structural problems. When Louis invents a pill called Oval that has the power to temporarily rewire a user’s brain to become more generous, Anja is horrified—but Louis thinks it could solve Berlin’s income disparity. Described as speculative fiction, but also sort of just what life is like now, Oval depicts life in the Anthropocene, but a little worse. For fans of Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink. (Jacqueline)
Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.
Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.
Shortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
The duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.
After scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.
Some novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.
There are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.
But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.
The term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.
Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.
In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.
Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
One of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.
Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.
That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.
Image Credit: LPW.
I became an editor, a notable fact, and for the next year, I floundered. All I wanted was a literary life — a professional and artistic life defined by the act of creating literature, whether as a writer, a publisher of other writers, and even a curator of writers for live audiences — but achieving a dream simultaneously reveals a void. At work, I apprenticed in New York to become a better editor; at home, with newly trained eyes, I reread my own writing, saw finally my own flaws. I handed Between the World and Me to my 59-year-old father for his birthday. Later that same weekend, I wrote an essay about the experience and the gift.
After rereading the unpublishable and rejected essay, I woke up every morning at 5:00 am, brewed coffee, and sat down to write and read for three hours. I retreated from social media, and canceled plans, passed on after-work parties, readings, invitations for drinks, dinners, said no to offers to pick my brain, to brainstorm over beers. The resulting somnolence deteriorated my daily mood, and the isolation led to my accepting time’s endless assault against my writing should I refuse to work, age the partial total of wasted days. This began my year of reading, parallel with my year of rereading, contained within my year of life.
I loved Haruki Murakami — Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — and applauded 2666. I read My Struggle: Book 1, its marvelous second half haunted me for weeks, and I discovered why peers laugh at Knausgaard. I reread Why Black People Tend to Shout by Ralph Wiley, and dragged a slab of wood into our bedroom, near the window closest to the door, and placed it atop two steel trestles. I purchased a black notebook and entered with it a conspiratorial relationship without illusion in regard to my writing, that is, I no longer believed Moleskine, the brand, could make me a better writer, nor do diaries produce literature I care to read.
The work proved increasingly difficult with each book I opened, with every essay I began and abandoned to a boneyard on my hard drive labeled files. From my desk, I watched as my neighbors lived their lives inside unveiled apartments, and pitied those who, after two feet of snow, went about the business of exhuming their cars. I read Distant Star, The Book of Disquiet, Sergio Y., The Story of My Teeth, Sudden Death, The Ballad of Black Tom, salt. by Nayyirah Waheed, In Gratitude, rest in peace, Labyrinths, Loitering again, Between Parentheses again, The Cross of Redemption again, and others. My colleagues were curious about my regimen; they asked me if it yielded results. I unlearned toxic assumptions with respect to the essay, as a form, initially ingested by happenstance and in proximity to the Internet, where essays proliferate. I thought about the essay collection, it too as a form, and how to warp it.
By spring, I lapsed — skipped a morning one week, two mornings the next — until I stopped my morning exercises altogether. I needed the sleep, and the post-winter sun ruined my writing space with its light increasing in duration and strength. The four of us — my partner and her twins — coalesced around one other, traveling to Myrtle Beach and Big Indian, chaperoning my father and his wife over the Brooklyn Bridge. I glared at the black device on my desk as my father on speaker spoke in small talk about my grandmother, his mother, convalescing since July. She is 89. The doctors seem to be doing that shoulder-shrug thing they do when their science fails them and they, in turn, signal to us, the patient’s family, not to give up hope, but to accept that the hope we have is all the hope we can expect to receive.
My 60-year-old father has still not read Between the World and Me, and there will be for him a small birthday party in New Jersey, after Thanksgiving, with home-cooked food and store-bought wine, with holiday music piped through Bluetooth speakers — Boyz II Men’s Christmas album is as old now as The Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night” was to me when I first heard it as a child, when my aunt in black swayed near the woodgrain floor speaker, holding a half-filled glass, her grimace illuminated by the garishly decorated tree lit with reds and blues, as the party turned down, as Christmas refused to relieve her of the turmoil her liquor unlocked — and there will be some laughs, though muted by grief. I myself will not be there; I leave for Chicago and just last week, I rented a gray Dodge Dart from a sketchy Enterprise in Bay Ridge and drove to Vineland so I could attend the private viewing of my paternal uncle’s cooling body. Speaking of birthdays, he died one day before his own, at the age of 64, to cancer.
In the wake, I stand before his body in the casket, in my black suit, holding a copy of Speak, Memory, which I first read back in 2008 or ’09 but now have chosen to reread only after appearing here, inches from the coffin, the first time. The anachronistic book grounds me here, the second time, after I first witnessed my uncle’s evaporated body, scheduled for cremation tomorrow night, when I wondered how and why his final moments left a peaceful look on his graying, gaunt, sheared face. (I remember him for his gargantuan beard, gone now from real time.) On a round wood table beside the casket are his black leather cowboy boots doubling as vases for two bouquets of deciduous red and yellow roses.
My grandmother is not in attendance, her frail body yoked to life-saving machines, to bags of fluid to keep her hydrated and sustained, since she refuses to eat, and I question her memory. When I visited her in the hospital hours before the wake, I did not mention my uncle’s death. Instead, we watched the news together, a local affiliate broadcasted from Philadelphia; the same black anchor from my childhood, he hasn’t aged a single day, I said to her. I knew she was told of her son’s death, but I was unsure if she remembered — doctors and family members reported with greater frequency lapses in her short-term memory — and I did not have the heart to break her heart all over again had she forgotten, so I said nothing, and softly held her hand.
Lies and memoirs, said Roberto Bolaño, get along swimmingly. I feel accused of a crime, even though, strictly speaking, I do not consider myself a memoirist. Once fascinated by memoirs, I now avoid but not because of banality, that is, the requirement from critics that a memoirist’s life be thrilling, or extraordinary. I am as physically close to my uncle’s body as I’m willing to get, and no closer. I don’t recognize him, my living brain having to downshift to death, because he should be breathing, the movement registers as a detail about him, a major one easily overlooked until final exhalation. “Symbols and Signs,” a short story, first introduced me to Vladimir Nabokov; the insubordinate sentence first and finally revealed itself to me, through Nabokov; Literature marks the spot where generations of writers faithfully leap off, expecting to fly, only to slam face first into a pile of human bodies, but Vladimir the asshole soared, and writers will forever read and hate him, never understanding how he defied the laws, and why not them.
The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
A story circulates the wake: When asked whether or not he had money for his own funeral, my uncle laughed and replied “I’ll be dead and it’ll be someone else’s problem,” and laughed again. That he laughed twice pleases me. Knowing my uncle, he was terrified of death but never beguiled by it; his callous stance toward the living in the face of his own demise seems to me a pragmatic, if heartless one. Speak, Memory describes the nothingness that bookends the life cycle of every organism as two black voids, fore and aft. A local preacher and friend to my cousin, the son of the deceased, says now in the wake, at the lectern, that in his final hours my uncle accepted the Lord into his life — I am skeptical, but if he was pragmatic enough to leave behind a funereal bill for the family to settle, then indeed he would wait until the last minute to resolve a situation that, prior to, existed but didn’t press itself upon his life. When I face the second black void, aft, I might rethink my position on the case of Me v. God, so to hear about my uncle’s late-hour, deathbed capitulation to Christ only makes the need for me to find him all the more urgent. Where is my uncle now?
The prison of time, said Nabokov, is spherical and without exits. Speak, Memory maps a human life during societal deterioration, a process relevant to the new climate. Nabokov’s home was an idyllic, plentiful wonderland centered inside a disturbed Russia approaching back-to-back revolutions. Nabokov’s childhood home was torched, leaving behind the iron staircase fashioned by his paternal grandfather; Vladimir, his mother, and his siblings fled for their lives to southern Crimea, while his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, remained behind, and was later assassinated in Berlin. The life of my family, said Nabokov, had completely changed; “we were absolutely ruined…the complete curbing of the public’s minds was achieved…in no time after the main contingent of the intellectuals had escaped abroad, or had been destroyed…the loss of my country was equated for me with the loss of my love.” Men who write about their homes should have their own wing inside a burning library, but I also believe in literature’s expanding universe, how, despite one million stories, we’ll read another story, and one more, year after year.
The wake is sparsely populated with family, some skeletal remains of fringe friends, a dozen former coworkers, a few lovers. It’s unclear how long ago he was diagnosed, though we suspected for years: My uncle was a nurse, and so is my father, and three or four of my aunts, and twice as many cousins, not to mention my grandmother, retired; his family knew his prognosis just by observing him. I sit with my right leg crossed over the left, Speak, Memory and my black device in my lap, as I stare at the casket, thinking about my year of reading and the black bolt above my childhood home in Newfield, adjacent to Vineland, captured with my device’s camera. I pull over to the side of the road, in front of the house my family no longer owns, and snap a few photos from the rental car. The November sky reminds me of the dulling bright eyes of a black dog thrashed by a heartless owner retarded by mediocrity. My father and his brother play each other in a game of tennis; with afros, they ride on motorcycles, side by side, down route 55. My brothers and I slip out the wake for a quick cigarette in the parking lot as the nearby cathedral bell tolls nine. The seats in front of me are empty, so I have a direct line of sight to my uncle’s face. My grandmother touches the screen fastened to my wrist; the nurses have removed her rings; on a rolling tray next to her hospital bed is a framed photo of her husband, my uniformed grandfather, who died 363 days before my birth. From the corner of my left eye, past my black eyeglasses frames, I see my father and his wife, frozen, clutching each other as they gaze at his brother, thinking god knows whatever those new to senior citizenship consider during a wake pre-cremation. My uncle drives an oxblood stick-shift Corvette convertible and parks it outside the strip club from where he plucks a date to escort him to the family barbecue. There she stands, the white dancer in black tights, and there we stand, the black judges holding red cups, bound by blood. Our scientific laws dictate that upon death, for maximum efficacy within, and least disquieting entry into, the loop, our bodies are to be burned and transformed into the ash we, for centuries before Reform, tried to hide with shame during harsh, white winters.
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“This will be very hard for you.”
— Alan Moore, Jerusalem (spoken by an angel)
Jerusalem, the new novel by Alan Moore, sits on my desk, thick and foreboding. At 1,279 pages, it’s a behemoth compared to the author’s last prose work, Voice of the Fire, a relatively scant 304.
One doesn’t just dive into a novel this size without testing the water. So I hold the book in my hands (it’s heavy, as expected, like a dense loaf of bread). I flip through the pages (the resultant breeze feels nice on this soupy summer day). I read over the marketing copy (vague, as expected). I think back on other Alan Moore works I’ve enjoyed (Watchmen, of course, but also his true magnum opus, the Jack the Ripper study From Hell). I wonder why I’ve taken up the task of reading this novel when my shelves are a graveyard of similarly sized ones, finished (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day) and unfinished (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) alike.
I think: Alan Moore’s an imaginative storyteller. Despite Jerusalem’s intimidating size, it should be fun.
I also think: Maybe I should be reading this book on a Kindle.
There’s no clear way to approach Jerusalem other than to plunge in, so I do.
I’m a little over 200 pages in and already getting a sense of how Jerusalem is less a “mere” novel and more a grand literary project: an ambitious attempt by Moore to encapsulate the soul of his hometown of Northampton, England. The city was the same setting for his first novel, in which its spirit was captured by polyphonic voices speaking to us from 4000 B.C. to the end of the 20th century.
So far, Jerusalem is a novel the conceit of which (chapters told from different characters’ perspectives at different historical moments in different literary styles) has more strength than the story. I’m briefly introduced to Mick and Alma Warren, modern-day sibling residents of Northampton on whom the rest of the novel’s events (both past and present) supposedly hinges. I’m more excited to be thrown back into the past in chapters the disparate subjects of which seek to cast Northampton as the omphalos of England; the nexus of existence in which can be gleaned the entire story of humanity.
This is an obvious Joycean undertaking, and it goes a long way toward explaining (and perhaps justifying) Jerusalem’s generous length. Moore’s writing is nothing if not hyper-descriptive; baroque, even. One wonders if this is compensation for the lack of visuals that accompany his similarly grand, tangled comic book narratives. These early chapters cross the point into self-indulgence. But just as I’m about to give up, Moore casts me into a different time frame and I’m enthralled.
One moment, I’m peering over the shoulder of a fresco restoration artist in St. Paul’s cathedral hallucinating (or not) a conversation with an angel. The next, I’m following a drug-addled sex worker walking Northampton’s streets in 2006. If there’s one thing uniting his characters here, it’s their station as members of the working class. They live and work in The Burroughs, Northampton’s lower-class area and the site of frequent tension with the forces of redevelopment.
Is there some kind of equitable justice above these streets? Some cosmic force that can set things right? Knowing Moore’s work, I’m sure these questions will have not just metaphoric answers, but literal ones as well.
I decided not to bring Jerusalem with me on a three-day vacation. So now I’m back at home and hunkered down in Alan Moore’s Northampton. My new goal: read around 150 pages a day.
I carry Jerusalem with me everywhere. I take the novel on public transportation to and from work, where it sits open in my lap like an infant. I try to read it on the elliptical machine at the gym, an awkward task that means I’m switching to a reclining stationary bike for the next week or so. I dip into the novel during my lunch break, after dinner, before bed.
This is heavy reading in more ways than one. The density of Moore’s prose forces me to constantly come up for air. And yet, I’m never tempted to stay above water for long. I’m intrigued by the characters: a Benedictine monk making a spiritual stop in medieval “Hamtun;” “Black Charley,” an American transplant and one of Northampton’s first black residents; the struggling modern-day poet Benedict Perrit, doing what all us struggling writers do best (namely, beg friends for drinking money).
Some characters, like the aforementioned poet, we follow from the moment they wake up to the moment they return to bed at close of day. Moore pays particular attention to mapping the city streets his characters wander. I’m reminded of a similar scene in From Hell, where Dr. William Gull’s calculated perambulations past London landmarks ultimately reveal the shape of a pentagram. I’m also reminded of W.G. Sebald, whose semi-fictional wanderers uncover the psychogeography of particular places; the secret histories trapped in landscapes and buildings.
There is true world-building going on here. Whitmanesque, these pages contain multitudes. And I’m starting to realize these disparate voices aren’t that disparate at all; in fact, they’re delicately interconnected. Figures from the past and the present, alive and dead, bob and weave and brush up against one another.
This book, I’m learning, is haunted by history.
One of the most striking things of Moore’s best work over the years: his focus on the nature of space-time; of time as a fourth dimension; of past, present, and future all happening at once. Time, in his Weltanschauung, is an architectural dimension that can be mapped and explored. It’s the same philosophy that haunts Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen and that propels Jack the Ripper’s legacy through time in From Hell.
Jerusalem is a startling expansion on these ideas. While ideas of space-time have appeared in nearly every chapter so far, they’re concentrated in one marvelous section I’ve just finished. Snowy, a member of the Vernall clan (of whom the siblings Mick and Alma Warren are present-day descendants), hangs off the top of a building while below, in the gutter, his wife gives birth to a daughter. During this moment of suspended time, Snowy explores the idea of the world as an “eternal city” — one in which everything has been preordained.
There’s something frightening (and oddly comforting) about this philosophy, which borrows from the poet and mystic William Blake (an influence on Moore’s work), Friedrich Nietzsche’s myth of “eternal recurrence,” and the ideas of like-minded thinkers. We’re meant to see this idea as not a curse but a kind of hope.
If it’s true, it means, in a sense, I’ll be reading this book forever.
I’m now over 400 pages in, and I’ve just discovered that Jerusalem is also available in a three-volume slipcase edition. My wrists ache.
While the economy of reading an enormous book in more manageable, digestible “books” are a comfort (see a similar edition for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666), I’ve convinced myself that by reading Jerusalem in its uninterrupted, single-bound version, I’m getting the more authentic reading experience.
The 2016 Olympics are on in the background. Indeed, there’s something Olympian about reading Jerusalem as one entire text. I feel strong.
I’m also glad I’ve opted out of reading Moore’s novel on an e-reader. I’d most likely miss out on the physical sense of accomplishment that comes from feeling the weight of this book gradually increase in my left palm and decrease in my right: one page, then 10 pages, then 50 pages.
The second hefty part of Jerusalem finally lays bare the vast supernatural cosmology Moore’s hinted at in previous pages, with all their angelic visions and ghostly hauntings. What he’s created: a three-tiered universe of Northampton: the Burroughs (in our everyday reality), Mansoul (a sort of astral plane from which all time and space can be seen, the name borrowed from John Bunyan), and a mysterious Third Burrough.
For more than 300 pages, we follow Mick Warren on an odyssey through this landscape, the result of a near-death experience as a child in 1959. During the few moments where Mick’s body loses consciousness, we travel in and around this “world above a world.” We meet angels (known as “builders”). We meet demons (former “builders”). We meet a ragtag gang of ghost children called The Dead Dead Gang, some of whose members can literally dig through time. We’re flung back to seminal moments in Northampton’s history, spending the night with Oliver Cromwell on the eve of a decisive battle in the English Civil War and watching two fire demons, salamanders, cavort through the city and bring about the Great Fire of 1675.
There are some indelible images in these pages, including the ghost of a suicide bomber who’s eternally trapped in mid-explosion (the rules of this afterlife being that the form you occupy is the form you had during your greatest moment of joy) and a serpentine ghoul that haunts the River Nene and plucks newly dead souls into her underwater purgatory.
It’s unfair to expect perfection from mammoth books. Yet the longer a novel runs, the more unforgiving a reader becomes about moments in the story that could be tightened, or excised altogether. Great Big Novels bring out the editor inside us all.
I’ve spent three days trapped, so to speak, in the otherworldly realm of Mansoul. I’m starting to long for the voices of the humans back on three-dimensional Earth. Moore’s too talented a writer to waste his time (and ours) with much of this rambling middle section. You’ll get an important episode told from one perspective, then a shift in perspective in the next chapter that requires a recap of earlier events. This means pages go by before the narrative moves forward.
Twelve days after starting this book (holding at bay, for the moment, the deluge of other reading materials in my life), I round the halfway point of Jerusalem. It’s the moment where the spine finally cracks and I can read the book on a desk without the use of my hands.
I like to think I crack the spine out of necessity, not vindictiveness.
Moore, you sadist.
I’m back on the human plane of existence, back in the polyphony of voices that is Jerusalem’s strength. And then, on page 900, I’m dropped into a 48-page narrative from the perspective of James Joyce’s mentally ill daughter, Lucia, a patient at Northampton’s St. Andrew’s Hospital.
These pages are written in a mock-Finnegans Wake word salad built on puns and double meanings. It feels a little sadistic, placing such a passage here. It’s an inventive idea that’s fun at first, but, like a lot in this novel, it goes on for longer than it should. Also: I’m frustrated at being impeded so close to the end by having to sort through this linguistic playground.
So here is where I make a confession. I skimmed. With a copy of the original Finnegans Wake looming over me on my bookshelf (similarly unfinished), I quickly stopped trying to parse the logic of each sentence. As soon as I got the idea — al fresco assignations with men who may not really be there, painful memories of childhood abuse — I moved on.
Perhaps one day this section will be worth revising and translating. As of now, I’m rabid for Jerusalem to end.
Moore, you genius.
A few chapters after my troubled date with Lucia Joyce, I come across one of the more brilliant, transcendent sections in the novel. It’s composed of a pivotal character’s final earthly moments interspersed with a fantastical journey in which his essence (along with that of his deceased granddaughter) travels into the future. Together, the pair witness the evolution of the human race, its eventual demise, the resurgence of giant crabs and land-walking whales as the new lords of the earth, the heat death of the universe, and the last spark of light before eternal darkness.
It’s a lovely, touching moment that rewards my investment in this novel. Arriving on the heels of a farcical play (featuring the ghosts of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Becket, John Bunyan, and John Clare), it’s a testament to Moore’s skill at genre juggling, at cultivating a sense of awe at the universe’s frightening expanse and its beautiful mysteries.
Sixteen days later, making the final lap of a noir-ish detective story, a poem from the perspective of a drug-addled and ghost-haunted runaway, and a somewhat anti-climactic gallery opening, I arrive at the last page.
I close Jerusalem and drop it on the floor at my feet. I don’t need to do this; it’s a purely dramatic gesture. The resultant thud is a satisfying testament to my accomplishment.
I’m drained. But I’m also grateful. And a little sad.
It’s a paradoxical feeling I get after finishing big books like this one. The quiet thrill of having been completely submerged in an author’s vision. The feeling of finally coming up for a merciful breath of air. The longing to read flash fiction by Lydia Davis.
I’m still thinking about this fascinating mess of a book and its countless allusions (both major and minor): the art of William Blake, episodes of the U.K. version of Shameless, comic books, modern art and poetry, the time theories of Charles Howard Hinton and Albert Einstein, the hymns of John Newton, demons from apocryphal books of the Bible, H.P. Lovecraft, Melinda Gebbie (Moore’s wife), Tony Blair, Jack the Ripper, Buffalo Bill, billiards, global warming, the Crusades, the War in Iraq, the end of the world. A cacophony of material that doesn’t always coalesce perfectly but that, fittingly, creates what one character describes as “an apocalyptic narrative that speaks the language of the poor.” And the mad. And the sad. And the frustrated, the lonely, the lost.
In a sense, all of us.
My wrists stop aching.
Dana Spiotta and Michael Helm write fiercely intelligent portrayals of cultures in flux, so it’s no surprise they’ve been literary compatriots ever since they discovered each other’s work. Aside from a whirlwind real-life meeting at AWP, Spiotta and Helm’s dialogue has grown entirely over email — fitting for authors whose work explores modern technology in all its connective power and complexity. The following conversation took place over email in fall of 2016, in anticipation of Helm’s fourth novel, After James (September 6, 2016).
Dana Spiotta: What was the initial impulse or inspiration behind After James? The opening section features a whistleblower and big pharma. We also have a storyline that comes out of the West’s relationship to the Middle East’s refugee crisis. Do you read or listen to the news and get inspiration for characters and stories? What draws you in?
Michael Helm: My novels usually begin with a sentence or image, or at least that’s when I become conscious of them. At some point a character or two comes clear, and the feeling of the book. The gains and problems become formal and stay that way to the end, but form touches the world, and it shows up in ways I can’t predict.
In After James I followed a dog into a story. I don’t know where most of the characters hail from but the story and setting come from the world. It’s the usual input-output with some transmutation of materials inside the mechanism. The storylines in After James came out of conversations I’d had, places I’d been, including the Turkey-Syria border region. The research builds the engine. The bass note in the engine is disquiet.
DS: Raymond Carver once described fiction as bringing the news from other worlds. I love that, and I have always thought that “other worlds” specifically meant imagining the lives of other people and escaping the tyranny of the self. Empathy is an ongoing subject for you, both crucial and challenging. How do you think about writing beyond your own experience? To use Faulkner’s formulation, what relationship do “experience, observation, and imagination” have in your work and this work in particular? What boundaries do you have if any about what can or should be imagined?
MH: A lot was made a couple of years back when a study at the New School found empirical evidence that reading literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction or non-fiction, made a person more empathetic. I think a lot of readers, hearing that, said, “No shit.” Language came about and evolved because we’re trapped in our skulls. Story came about because we’re trapped in our lives, with our pains and joys and sense of duration. Literary fiction allows us to escape not into fantasy, but out of ourselves, and to the degree that we believe in the fiction, we feel known, thought of, and naturally we then have feelings of community and others.
Cities of Refuge went at this question pretty directly. I learned which experiences I could and couldn’t responsibly inhabit, and brought the question to the surface as a kind of stated theme. After James is a bit more sly. Because it turns up the what-happens-nextness and seems to indulge in popular storytelling tropes, readers might think the only empathy required of them is to be found in things like simple fear, paranoia, impending doom. These aren’t normally complicated emotions, but my sense is that they’re ascendant, that we’re in a time with its own character of uncertainty. These aren’t your grandmother’s fear, paranoia, and doom.
Literary fiction allows us to admit the size of other lives. It stands in the place of the full admission that if we really empathized fully with the feelings of others, all others, we’d be fetal on the floor. I love a novel that just admits that. In your Stone Arabia, Denise has bouts of “debilitating sympathy,” with her memory ordered around “hyperpervious moments” so that even time seems colonized by observed pain. All that fear of sentimentality that shifted fictional art into the cool zones in earlier decades has been eclipsed by a fiction that’s just as smart and formally daring, but feeling, too.
DS: You have said in an interview that you don’t think of your books as idea-driven. That your characters have ideas, but that does not mean that your book is a novel of ideas. I wonder about that — is it such a terrible thing to have ideas in a novel? I understand pushing back on the notion of ideas imposed rather than organically formed — a novel is not a polemic. It should be embodied, and have doubt and beauty and mystery. Yet it seems to me that After James — and this is part of what I love about it — has a deep strain of philosophical inquiry in it. Can’t a novel be driven by character, story, and philosophical questions? Aesthetic questions? Language questions? I write to discover and I read to discover. Not just recognize.
MH: The U.S. publisher described After James as a novel of ideas disguised as a page turner. I have no objection to that. I don’t know where I said that other thing but I was probably trying to stop myself from saying that the books are driven by language, and that in fact I’m very interested in ideas, which can sound a bit precious. Maybe it’s just that the thing I’m first aware of is language, the way of saying, before the thing being said. With enough pressure on the sentences, story and character and ideas can be made into one substance.
In After James a couple of ideas in particular seemed to allow me find that substance. Genetic transference, the process of recombination, shuffled codes. And I wanted to mark the distinction between fear in popular story and the real thing. Certain kinds of novels and films find ways to gather our feelings meaningfully, to acknowledge our anxieties. Other, meretricious kinds of stories only reproduce the experience of consuming them. Because commercial fiction and film are so much a part of the surround, genre stories claim a lot of central ground in our lived experience. We constantly absorb stories that hold to the same precepts and conventions. I think we always need to expand the possibilities. I like squared-off stories, but I rarely find one that knows me or stays with me. And I worry that our many excellent entertainments are setting us up for an ending we don’t want.
These days real and false terror are both just clicks away. It’s worth thinking about what it means that the borders between them are getting harder to find.
DS: And, of course, language-as-a-system drives your novel. On the sentence level, we get the dynamic of language that obscures and reveals (the “pharmakon” of language as both “remedy and poison”). We also get a version of that problem in the second section, where you use crowd-sourced literary critique of a mysterious poet’s work to create slippages in meaning. You include a number of poems in the book and glosses on the poems. It must be challenging to write poems as a character. It takes a kind of confidence or authority. And you really have to trust in your own commitment to your construct. They can’t be your poems. Tell me about how you went about writing them. Was it challenging? Fun? Torture? Did you think about Pale Fire?
MH: I read a lot of poetry but have too much respect for the form to write it. The brains of most poets worth reading aren’t like novelists’ brains, but I found I could write the poems and fragments in the novel because they weren’t mine. The lines are fiction by other means. One or another character makes the point that they’re not good poems, so I hope that earns me some grace. And they’re anonymous, and enigmatic, so they come with a mystery they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I did think about Pale Fire. In Nabokov, there’s the poem, the balanced ambiguities, and the possible lunacy behind the gloss that accompanies it. But it’s one man’s reading of one poem. In my novel I was interested in the ways the Internet generates its own forces of ambiguity, lunacy, and control.
DS: You don’t use a conventional narrative structure in After James. The book is divided into three parts that are both discreet from one another and connected. Can you tell me how the structure evolved? Why is the middle section in first person and the other sections in close third? Time is also complex and fluid — can you also talk about how you use time or a timeline in this novel?
MH: I’d begun three novels that I thought of as related, and I knew I wanted two things. One was a movement in each and throughout from high artifice to meaning, to bring the overstoried, over entertained surround of our lives into the text, and then use it, if possible, to discover something new. I don’t know if I did this but I seem to recall wanting to do it.
And I wanted a connection between the parts that resisted neat fittings. I didn’t want to make a novel as puzzle, to be solved and put away. In revision, a small change in one part could ruin its resonance with another. The parts had to be offset just so. The idea was that as one part passes into another, there’s a ghosting effect.
The shift to first person in the second part just felt right. It made a hard cut and seemed to open comic possibilities. And it’s a young man’s story, and one of the things the first person can capture well is a young person’s interior wanderings and involutions.
The second part has a more certain setting. It happens around now, as historical events in the news seem also to be in the novel, though they aren’t topical so much as the latest instances of a standing condition. The other two parts seem to float between now and what’s coming. Maybe it’s the day after tomorrow. I didn’t want to get out ahead of our present transforming moment, to think it through, so much as simply to register it in its strangeness.
DS: After James contains a number of mysteries. We get clues and it almost seems as though we can piece it together. But you don’t give it all away — it has a resistance embedded in it, which feels dynamic and exciting to me as a reader, as if the book keeps buzzing after you finish it. The connections don’t feel too neat, and you give us just enough. Is that a matter of intuition, just withholding enough to create suspense and mystery but not so much as to create frustration?
MH: It’s intuition and trusting the reader. Readers especially are predisposed to pattern recognition and to apophenia, seeing patterns even when they aren’t there. Finding a seeming connection can be pleasurable, but so, too, can be sensing a mystery forming just beyond perception. By now we might have encountered this sense of mysteries both relenting and not in certain kinds of novels and movies. What becomes of the central question in 2666? How do the stories relate in Kieślowski’s Three Colours Trilogy? As interesting as the mysteries in each story are the ways in which one story seems to reconstellate another.
DS: After James has technology as an explicit subject: how it shapes our thoughts and our interactions. Better than anyone else I have read, you capture the shocking loneliness at the heart of the Internet — to be both hyper-connected and totally isolated from one another is the paradox of contemporary technology. Can you tell me about using a very old-fashioned piece of technology — a long book — to address the implications and experiences of complex technological forces?
MH: Well thanks, but it seems to me that Innocents and Others explores, among many other things, the same paradox but through different old technologies, films as they once were made, and the telephone. Your novel gets at the same feelings and reminds us that connection and distance have existed together since we first found the means for remote contact.
DS: I am very glad to hear you see a connection between our books. I can’t separate people from the tools they use. Because we spend so much time interacting through machines, writing about that interaction feels urgent to me. But you bravely write into the specific moment we inhabit and then push beyond it. I love how mystical the technological becomes in After James.
MH: After James takes on specific technologies of science and art: drugs, language, genetic science, cyberspace, artistic reproduction. These both extend and erode the self in ways peculiar to the new century. Among the books behind this one is The Turn of the Screw (not that I’m comparing), but part one of After James isn’t so much a psychological novel as a psychopharmaceutical one, where reader and character together are left to try to distinguish the real from the projected.
Part two, a sort of cybermystery unfolding in an all too real world of political manipulation and violence, has antecedents in the literature of paranoia. The time for paranoia has come around again.
Part three is in some ways stranger for being both apocalyptic and not just plausible but actual. Most novels try to strike distinct characters, but we live now with the feeling that our own characters aren’t always distinct even to ourselves. Sometimes against our intent or wishes, our self gets diffused or repurposed against our will. I’m interested in these forces of incoherence. We don’t have to move the border very far for the self to fall apart. I like to quote T.E. Hulme’s line that “Man is the chaos highly organized, and liable to revert to chaos at any moment.” It’s a good description of humans, and of the kinds of novels I love most, taking order out to the edge of chaos.
DS: Pushing something until it becomes its seeming opposite, until it reveals a paradox. That’s what I mean by mystical — you play out the implications of various technologies until they seem almost spiritual. A little like DeLillo in Zero K, I think.
After James dwells in the natural world as well as the technological world. In fact, the vivid, sense-rich descriptions of the natural world give the reader respite from the hermetic worlds of human consciousness as well as technology. I love the precise-yet-lyrical writing you do to describe nature and how it manages not to get sentimental or soothing. It is beautiful and frightening, really. The people are isolated, but the world feels profoundly alive all around them. It creates its own tension in the book, the relationship of the humans to their surroundings. Can you talk a little about that? Particularly in the first book and the last.
MH: We don’t just live in nature (as they say); we are nature (as they say), but where does the nature go when we extend ourselves into the artificial? Maybe art aspires to the condition of the material, phenomenal world. I grew up in Saskatchewan, in dry hyper-real light, on the flattest plate of land in the world. The climate there is extreme, swinging about 148 degrees Fahrenheit every six months. It’s a hard, beautiful landscape of the kind that drives some people nuts. You can’t pretend that the sublime is a mere concept in such a place.
I like the language we’ve laid over flora and fauna, and I tend to like people who know that language well. But the names of natural things point out better than anything, I think, the paradox of language itself. I stand before a tree, touch it, and try to see it fully. Then someone says its name — American beech — and it’s suddenly more sharply before me. But day by day, as the name is said over and over in my thoughts, the name begins to obscure the thing, and the tree seems to recede a little.
The natural world and its rhythms, which are especially pronounced in places with four distinct seasons like the part of the continent where you and I live, seem to make a great claim on my imaginative life. Every fall, as the weather turns, my dreams get wild. They seem to want to kill me. I know I don’t live outside of the natural world, but the ways it lives in me unexpectedly are profound.
There’s a bit of hard weather in the novel. Soon here in the anthropocene we’ll just call it weather. There was a time in poetry and fiction when we read imagined weather symbolically. We’ve screwed things up so badly now that we can read real weather politically.
DS: I get a lot of inspiration reading about other kinds of artists — architects, painters, and composers — and then relating it back to the novel. Sometimes I have a sense of being in dialogue with the history of the novel, and that excites me. Other times I think of novel-writing as deeply subversive and counter-culture, sort of spy work for team weird. What is the state of the novel in your view? What interests you about the form? Where do you think the energy is these days?
MH: Maybe now, in this often senseless cultural decor, the novel is subversive precisely because of its long history. Wherever it is as an art form, I hope it’s ever more influenced by global literatures, especially stuff that’s outside of high realism presented conventionally. Lately we’ve had waves of things from far off. One year everyone’s reading Clarice Lispector, the next Knausgård, then Ferrante. Not all of this stuff is great but I like that people are talking and can have new orientation points. Maybe it’s not really yet a post-literate world.
The novel still does what it used to. Better than other narrative forms, through interiority and long time it can establish deep character. It can produce its own layering effects, inside a moment or within the whole structure. It allows for finely calibrated emotions and ironies. It can manage a greater tonal range, from humour to despair, than other story forms. It can handle ideas with enough time to do right by them. It can move around in time or memory to any degree it wants. And better even than visual art forms, I think, it seems in the work of some writers able to capture specificity and blur, the vibration at the edges of living things.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, or perhaps any masterwork of its scope, like War and Peace, one experiences a sequence of intellectual, emotional, and bodily responses. They are, at least in part:
Wonder at the impossible genius of the author, who can sense, with panopticon vision, the authentic truths of many worlds, and give voice to them, as if a ventriloquist or an interpreter of dreams;
Thirst for more of those worlds and the words to describe them, words swallowed as quickly and desperately as they can be provided;
Laughter at the absurdity of human desire and failure, rendered in deadpan brilliance and sly humor; and
Melancholy that settles in as sweet sickness of mind and body, the very pain of conscious life, the splendor and the terror.
“Few other contemporary novels had ever involved me so completely,” says director Robert Falls, a Tony Award-winner who is artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He read 2666 in Natasha Wimmer’s English translation as soon as FSG put it out in 2008 and, seduced, began working on a stage adaptation.
Eight years later, the play 2666, which Falls adapted and directed with Goodman’s playwright-in-residence, Seth Bockley, is on stage in Goodman’s blackbox, in a five-and-a-half hour production. The play thrills — indeed producing wonder, thirst, laughter, and melancholy — when Falls and Bockley trust themselves as interpreters, like Bolaño, of conflicted and contradictory reality. When they forget, pigeonholing characters into cartoons Bolaño never intended, the show becomes exhausting. By the end, after almost a quarter day, one is merely thrilled to move again and then to consider sleep.
Hans Reiter, a Prussian boy who goes off to fight in World War II, is the figure at the center of the novel 2666. Detached from his unit and hiding out in a house in a Ukrainian village, Reiter discovers the journal of Boris Ansky, a Jewish writer presumably killed during the war. As he lounges around Ansky’s house reading the man’s journal entry on the idea of semblance, Reiter begins to feel he is Ansky. But at the same time, he discovers a powerful sense of his own original rebirth. “He felt free, as he never had in his life, and although malnourished and weak, he also felt the strength to prolong as far as possible this impulse toward freedom, toward sovereignty,” writes Bolaño. At war’s end, feeling that he needs to mask his identity after killing an amoral Nazi official, Leo Sammer, he renames himself Benno von Archimboldi, the initials a semblance of Boris Ansky’s, and seizes a new identity. Archimboldi’s freedom and detachment is a leitmotif for the unhinged 20th century in Bolaño’s eyes, the specter of possibility, but also of danger and evil.
The various dimensions of human existence — the understood, the confused, the real, and the unperceivable — is the landscape of the novel, meted out in five parts, beginning with the search, by four scholars in the late 1990s, for the mysterious Archimboldi, an overlooked literary genius, who they think really ought to be considered for the Nobel Prize. The four come to understand Archimboldi’s been seen in the unruly Mexican city Santa Theresa, in the north along the U.S. border, Bolaño’s fictionalized Ciudad Juarez. Santa Theresa, where hundreds of young women have been raped and murdered without resolution, metaphor of human darkness, draws the American journalist Oscar Fate, writer for the Harlem-based magazine Black Dawn; the Chilean-born Oscar Amalfitano, depressed philosophy professor and Archimboldi translator recently appointed to a position at the University of Santa Theresa (presumably the only job he could get); and the troubled journeyman Klaus Haas, who has freed himself from end-of-the-road Prussia.
Falls and Bockley’s play follows the novel’s format: Act One is “The Part About The Academics,” Act Two “The Part About Fate” and “The Part About Amalfitano,” Act Three “The Part About The Crimes,” and Act Four “The Part About Archimboldi.” The playwrights also put Bolaño’s show-by-telling prose style to work — no easy task — dividing narration among various characters to keep up the story’s pace. Imaginative staging and the use of video screens, PowerPoint, and film help untangle the novel’s discursive threads, and bring the characters to life. A frequent critique of Bolaño’s writing is that his emphasis on ideas shades the true life and motivation of characters. Here, the playwrights and actors allow us to see our tragic heroes as real people. This is possible in these early acts because Bolaño’s ruminating centers around discrete events. Even the most ambivalent ticket holder will admit to detecting plot.
The Act One and Act Two script is almost entirely Bolaño’s — or, really, Wimmer’s — words, but for one noticeable moment when Falls and Bockley brilliantly augment dialog to make sense of the academics’ growing madness. Enervated by the desire for one another and their growing embattled influence as a scholar bloc in the hidebound world of German literature and Archimboldi studies, the four — Jean-Claude Pelletier, Manuel Espinoza, Piero Morini, and Liz Norton — want to get inside each other’s pants as much as their heads. Norton takes on both Pelletier and Espinoza as lovers and in a London cab, driven by a conservative Pakistani immigrant, they go at it, with cosmopolitan banter and unambiguous groping. The cab driver becomes defensive — imagining the scholars are making fun of him — and takes offense at the lurid behavior in the backseat. “By what he had heard, the woman here present, in other words Norton, was lacking in decency and dignity, and in his country there was a word for what she was, the same word they had for it in London as it happened, and the word was bitch or slut or pig,” writes Bolaño, “and the gentlemen here present, gentlemen who, to judge by their accents, weren’t English, also had a name in his country and that name was pimp or hustler or whoremonger.”
Here, the set, designed by Walt Spangler, flexes perfectly to become the cab, and the script leaps from Bolaño’s thick running paragraph page. When reading the novel, what happens next seems impossible and absurd. Espinoza and Pelletier drag the cabbie out of the car and assault him, nearly to death. On the page, the flash of evil passes by, almost inscrutably. But here on the stage, Laurence Grimm, as Pelletier, and Demetrios Troy, as Espinoza, can’t help but defend the Western values the driver has insulted. As Pelletier lands blows, he cries out, in dialog augmented by Falls and Bockley, “This is for the feminists of Paris!…This one’s for Salman Rushdie!”
In fact, the heightening of plot points and characters is necessary for the play’s audience to grasp the impossibly expansive world. Many of the characters in the novel just play out into the ether — they don’t resolve. This is part of Bolaño’s point of the title 2666, a year so far in the distance the world seems to dissolve. The novelist’s role is to reveal the hidden eternal structure of the world and hint at the secret connections, such as that, for example, between Boris Ansky and Hans Reiter. The sprawl — which is geographic but also layering of time and place, reality and other dimensions, ideas and choices — gets articulated in the multi-media format, in the staging, and in the use of a core group of actors to each play multiple parts, a subtle gesture to the secret connections of 2666.
The playwrights have done some necessary clarifying so you’ll care and, as the play continues, thirst for more, and in this sense, in the first two acts, confining 2666 to the stage opens the work to those uninterested in a 900-page slog. Most obviously, they do so by fully situating the maddening Santa Theresa, meant by Bolaño to be a mirror of our own darkness — a consequence of freedom — at the center. “It’s a crazy city,” says Charly Cruz (played by Juan Francisco Villa), the owner of three Santa Theresa video stores, to Oscar Fate. “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It doesn’t work.”
Had Cruz, a kind of drunk soothsayer in Falls and Bockley’s adaptation, said, instead, “It looks like a real city, but it’s not real. It’s like a mirage,” the playwrights would have kept their central focus but also reinforced Bolaño’s philosophical intent. Unfortunately, with the afterthought “It doesn’t work,” they take a hard turn to the material — and the city, with its violence and corruption, becomes the firm noir-like subject of Act Three, “The Part About The Crimes.” What’s lost in the exchange is the metaphysical possibility that Bolaño emits of different dimensions of reality. Instead, the here and now.
Because of Bolaño’s matter-of-fact handling of the description of the dozens of young women, many of them prostitutes or maquiladora workers, this is the part of the novel that received the most attention. And rightfully, the text is a clear-eyed exposition of evil and impenetrable injustice that no one seemed to care enough about to resolve. I wondered, going into the theater, how the play would handle the endless recital of victims — “That same month of November 1994, the partially charred body of Silvana Pérez Arjona was found in a vacant lot. She was fifteen and thin, dark-skinned, five foot three. Her black hair fell beneath her shoulders, although when she was found half her hair was scorched off…” — and fields, street corners, and colonias where they are found. Falls and Bockley use them, rather effectively, as incantation of evil, in narration handled by various actors, using the text as Bolaño presented it.
The incantation could have set a kind of otherworldly tone. Instead, the staging becomes claustrophobic — perhaps the point — but at the expense of Bolaño’s expansiveness. That fascinating literary depth also got crowded out by the one-note characterization of Santa Theresa police officials Epifanio Galindo, played by a much less nuanced Grimm; Pedro Negrete, played by Sean Fortunato, who had perfectly handled, in Act One, the academic Morini; and Jaime Contreras, played by Demetrios Troy, otherwise quite convincing as Espinoza and sportswriter Chucho Flores. Contreras, a kind of standard bad man who kills his wife isn’t a cop in the novel. But here he’s further cudgeling evidence of the police force’s evil and corruption. The nuance was lost along with Contreras and various other characters’ conflicted natures, and so was the dramatic tension, which had left this reader, at least, not only disgusted by injustice, but also with a feeling of terrifying melancholy.
Falls perhaps overemphasized the apparent range of the novel’s style, the shift “in tone from Pedro Almodóvar-like comedy to film noir to frenetic hyper-realism, finishing with an extraordinary ‘fairy tale’ section.” The shift in tone, which Falls picked up on as a defining feature of the adaptation, is jarring for the play audience much more so than for the reader, who maintains Bolaño’s rather consistent prose style. It’s most unfortunate in play’s last act, “The Part About Archimboldi,” the lynchpin of the book. Here, Bolaño reveals not a maudlin fairy tale of the 20th century, but rather a secret history filtered through the panopticon’s eyes, through which it’s possible to understand how a man like Klaus Haas, the nephew of Archimboldi, could be an evil killer. Instead, Archimboldi and Haas, both played by Mark Montgomery, turn out to be inscrutable plaything giants, monsters without any apparent real will, so much so that it’s impossible to understand, through this portrayal, the academics’ Act One obsession.
What all this speaks to is the loss of the novel’s philosopher-king, the writer himself, immersed in the inferno of the world, but separate from it, too. As much as the book is about the writer — the writer’s process, the writer’s role, the writer’s place in the world and his psychology, too — the play is about the madness that underlies Santa Theresa. 2666, I was told by a woman who had just seen the show that I met on the Blue Line “L,” is a gaze at the devil. The word “evil,” she said, is contained in “devil.” I frankly hadn’t ever thought about that, not even after reading Bolaño’s masterpiece over and over again.
2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we’re especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers — Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel — will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he’s pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill’s essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)
The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)
High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi.” In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)
The Kills by Richard House: House’s vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)
Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)
Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)
Flings by Justin Taylor: “Our faith makes us crazy in the world”; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)
Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they’ve come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)
Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written (“hoodoo” = “how do you do” and “gammy” = “illness,” e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it’s her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel’s intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne)
The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you’re smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)
10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark)
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist’s journalist and one of the New Yorker’s most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he’s written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length.
Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt)
Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael)
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill)
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.)
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known… every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya)
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark)
Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)
My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark)
Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson’s stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes “We Walked on Water,” winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and “L’Etranger,” shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)
On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg’s first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)
On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we’re interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily)
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America’s most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne)
The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.)
Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco’s kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme’s for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories “map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind,” says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco’s latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a “slapstick parable” that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the “unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon” and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can’t think of a better one I’ve read this century.” (Edan)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne)
Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)
Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard’s second novel — her first was 2011’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It’s a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)
A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband’s obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems “mythic and essential.” (Anne)
300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke’s new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70’s Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse’s family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — “We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning” — but they’ve drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)
Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt)
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)
The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey’s Millions essay.) (Thom)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)
Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as “kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together… peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya)
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn’t enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D’Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, “a solace to me like the thought of home.” In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)
Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there’s gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum’s editor in a piece on editors’ first buys. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author’s commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia’s most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author’s. (Anne)
Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard’s star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with “Things I Told My Mother,” an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard’s work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk’s latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg’s fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg’s recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy’s resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King’s The Stand and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne)
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, “The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand.” (Kevin)
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If, according to the Grey Lady, soccer is now “the go-to sport of the thinking class,” you’ll want to brush up on your footy knowledge before the World Cup begins on June 12. Fortunately, there are a number of books that examine politics and culture through the optic of the beautiful game. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange traces the Dutch soccer team’s penchant for self-destruction to the country’s Calvinist culture, while Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World describes the successes and failures of globalization by looking at soccer clubs and their communities, both local and global. Most recently, Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, uses data judiciously (ahem, FiveThirtyEight) to challenge our conventional beliefs about both club and national sides. And the most literary of the bunch, Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, waxes poetic about the history of soccer, starting in China five thousand years ago. Lucky for the true footy intellectual, a new addition to this repertoire of soccer nonfiction has arrived just in time for the World Cup.
Dave Zirin’s Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy is a formidable, if flawed, entry into this canon. To be sure, this book is more about Brazilian economic, social, and political history than soccer. In particular, Zirin’s book attempts to capture in nonfiction what its counterparts in the novel (Roberto Bolaño’s 2666) and cinema (Amores Perros) have already dramatized, that is, the matrix of structural violence, political corruption, and income inequality that, according to some, has attended the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America around the turn of this century. These networks of violence are often difficult to discern and distill for the average reader precisely because these are processes and systems at work — in fact, such a task is probably better suited to fiction than nonfiction — but Zirin makes a valiant effort to connect the dots. In Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, he explains the unrest in Brazil in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics with the anger, erudition, and clarity we have come to expect from his sports columns for The Nation. On occasion, however, Zirin is blinded by his own zeal for the subject and fails to consider opposing viewpoints or other causal factors.
Central to the book’s thesis is Zirin’s idea of the “neoliberal trojan horse.” But before we get to that, we should unpack what neoliberalism — a term often bandied about without much explanation — actually means. Generally attributed to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the term has evolved over time and today is deployed primarily as a pejorative by critics of laissez-faire economics. Neoliberalism prizes individual freedom over government interference, regulation, and labor unions. “The assumption that individual freedoms are guaranteed by freedom of the market and of trade is a cardinal feature of neoliberal thinking,” writes David Harvey in his A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Somewhat dubiously to the Left, this philosophy holds that economic benefits will “trickle down” to the poor, though according to Harvey, “the process of neoliberalism has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers…but also of divisions of labor, social relations…ways of life.” In his account of neoliberalism’s origins, Zirin attempts to explain how an economic philosophy whose “top priorities include crushing unions, privatizing health care and education, abolishing worker protections like safety rules and the minimum wage, and removing environmental protections” became ubiquitous today.
This section on neoliberalism should be one of the book’s most important and elucidating, and yet it leaves something to be desired. Readers are left wondering — at the very least — what those in favor of neoliberal policy found attractive about it in the first place (i.e. promoting economic growth). In fact, neoliberalism in a different context has also described a more moderate form of liberalization; for example, the Third Way under Tony Blair and Bill Clinton aspired to deregulate and rely on the market — instead of the government — to solve problems. Zirin’s critiques may very well be on point, but if he more explicitly linked neoliberal policy to the points he makes on surveillance, inequality, and education in Brazil, he would have created a more textured portrait of the structures responsible for shaping the country as it is today.
That said, let’s consider his basic argument. Leaning on Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine,” Zirin asserts that large-scale events like the Olympics and the World Cup — the “neoliberal trojan horses” — offer countries like Brazil the perfect opportunity to install neoliberal economic policies that their publics would otherwise never authorize. “Nobody wins elections by promising to turn the country into a sweatshop zone,” says Zirin. “So in order to get neoliberal policies in place, the world’s elite need a strategy — some clever sleight of hand.”
This legerdemain lies in what former soccer player turned academic Jules Boykoff has called “celebration capitalism.” Quoting Boykoff, Zirin argues that massive, international sporting events like the World Cup offer the state a “‘once-in-a-generation opportunity [for police and military forces] to multiply and militarize their weapons stocks, laminating another layer on to the surveillance state. The Games justify a security architecture to prevent terrorism, but that architecture can double to suppress or intimidate acts of political dissent.’” And what happens after the Games are over? What are those drones that hovered over the 2012 Olympics in Great Britain doing now?
More disturbingly for Zirin, events like World Cup and the Olympics also allow governments to justify the eviction of their cities’ poorest residents. Zirin describes how Brazilian authorities have used the World Cup as a pretext to clear out the favelas in Rio de Janeiro that occupy prime real estate. He isn’t merely pontificating from his armchair, either: Zirin takes us into the cities, and while taking care not to romanticize their poverty, he humanizes the struggle for resistance by speaking with both residents and scholars. These are among the strongest moments of the book.
These favela evictions take on a more sinister dimension when one realizes that most of those being kicked out are Brazilians of African descent. “In 2014, when the official line is that race is ‘not an issue,’” writes Zirin, “it is the descendants of slaves who…live shorter lives, make less money, have more difficulty finding employment, and are more likely to be among the ten thousand people killed by police over the course of the last decade.” For Zirin, neoliberalism systemically attempts to efface poor, dark-skinned Brazilians who live in favelas.
In the book’s last chapter, Zirin reminds us of Brazil’s failure to deliver new schools and hospitals of the same “FIFA-quality” as the stadiums being built in a country already filled with them. More infuriatingly, most of these stadiums will be empty or severely underused after the World Cup. “One idea,” Zirin notes regarding the post-World Cup function of a $325 million stadium constructed in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, “is to turn the entire stadium into a massive, open-air prison — a use with a notoriously bloody echo in Latin American history, one not lost on those protesting the priorities of both FIFA and the Brazilian government.”
Zirin’s points on heightened surveillance, favela evictions, and inadequate schools in the run up to the World Cup are valid on their own; however, he lumps them together under the banner of general neoliberal evil, and this is somewhat misleading. A surveillance state in a World Cup or Olympic city, for example, could have emerged just as easily under a different type of economy or government — more drones and greater security at the World Cup are not necessarily unique or attributable to neoliberal policy. It is also arguable that the excesses of state capitalism — not neoliberalism — are responsible for the chaos in Brazil, but Zirin seldom entertains alternative theories. Throughout the book, Zirin takes shots at The Economist and the Financial Times for their stances on neoliberal policy, but in the future he might consider their arguments with greater intellectual empathy in order to provide a more objective analysis of views other than his — if only so that he can offer a more comprehensive and compelling refutation of them.
Describing structural violence and complex economic theory in accessible, stylish, and substantive prose — while simultaneously weaving in Brazil’s social and sporting history — is an extremely difficult enterprise. Few books can pull off such a feat, and for this Brazil’s Dance with the Devil deserves commendation. Its yellow card on the issue of neoliberalism notwithstanding, this book will be an essential companion for any member of the “thinking class” who wants to approach the World Cup protests with a critical gaze.
Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update “as further translations become available” would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier – not to say more punctilious – in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño’s imagination seems inexhaustible, it’s hard not to greet the news of yet another “lost work” or “early work” or “lost early work” with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don’t… And there’s always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.)
At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep.
1. The Savage Detectives
2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it’s the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you’ll understand why one might want to try to read this writer’s entire corpus. (See our review).
There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece.
3. Last Evenings on Earth
The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English – largely because New Directions can’t have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include “Dance Card,” “Sensini,” “The Grub,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” and “Gomez Palacio.”
4. The Return
Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño’s lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny “Prefigurations of Lalo Cura.”
5. Nazi Literature in the Americas
This early “novel,” a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to Bolaño’s peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it’s probably his funniest book. (See our review).
6. Distant Star
This is my favorite of Bolaño’s short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives.
7. The Unknown University
This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include “all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” Perhaps that should be “all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño”; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can’t find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the “history of the book” Bolaño’s executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there’s a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life’s work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like “The Neochileans” have the impact of Bolaño’s best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy’s translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled.
8. Between Parentheses
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem’s recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There’s something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And “Beach,” actually a short story, is one of Bolaño’s best.
9. By Night in Chile
Bolaño’s most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile’s U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with.
The Merely Excellent
1. The Third Reich
This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño’s prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it’s the strongest of Bolaño’s apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I’m also a sucker for the “visceral realism” of Natasha Wimmer’s translations, though I can’t speak to their accuracy.
Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book’s presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño’s most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”
3. The Insufferable Gaucho
Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff “Police Rat” and a sort of cover version of Borges’s “The South,” each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly “odds and sods” feel.
4. The Secret of Evil
Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician’s indirection with which the “Preliminary Note” attempts to justify the book’s publication, it’s pretty clear that much of what’s here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it’s thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it’s always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo.
One of Bolaño’s earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp’s not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it’s one of the greatest avant-garde “novel in fragments” out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled “People Walking Away”) suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why “merely excellent” instead of “essential”? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version?
6. The Last Interview
Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes’s long and brilliant introduction – one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English – you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with.
Necessary For Completists Only
1. Woes of the True Policeman
There was a concerted effort to market this first as a “missing piece” of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it’s pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there’s something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn’t think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here.
2. Monsieur Pain
When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway’s forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it “the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years,” it must mean three years – since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen…or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early ’80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the “Epilogue for Voices” seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives.
3. The Skating Rink
More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/”People Walking Away.” It’s a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one.
4. The Romantic Dogs
On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what’s here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres.
See The Romantic Dogs.
Having recently regained dry land after four weeks adrift in the first thousand pages of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s pelagic six-volume My Struggle (only to find myself confronted with a note-strewn desk and two large books bristling with the polychromic sticky tabs it now occurs to me I might have wanted to devise a reasonably consistent system for deploying), I’m troubled by the sense that if there’s ever been a literary project best left to speak for itself, My Struggle might be it. It’s also likely that the many liberties its author takes — with conventional narrative structure, with any readily discernible logic dictating some passages’ tortuous paths of thought, with grammatical norms, and even with the ordinarily sacrosanct writer’s mandate to eschew cliché — have overwhelmed the sector of my brain that transacts in sentences, paragraphs, rhetorical touch, and so forth, to the extent that I’m in for my own considerable struggle here as I try to transform the notes I scribbled down with seeming indiscrimination in several different notebooks, Book 2’s margins, on Post-its and the back of a gas bill that it looks like still needs to be paid into an orderly account of what it’s like to read Knausgaard. Nevertheless, some thoughts:
The first thing I should emphasize is that I found myself consumed by My Struggle, swallowed whole in a way that recalled for me the experience of reading similarly mammoth works like Moby-Dick, JR, Crime and Punishment, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2666 — Big Books that temporarily assume an autocrat’s control over their readers’ inner lives. And then since my ostensible focus here is Book Two: A Man in Love, I should also single out for praise this second volume while conceding that it’s in many ways merely an amplification of the first, and that this is both a merit and demerit. Which is to say that if you found yourself unable to put Book One down even during some of its most water-treadingly indulgent-seeming passages of plotless drift precisely because you were compelled by the minutiae of Knausgaard’s “struggle,” then you will find a lot to keep you reading through A Man In Love’s near-600 pages. If, on the other hand, you found the former book frequently irritating, disagreed with its author’s aggressive indifference to poetic niceties; if you considered it an unconscionably navel-gazing sprawl, the dull and the mundane speciously elevated to metaphysical heights the actual text rarely managed to reach…you may not make it through Book Two.
I’m in the former camp: read both books hungrily and find myself already missing Knausgaard just a few days after turning A Man in Love’s last page, searching the Web for inexpensive crash courses in Norwegian, mostly just wishing Volume Three were available in English now. (At roughly five hundred pages per installment, the last four are presumably intruding nightly on heroic translator Don Bartlett’s sleep). Some readers will be put off by the prospect of a prose work of Proustian length written in sentences that lack Proust’s style, elegance, and grace; I, too, had a hard time with some of the silly all-caps interjections (“FUCK, SHIT, FUCK!”) along with the frequent, blithe lapses into rank cliché — “The time was ripe,” “It was now or never,” “She was clearly cut from the same cloth as me,” and so on. The writing is purportedly ungainly in its original Norwegian, too. And yet the coarse phrasing serves Knausgaard’s overarching purpose oddly well. While there’s very little polish at phrase-level, sentences are syntactically complex — circuitous, recursive, serpentine in the way bar-stool disquisitions on points of intense personal interest can be — and if consistently guilty of the serial-comma-splice, then also a reflection of the almost desperate speed with which Knausgaard seems determined to track every insight, notion, thought-line, argument, reflection through the labyrinthine warrens of whatever burrowing creature’s hole it’s drawn him down.
Here he is, for instance, having just returned with his nursery-school-age daughter from a classmate’s birthday party:
I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a role in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
What was the problem?
On the other hand, it would be unfair if the ratio of thought to action here left readers with the false impression that this is a 573-page book in which nothing happens. In passages that volley back and forth through time we see young Karl Ove decamp for Stockholm; sever ties with almost all of his old life in Norway, (which program includes leaving his first wife); fall in love again; remarry; fight to sustain (and then, once it’s begun to slip away, recover) the elation of those first few months of courtship as the new couple settles into everyday routine; witness his second wife Linda’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of their first daughter; give listless interviews and lectures on his books and ambivalence towards literary fame; discourse with friends and enemies on being, art, morality — but the sections I liked best, the ones that make the books worth reading, retreat from these episodes and trek into the underground of consciousness, where Knausgaard’s unchecked and frequently volatile reflections are no longer bound by the normative limits of decent speech and behavior in respectable company.
Some of these sentences and paragraphs are long, but they operate in a way very much unlike those of some other writers one tends to class as either maximalist or longwinded, depending on one’s feelings about length in prose: Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, or László Krasznahorkai. Bernhard’s read almost like parodies of manic, rabid, raving thought — they are very much internal monologues. And while they are unhinged at times, what seems like madness is really an insane deference to logic: a logic that will pursue the necessary consequences of first premises far beyond the boundaries of bourgeois comfort, into the truth that lies beneath and must be left to lie there unlooked-at if life will be lived, if family, colleagues, social circles are to be engaged — basically, if anything is to be done.
Bernhard, like Beckett, is in this way very funny. His narrators’ better tirades follow their merciless logic to conclusions that are shocking or at least discomfiting not only because we can’t believe somebody’s saying this, but because of the disquieting sense that they might actually be true. Here is a representative passage from Concrete, in the midst of a mostly book-spanning “digression” from the narrator’s stated purpose, which is to write a definitive study of composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy:
My preparations have now been going on for years, for more than a decade, as I have said. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I ought not to have interrupted them by doing other things, perhaps I shouldn’t have begun anything on Schonberg or Reger, or even contemplated the Nietzsche sketch: all these diversions, instead of preparing me for Mendelssohn, simply took me further and further from him. […] All these attempts […] had basically been merely distractions from my main subject; moreover, they had all been failures, a fact which could only weaken my morale. It’s a good thing I destroyed them all […] But I’ve always had a sound instinct about what should be published and what should not, having always believed that publishing is senseless, if not an intellectual crime, or rather a capital offence against the intellect. […] Had I published my essay on Schonberg I shouldn’t dare to be seen in the street any longer; the same would be true if I’d published my work on Nietzsche, although that was not a complete failure. To publish anything is folly and evidence of a certain defect of character. […] And what about my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy? […] Naturally I intend to publish it, whatever the consequences. For I actually believe that this work will be my most successful, or rather my least unsuccessful. I certainly am thinking of publishing it! But before I can publish it I have to write it, I thought, and at this thought I burst into a fit of laughter, of what I call self-laughter, to which I have become prone over the years through being constantly alone.
The reason Concrete’s narrator can’t begin the monumental work to which he has devoted this phase of his life is that he foresees, correctly, that no matter how far he manages to go it won’t be far enough. Anything he writes will fall short of his vision, and while this insight is common enough to be a cliché, it’s a cliché that the artist who aspires to make art has to disregard if he’s ever to make anything. In other words, the productive artist necessarily suppresses his integrity, proceeds as if it weren’t true that anything he ultimately brings into the world will be, beside its incorporeal Platonic vision, a disappointment. What’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious in Bernhard is his narrators’ integrity, their refusal to compromise, to deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived into acceptance of the subtle deviations from the truth that are what enable us to go about our lives.
Meanwhile, Krasznahorkai’s long sentences read to me much more like speech transcribed: musings, sermons, lectures, disquisitions, diatribes, and, above all, stories. They’re less internal than Bernhard’s; even when tracing a character’s unspoken thoughts they’re more like a figure talking to himself than a lunatic frantically looping along Bernhardian nightmare theme park rides, hurtling towards madness and death. Here, the former composer who has not only retired from creative life but sealed himself off from the depressed Hungarian small town in which The Melancholy of Resistance takes place has had (while hammering nails) a Saul-of-Tarsus-style revelation:
It was indeed a sudden awakening, but, like all such awakenings, not wholly unheralded, for before he set out on his tour he had been aware only of the plainly laughable nature of his efforts, the chief of which was to prevent his left hand being battered to pieces, a piffling task to which he applied the whole might of his considerable intellect [that] […]laughable as it was, […] [intimated that] there was a deeper, more complex issue at stake, the nature of which was to allow him to master the art of banging in nails. He recalled various stages in his frantic efforts and the fact that even then […] he had suspected that any eventual resolution would not be due entirely to taking rational thought in the matter, a suspicion that had in the meantime become a certainty, for […]this apparently insignificant task had been resolved by a […] flexible attitude to permutations, the passage from ‘missing the point’ to ‘hitting the nail on the head’ so to speak, owing nothing, absolutely nothing, to concentrated logic and everything to improvisation […]
He had arrived at the decisive moment of resignation, the happy little glimmer on the head of the nail conjured nothing more or less than a mysterious, unforgettable sensation that had surprised him on his way home, that despite the apparently insufferable condition of the town, he was glad simply to be alive […]
Knausgaard, in contrast with Krasznahorkai and Bernhard, neither transposes creative-impotence-induced nerve-trauma nor conjures weirdly dialectic soliloquies. Instead, the image his prose—and even his subject—frequently calls to this reader’s mind is an author bent over his keypad, typing at very high-gear velocity:
I began to work, sat in my new office on Dalagatan writing every day while Linda was at home with Vanja and came to see me for lunch, often worried about something but also happy, she was closer to the child and what was happening than me, for I was writing what had started out as a long essay [but] slowly but surely was growing into a novel, it soon reached a point where it was everything and writing was all I did, I moved into the office, wrote day and night, sleeping an hour here and there. I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burnt within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible. Everything made sense.
Knausgaard’s purpose in My Struggle, explicit in its title, is to simultaneously depict, scrutinize and enact the process of writing the very work that narrates the story of its author writing himself through and ultimately out of his consuming need to write. It’s an impressive trick. If Bernhard’s books are often long uninhibited screeds “about” inhibited artists and writers, then Knausgaard’s first two volumes are “about” a man’s struggle to surmount the mundane impediments to his being present at his desk, feverishly cataloguing and endlessly carping about these same impediments to his being there. The most substantial narrative arc in these two volumes traces the composition of the memoir as it’s being composed — which means, since by default nearly every non-writing activity, obligation, interaction, and relationship constitutes a kind of roadblock in this composition’s path, antagonists abound:
A few weeks after the novel was finished life began as a house husband, and the plan was it would last until next spring while Linda did the last year of her training at the Dramatiska Institutet. The novel writing had taken its toll on our relationship, I slept in the office for six weeks, barely seeing Linda and our five-month-old daughter, and when at last it was over she was relieved and happy, and I owed it to her to be there, not just in the same room, physically, but also with all my attention and participation. I couldn’t do it. For several months I felt a sorrow at not being where I had been, in the cold, clear environment, and my yearning to return was stronger than my pleasure at the life we lived. The fact that the novel was doing well didn’t matter. After every good review I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, after every conversation with the agent at the publisher’s when a foreign company had shown some interest or made an offer, I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, and I wasn’t very interested when it was eventually nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, for if there was one thing I had learned over the last six months it was that what all writing was about was writing.
It’s true that if this were all Knausgaard had to offer his readers, few would be inclined to indulge him for 3,000 pages (and furthermore provokes contemplation of how, for instance, a 3,000-page counter-memoir composed by Linda about her struggle to put up with her husband’s duty-shirking on the home front during their matrimony’s embryonic phase might read); but intricately textured, almost Altman-like social episodes compel a mesmeric attention that’s at times tough to account for rationally. At birthday parties, literary conferences, a christening, a funeral, in bookstores, flats, supermarkets, bars, a restless Knausgaard interacts with the whole rolling cast of people intimately or peripherally involved in his professional and private life. Much of the readerly fun to be found in these transcriptions of the interpersonal mundane inheres in the persistent dissonance between Knausgaard’s mild outward manner and the frank, often punishing perlustrations to which he subsequently subjects both his interlocutors and himself. An interview that on the surface seems to come off fairly well gets angrily dismissed as ersatz-High Culture fluff — vapid onanism Knausgaard validates by placidly agreeing to take part:
The problem is what surrounds all these authorships, the flattery that mediocre writers thrive on and, as a consequence of their false self-image, everything they are emboldened to say to the press and TV.
I know what I’m talking about. I’m one of them myself.
Oh, I could cut off my head with the bitterness and shame that I have allowed myself to be lured, not just once but time after time. If I have learned one thing over these years, which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:
Don’t believe you are anybody.
Do not fucking believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.
So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit.
I also found it difficult to part ways with many characters. Knausgaard’s daughters, in particular, benefit from the filterless, unembellished presentation, probably because small children tend to do amusing, irritating, infuriating, and endearing things. Meanwhile, his friend and confidante, Geir, an academic equipped with copious wit and opinion, gets many of the book’s most entertaining lines, but also often makes both Knausgaard and the reader pause to think. Here he is with Karl Ove, Geir first:
“I think it’s Sigurd Slembe. The time to act. To act or not to act. It’s classic Hamlet. To be an actor in your own life or a spectator.”
“And you are?”
A silence arose. Then he said:
“I’m probably a spectator, with elements of choreographed action. But I don’t really know. I think there’s a lot inside me that I can’t see. And so it doesn’t exist. And you?”
“But you’re here. And yesterday you were in Bergen.”
“Yes. But this is not the result of any decision. It was forced.”
“That’s perhaps another way of making a decision, hm? Letting whatever happens do it for you?”
“That’s strange,” he said. “The more unreflective you are, the more active you are. You know, the boxers I wrote about had an incredible presence. But that meant they weren’t spectators of themselves, so they didn’t remember anything. Not a thing! Share the moment with me here and now. That was their offer. And of course that works for them, they always have to enter the ring again, and if you’ve been given a pounding in the previous fight it’s best if you don’t remember it too well, otherwise you’ve had it. But their presence was absolutely amazing. It filled everything. Vita contemplativa or vita activa, I supposed they’re the two forms, aren’t they? It’s an old problem, of course. Besets all spectators. But not actors. It’s a typical spectator problem . . .”
Behind us, Christina stuck her head through the door.
“Would you two like some coffee?”
“Please,” I said.
Book One’s critical event — the death of Knausgaard’s father — serves as a backdrop for the real story: Knausgaard’s breakthrough decision to build the first volume of his memoir around it; similarly, the less harrowing but no less felt drama of his grudging entrée into love and domestic life anchors A Man in Love’s story of a man fighting to reconcile that love with his almost inhuman artistic designs.
No surprise that not all of the individuals who came across versions of themselves in these pages were pleased with their portrayals. (The threat of legal action on the part of certain relatives resulted in Knausgaard and his Norwegian publisher agreeing to change a few names.) But in light of Knausgaard’s overall intent, they’re probably depicted accurately — not as a Dickensian cast of characters acting out one grandly shared humanist drama but rather as figures who on occasion drop by to complicate Knausgaard’s ongoing struggle to write something great. These aren’t quite people in the ordinary sense but a near-endless series of person-shaped impressions — shadows flitting across the beam of the author’s incandescently projected vision. If anyone is conscious of just how cold this frequently can make him seem, it’s certainly Knausgaard himself, who throughout both volumes lapses into long handwringing fits of self-loathing and -condemnation, agonized by his sense that he’s letting down everyone he ought to love.
I call this sometimes-sociopathic-seeming tendency to reduce in their representation real people to sources of personal annoyance “accurate” because, with astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale.
One interpretation of a literary quest to kill its own author might be that it’s perverse: in seeking to extinguish the artistic impulse, the author aims to annihilate not only the ambition that has driven him throughout his adult life, but an identity built up and burnished over decades. If Knausgaard is no longer an author, what is he? What will he be?
And then, from a career-lensed perspective, killing the whale is suicide. I’ve often wondered whether Wallace unintentionally terminated the novelist in himself with Infinite Jest; certainly the title of his final short-fiction collection, as well as that volume’s persistently bleak takes on the value of an individual’s drive to achieve anything, suggests a despair of ever returning from the wasteland that a book of near precedent-less critical approbation can exile its author to: after you’ve done it, what are you supposed to do? Just as Joyce could not in the ‘30s send Bloom off on another Dublin tour, so Wallace’s next novel couldn’t be I.J. Redux.
On the other hand, few, if any, authors aspiring to compose literary art that I know of start out with the intent to make anything less than what they privately conceive of as an as-yet-unshaped, but inchoate and most importantly possible Perfect Book. This is the reason they decide to write. Reality — in the form of family life, financial circumstance, the tundra of the market, self-assurance eroded by critique or, probably worse, indifference, failure, doubt, exhaustion, time — eventually intervenes. Very few people, whether they would admit as much or not, particularly in the first inferno of ambitious burn, are willing to go down with the whale. Poverty, obscurity, irrelevance, low social standing, and so forth all seem more romantic, less intolerable, more like the plot of some young person’s adventure tale, less like the despondence-inducing signatures of failure and a wasted life at eighteen than they do when you find yourself approaching middle age.
In William Gaddis’s JR, another massive meditation on ambition, art, and time, an aging, alcoholic, seemingly doomed writer is perpetually haunted by visions of windows closing, chances slipping away or already long lost to time. Since finishing my own first book, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to chart a course forward, or at least get started on some sort of new project, but have been mostly stymied by a sense that I’m just not sure what I really want to do next. I’m so much more alert to the discouraging reality that no matter what I wind up doing, committing to that work will entail an implicit decision not to try my hand at any number of other things. Granting that this might not strike your average global citizen as an existential concern on the order of the triumph of Capital, rising sea, and inequality levels, to say nothing of the looming rise of the machines, it matters to me — because I only get the handful of decades I’ve already blown through a few of, and the passage of time doesn’t seem to be bringing with it a corresponding surge in my vitality, so that the issue isn’t only that I can’t decide what kind of book I’d like to write, don’t even know how I’d like to write, I’m sick of my own sentences these days, and then I don’t know whether I should focus mainly on telling a story of sorts, and if so do I have any stories worth telling, and in this era of scattered insular intellectual and aesthetic camps, what kind of reader do I want to engage, and most of all what kind of work can I see myself committing to for the however many years it will take to complete — I can’t imagine even starting something new unless the need to carry it home takes hold of me with such force that I can’t not be working on it….
And the maybe-obvious Knausgaard link here is with the man’s sheer desperation — a desperation to emerge from all of this: the torpor, muddled thinking, indecision, and self-loathing; terror of more windows closing, fear of failure, envy, ambition so smothering it chokes off all but the most frantic exertions of will to open up the word-processing program and for Christ’s sakes just begin, the solipsism I recognized too well and have only really ever slipped free from, somewhat paradoxically, when hard at work, when the gaze is abruptly turned outward, and I’m able to see people again, see with them — perceive, if only fleetingly, that each has her own struggle, just as I do mine…in other words break out of the self’s airless solitary confinement: creative immersion as a kind of efflorescent opening out to the world at large.
My Struggle provides the reader with a portrait of an artist whose sometimes-quixotic-seeming-endeavor to narrate his struggles with life and art in their entirety consumes, possesses, captivates him, in that last verb’s literal sense, and thereby sets him free. When Knausgaard tells his wife he must leave her at home to care for their recently born daughter, must write; when he won’t compromise even after she threatens to leave him, take the kid with her, then does; and when he furthermore dispenses with every last aesthetic consideration aside from this scribomaniacal need to write, he is both chronicling and dramatizing his own refusal to abandon the pursuit…and it’s this monstrously intact integrity with which he undertakes and then completes his masterwork that answers any question about the madness of a project that, like a rocket fired straight up into the sky, takes aim at its creator and terminates in the obliteration of his authorship, his hunger to create. It’s Knausgaard’s consummation, a triumph that emancipates the husband, father, son, and friend: the author is dead, leaving what’s left of the man free to walk away from his leviathan — preserved forever now in art’s time-cheating formaldehyde — freed from the echo chamber of thwarted intent, in order to emerge, maybe for the first time, into life.
JW McCormack has some Notes Toward [A Potential] Film Adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 up at The American Reader. As somebody who can’t even fathom making Cormac McCarthy’s decidedly less brutal (although still unimaginably brutal in its own way) Blood Meridian into a film, let me tell you: the idea of turning 2666 into a theater-ready motion picture seems impossible. (P.S. You really should just read both of those books…)
While living in Durham, N.C., back in the 1980s, I met a guy who was studying creative writing at Duke University. I have come to think of him as the doomed acolyte. One day he told me that his teacher, venerable Reynolds Price, rolled into the classroom in his wheelchair and gave the class a curious assignment. Price told the students they were not to touch the short stories they were working on for the next week. Don’t change a single word. Don’t add or delete a comma. Don’t even look at your stories.
When the class reconvened the following week, Price asked how many had fulfilled the assignment. About half of the students, including the doomed acolyte, raised a hand. Price then stunned the room by advising those who were able to follow his instructions that they should consider dropping out of the course. His reasoning was brutal and simple: Anyone who is able to stop writing for an entire week — even for a single day — does not have the right stuff to become a writer. True writers, Price was saying, are in the grip of a compulsion. They have to write, and they are powerless to stop doing it. It is why they are alive and it is what keeps them alive.
That story came back to me — and it came into question — when I heard the news that Philip Roth has quit writing fiction. “To his friends,” Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times, “the notion of Mr. Roth not writing is like Mr. Roth not breathing.” I’m sure Reynolds Price’s friends felt the same way about him. Roth, author of more than 30 works of fiction over the past half century, has stuck a Post-it note to his computer that reads: “The struggle with writing is over.” Roth said he looks at that little sticker every morning and it gives him “such strength.”
I’ve been writing every day for the past 40 years or so, sometimes getting paid to do it and sometimes not, and through all those years I’ve assumed I will keep doing it until my wits leave me or I die. In other words, I’m a long-time disciple of the gospel according to Reynolds Price, a believer that writers are people who are both blessed and cursed by the compulsion to distill their experience of the world into words on a page. But Roth’s startling announcement caused me to begin rethinking this assumption. Why shouldn’t writers be free to stop writing when they they’ve lost their appetite for the grind, or when they feel they’ve lost their edge, or when they’ve said everything they care to say? Isn’t it liberating to think that writers are not slaves, after all, but are actually free to walk away from their desks and never look back? And even though many writers remain productive into their eighties and beyond– James Salter, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and Elmore Leonard come immediately to mind — isn’t it preferable for some (most?) writers to quit rather than keep going through the familiar motions?
Of course Philip Roth was not the first writer to retire. Writers have been putting down their pens for many years. Here is a selective and thoroughly incomplete list of the ways half a dozen writers have retired — or tried to — with wildly varying degrees of success:
1. Retiring Prematurely: Arthur Rimbaud
Before reaching his 21st birthday, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), fueled by a diet of hashish, absinthe, and bad behavior, produced dazzling works of poetry and prose that became pillars of modernism. Then he quit writing. He spent the rest of his short life demeaning his literary output while wandering from Indonesia to Africa, working as a soldier, a foreman in a stone quarry, a merchant of coffee and guns. No one has ever solved the great mystery — why did this brilliant wild child quit writing? — though in Bruce Duffy’s novel about Rimbaud, Disaster Was My God, the poet’s lover Paul Verlaine may have come close. “Well,” Duffy’s fictional Verlaine says, “one big reason, perhaps obvious, is he grew up…the child in him died.”
2. Retiring Selectively: E.M. Forster
After publishing four novels in a six-year blaze, E.M. Forster (1879-1970) was silent for more than a dozen years before producing his most famous book, A Passage to India, in 1924. Then — no more novels. But Forster did not stop writing. He continued to produce essays, plays, film scripts, criticism, biography, and travel writing, even worked as a broadcaster and collaborated on the libretto for an opera. One theory has it that Forster, who was gay, stopped writing novels because he did not feel free to write about the theme that interested him most: homosexual love. In 1971, the year after his death, Forster’s novel Maurice was published. Begun in 1913 and revised several times, it tells the story of two men who are in love with each other, and happy.
Lionel Trilling wrote that his personal feeling about Forster’s abandonment of novel writing “fluctuates between disapproval of a dereliction from duty and a sense of relief that a fine artist has not seen art as a grim imperative.” That notion of writing as a “grim imperative” opened my eyes wider to the possibility that my original thoughts on compulsion were far too narrow. Trilling was relieved that Forster had overcome such a view. Maybe I — maybe all writers — should overcome it too.
3. Retiring Aggressively: J.D. Salinger
No American writer became more famous for being silent than the reclusive J.D. Salinger (1919-2010). After producing an indelible novel and a book of short stories, he retired from the literary world — indeed from the world — in 1953, moving from New York to a 90-acre hillside compound in Cornish, N.H. He produced two more books of stories, in 1961 and 1963, then published his final work, the long story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” in The New Yorker in 1965. He never published another word, though in a rare interview in 1974 he revealed that while he had retired from publishing, he had not stopped writing. “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing,” Salinger said. “It’s peaceful. Still. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
3. Retiring Half-Heartedly: Alice Munro
Alice Munro, one of the undisputed living masters of the short story, published a collection called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage in 2001, when she was 70 years old. Ben Dolnick, a hard-core Munro fan, wrote here last year that Munro then entered what he considered the “cruising phase” of her career. When Munro announced in 2006 that she was retiring, Dolnick found himself, curiously, remembering the one time he saw Michael Jordan play basketball, then thinking of Jordan’s unpretty habit of over-staying his welcome after his best years were behind him. “When (Munro) announced her retirement in 2006,” Dolnick wrote, “I confess to feeling a certain relief; she was too proud and too self-aware to leave us remembering her like Jordan on the (Washington) Wizards.”
Munro’s retirement didn’t last. But unlike Jordan’s, her return to the game was not unpretty. Her 2009 collection, Too Much Happiness, was a critical success. Even Dolnick was delighted when Dear Life followed it late last year. He wrote, “Much of the material here will be familiar to anyone who has ever read her — the train trips and heartsick letters and unpaved roads — but the voice is newly sharpened, as if she were freshly aware of only having so many words remaining in her allotment.” Surely a writer’s desire to use up her allotment of words is justification for coming out of retirement.
In an interview in 2010, the year after Too Much Happiness appeared, Munro was asked what advice she would give to young writers. She replied, “If you’re going to be a writer you’ll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think ‘There must be something else people do,’ you won’t be able to quit.” Munro is now 81, and still writing.
4. Retiring Ambiguously: Imre Kertesz
The Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, who survived the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, announced his retirement last November. Or did he? In an interview with a German magazine, Kertesz, who is 83 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, said, “I don’t want to write anymore. I consider my oeuvre, so closely related to the Holocaust, as closed, whether I succeeded or not.” Sounds like a retirement announcement to me. It did to the French journal ActuaLitte, too, which picked up the news. The Millions followed suit. As these reports spread, however, Kertesz’s American publisher, Dennis Johnson, posted a recollection of visiting Kertesz and his wife in Berlin last March. “The only really somber moment occurred when Imre spoke of his fear of not being able to finish the new book he was working on,” Johnson wrote. “Still, he was making progress, he insisted, and was determined to get it done.”
When the reports of his retirement began circulating several months after that meeting in Berlin, Kertesz wrote to Johnson that the rumors were “a bit too hasty.” He added, “Naturally, I will try to write as long as I can.” Ah, ambiguity.
5. Retiring Richly: LaVyrle Spencer
It’s always refreshing to meet writers who admit they’re in it for the money, and it’s important to remember that they’re not always hacks. As Flannery O’Connor once noted, no writer was hotter after the dollar than Henry James. The Master gets some competition from LaVyrle Spencer, who wrote her first romance novel when she was in her 30s and working as a junior high school teacher’s aide in Minnesota. She went on to produce 23 novels, including a dozen New York Times best sellers, and was inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Then, at the age of 54, she retired from writing. Why did she quit cold when she was selling millions of books and making millions of dollars? It’s downright…un-American. “I want to feel free!” she told Publishers Weekly. She added that she had set a financial goal when she was starting writing novels, and once she reached it she promised herself she would retire. Unlike so many others, she kept her vow. She told PW she planned to enjoy her two young grandchildren and travel with her husband. No grim imperative for LaVyrle Spencer.
6. Retiring Gradually: Roberto Bolaño
You can’t get any more retired than dead, yet writers of a certain stature have a tendency to keep publishing from the grave. Recent examples have included Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, David Foster Wallace, and James M. Cain. (Many fans are hopeful that J.D. Salinger did indeed keep writing during his long silence in New Hampshire, and that eventually he will join the club.)
But no dead writer has out-produced the Chilean novelist, poet, and short story writer Roberto Bolaño, whose estate has put out a torrent of titles since he died of liver failure in 2003 at age 50. The posthumous output peaked with 2666, a novel of breathtaking sweep built around the disappearance of hundreds of women near the Texas-Mexico border. The torrent is finally subsiding, but scholars, critics and biographers are sure to keep picking over Bolaño’s life and work for years to come.
Which brings us to the paradoxical answer to the question posed in this essay’s title: It turns out that, yes, it’s possible for any writer to retire, but the good ones live on long after they die, and the great ones are never allowed to die. William Faulkner wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to read, “He wrote the books, and he died.” More fitting would have been: “He wrote the books, and he died, but the books were so good that people kept reading them for years and years after he was gone to dust.”
Images courtesy of the author.
Here are the facts: Roberto Bolaño was born in Chile, but lived throughout his life in Mexico, El Salvador, France, and finally Spain, where he died in 2003 at the age of 50. A poet before all else, Bolaño only began writing fiction in the last decade of his life. At the time of his death, he had published over a dozen books in his native Spanish, but his first work in English translation, By Night in Chile, was still six months from publication. In the last nine years, however, Bolaño’s literary star has ascended as his literary estate has combed through his extensive bibliography, publishing everything possible. Now, the posthumous discovery of previously unpublished writing has led to the publication of Woes of the True Policeman, a book Bolaño spent 30 years writing, but ultimately never finished. Cobbled together from computer files and manuscript drafts, it is marketed as the author’s final book.
Here is the real story: Woes of the True Policeman is by turns absorbing, challenging, fascinating — but is ultimately a very flawed, frustrating book. Divided into five fragmented parts, which at times only tenuously connect with one another (should a reader expect any less from Bolaño?), the novel mostly follows Óscar Amalfitano, a literature professor who lives, with his daughter, a purgatorial existence in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa. “A tall, angular, white-haired figure, looking vaguely like Christopher Walken,” Amalfitano is instantly familiar to readers of Bolaño’s novel 2666, in which a character by the same name, living in the same city, and with much the same biography serves as one of the novel’s fulcrum characters. This sense of dreamlike déjà vu hangs over much of Woes of the True Policeman, continually bringing into focus characters and events from Bolaño’s past works, yet changing them in certain key details, as if the events of the novel were being viewed through the warped glass of an intertextual funhouse mirror.
For instance, Woes of the True Policeman distinguishes its Amalfitano from the 2666 incarnation by sexually involving him with a young student named Padilla, one of those borderline-mad, self-contradictory, poetry-consumed characters who burn so brilliantly in Bolaño’s world. Amalfitano is instantly intoxicated by how Padilla “lived in a constant state of amorous self-expression…his feelings were extravagant but didn’t last for more than a day.” So at age 50, Amalfitano serenely accepts a newfound homosexuality, delving into an oddly bookish and belligerent love affair:
According to Padilla, remembered Amalfitano, all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual. Poetry, on the other hand, was completely homosexual. Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes. But the two major currents were faggots and queers… nothing prevents queers and faggots from being good friends, from neatly ripping one another off, criticizing or praising one another, publishing or burying one another in the frantic and moribund world of letters.
Bolaño is forever referential. Like many of Bolaño’s works, Woes of the True Policeman is really a book about characters who love books. Lives are informed, illuminated, and often crippled by literature. Poetry may bring Amalfitano and Padilla together, but it’s the chair of the literature department, upon discovering the professor’s affair, who forces Amalfitano into exile in Santa Teresa. As is often the case in Bolaño’s books, Amalfitano stands in for the author himself. Both lived as young revolutionaries in the ’70s, were arrested after the fall of Allende in Chile, then suffered political and existential exile through “a succession of countries, a whirl of cities and streets that brightened and darkened arbitrarily in memory…an imaginary country called Chile that drove [them] mad.” Their biographies, however, diverge at the literary crossroads. Bolaño creates. Amalfitano embarks down the empty road of criticism.
Amalfitano’s regret permeates the entire novel:
Why did I translate the Elizabethans and not Isaac Babel or Boris Pilniak? Amalfitano asked himself, disconsolate, unable to escape the nightmare but still holding scraps of the dream…in his empty, frozen, transparent hands. Why didn’t I slip like Mighty Mouse through the bars of the Lenin Prizes and the Stalin Prizes and the Korean Women Collecting Signatures for peace and discover what was there to be discovered, what only the blind couldn’t see? Why didn’t I stand up at one of those oh-so-serious meetings of leftist intellectuals and say the Russians the Chinese the Cubans are making a fucking mess of things? Why didn’t I stand up for the Marxists? Stand up for the pariahs? March in step with history while history was being born?
As previously shown by The Savage Detectives and 2666, Bolaño sees a void at the center of the academy. Amalfitano, “who predicted the fall of Allende and yet did nothing to prepare for it,” searches for sanctuary within the void of academia, respite from the world and the awful choices it has forced Amalfitano to make. It occurs to one, though, if this amounts to bravery:
When I was an adolescent I wanted to be a Jew, a Bolshevik, black, homosexual, a junkie, half-crazy, and — the crowing touch — a one-armed amputee, but all I became was a literature professor. At least, thought Amalfitano, I’ve read thousands of books. At least I’ve become acquainted with the Poets and read the Novels… At least I’ve read. At least I can still read, he said to himself, at once dubious and hopeful.
A generous reading of Woes of the True Policeman will see it as a sister work to 2666, a concurrent narrative that illuminates previously unseen angles of the previous work. However, a more critical look shows it to be a pale shade of the epic novel. One can just not get away from 2666 while reading Woes of the True Policeman. Bolaño unwinds almost identical plot threads through each book, changing only often superficial details. His wife dies from disease in each book, although the name of his wife, as well as the disease, is different. In Woes of the True Policeman, Padilla is obsessed with an institutionalized poet in France, while 2666 finds Amalfitano’s wife suffering from the obsession. Then we have the final section of Woes of the True Policeman, an almost blow-by-blow retread of 2666, down to multiple pages that are lifted scissors and paste pot from 2666. Or did the “self-plagiarism” actually occur the other way around? Posthumous manuscripts have the awful tendency to raise these sort of unanswerable questions about composition and authenticity.
Most disappointing about Woes of the True Policeman is its treatment of the city of Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s thinly-fictionalized Ciudad Juárez. The novel barely registers its setting, aside from some brief, cursory observations, such as that its “streets…seemed somehow newborn…with a secret logic and aesthetic, streets with their hair down.” This is a positively underwhelming sentiment compared to the city Bolaño’s conjures in 2666, an ominous metropolis whose spirit has been paralyzed by a series of random female homicides, a reflection of the feminicidio epidemic in Ciudad Juárez, where over 5,000 women have been murdered since 1993. The characters and events of 2666 constellate around a 300-page middle section that graphically catalogues the atrocities, murder by gruesome murder, bludgeoning the reader with rape, torture, mutilation, and death until the prose becomes a kind of incantation that reifies the actuality of evil.
Many of the hallmarks of Bolaño’s virtuosity can be found in Woes of the True Policeman: the synopses of eccentric novels that don’t exist, a mystery concerning an invented French writing school known as the barbaric writers, notes from Amalfitano’s class in contemporary literature (“Happiest: García Lorca…Strangest wrinkles: Auden…Biggest cock: Frank O’Hara.”). Yet the fragmentation, self-plagiarism, and lack of narrative development all indicate a manuscript that was very much unfinished, and is only interesting as a completist curiosity, something akin to the financial-driven posthumous discographies of Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur.
In the end, one wonders if Bolaño less resembles Amalfitano as he does his elusive novelist Archimboldi, the shaper of small, mysterious fictions “who overnight became a fashionable author in Spain, where they were publishing or about to publish everything he’d written.” After all, in writing about Archimboldi, Bolaño may as well be describing the vitality, the verve, and the flawed yet unceasing brilliance of his own work:
…even if all his stories, no matter their style (and in this respect Arcimboldi was eclectic and seemed to subscribe to the maxim of De Kooning: style is fraud), were mysteries, they were only solved through flight, or sometimes through bloodshed (real or imaginary) followed by endless flight, as if Arcimboldi’s characters, once the book had come to an end, literally leapt from the last page and kept fleeing.
We are poor passing facts
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
—Robert Lowell, “Epilogue”
Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Roberto Bolaño, the prolific genre-bender whose narratives and exile from Chile began seriously enchanting the literary world in 2005, the year The New Yorker began publishing his short stories. Altogether, nine stories have appeared in the magazine, including January’s “Labyrinth,” which accompanied a curious photograph. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a bit about Bolaño’s following, which may be credited in part to his early exit from said world at the age of 50, by way of liver failure. For the uninitiated, “Gomez Palacio,” his posthumous New Yorker debut about a tormented writer interviewing for a teaching post in a remote Mexican town, tends to work a kind of magic. A ragged copy of the issue in which “Gomez Palacio” appeared caught critic Francine Prose in a waiting room: “I was glad the doctor was running late,” she wrote later in reviewing Last Evenings on Earth, “so I could read the story twice, and still have a few minutes left over to consider the fact that I had just encountered something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.”
Francisco Goldman, who likened “The Great Bolaño” to Borges in a profile for The New York Review of Books, dates the ex-Chilean’s rise to 1999, the year The Savage Detectives won a coveted Venezuelan prize for the best Spanish-language novel. “The inseparable dangers of life and literature, and the relationship of life to literature, were the constant themes of Bolaño’s writings,” reads Goldman’s summary of his subject’s legacy, which at the time spanned ten novels and three story collections. (Bolaño’s drive to finish his 900-page masterwork, 2666, a far-flung novel involving the murders of women in the Sonora desert, is thought to have exacerbated his liver condition.) “It’s as if Bolaño is satirizing the routine self-pity of exile,” adds Goldman, in turning to one of his short fictions (“Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva”). “Yet the story’s mood of nearly inexpressible and lonely grief leaves you an intuitive sense of its truthfulness, which seems something other than a literal truthfulness.”
Separating facts from other kinds of “truthfulness” in Bolaño’s oeuvre becomes a difficult task, to say nothing of counting up the author’s works themselves. The Millions began keeping “A Bolaño Syllabus” in 2009 and has updated that list since. “Oh!” an anxious reader posted the following year. “But what about all the new and recent translations out from New Directions? What of them?” What indeed; let’s recap. With the help of American translator Natasha Wimmer and Melbourne-based Chris Andrews, who first brought Bolaño to English and continues to handle his shorter works, New Directions has published more than a dozen posthumous volumes ranging from poetry to newspaper columns. In an interview that coincided with “Labyrinth,” Barbara Epler, president of New Directions and a longtime editor, relates the story of her house’s 2006 windfall to The New Yorker:
Bolaño’s rights were represented by Agencia Literaria Carmen Balcells, and I was asking and asking them about the offer we’d made for The Savage Detectives and getting no reply. My heart sank when they e-mailed to say, “We’re coming to New York and want to take you out to dinner.” I knew they must be shopping The Savage Detectives. I went to supper, and considerably (by our standards) improved my offer. Finally one of the Balcells ladies put her hand on my arm and said, “The Estate wants a larger house for the big books.” I was about to cry, and they knew we’d done everything we could for the author here, so they offered, if we were willing to take all the “small” books on, that we could. So we took everything we could get, everything that at that point we knew existed.
With the close of the post-Bolaño decade, it seems that the tide of the author’s original works is finally ebbing. New Directions’ latest release, much to my delight and that of other genre boundary-watchers, is The Secret of Evil, a thin collection of fictions that occasionally read as essays. Or is it the other way around? At times, we’re not sure. In turning the title page, explains the book’s jacket, we open a certain computer file: “BAIRES,” Bolaño called it — a nickname for Argentina’s metropolis. “There are multiple indications that Bolaño was working on this file in the months immediately preceding his death,” writes Ignacio Echeverría, the author’s executor, in his prologue. But the task of gleaning 19 semi-finished works from BAIRES, STORIX (another riddle), and about 50 other files was not without complications — namely Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” which Echeverría compares to Kafka’s abruptness. “Decisions as to the wholeness and self-sufficiency of particular pieces,” he warns the critic, became inevitably subjective. Thus, along with a couple of previously-published lectures (“Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Sevilla Kills Me”) as well as the story of a Spanish family’s decimation in a bus accident (“Muscles,” likely an unfinished novel), the bulk of The Secret borders on flash fiction — two, four, and six-page sketches ranging from the swimming pools and watering holes of Mexico City, Guatemala, Santiago, and Buenos Aires, to Madrid, Berlin, and most luminously, Paris.
As with The Insufferable Gaucho and Last Evenings before it, The New Yorker had the honor in January of cherry-picking from The Secret. Unlike the task of compiling this year’s collection, the choice was obvious: at 18 pages, “Labyrinth” stands apart. It narrates the comings and goings of a cadre of European intellectuals, including a brush with “Z,” a foreigner who ambushes the offices of Tel Quel, the Paris journal of the avant-garde whose disappearance in 1982 roughly mirrored the waning of structuralism. “Who else knows Z?” Our narrator — presumably Bolaño — poses the question, which gradually nags at the reader. “No one, or at least there is nothing to suggest that his presence is of any concern to the others.” But then a few clues: “Maybe he’s a young writer who at some stage tried to get his work published in Tel Quel; maybe he’s a young journalist from South America, no, from Central America, who at some point tried to write an article about the group.”
The startling thing about “Labyrinth,” beyond Z’s ghostly presence on the page, is the way the story unfolds, almost by way of evasion. (A footnote: Bolaño quit the Americas in 1977 after being imprisoned and nearly tortured by Pinochet’s forces in 1973; Barbara Epler vouched for this sometimes disputed fact in her January remarks.) For an illustration, try picturing the opening scene:
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are captioned, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade.
There’s no photo credit.
They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it.
What Bolaño’s last masterpiece does proceed to describe, with East Germanic voyeurism, is the web of relationships on display. Why? Because (1) unlike many tableside portraits in Paris, this image was not intended for a magazine spread; and (2) because, importantly, not everyone is paying attention to the photographer. Two of the women pictured gaze off-camera, in the same direction. They might be preoccupied with an object of affection and it’s precisely this quality of deduction that fuels Bolaño’s narrative.
What of the photo itself? Unfortunately for readers, it can’t be found in The Secret of Evil. But it did appear in The New Yorker’s publication of “Labyrinth,” spread right across the opening pages. What more can be said of the seated figures, we begin to wonder? This Henric, Goux, Sollers, Kristeva, Réveillé, whose gaze might betray surprise, her companion, Guyotat, and Mr. and Ms. Devade, one of whom wears a half-smile? Quite a lot, we discover, as the story wanders away from the table, into streets and garages and bedrooms, and back again in the evening, when “night falls over the photograph.” Yet these figures — their vigorous couplings and jealousies — are not at all figments of Bolaño’s imagination. A peculiar hint of this reality can be found in a credit omitted from print but included in the story’s online publication, just below the magazine’s end sign: “PHOTOGRAPH: COURTESY JACQUES HENRIC.”
There are other signs, amid his wanderings, that our narrator is employing a fact pattern that Bolaño found more intriguing than outright fiction: “The photo was probably taken in 1977 or thereabouts”; “The photo was taken in winter or autumn, or maybe at the beginning of spring, but certainly not in summer”; “Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.” By the story’s midpoint, first names have emerged, via conjecture and supposition, along with a few biographical details. Jacques Henric is a broad-shouldered French novelist, born in 1938. Philippe Sollers, editor in chief of Tel Quel, has the look of a man who enjoys a good meal. Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian seminologist at Sollers’s elbow? His wife. And Pierre Guyotat, author of Prostitution, among other works? A balding pervert whose temples resemble “nothing so much as the bay leaves that used to wreathe the heads of victorious Roman generals.” Réveillé and the Devades come into focus, too, but Bolaño’s chess game is already a thing to behold. He’s built for himself not just a labyrinth of the houseplants that obscure our view of the table (“there are three plants — a rhododendron, a ficus, and an everlasting”), but a living-breathing, true-to-life mystery with so many shades of exposure, the story’s inconclusiveness seems preordained, exquisitely inevitable.
In Reality Hunger, David Shields’ manifesto on society’s latter-day enthusiasm for art rooted in fact (and often troubled by genre), some 600 hastily-sourced meditations, including this essay’s epigraph, narrate the author’s own evolution as a consumer of literature, in a sort of collage. “I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction,” reads an from entry from Jonathan Raban (no. 191). But in the end Shields, like Bolaño, crosses over the border, leaving behind the dusty Republic of the Make-Believe. Take the following passage, one of the few in Reality Hunger that doesn’t need sourcing: “I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unself-consciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now” (Shields, no. 212). Plotlines, for this kind of writer, begin to feel like artifice — something to be stripped away and replaced by shape-shifting narratives “open for business way past closing time.” Photographs, it just so happens, do just that. Why take them so constantly, so obsessively? “So that I’ll see what I’ve seen” (Janette Turner Hospital, no. 137). “It’s just this breathtaking world — that’s the point. The story’s not important; what’s important is the way the world looks. That’s what makes you feel stuff. That’s what puts you there” (Frederick Barthelme, no. 142).
Bolaño goes missing from Shields’ collage, but I imagine Bolaño would have enjoyed following its leads in the manner of a good detective or a wayward journalist. “I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer,” Bolaño told the Mexican edition of Playboy, in his last interview. “Of that I’m absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts.” That fondness for investigation and self-projection becomes recognizable throughout Bolaño’s fiction, but especially in later stories such as The Insufferable Gaucho’s “Police Rat,” about four-legged Pepe, a rodent cop assigned to a vacant sewer. The Secret of Evil’s title story, a three-page sketch of Joe A. Kelso, an American journalist in Paris stalked by a pale man, “a watcher with no one to watch him in turn, someone it’s going to be hard to get rid of,” carries a similar paranoia. And the same holds true for “Labyrinth,” whose shadowy, off-camera Z seems not a stand-in for Bolaño but a kind of alter ego: the handsome-but-nervous sort of exile desperate to join a circle of writers sitting just beyond his reach.
I’ve said enough about the above gathering already, but there is one further mystery worth noting. The photo that appeared this past January — the same arrangement of eight figures from “1977 or thereabouts,” courtesy of Henric — can be found published 14 years earlier, in a French history of Tel Quel by Philippe Forest (Histoire de Tel Quel, Seuil, 1998). In translation, Forest’s caption reads “Party of L’Humanité, 1970. From left to right: Jacques Henric, Jean-Joseph Goux, Phillip Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Thérèse Réveillé, Pierre Guyotat, Catherine and Marc Devade (photo D. R.).” L’Humanité, the Internet tells us, is a Paris daily still in print today, although its circulation rose and fell with the French Communist Party, which began a slow decline that same decade. Where was Roberto Bolaño in 1970? Not, as the overexcited reader might assume, leaning against the bar, drawing stares from the table, but working as a journalist in Mexico City, already involved with liberal causes and preparing to return, three years later, to socialist Chile.
We could go on in this vein, asking questions about Henric and “D. R.” and wondering whether Bolaño happened on Forest’s book late in life. Perhaps he recalled reading Tel Quel during his first days in Paris, still shaking from what he’d escaped, and decided to change a few details in service of a last, great story. But we should, in fairness, allow Bolaño a few secrets, and instead pause to marvel at the whole collection. In some respects, The Secret of Evil fails to cohere: two brilliantly speculative shorts about a roving V. S. Naipul vexed by the origins of sodomy end in confusion; another promising piece about Bolaño and his son playing a game of turning invisible turns into a rant. Still, the range and “reality” of the writing left behind in cryptic BAIRES and STORIX, from an artist whose days were numbered, will enchant even the uninitiated Bolañonista. And taxonomists, myself included, should praise New Directions for a small thing that happened somewhere between the uncorrected proof and the finished hardback that arrived at my door the other day: “FICTION,” on the book’s jacket, now reads “LITERATURE.”
Image: Jean Silver/Flickr
Patrick Flanery was born in California, raised in Nebraska, and in recent years has spent significant time in South Africa. His first novel, Absolution, is set there. It focuses on Clare Wald, a reclusive writer, opening up about her past to her biographer, Sam Leroux. So far, so familiar. But Flanery’s trick is to tell his tale from four varying perspectives that ultimately converge and contradict, leading us to question the reliability of the characters and the validity of their confessions. To what extent is a writer engaged in “professional lying?” How are we all complicit in the problems of the countries we live in? Can we ever fully obliterate, or atone for, our past crimes? Flanery’s debut is a fascinatingly multi-faceted novel which impresses the more it perplexes. I wanted to learn more about writer and book and so interviewed him. He was in South Africa, I in Berlin, and so the following was done by email.
The Millions: First of all I have to apologize. Sam Leroux mentions his “carefully formulated questions I’ve spent months preparing.” I have only taken an hour to compile mine. Presumably before Absolution was even conceived you completed a doctorate in English Literature at Oxford University. What area did you specialize in and did it have any bearing on the novel?
Patrick Flanery: I went to Oxford thinking I was going to write a doctoral thesis on male friendships in the works of D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh. When the powers that be decided the topic was not adequately “new” (in other words, they thought the work had already been done), I decided to focus exclusively on Waugh, shifting from a literary critical project to a largely book-historical one, which examined the publishing history and various media adaptations of three of his novels: Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, and Brideshead Revisited. My work on Waugh unquestionably had an effect on Absolution, although quite a complex one. For one thing, as a relief from my total immersion in Waugh, I began side projects on J.M. Coetzee’s publishing history, which led me to broader investigations of South African literature and culture. In contrast to Waugh, I was craving a more ethically engaged, and more resolutely secular territory to explore, and Coetzee’s work provided just such a space.
Waugh’s own minor experience of censorship also led me to wider theoretical reading about institutions of censorship, and thus to Coetzee’s brilliant and essential collection of essays, Giving Offense. That provided the spur to thinking about the writer-censor relationship in creative terms, and I began, while still finishing my doctorate, writing a series of dialogues between a writer and her biographer that explored this territory. My concentration on Waugh’s fiction, and the letters and diaries of a writer who cultivated a vividly difficult personality — one notoriously resistant to interviewers — helped inform my character Clare Wald.
TM: In an interview with the Independent, it was noted that you talk more about literature than you do yourself. It is a rather facile question but an important one for a debut novelist: who are your literary idols and influences?
PF: It is among the most difficult questions to answer, simply because the influences are legion, whether positive or negative models (I like this, I don’t like this). For a novelist, though, talking about literature is perhaps one of the most revealing ways of talking about oneself. I’ll limit myself here to the influences I was most conscious of tapping while writing Absolution. These I can divide into four territories: South African, North American, Latin American, and broadly European (including British and Irish).
The most obvious South African influence is Coetzee, whose work has always astonished me for the rigor of its control: I never have any doubt that Coetzee knows precisely the kind of work that each word does in the text. Several other South African writers were also important, including Marlene van Niekerk, Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislaviċ (all three are too little known and read outside of South Africa), and the late K. Sello Duiker; Nadine Gordimer I admire greatly, although I suspect her influence functioned at a quite subconscious level. Of North American writers, DeLillo, Roth, and Didion (her essays) were important touchstones, along with Atwood (I taught Surfacing for several years and regard it as an important intertext for Absolution), as well as Mavis Gallant and the poet Anne Carson. From Latin America, Jorge Luis Borges was an early and not necessarily productive influence, but nonetheless a very potent one: an uncle who leads one astray and doesn’t pick up the bill at the end of a surprisingly expensive meal. Roberto Bolaño has been a more recent discovery: complex, complicated, and often, for me, a maddening writer, he is also a model for writing a novel (2666) that manages to be gripping at both intellectual and visceral levels. European influences are predictable: Joyce, Forster, Woolf, Conrad, T.S. Eliot (if one can call him European) and, perhaps inevitably (and as much as I might wish to disavow his influence), Waugh as well. From the continent, Proust, Mann, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov formed a rather dour, sometimes wry chorus of support.
TM: Reviewers have already placed you in illustrious company, comparing you with the likes of Graham Greene and Coetzee. The former, I feel, is always lazy short-hand for any novel with tension and conflict in an exotic locale. The latter was almost inevitable — both you and Coetzee deal with professors and academics, crime and violence, and refuse to offer neat solutions to your complex themes. Summertime even features a biographer trying to unlock a writer’s life. I do see Coetzee having had some impact on you (Dusklands even gets a mention in the novel, secretly stashed away from the authorities among books by Clare Wald) but also see Absolution as a kind of second cousin to a similar-titled novel, Ian McEwan’s Atonement: the fractured narrative, the varying viewpoints, the re-imagined and alternative histories. Am I miles off?
PF: When Summertime appeared I already had the foundations for Absolution; I knew it was going to be about a novelist and her biographer, and I knew it was going to have a fractured, fragmented form. I also knew that if my own novel were ever published, people would inevitably see a line of descent. I won’t deny Coetzee’s influence, but as I suggest above, he is one of a great many writers with whom I like to think my own work might be in conversation. McEwan is an intriguing comparison. I admire Atonement, and perhaps it, like Gordimer, was lurking in my subconscious: in a way, Absolution takes the next logical step in form where Atonement leaves off. I started with large, discrete sections, as in McEwan’s novel, but felt, for my own purposes, that the story I was trying to tell needed a form, a shape, and a rhythm that was more dynamic, shifting, and urgent. Some reviews, I know, have described the novel as a kind of “literary thriller,” and it would not be inaccurate to say that I was conscious of wanting to endow the events of the novel with a certain quality of pace and suspense more usually found in genre fiction.
TM: Early on in your novel, Sam poses a question about fiction being necessary to political opposition. Clare laughs at him and replies with “You have a very strange idea of what fiction is meant to do.” What is fiction meant to do?
PF: The temptation is to answer your question as Clare would, to tell you that fiction, even under conditions of oppression, has a different role to play, that it need not only be social realism reporting on the conditions of the oppressed, involving itself in a struggle for liberation, but that it can perhaps play a part in such battles even while its role, its position, and its effects are not necessarily legible, or may only be legible in retrospect, when the field has cleared and the dead have been buried, the treaties agreed, and history lurched into its next cycle.
But that is what Clare would say.
My own feeling is that fiction in a broadly social realist form has a place in the larger body of any given national — or indeed transnational — literature. Absolution is certainly not social realism, although it does attempt to engage certain aspects of the current and highly varied social realities at play in South Africa. Such moments of social realism are, however, contained in a text that might more accurately be described as subjective or critical realism, with layers of the surreal, the nightmarish, the apocalyptic, the confessional, and the biographical.
Fiction that aspires to be something more than an entertainment commodity must, I think, ultimately be concerned with its own longevity, with the conversation it holds between itself and whatever has preceded it.
TM: As you suggest, the novel began as a series of exchanges between characters on the issue of censorship. Only later did South Africa present itself as a setting. How did this come about?
PF: While writing the initial censorship dialogues between Clare and Sam in 2005, I was also writing the first draft of the narrative of Clare’s “house invasion,” as she insists on calling it, alongside a post-apocalyptic narrative of a woman looking after a young boy. I did not, initially, know how this third narrative related to the other two, but I sensed that they all belonged together. For a time I thought I might set the book in a near-future California, but the more I wrote of the three primary sections, the more I was just conscious of a landscape that recalled what I already knew of South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape Provinces from visits with my South African partner to family and friends. Unsure what to do with this odd triptych of texts, or how to make them advance, I put the book aside.
Years passed, I finished my doctorate, I returned for further visits to South Africa, and continued to think of Clare, knowing that I did not want to abandon her. I began thinking again about the setting, dismissing America as the wrong location for the story I was trying to tell, and thinking instead of an unnamed, semi-allegorical African or South American country, before finally concluding that the book needed a highly specific temporal and geographic context to make the story both more resonant, as well as to provide the kind of narrative the characters needed to move forward from their quite static positions. Once I settled on South Africa as the setting, the various problems of character, narrative, and form all began to fall into place. Unraveling the three novellas, I started weaving them together, while adding a fourth strand — those sections which bear dates in the novel — that seemed to bind together the first three.
Journalists have asked me what kind of challenge the decision to set the book in South Africa represented. It was significant, and one I did not take lightly. My experience of South African domestic space (through visits with my extended family and friends in the country), and the reality of living every day of my life over the last decade with a South African partner, meant that I had a certain kind of access to a quite particular strand of South African cultural life — largely white, English-speaking, and middle-class. So the daily details, the language, and the cadences of speech were not the most difficult aspects to negotiate; rather, it was making sure that the complexity of certain relationships and lines of inheritance made sense in a way that was at once possible to fit into a plausible strand of South African history, while also being conscious that history (however one might wish to define it) need not necessarily function as the benchmark against which the events of the book might be measured.
TM: You write about contemporary South Africa and adopt a fairly non-judgmental stance. Only once does Sam lose his cool with a person begging. Clare is traumatized by that break-in but doesn’t call for tougher laws and stricter punishments. Was it a conscious decision to be the aloof outsider looking in? Is it a writer’s ‘duty’ only to reflect and never comment on a country’s social or political situation?
PF: At no point did I think that I was writing a critique of the country, although I would argue that there is a considerable amount of commentary about the unresolved legacies of apartheid. I was always trying to tell a story that, as I suggest above, started from large, perhaps “universal” themes, and worked backwards in its composition, from the broad to the specific, from the universal to the local. Equally, while I was conscious of the particular challenges I set myself in writing about a country not my own — a country whose literature has long been informed by a sense in some quarters that South Africans should tell their own stories — I did not think of myself as an outsider looking in. In his review of the book in the Mail & Guardian, the South African critic Michael Titlestad refers to me as an “insider outsider:” it is an apt and flattering description, I think, and one I am happy to embrace. I tried to write from a place as thoroughly within the country as I could manage.
To “reflect” a country’s social or political situation suggests that there is one coherent narrative of what that situation might be, and also that it is the job of fiction to be “reflective.” Absolution tries to destabilize such ideas, to argue that there are many simultaneous, competing narratives, not only about traumatic events of the past, but also about the way in which the everyday life of a country unfolds. Sam’s account of his encounters with people begging would not, inevitably, match their own versions of the same interactions; had I chosen to give such characters voice beyond the limited dialogue Sam reports, they would have narrated the story in a markedly different way.
Rather than “reflective,” I think of my own fiction as “discursive:” in a dialogue not only with literary tradition, but also with the world it seeks to describe.
TM: You have said that South Africa is “the most and least like America” of any country you have visited. Please explain!
PF: Before I first visited South Africa in 2003, I imagined it in terms of apartheid, its European colonial past, and those circuits of cultural affiliation, and, in a shamefully under-nuanced way, as an “African” country. The first visit immediately complicated all of those assumptions.
Visiting Cape Town and its surrounding communities, one cannot but be aware of Dutch and French (Huguenot) influences, both in terms of architecture and place names, while in a town like Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape (where I sit as I respond to your questions, in the Victorian house of a friend), the influence of 19th-century English settlers is inescapable. Nonetheless, “modern” South Africa — meaning both the modernist buildings and infrastructure built in the second half of the 20th century under apartheid, and the largely post-modern buildings of democratic South Africa — often looks startlingly American. Many buildings and neighborhoods would seem at home in America in a way they would never fit in Britain or the Netherlands. Stylistically, spatially, and in terms of scale, South Africa feels more North American in its register than it feels European, except, perhaps, in places like Stellenbosch or the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet, where the Cape Dutch architecture predominates; even in those towns, however, it is always possible for me to imagine myself into Southern California (in the case of Stellenbosch; I see similarities with Spanish mission architecture), or parts of the Midwest and Southwest (in the case of Graaff-Reinet). There is an expansive sense of space and possibility in the urban as well as rural landscapes of the country that feels utterly familiar to someone who grew up in Omaha with family ties to Oklahoma and California. So on the level of the built environment, as well as some aspects of the landscape (although not the vegetation), the country feels familiar to me.
The differences, however, are as numerous as the similarities, and not just because of the obvious reason that this is an African country. It is culturally, linguistically, and socially complex in ways that America is not. However unfinished the process of reconciliation and truth telling may be, South Africa has engaged in a dialogue about the past that America has failed to do in the same way. Imagining an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate racial atrocities, the legacies of slavery, and the much longer and profoundly unexamined treatment of American Indians, is all but impossible because those invested in maintaining the status quo, in not unearthing the truth of America’s past, are, I fear, far too powerful.
TM: At one point Clare announces to Sam in a letter: “You see how unreliable I am.” Sam is also an unreliable narrator — in one scene he realizes the life-story he is presenting to his wife, Sarah, is based on events and experiences from Clare’s books. Even maps are described as “a tracery of lies.” Was it your intention to disorient your readers and have us constantly uncertain of which characters to trust?
PF: The point was not to disorient readers, although I acknowledge that the initial reading experience may sometimes be one of disorientation, at least in part. Rather, the characters’ so-called unreliability (perhaps it would be better to speak of the mutability of truth in the novel), functions as a formal manifestation of the ways in which trauma produces multiple narratives, or multiple truths. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to provide a forum for different forms of truth (“factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or ‘dialogue’ truth…and healing and restorative truth”), acknowledging the ways in which such ostensibly competing truths may coexist. I hope that, to some extent, Absolution suggests the ways in which there can be, particularly in the case of a traumatic event, a multiplicity of possible truths.
One of the signal traumatic events from Sam’s past is the death of his uncle, and Sam’s negotiation of that memory produces more than one version: the memory is fractured, fragmented, shifting, entirely unstable, as if viewed through a prism. In the case of Clare, her manipulation of the narrative of her own life, and those she loved, serves a different purpose: it represents a struggle to negotiate the boundary between her public and private selves, to protect and defend those territories she regards as beyond the reach of public interest. Her intention, certainly, is to disorient Sam, the man she has, ironically, appointed to write her life, to keep him on shifting ground, as much as his mode of questioning her has a similar intent.
TM: Absolution is immensely intricate and must have required the tightest plotting — so much so that you can’t possibly be a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go-along writer. How much of it all did you plan in advance?
PF: I planned almost nothing at first, and that is, perhaps, why it took me six years to finish. As I approached the final drafts of the book, I did begin to have a clearer sense of where it was going, but I did not know how it would end until I wrote the final sentence.
For my second novel, however, I have worked from an outline. While it provided a loose structure that I ultimately revised, reworked, and then abandoned, having that map helped to focus the work, allowing me to write a complete draft in 10 months. It was certainly a much more efficient and less frustrating way to work.
TM: How and when do you write? Do you set yourself a daily word-count target? And how difficult is the creative process?
PF: After years believing that writing was about waiting for inspiration to strike, I realized I would never finish a book on such terms. Now I try to be at work by nine each weekday morning, work until noon, take an hour’s walk, eat lunch, return to work for the afternoon. It is, in this sense, a 9-5 job that sometimes intrudes into the evening and weekends. I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words each day, although with the second novel that rose to 2,500. The initial writing is rarely difficult: the tap flows freely. The challenge is regulating the temperature, the force, and finding ways of containing and shaping what emerges.
TM: Clare states that biography is “cannibalism and vampirism.” Many a debut novel draws heavily on the author’s life to date. How much of yourself did you cannibalize for the novel?
PF: Everything and nothing.
TM: You have one great novel under your belt. What are you working on now?
PF: I’m in the midst of revisions on the second novel, which will be finished in the next few months. Although set in contemporary suburban America, it shares some preoccupations with Absolution. Themes of dispossession, of inheritance, and of the vulnerability of domestic space are again present, although explored in quite different terms. It is very much a novel of and about the uncanny, the unhomely home, surveillance, and the complications, costs, and elusiveness of the American dream.
Hari Kunzru was anointed one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003, just as his first book, The Impressionist, hit U.S. soil. In the nine years since, Kunzru’s four novels have more than justified this title. His only deviation from it, in fact, is that four years ago he picked up and moved across the Atlantic to New York. The American landscape, its culture, its myths and belief systems figure prominently in Kunzru’s latest novel, Gods Without Men, whose name comes from Balzac: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing… It is God without men.” And it’s the Mojave desert that acts as the geographic center for this sprawling series of narratives that unfold over a duration of more than two hundred years.
In the two weeks since Gods Without Men’s release, it’s already been praised by Siddhartha Deb as “one of the best novels about globalisation.” Douglas Coupland, too, sang praises in his New York Times review and coined a new genre to classify it: Translit. Coupland writes, “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and spaces as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind.” And according to Jacob Silverman, Kunzru’s latest novel is “the fulfillment of the type of ‘networked novel’ that Kunzru has advocated for, one that he argues is particularly suited to our networked age.” Last week when Hari Kunzru and I spoke, our conversation touched on the systems that inform the novel’s content and structure, the American West, and UFO mythology born from the convergence of spiritual tradition and technology. Befitting twenty-first century networks, noise, and disembodiment, we spoke via cell phone, he in Seattle and I in Chicago, connected via two New York numbers.
On Thursday, March 22nd at 7pm, Hari Kunzru will visit WORD bookstore at 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY for an event co-hosted by The Millions. Visit the WORD website for further details and RSVP. See you there!
The Millions: In your novel Transmission, you write: “As soon as there is a sender, a receiver, a transmission medium and a message, there is a chance for noise to corrupt the signal.” The noise occurs here when a laid off immigrant programmer deploys a computer virus that has international ramifications. Signal corruption (or interference) also factors in to Gods Without Men, for example, where a mathematical model used in derivatives trading appears to have the power to interfere with and collapse national economies. And on a structural level in the novel, there are gaps in narrative time and in lives, there are a number of unexplained disappearances and returns. Would you talk more about the way that signals, noise, and systems in general inform and organize your novels?
Hari Kunzru: Yes, I can do that. I have a sort of dark past as a technology journalist and I’ve always been interested in communication systems, both as technological artifacts and as the building blocks of social life. In my book I’ve become very interested in the ways that we’re enmeshed in these systems, whether they’re technological strictly, or not. The dream of perfect information is an old one, and Transmission is organized around this technical notion of information and thought. [Claude] Shannon’s famous information theory pretty much summarizes this: there’s a sender, there’s a receiver, there’s a transmission medium, and the mathematical idea is for the signal to go from the sender to the receiver with no corruption and no loss of data. In any real world situation there is always noise. And the ways that our attempts to make meaning and transmit meaning to each other fall away into noise in that sense, are an enduring interest of mine. You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with linking that to the gaps and the silences and the ways that Gods Without Men is organized. I mean, Gods Without Men has become a more explicitly metaphysical, spiritual notion. The way I usually approach talking about the book is to say that it’s about people dealing with the unknown, and beyond just the simply unknown, it’s the idea that some things might be potentially unknowable. I mean, to go back to kind of pointy-headed stuff, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem states that in a mathematical system there are things that are true within that system that can’t be proved by that system so that you can never predict absolutely. And these mathematical systems are the most-nailed down, supposedly predictive tools that we have — they’re kind of incomplete, their meaning kind of bleeds out into nothingness. And all sorts of weird stuff can come into those gaps, and all these ideas are really good for the novelist in particular. The exploration of these areas is the sort of thing that the novelist should be doing.
TM: I really enjoyed how the structure resonated with those ideas. In a BBC interview with Tom McCarthy and Stewart Home…
HK: Oh, you heard that? That was a funny interview.
TM: …you say that because of the Internet, we live in a “relentlessly subcultural world,” that there are many co-existent subcultures, and that this has changed the way that culture is perpetuated. I’m wondering, how has this altered our idea and perception of narrative? And are linear narratives outdated?
HK: I think there are two thing things here. When I was talking about subcultures there I was basically — I don’t know if you know Tom and Stewart’s work. I mean, we were set up in this interview to be supposedly coming from three separate places and the poor BBC people, we all knew each other from ages ago and actually had far more in common in our interests that might first meet the eye.
TM: I’m aware of your former membership in the INS.
HK: Ah, yeah, in the first iteration of the INS. Yeah, so you know about the INS — Tom’s into avant-gardes, I think he’s a very retro figure in that way. And there’s the notion that there is a kind of modernist probe heading out into the future and dragging the rest of culture behind it. I think that’s not how it works anymore. There might have been a moment in the middle of the twentieth century where that was actually happening and this kind of modernist project was functioning in that straightforward way. But now, to skip to the way we actually receive information and the way we make culture, it’s very, very difficult to work out where an avant-garde might be if you were looking for such a thing. If there is an avant-garde, you know, it’s some ten guys in Nigeria. It’s very unlikely to be a bunch of university types in a cafe who want to make formally experimental literature. You know, it may be that that kind of world is one way, one place that new culture is happening, but it’s very difficult to make it this kind of one’s-at-the-fore, everyone-else-behind thing.
That’s one thing. The second thing you asked me was about form and linear narrative. And I’m certainly interested in the ways that traditional narrative doesn’t function properly at the moment. I like traditional narratives, I take pleasure in stories, I watch multi-part HBO dramas, and I go to Hollywood movies. But I appreciate them because of a formal thing, because we all know really instinctively now about how plots are supposed to work. You know when there’s supposed to be a reversal, you know when it’s supposed to tie up. Most films, and books to be quite honest, in the first few pages you know what kind of thing you’re reading and you know how it’s going to go. I mean, certainly in movies — you know you’re watching a comedy, so you know the guy and the girl, they’re going to get together in the end. You know the shape of it. And it’s a sort of banal thing to say on one level, but that’s not how experience is actually shaped in the world. That’s how stuff happens in books; and characters in these kinds of stories behave like characters, they don’t behave like people. If you do try the more complex, in kind of fleeting ways, that experience actually happens to us, then you’ve got to screw with plot in some way.
You know, you can still make books where stuff happens. I don’t think you necessarily have to be some kind of high postmodernist and refuse any kind of stability of meaning. One way I’ve found is through the use of silence and the use of incompleteness, because that demands a kind of active reading. It demands something from the reader — a kind of collusion with the writer. You’ve got to decide what you think might have happened, you’ve got to decide why you think certain things are being placed side by side. Because, you know, in our Internet world, we’ve got a constant flux of stuff. You’re clicking on one thing and then one thing leads to another and leads to another. And yet, the kind of interesting thing about the novel is almost the most old-fashioned thing about the novel: you’re putting a boundary around a bunch of stuff. You’re taking some stuff out of the flow and saying, Look at this — this is the reason all these things are between these covers, are within this boundary. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go and tie it all up in the end in a neat way, but there’s still an interesting specific set of decisions made about putting it all together. So there are a number of ways that you can approach this, and various people have quite different approaches, but certainly in Gods Without Men I was interested in making something that was organized almost through rhyme rather than through plot. The different stories in the book echo each other, and hopefully start to work together to grow elements that are repetitious, and there are elements that are different.
TM: Right, the book almost asks a reader to read meaning into the work.
HK: Right, exactly. That’s exactly it.
TM: I’d like to talk more about the fragmentation and the vitiation of culture throughout the novel. Neither Jaz nor Lisa closely identify with their heritage but still wield it when making personal decisions. And in spite of Jaz possessing the trappings of a culture, he never escapes an awareness that he’s faking it, he forgets his immigrant roots. Or, there’s the military base where the Iraqi immigrants role-play in a model Iraqi town in order to train troops before they’re deployed. What role does culture play in these American lives? Is it a costume to try on, to wear on special occasions? Is there an integrity to this fragmentation?
HK: That’s a question I’ve always had to deal with in a very personal way because of my own background. I’ve got an Indian dad and an English mom and I grew up a second-generation kid in London, and so the kind of way you position yourself in relation to culture is a kind of live question at all times. Since the ‘60s and through the ‘70s and ‘80s in particular, people were being taught that culture is basically, the world is basically a floating collection of signifiers and that you can pick and choose, and you can completely create yourself. And there’s some element of truth to that, in that there’s definitely an element of performance in the cultural identity that you end up with. I mean, it’s what you do and what things you choose to adopt. But at the same time you can’t. There are bodies at the basis of this. You know, there are things that you can’t get free of. I live in a body with quite brown skin compared to my brother and I have an Indian name and my brother was given an English name. My brother’s called Richard and no one would really think he was Indian from looking at him, and yet I’ve always been quite clearly identifiable as somebody who is half Asian. And so in between the idea that there is only one culture and that you inherit it and you live within the tradition and there’s no wiggle room, and the sort of PoMo idea that we’re all busy trying on new stuff, you know, new cultures like hats — we’re floating in between that.
And the business of fragmentation when it comes to culture, that’s a slightly different question again. I grew up being called mixed race and people would say things like, “Oh, it must be nice to have two cultures,” or, “It must be bad not to have one culture.” You’re existing in a split way, and yet that was never how I was experiencing it. It’s normal inside your head. You’re not flipping between one mode and another mode in some sort of troubled way. Even though there’s a lot of people who think of themselves as securely belonging to one culture who imagine that’s what it must be like. I mean, usually that’s only as a kind of complicated or mixie person, by the people who imagine that you must’ve lost something, or you must be a bit rootless and homeless, and you must be yearning for some sort of Little House on the Prairie-type origin. So culture is in play. You take traditions on and then you change the traditions by what you do with them. I mean, Jaz in this book is having quite extreme trouble because he’s made a quite extreme leap. His parents are from a village background in north India and he’s invented himself as a sort of wealthy Wall Street dude, and the gap he’s having to bridge is quite extreme. He has, maybe more than I ever had, a sense of strain from that.
TM: That’s obvious. And it’s interesting to use the U.S. as the landscape for that to play out.
HK: Yeah, it is different from how it is in the UK, for example. I’m really aware of how the whole race and identity stuff plays very differently here. It’s been quite fascinating for me to come from one context — I’ve been living in New York for four years now — and to look at how it goes here in the States. Because the founding myth of America is the melting pot. You know, you come from wherever and then by taking the Pledge of Allegiance you transform yourself into an American. The way you become an American is by assenting to this list of baseline values, or propositions. And beyond that, you don’t have to eat some food or dress a certain way or behave a certain way in order to say you’re American. You stand up and you salute the flag, and then off you go — you’re an American.
It doesn’t work that way in Britain because Britain started off as this colonial, imperial country with the belief that there’s only one way of being British. And then it had a massive influx of immigrants, mainly after the second World War. And people like me turn up, who are clearly British, but at the same time don’t have the kind of… you know, it’s a place where you didn’t have a set, I mean we don’t have a Britain Constitution, there’s not a set of things you have to assent to in order to be a British citizen. It’s all culture and precedent and how it’s always been done. If a bunch of people turn up who do stuff differently, that’s much more threatening to the identity of the country. And the multicultural story of Britain in the last five years has been remaking the whole identity of the country to fit all the new kinds of ways of being British that have turned up. It’s a totally different history from America.
TM: The American landscape figures prominently in the novel. Although the chapters jump across time, from 1778 to 2009, and lives are lived across a multitude of locations, most of the novel unfolds in one geographic area, near the Pinnacles in the Mojave desert – -a landmark described as, where “three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers prob[e] the sky.” What is the significance of geography to the novel, and also, in its relation to the American dream and myths of UFOs, higher energies, and the supernatural?
HK: I suppose the first thing to say is that it’s kind of doubled with New York City, and you know, New York is a place of verticals and the place of finance. I’m trying to say it has much more in common with the desert, the place of horizontals and spiritual questions. All of the Walter financial modeling kind of stuff is a way of talking about the idea of credit credos and markets based on faith, in that way when everybody decides to believe the value exists. But the main action of the book is in the desert. The desert has a kind of incredible hold on me as a person. I mean, I first ended up out there just after 9/11 and in the week after 9/11, when I got stuck in the U.S. I’d been on the West Coast for about six weeks and I was supposed to fly out on the 12th of September. And at one o’clock at a motel in West Hollywood I watched the second tower go down. I was supposed to bring this rental car back to LAX and I had this scary experience — all the freeways were closed and the airport was closed and yet the rental car company wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted their car. I ended up getting a bit lost, and would kind of hang there on the far side of the street, and was driving around the perimeter. I had a beard at the time and I got pulled over by the cops. They were incredibly jumpy, got their guns out, and I think it was only my English accent at the time that sort of saved me. They just realized when I said, “Hello what seems to be the trouble?” that I was an idiot, and didn’t shoot me. But at that point I just didn’t want to be in LA anymore and I didn’t get to fly out, and so I went to Death Valley and drove around the Mojave for several days, actually ending up in Vegas, which is a whole other story and a very weird time to be in Vegas. But I was out in this moment filled with dash and worry, out in this place. And I went back years later, when I first came to live here, and that kind of got doubled up again. When I’ve been on my own out there, which I have quite a lot — I think I’ve spent around three months in the last two or three years, just driving around different routes and hiking and just being out in this space — it’s a very intense physical experience, just being out in this space. It has to do with light, with thin air, with light bouncing off the white. Midday in summer the contrast is less and the world is bleached out, the light is so intense. And you have that feeling that the gap between the land and the sky has gotten narrower.
Also, of course, the desert in the imagination of America — that great basin is the last barrier where if you’re heading West and you’re trying to get to California, that is the great obstacle that you have to cross. And there are all sorts of slight traces of westward pioneers. You find them in the name Joshua tree. The Mormons named those big yucca plants Joshua trees because they looked like somebody holding their hand up to heaven, imploring God. So the tradition of an intense spiritual striving is there. And on to that you get air space. It’s the place where you can head out to the desert and fence off a big area of land and make it into a bombing range or an aircraft testing range, or you can do your military maneuvers with the Marines. It’s land that gets very intimately bound up with the secret state. There’s Yucca Mountain, which is earmarked as a place where they’re going to store radioactive waste, there’s Area 51, you know the famous secret place that houses UFOs. When you drive around there you’re constantly coming across places you can’t go into. These huge areas of land look exactly like the land on the other side of the road, but are actually military, you know, Air Force or Naval land. I was driving in northern Nevada one time and you couldn’t drive straight through, and suddenly there’s a big sign that said Navy Seal Undersea Training Area. And I’m like, What the fuck? We are so far from water. There’s no doubt that this place had a lake in it, but for a while I was thinking I just don’t even understand what is going on anymore. Like, how is this place being used?
And the UFO thing really comes out of the convergence of those two things. It’s the spiritual tradition meeting technology, meeting specifically airspace technology. And at the moment of the Cold War, you can track the history of UFO sightings very closely to how people were feeling about the Cold War and their worries about nuclear destruction. Initially all the aliens that people were meeting were described as being these peaceful humans who had come to save us from our technological destruction. And then later, once the big security state had built up in response to the Cold War, when everything was getting fenced off and people were becoming aware that there was this massive secret budget within the government that was perhaps not fully under control, that’s when all the alien encounters turned dark as well. It all becomes very paranoid and all the Greys turn up, you know, the classic E.T. types, Aliens, The X-Files. They’re like a projection of paranoia about the government. The UFO story eventually turns into a story about the people’s relationship to government when the government is keeping something secret from us.
TM: When you were talking about the relationship of technology and spirituality, it made me think of a line in the novel about Schmidt that stood out to me: “The shape of his project became clear: how to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.”
HK: That’s absolutely the center of what UFOS… I think you can call it a religion almost. I mean, UFO mythology is actually a kind of tech version of something that was already there. The one thing I found out when I was researching that completely fascinated me was that there was this spate of airship sightings across the West in the 1880s and 1890s, from west Texas all through the Prairie States and into the Southwest. People would report airships and this was a time before they were in use. There were occasionally even sightings of encounters with airmen who seemed human but not all together human, including one report of a crash where there was supposed to be a body that the local pastor had buried somewhere, I think in Texas. When a new technology comes along, it kind of turns up in this sort of spiritualized way in the imagination. I mean, you could almost say the same thing was happening in the early days of the Internet in the late ‘80s when William Gibson was writing about these kind of ghostly AIs becoming conscious. And at that point we were just realizing that the global network was becoming bigger than we could comprehend and understand and what would happen if it actually took on a life of its own. You know, with each new wave of tech that comes along, there’s an early stage where our ideas about the beyond and transcendence get really wrapped up with that.
TM: What contemporary novels (besides your own, of course) do you think best speak to the times and the fragmentation of twenty-first century life?
HK: There’s an Icelandic novelist called Sjón and he wrote a book called From the Mouth of a Whale, that’s actually set in sixteenth-century Iceland but it’s about the lone man of reason in this age of superstition. He’s a sort of proto-scientist. He’s been collecting natural specimens and trying to think through this stuff, and he’s stuck out there on the edge of the world and in this kind of crazy… it’s an extraordinary, extraordinary novel that came out a few years ago. It’s dull almost to say because everybody thinks it but Bolaño’s 2666 is very important in the use of gaps and the kind of active reading stuff that we were talking about before. Quite a lot of the work of Don DeLillo actually was the first stab at this stuff — some of his 1980s work. I’m really interested in Libra, the book about the Kennedy assassination, that’s about how this plot takes on its own life, this conspiracy takes on its own life and without anybody really setting something in motion. The network takes over and things take the course and that’s a really important insight that he had in that book. And in a funny way, there’s a Chinese novel I’d like to recommend as well, by Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain. There’s a kind of genre to these Chinese books that are almost like Beat books in a funny way — they’re about people getting the hell out of the city and going to find themselves through road trips. Soul Mountain is essentially about a guy who’s traveling in very rural, traditional parts of China and he retells lots of folk tales and meets various people, but it’s fragments, and sometimes it’s first person, sometimes it’s third person, sometimes it’s second person, so there’s a destabilization there. His way of using stories and his way of splitting up the self really interests me.
I was given a copy of the British philosopher Gillian Rose’s memoir Love’s Work by a journalist who interviewed me when my novel came out this summer; he said that my book somehow reminded him of hers. This would be an incredibly vainglorious way for me to begin here, and I suppose it will remain so no matter what I say, but I promise you, that’s not what I meant. Because having read Rose’s striking, honest, and tough-as-nails consideration of what it is to be alive among other people, and of what it is to then die, I suspect that that very nice journalist might have been taking the piss. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m very glad to have been given the chance to spend time in the starkness and rigor of Rose’s short, interrogative last work. Rose gathers in personal reminiscences and philosophical preoccupations, memories of the deaths of friends, and realizations about her ethnic and cultural inheritances. She gives comfort a kicking, and shows morbidity up for the easy moping that it is; complex, jarring and vivid, this is no trip into grief-lit. It also contains one of the most perfect descriptions I’ve encountered of a child’s discovery of the written word: “Reading was never just reading: it became the repository of my inner self-relation: the discovery, simultaneous with the suddenly sculpted and composed words, of distance from and deviousness towards myself as well as others.” Or how a death-room “formed a hard crystal of light, exposed to the raucous and merciless spring.” Rose finished Love’s Work by expressing the hope that she might not be deprived, after all, of old age, but she died following the book’s publication in 1995. The hard work of getting to that point is captured unforgettably and movingly within these pages.
And speaking of the debut novelist’s dreary store of self-consciousness, it finds a smart and rollicking antidote in Jonathan Lethem’s new non-fiction collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, which traverses topics from cinema to theory to nudity to cell phones to billboards to Bolaño’s 2666; my favorite pieces, though, were those which brilliantly dissected the various sulks, funks, and paranoias of being a writer who moans about doing writerly things – not least among them writing itself. I’m probably the last person in the world (here we go again) to have read and relished Lethem’s essay “Rushmore Versus Abundance” – a brisk reminder that, yes, there are too many books to fit into our narrow categories, so get on with reading and stop complaining – but I’ll be doing it again.
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Like her contemporaries Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, Helen DeWitt went much of the last decade without publishing a novel, and in a just world, her new book, Lightning Rods, would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month. I’m picturing editors from glossy magazines knife-fighting in alleys for a chance to feature DeWitt on the cover… Times Square billboards of DeWitt traversing some rustic byway, vest saucily aflap… A giant inflatable Helen DeWitt looming over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, nodding down at rapt throngs of skinny-jeaned teens…
Then again, a world more hospitable to minds like DeWitt’s would likely deprive her of the frustrations that give her writing its unique moral intensity. Her first novel, The Last Samurai (2000), was among other things a look at the fate of the imagination in a fin-de-siecle culture consecrated to the superficial, the gaseous, and the ephemeral. Your Name Here (2007), her unpublished and more or less unsummarizable follow-up, hinges on an exiled writer named “Helen DeWitt” and her struggles to wrest art from the lunacy of post-9/11 life.
At first blush, Lightning Rods looks like a departure. The Last Samurai fits into an erudite subgenre called the “anatomy” – the novel that wants to swallow the whole world. (This may be part of what the critic Marco Roth had in mind when he called DeWitt “Twenty-First-Century America’s finest Seventeenth-Century novelist.”) Lightning Rods, by contrast, is a tapered, tailored 280 pages. It confines itself largely to the willfully beige environs of the contemporary American office park. Moreover, it is a comedy. By this I mean not so much “a book with jokes in it” as that rarer thing, the laughing-so-hard-other-people-on-the-subway-are-starting-to-wonder-if-you-require-psychiatric-attention book. But fear not, Samurai lovers; DeWitt’s moral vision remains as sharp as ever. Which is to say, Lightning Rods belongs to another venerable literary tradition: the satire.
Satire’s a lot like haiku, or Marxism: there’s the loose version and there’s the strict version. In recent decades, American writers, being American writers, have preferred the former. You pick a subject, usually institutional (politics, the university, the news media), and you attack it with as many comic exaggerations and caustic jokes as possible. This technique has yielded some good novels, but it’s formally a fair piece from the canonical satire of, say, Jonathan Swift. This latter is an art of constraint, rather than of license. Its genius is to invent a single premise – the proposal of “A Modest Proposal,” the catch of Catch-22 – and to follow it without flinching to the most absurd ends. The excitement comes from watching the writer chain himself to the implacable machinery of his own logic. And as DeWitt’s idiosyncratic intellect has always gravitated toward the gap between messy reality and the logical Ideal, it’s no surprise to find her choosing the narrower path, and succeeding brilliantly.
The protagonist of Lightning Rods is a guy named Joe, whose surname, never given, might as well be Schmoe. He’s a particular sort of American Everyguy – a hapless door-to-door salesman who at age 33 has sacrificed the possibility of emotional or spiritual fulfillment on the altar of the most conventional sort of material success. Or, more accurately, has lost any ability to distinguish between the two. By day, Joe travels around failing to sell encyclopedias, and later vacuum cleaners. By night, he concocts baroque masturbation fantasies that fail to assuage his sense of failure. He should be out selling right now, he thinks. He should be a different and better person. “Which just goes to show,” DeWitt writes,
how blinkered we can be by our preconceptions. Because little though he knew it, it was the hours he spent trying to sell vacuum cleaners that were the waste of time, something he would remember with shame and self-loathing for the rest of his life. His well-meant efforts to develop an efficient masturbatory program, likewise, were completely misconceived. What he didn’t realize is that a genius is different from other people. A genius doesn’t waste time like other people. Even when he looks like he is wasting time he may in fact be making the most productive possible use of the time.
Joe’s particular insight is to take his favorite masturbation fantasy and not only bring it to life but monetize it. I wouldn’t want to spoil for you the pleasure of discovering that fantasy yourself. Nor would I want to give away exactly how – with the help of a future Supreme Court justice, an adjustable-height toilet, several pairs of PVC undergarments, and a dwarf named Ian – Joe manages to realize it. Suffice it to say, the genius is in the details. And, speaking of details, look again at the passage above. Notice the double entendre of “a genius doesn’t waste time like other people,” and the sly redundancy (i.e., time-waste) of the sentence that follows. Joe’s target demographic – office worker – gives DeWitt a chance to luxuriate in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom. Her delight in nuggets like “orientated” and “product feature” and “bifunctionality” (and, come to think of it, “corporate culture”) is evident in every deceptively artless sentence.
She never condescends to her characters, however; like George Saunders, that other poet laureate of the management handbook, she’s too damn curious about the way they think. “In an ideal world,” Joe muses, in another typical moment,
he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with. Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal, sustainable client development was absolutely vital to the success of the business, and it was up to him to single-handedly pursue that goal for all their sakes.
We are too close to Joe’s thoughts here to comfortably condemn them, or even to be sure where they end and DeWitt’s begin. “Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal”: is that a banality contaminated by truth, or a truth contaminated by banality? And make no mistake about it: Joe is after truth, to exactly the extent that he’s able to frame the concept. He is a strangely moving figure, a devoted pilgrim in a world whose prophetic tradition consists of Dale Carnegie, George Gilder, and Napoleon Hill.
According to the publisher’s flap copy, Lightning Rods “take[s] on the complex issues surrounding sexual tension in the workplace.” To my ear, this betrays a questionable sense of salesmanship. I keep hearing a snatch from an old Monty Python routine: “Tonight on Who Cares: Sexual Tension in the Workplace.” (I would have gone with Remainder meets House of Holes, by way of Then We Came to the End.) More importantly, though, it’s a classic case of the slipperiness of satire. Lightning Rods is no more “about” sexual tension in the workplace than A Tale of a Tub is about the tub. But if Joe’s “Lightning Rods” are the vehicle, what is the tenor? What, exactly, is being skewered? By the end of the book, the answer, wonderfully, seems to be “everything”: bureaucracy, sexual politics, the objectification of the female body, the sanctification of same, political correctness, political incorrectness, etiquette, boorishness, ambition, laziness, late capitalism, and even logic itself. DeWitt brings to satire what Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 brought to the detective story: purity of means, ineffability of ends. This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel’s epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work. (DeWitt says she began writing it, and several other books, in 1998, “to pave the way for” The Last Samurai) But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.
Image credit: New Directions
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
1. Dry Spell
I’m going through a period where I’m not reading very many novels. I really hate this. To me, every period of reading stagnation is the beginning of the slippery slope, which will lead you to one day parrot the refrain your bookish, childhood self heard from all the adults in view: “I miss reading,” and “I used to read a lot, too.”
Telling a young bookworm that reading is something people might stop doing is like telling people who just fell in love that a day will come when they won’t want to have sex all the time. No one is trying to hear this.
Many of the books I have read are indexed by place and time. Usually there is nothing particularly meaningful about the occasion, and the memory is populated by mundane details–this book goes with a bus in that city; that one under the hostess stand at that restaurant; the other belongs in a purse I used to have, and wish I had still.
But there is a flash point where the book you are reading is exactly the book you should and want to be reading at that moment, and the combination renders the occasion of your reading so intensely pleasurable that you remember it for years as a halcyon day in your life.
In a dry spell, I find myself fantasizing about these greatest hits of my reading past, fetishizing afternoons on couches lost to time.
These are not the kind of memories with a facile cinematic chronology–it’s impossible to create a montage of a girl supine for eight hours with Of Human Bondage. And while you can think long about a particular book–its plot or its meaning–there is no narrative to an epic reading of a book as there is with other life moments (He said x, and then he kissed me; the phone rang, they rescued Timmy from the well.)
Reading memories are intensely boring to describe to someone else in any detail. Reading memories are cat memories–a sunbeam, a warm spot, a heaven-sent breeze, distant voices.
Often, there are snacks.
I was moved by Leah Carroll’s poignant essay about the foods in which she takes comfort. I am a creature of habit, and I form periods of intense attachment to foods, just as I do with books. For me, many comfort foods are profoundly connected to my reading memories; books, like food, provide rich and varied nourishment, often greater than the sum of their ingredients. Taken in conjunction, books and food are a potent, comprehensive, and very private source of happiness. Proust’s madeleine would feel more real to me had Proust, upon discovering the power of the cookie, obtained a huge box and eaten them while reading all seven Chronicles of Narnia.
On a summer Saturday, probably 2004, I mixed tuna fish in my mother’s style–with plain yogurt, a touch of mayonnaise, green onion, black pepper, and lemon–and spread it on melba toast crackers. I poured a coca-cola over ice. I took the plate to the couch, lay down, and read Lolita all the way through. And verily it was one of the most pleasant days of my life.
I remember a tuna fish sandwich and The Blind Assassin, sprawled on the same couch, on the same kind of summer afternoon. Tuna fish is writ large in my reading life, but only prepared in this precise way (with yogurt; the bread can be different, and sometimes I put mustard). When I need to manufacture happiness, I make tuna fish.
The fall I read 2666 coincided with my rediscovery of a very plain spaghetti I remembered eating every day one summer in my childhood–a spaghetti with butter, salt, and a mild cheese. Unsurprisingly, given its flavor profile and ingredients, I was crazy for this dish with a kind of fevered passion, which is just how I felt about 2666. The day I cranked through most of volume 2 was a day I did two things that are almost impossible: I read with a blinding hangover and I read while eating spaghetti. I think I made the spaghetti twice that day, so abandoned was I to hangover and booklust.
Like 2666, part of the appeal of the spaghetti was how delicious it was, and its impossibility as a permanent and frequent fixture in my snack rotation. I was wild for the book, and the spaghetti, but you cannot read 2666 every day, and butter spaghetti must be used infrequently, lest it lose its great effect, and you develop a pallor.
It was not my first spaghetti madness. One lonely high school summer spent in a new country, I plundered my parents’ pantry of commissary-bought cans and dry goods. I invented a version of canned clam sauce, heavy on white wine, and ate it every afternoon while reading the assembled works of A.S. Byatt. Possession tastes like canned clams and coca cola with a splash of wine; it sounds like the beetle that tapped faintly from behind the living room wall.
In 2005 I read The Sea, The Sea, and my encounter with Charles Arrowby’s homely yet intensely provocative food interests coincided with (or influenced, possibly) a period during which I ate cabbage and carrot salad every single day for several months. (Fear not, gentle readers, I ate other things too.)
An Arrowby meal, for the uninitiated:
. . . spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil . . . Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill. Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil, and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in. With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef.
In my beloved salad, the red or green cabbage is thinly sliced, the carrots grated. I add tiny slivers of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a lot of salt. At the end, I drag my bread across the bowl and it is stained orange with the remaining oil and the life blood of carrots. I know this as a Greek winter salad, but my beloved roommate of the period made cabbage and carrot in her home Tatarstan. Cabbage and carrot is home food across great distances.
I remember eating a bowl of this and a loaf of the airy bread procured from my corner shop, lying on the bed with Iris Murdoch’s best novel, and smoking cigarettes. This memory is especially riddled with nostalgia–now there are no more cigarettes, there is no more bread eaten in number 5 Happy Street (actual address) in a distant Istanbul suburb. I still make cabbage and carrot salads, but they are simulacra.
Some foods are not my own creation. Another summer I spent every one of my lunch breaks eating xoriatiki salata from the same cafe while reading the majority of Stephen King’s novels. Greek salad and The Stand are intimations of heaven on earth. During some weeks I was left to my own devices I contrived to eat the platonic ideal of chicken and rice at Philippou, the most wonderful restaurant in all of Greece, every day that I had the money to acquire it. That’s where I read Under the Volcano. I went back years later and took my beloved, but I cannot recapture the feeling of those hot days in a cool room, the whir of fans and the silverware clinking on the plates of the regulars, the ruination of Geoffrey Firmin.
Probably my nostalgia is less for the these books and these tuna fish crackers, but for lost places, lost summers, lost time (Oh hallo, Marcel–do pass the madeleines). Every passing year makes an afternoon spent on the couch less an inalienable right and more of a louche extravagance. Every year I see more clearly the first-world silliness of a spoilt youth eating dozens of baked chicken portions in a classy Athenian restaurant. I wouldn’t talk sense into her now, though. These memories are too precious.
All is not lost and melancholic. The dry spell will end, god willing. There are still books to read in snatched half-hours; there is passionate reading in our future. There is still tuna fish and cabbage salad.
(Image: Dijon-Cilantro Tuna Salad on Whole Grain Bread from galant’s photostream)
I may as well confess, by way of prolepsis, that Mathias Énard’s second novel, Zone, is the kind of book that can tie a critic in absolute knots, not only because, due to its most striking formal feature – it is a single, 517-page sentence – the damn thing more or less confounds quotation, but also because the duty to move beyond a mere inventory of its contents toward some evocation of the reading experience feels unusually…well, critical, the difference between contents and experience being in this case sort of like the difference between staring at the pitted black grooves of side two of Dark Side of the Moon and actually traveling to the dark side of the moon, as in a sense Zone’s narrator and antihero is, or anyway the dark side of something, call it the Twentieth Century, call it human nature, or call it, as he does, “the Zone” (i.e., the wartorn region around the Mediterranean where “wrathful savage gods have been clashing with each other . . . since the Bronze age at least”), and that’s where I had thought to start, adumbrating the particular historical darkness of the Zone and the conflicts swirling in and around it like the eddies of Énard’s prose, except that the attempt to comprehend all this, which as the novel opens is consuming self-identified civil servant Francis Servain Mirković, age thirtysomething, felt in my retelling as flat as the pull-down map in a high-school classroom, and, as I could practically hear readers clicking over to Gawker (and I hadn’t even reached the end of the first sentence!), perhaps something more lively was in order—say, a dramatic recreation of a 2006 editorial meeting at the book’s French publisher, Actes Sud, where a junior editor barely out of puberty is attempting to justify his ardor for the manuscript to a panel of jaded superiors who, not having read it, sigh at intervals and drag wearily on their Gauloises as they hear that F. S. Mirković is actually both a brutish Croatian war criminal and a hyper-literate French spy; that he has boarded a train to Rome under false passport to sell a briefcase full of secrets to the Vatican before getting out of “the game” for good; and that he will still be stuck on the Milano-Roma overnight diretto when the novel ends, so that, despite its noirish Maguffin and feats of syntax worthy of The Guinness Book of World Records, or at least a Guinness, Zone is a novel in which, broadly speaking, nothing happens, unless you count Francis thinking at great length about history in its personal and global aspects, and though the overlords of the publishing house may have perked up a little at this last bit, cerebration being pretty much France’s national pastime, it must still have sounded incroyable, this bouillabaisse of Descartes and Dachau, Sebald and Seinfeld, Mrs. Dalloway and Mission: Impossible, and not in the good sense, and this again (to make a very Mirkovićian recursion) is how I had thought to begin, cool giving way to heat, first pass tragedy, second pass farce, but still like the junior editor I seemed to be failing to do this remarkable book justice, and in fact I began to wonder if Énard himself had felt a similar sense of obligation to his material, only scaled radically up, an obligation to the Zone’s war-dead (“young, old, male, female, burnt black, cut into pieces, machine gunned, naked”) to make it new, per his epigraph-furnisher, cameo fascist, and tutelary shade Ezra Pound, though of course if I were truly to take a page from Énard taking a page from Pound, I would have to plunge into, as opposed to merely gesticulating near, questions about Zone’s seemingly mismatched ethical and aesthetic ambitions (for as Francis finds, in the course of his train ride, bedrock has a way of asserting itself through even the mind’s most turbulent involutions), and also questions about how Énard gets these ambitions to work in harness, how as the clauses mount and cascade and carry the reader forward, Francis’ un-excellent non-adventure manages to generate its improbable urgency, as if in that briefcase were not some soon-to-be papal papers but a bomb that threatens to take our hero with it when it blows, questions whose answers were at first hard to see, as from a train it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, the forest in this case being that enormous formal dare – the novel as single sentence – which should (again, in theory) have killed both Zone’s chill and its heat, yet the more I thought about the novel’s form, the more it, too, started to seem like a kind of Maguffin, every bit as conventional in its own way as that briefcase (paging Ving Rhames!) or, say, as your average act of stunt-reviewing—and here I’m referring not just to Énard’s particular high-Modernist, comma-spliced rendition of stream-of-consciousness, which in less adroit hands than the translator Charlotte Mandell’s might feel at this stage in the history of the European Art Novel positively fustian, but also to the novel’s two least successful gambits, viz., a pattern of Hellenic allusion likewise cribbed from Ulysses (chapters keyed to Homer, recurring epithets, invocations of those Bronze-Age gods), and the irruption of a short story that Francis is reading into the text—herrings whose conspicuous incarnadine distracts us from Énard’s deeper debt, which is not to 1930 but to 1830, which is to say that Zone really makes its bones where the hoariest Balzac novel does, in the steady concretion of detail, from Francis’ recollections of his mother, a fiercely patriotic Croat who “would have made an excellent soldier” (she applies her iron fist instead to teaching piano and browbeating her son, until it seems to him that “with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room,” she is “directing [his] masturbation”) to his time as an enlistee in the Balkans (where he sneaks across Serbian lines with a comrade to drag back a stolen pig and later must drag that same comrade’s body to a funeral pyre); to alcoholism and depression in a Venice so cold Francis sleeps rolled up in an old rug, with “shoes on because the rigid carpet was like a tube and didn’t cover [his] feet”; to wrecked relationships with two women vividly undeserving of Francis’ psychodrama; and ultimately to the French intelligence services, where a shellfish-loving alopeciac named Lebihan sees in the haunted veteran a potential “asset”—not to mention the brilliant incidentals, erections in tour buses, the zinc tops of bars, “Turkish MCs chanting bingo results in five languages,” a vision of Donald Sutherland as Christ, details knitting train to trench, past to present, the real to the imagined, and as Zone’s locomotive sentence wends through them all out of order, we come to feel that the “impossible gulf hollowed out by war” is not, as Francis suggests, the one separating soldiers from bystanders but the one that, as in the Springsteen song, runs through the middle of his skull, in light of which the stories of other lives that periodically seize the text—stories of battle and exile and murder—might indeed look like Francis’ attempt to forget himself, “to disappear wholly into paper,” were they not also a way of understanding himself, the history of the Zone being, like the history of Francis himself (and, Énard probably wants to suggest, like the history of any of us) one of perpetual strife between the higher faculties and the lower, the civilized and the barbaric, Eros and Thanatos, Apollo and Dionysus, so that in resurrecting Janus-faced Francis, Zone also breathes new life what that had come to seem the lifeless stuff of AP exams, the “nation of the dead” (as the Scottish historian Gil Elliot puts it) that along with the aesthetic disruption of Modernism, that other crisis of representation, had seemed to lay a younger generation of European writers under a heavy curse—on the one hand, your characters can’t just sit around eating French fries (or, as in 2666, Fürst Pücklers) as if the Twentieth Century hadn’t happened; on the other, to write directly about all those deaths is to risk the worst kind of kitsch, the second-worst being perhaps the too-slavish aping of Joyce—but then again, one man’s curse is another man’s blessing, for by seizing these two crises, one ethical and one aesthetic, and smashing them together like two dumb stones, as hard and as wildly as he can, Mathias Énard has found a way to restore death to life and life to death, and so joins the first rank of novelists, the bringers of fire, who even as they can’t go on, do.
Bonus Link: An excerpt from Zone.
I kind of hate to say this, but the very best book I read this year was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It’s cliche, and he doesn’t need the boost. I read a number of smaller press books, some of which were excellent. Bluets by Maggie Nelson in particular springs to mind. But still, I really think Freedom is a masterpiece. I read it as an advance copy, so I had the fortune to read it when there was hype, but not as much hype as there became.
I will say this, it was not my best year for reading. It was a year where I read a lot of really good books but almost no great books. Last year I read three books I would consider better than Freedom, though only one of them was a novel, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. It took me six months to read 2666. In the meantime, I also read We Did Porn by Zak Smith, which was also a better book, as was Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. But that was last year, and that’s not what this is about.
But I don’t care. I want to talk about something else. You know what’s a great novel? Lush Life by Richard Price. That’s from my 2008 list (I keep a list of every book I read). Also, in 2008, I read the novella Ray by Barry Hannah. Are you kidding? You want to talk about great literature, you have to read Ray before you can even have the conversation. And those two books weren’t even the best books I read in 2008. Because in 2008, I read the absurdly underrated Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which impacts the way I think about creative non-fiction still to this day.
And then in 2007, I read Stoner, which would probably top the list of “Best Books I’ve Read In The Last Four Years.” 2007 was a glorious year for reading. Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.
I’m not even going to get into 2006. I’d start to cry.
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Though the great Roberto Bolaño fever of 2008 appears to have moderated somewhat, this year saw new Bolaño titles pop up in American bookstores with the frequency of periodicals. We’ve probably passed that point in the hype cycle – and in Bolaño’s own back catalogue – where we might look for critical consensus: in January, reviewers seemed hesitant to gainsay Monsieur Pain; by autumn, The Return was getting a decidedly mixed reception. (In between, no one except our own Emily St. John Mandel seemed to know what to do with Antwerp.) So where was a Bolañophile to turn first?
We first tried to answer this question with our original Bolaño syllabus. With the aim of offering continued guidance to newcomers and enthusiasts alike, we’ve updated it below to take into account the two most recent novels and the thirteen stories in The Return. The Insufferable Gaucho will be added shortly. We continue to feel, hype notwithstanding, that this is one of the most important authors to emerge in the last decade, and we’ll try to stay on top of the work yet to appear: an essay collection, a book of poetry, and The Sorrows of the Real Policeman (a.k.a. the “sixth part of 2666.”)
Together, these three stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important writing. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile. The third offers a finer-grained look at “Arturo Belano’s” brief but transformative stint in Pinochet’s prison system.
2. Nazi Literature in the Americas 
This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).
3. Distant Star 
When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.
4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.
New Directions’ decision to publish this 90-page novella as a hardcover initially roused my suspicions, but it amply repays the investment. It is a total avant-garde freakout, and has to be among the most linguistically beautiful things Bolaño wrote. Initially, it presents as an aleatory collection of prose poems, half Nicanor Parra, half David Lynch. Quickly, though, it develops into a kind of quantum murder mystery, in which we’re trying to identify both the perpetrator and crime. In its enjambment of poetry and mayhem, a perfect set-up for…
6. The Savage Detectives 
What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).
7. “Photos” (from The Return) 
A moving coda to The Savage Detectives, this story finds Arturo Belano in exile, as usual.
8. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]
Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.
Updated 9. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” ; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978”  (from Last Evenings on Earth), “Meeting With Enrique Lihn” (from The Return) 
The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The second three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. And the third offers us a literary dream that feels almost like a dry-run for “Sensini.”
Updated 10.”Cell Mates” and “Clara” (from The Return) 
Two of Bolaño’s most straightforward and accessible stories about love, these nonetheless manage to be mysteriously harrowing.
11. The Skating Rink 
I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.
12. “Joanna Silvestri,” “Snow,” “Buba” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]
This triumvirate is, for me, the heart of The Return. Whereas the earlier Bolaño collection in English circled around the author’s fictional mirror image, these three – concerning a porn star, a gangster, and a soccer star, respectively – look outward, with spectacular results.
13. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…
14. Amulet 
…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?
15. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) 
This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.
16. 2666 
Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.
Updated 17. Monsieur Pain [1981 – 1982]
Again, I dissent from the newspaper reviews. Monsieur Pain strikes me as the least essential of Bolaño’s novels to appear in English. It’s palpably an early work, and far less incendiary than Antwerp. Atmospherically, it has affinities with his best short novels, but in historical drag that somehow cuts against Bolaño’s usual sense of suspense. At this point you may be willing to put up with that.
Updated 18. “William Burns,” “Murdering Whores” (from The Return) [1997 – 2001]
Speaking of inessential, I wasn’t particularly taken with these two.
Updated 19. “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura” (from The Return) 
This story, on the other hand, deserves mention alongside the stronger “Joanna Silvestri” for its enthusiastically gritty take on the porn industry. Curiously, this Lalo Cura is not the same as – or at least doesn’t share parents with – the character of that name we meet in 2666. Hence “prefiguration?”
20. By Night in Chile 
Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.
Updated 21. “The Return” (from The Return) 
This story, at once revolutionary and relaxed, suggests to me where Bolaño might be headed were he still alive to day…which is to say, everywhere.
Hint Fiction is an anthology of very, very short stories, edited by Robert Swartwood. The maximum length has been set at twenty-five words. Swartwood was inspired, he writes in the introduction, by the famous and probably apocryphal six-word Hemingway story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Swartwood eventually came up with “the thesis that a story of twenty-five words or fewer can have as much impact as a story of twenty five hundred words or longer.”
The premise raises some interesting questions. How short can a story be and still be a complete story, as opposed to, say, a fragment of something that probably should have been longer? Where’s the line between suggestion and execution? It’s difficult to say, and I doubt that it’s in anyone’s best interest to establish hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing. But the line’s very fine indeed, and Hint Fiction walks it.
Most stories in the book come in two pieces: there’s the story itself, all twenty-five or eighteen or seven words of it, and then there’s the title, which usually provides a clue or at least some sort of context. It’s an interesting concept, but an issue immediately arises: these are hints of stories, mere suggestions, and the problem with hints is that they’re by nature imprecise. Let’s consider the entirety of Stephen Dunn’s Midnight in the Everglades:
“You dumb fuck. You pathetic, dumb fuck.”
That’s it. Okay, I thought, I can do this. There’s definitely a story here, between the title and the seven words of text. I can imagine the scene:
It’s midnight in the Everglades. An in-way-over-his-head protagonist, let’s call him Bill, is standing on the boat. There are gangsters. One of the gangsters is holding a gun to Bill’s head. There is an ominous swishing of alligators in the water around them, and the air is thick with humidity. We hear frogs. “You dumb fuck,” the gangster says softly. Probably Bill tried to cheat him or something but wasn’t smart enough to pull it off. Probably Bill still lives in his parents’ basement. “You pathetic, dumb fuck.”
Unless, of course, it’s midnight in the Alligator Suite at the Everglades Motel on Route 67. Susie’s boyfriend has announced that he’s going back to his wife. He looks particularly stupid in the lamplight, and also it’s just dawned on her that since she’s the one with the job she’s going to be stuck with the motel bill. “You dumb fuck,” she says, exasperated. “You pathetic, dumb fuck.”
Or it’s midnight in the Everglades, and Tanya and Bob are lost. It’s 1930, so neither of them has a cell phone. They’re in a rowboat. Bob dropped the sandwiches overboard six hours ago, and Tanya has low blood sugar so she’s a little less forgiving than normal when Bob accidentally drops their only oar into the dark waters too. They listen to the alligators crunching the oar into toothpicks. “You dumb fuck,” Tanya murmurs under her breath. She doesn’t usually use this kind of language, but she’s really getting kind of lightheaded by this point. “You pathetic, dumb fuck.”
Which is the story? All of these, or none of them.
The imprecision of the form is dazzling, but that’s partly the point. In his introduction, Swartwood writes about his theory that “the very best storytelling [is] the kind where the writer and reader meet halfway, the writer only painting fifty percent of the picture and forcing the reader to fill in the rest.” But very short stories, he notes, “do not meet the writer halfway. In fact, they rarely meet the reader a tenth of the way. A reader would be lucky if he or she were to get one percent of the story. And that’s why I called it Hint Fiction—because the reader is only given a hint of a much larger, more complex story.”
I found this a bit puzzling, because that equation suggests that the stories in Swartwood’s collection aren’t what he considers to be the very best storytelling, but let’s move on directly to one of the blurbs: “Some of these stories suggest entire novels in just a few words,” writes Robert Shapard, editor of Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction. “So, in this small book, you have a whole library. It’s reading at the speed of light.”
I read that blurb over a few times. I wrote and then deleted several passionate and probably uncalled for paragraphs. In the end I decided it would probably be best to just ignore the obvious problems with comparing an anthology of 25-word stories to an entire library, or comparing a 25-word story to a novel—you know, those things that weigh in at several hundred pages and take months if not years of blood, sweat, tears, and day jobs to write—and focus on the matter at hand.
Whether or not you enjoy Hint Fiction will depend mostly, I think, on your willingness for doing the heavy lifting when presented with a cryptic twenty-five words or less plus a title, and on your fondness for piecing together clues. The writer Stewart Nan called these stories “fun and addictive, like puzzles or haiku or candy.”
There are jewels in the collection, a handful of stories that are utterly perfect in their brevity. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Widow’s First Year is devastating; Jason Rice’s Philip is a wonderfully sharp little piece of work; Donora Hillard’s Departure is mysterious and lovely and somehow evocative of the dreamlike work of Shaun Tan. A great many of the stories in this book are interesting. Some of them are good, and a few are remarkable. But far too many of the stories in this book are not. Too many are merely creepy in a cheap way, because creepy is easily conveyed in twenty-five words or less, and in the final analysis I found Hint Fiction to be a strangely uneven collection. The highs are very high, and the lows are depressingly flat.
I’ve always admired the likely-not-written-by-Hemingway story about the baby shoes, its strange sad power, the way it comes out of nowhere like a blast of cold air. “There’s a reason,” Swartwood writes, “why Hemingway’s story has survived so long and become so popular. It seems very, very, very short stories speak to something deep inside readers.”
I respectfully disagree. I think it’s more that very, very, very good stories speak to something deep inside readers. We’re constantly told that our attention spans are ever-shortening, that we’re increasingly incapable of appreciating length. But as my Millions colleague Garth Risk Hallberg recently pointed out, big novels are as popular as they’ve ever been; Roberto Bolano’s 900-page-plus 2666, for instance, has been somewhat of a phenomenon. What matters in fiction is quality, not length.
Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.
If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.
Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.
In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.
Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.
To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”
For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.
At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!
One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
The late American philosopher Robert Nozick begins his tome, Philosophical Explanations, with this paragraph:
I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book even to bring reading to a stop. I have not found that book, or attempted it. Still, I wrote and thought in awareness of it, in the hope this book would bask in its light. That hope would be arrogant if it weren’t self-fulfilling–to face towards the light, even from a great distance, is to be warmed
I first read that opening paragraph in 1981 when Philosophical Explanations was published. Thirty years later and I have still not completed Nozick’s 650 page “essay.” Despite his protestations, Nozick did perhaps accomplish that self-fulfilling hope of which he speaks. Perhaps he did write the unreadable book, though I seriously doubt it. This reader is not throwing in the towel just yet. The book is still on my side table and every so often the bookmark gets lifted out of the cramped dusty seam on the left side of a page and removed to the cramped dusty seam on the right side of the page. I call that progress.
I was thinking about this today as I was flying home from my daughter’s graduation. I do my best thinking on airplanes. It is ironic–and probably of consequence–that I now avoid air travel as best I’m able. I am obviously missing a great deal of good thinking as a result. When I do fly, I keep my Moleskine handy because I’m smart enough to know that I’m only smart enough on a plane–and I don’t want to miss anything. (The great Bruce Chatwin was a Moleskine user. When I became aware of this fact fifteen years ago I was in London and searched high and low for a shop(pe) that carried it, figuring that if it was good enough for Chatwin, it would certainly be good enough for me. But alas, the Moleskine was no more–defunct, kaput. What a success story, up from the ashes, phoenix-like, the Moleskine is now the Kleenex of journals.) As I was saying, I was thinking of Nozick and this passage today. Specifically, I was contemplating this after investing a year, June to June, reading and reviewing books for a literary blog. The year began with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and ended with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, maybe the two best book-ended modern examples of what Nozick sought, the unreadable book. But Nozick was super smart and I’m sure if I made my way through these books, he would have done so with just a modicum of the energies I mustered. No, they are not unreadable books.
I read Bolaño and Wallace, along with 27 other books during these twelve months. And I wrote a review of each one. A person can learn something exercising such discipline. I determined today, five-hundred fifty miles an hour, 30,000 feet up, I needed to explore what I’d learned. So, walk with me, if you so desire, while I try to figure that out.
First, the reading list June, 2009 to June, 2010:
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Snakeskin Road by James Braziel
Self’s Murder by Bernhard Schlink
Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
An Underachiever’s Diary by Benjamin Anastas
Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
This is Water by David Foster Wallace
The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld
Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
Johnny Future by Steve Abee
The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell
Zen and Now by Mark Richardson
The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart
The Infinities by John Banville
The Last Station by Jay Parini
The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
There is quite a mix here, from the aforementioned Bolaño to Wallace and everything in between. There are serious books on the list. Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer, for example. And Padgett Powell, John Banville and Peter Matthiessen rank high on the serious meter of contemporary fiction. Pynchon, Tyler, Doctorow and Irving are literary names of distinction and note. Fresher names like Chabon and Hart, Doerr and Kennedy were unknown to me and I was powerfully impressed by what they can do, putting pen to paper, as it used to be called. Buckley is a hoot and Parini an education. What I’m trying to get at here, is the general across-the-board nature of these readings. No specialist here, I read with the modest distinction of the simply curious. There is a little something for everyone on this list and that affords me the latitude to speak generally about the experience.
I am a reader first. If I were an addict, I would get high and while high, presumably, worry about where I was to get my next fix. Reading is not all that different, I think. As a reader, I am always looking over the binding thinking about the next read, in some instances, longing for it. Some books, like some highs, are better than others. But even with not-so-good books–and there where two this past year I did not see to completion–I will come back to the drug, seeking the next high. I will always be a reader. Of this I am certain.
A few years ago I did a project on the homeless in Baltimore. I spent a year talking to, interviewing and photographing men living on the streets of the nation’s ninth largest city. Ultimately, I called the project, One Hundred Gentlemen of Baltimore. Of the 100 men I worked with, there was one in particular, Lonnie, who stood out. Lonnie lived in the bushes behind the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This was not a random location, for Lonnie was a reader. “Reading is my drug of choice,” he told me. “It changes your mind and it’s legal.” That’s why he chose to camp behind the B&N. They tossed books into the dumpster and he would dumpster dive at night and come up with armfuls of new reads. “The life-style [of homelessness] is addictive,” he said. “I have no responsibilities, no bills, no commitments. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It gives me the time to do what I want. My thing is books.” This is an extreme case of being a reader, of giving the discipline–for being a serious reader is, indeed, a discipline–one’s entire heart and soul. It is said that Erasmus bought books first then, with whatever money was left, would buy food. Erasmus would understand Lonnie, I am sure.
I cannot claim such heroics. Early in my marriage, before we had money that could in any fashion be considered discretionary, I bought books and snuck them into the house. I didn’t hide booze or drugs, I hid books. I should not have spent the little money we had that way. But it simply could not be avoided. The books listed above were all given to me by the publishers. I gave up not a penny, which sort of gets me back to balance from the early days. One knows he has arrived when he gets his books for free.
This year, the year I’m currently in, I’m reading selections of my own choosing. Some are old books, some I’m reading for the second time. There is a lot of biography on the list. After a year of reading mostly fiction I have a hankering for being grounded in time and space. It will be a study of a different sort, equally rewarding, I hope. Last year, I chose a few of the books I reviewed, but many were suggestions by my editor, not assignments in the strict sense, just books suggested because of my literary interests. In the main, they were all reading adventures, set upon without map or compass. That is to say, I read without much knowledge of book or, in some cases, author. It’s sort of like a blind tasting of reading, an idea I find compelling.
The reading experience is different when a review is due. One pays attention, takes notes, attempts to understand the chronology, the narrative, taking nothing for granted; glossing over is a no-no, as is basic laziness. The reviewer can’t be given completely to the story, but must maintain an objective perspective. It is different from the untethered reading experience. But these are practices which, I believe, reward all types of reading and are good to exercise in general. I got in the habit a few years ago of always having a pencil in my hand while I read. It was a prop mainly, just a device to remind me to pay attention–sort of like having a camera in your hands when out on the town. There were a couple books, however, where I said, Screw That and gave myself the experience. 2666 was a book which fell into this category. Some things in life you must just simply give in to. I don’t regret my weakness.
When someone finds out you review books, they will ask for recommendations, so the thoughtful reader-reviewer must be thinking about appeal and accessibility should this happen. For instance, a friend recently read David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. She loved it. I loved it. It is a pure gem, but is deceptive, leading the first-time Wallace reader to believe he writes everything like This is Water, which is concise and pithy. She asked me if she should next read Infinite Jest. I hedged. I didn’t know her well enough to know if she was the reader for IJ. Wallace once said that the reader wants to be reminded of how smart he or she is. I can understand that. He didn’t, however, worry should the reader not feel smart, or worse, feel stupid. We all know that feeling, no? I loaned her my copy and told her to give it a once over to see if it appealed to her. She was going on a trip and decided that carrying a three pound book didn’t make much sense. Things work out in odd ways sometimes.
Nabokov, as close a reader as “close reading” ever produced, commented somewhere that a book is well written if it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That, I think, is as good a measure of the literary experience as I can think of. I read some books last year where I would pause and quietly declare, yes! The gooseflesh crawled. The hairs stood at attention. I’m not a golfer, but I think it–the reader’s yes! sensation–is a sensation somewhat akin to the clear-knock sound of a well hit ball. It’s what keeps you coming back again and again. Susan Sontag said something that strikes close to home for me. She said that literature “enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” One might deduce from this that literature, or the broader artistic experience, is a manner of completing ourselves. Not to sound too high-minded, but I seek the experience where art and my life combine and the distinction between the two erodes. That is why I read. I hope for the experience of which Sontag spoke: the creation of inwardness. Perhaps to some degree I fear myself lacking and wish for more. Again, we all must sometimes carry that weight. Might that be the impetus for all human striving and art?–but that is a different conversation.
In my reading, I was alert for Nabokovian hair-raising art. I found it more times than I would have hoped, which encourages me. Consider this sentence, for example, from John Banville’s The Infinities: “Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector.” I find that to be a surprisingly lovely metaphor. Or, this pithy gem from Anne Tyler: “She collected and polished resentments as if it were some sort of hobby.” Wonderful. And then there was the time while reading 2666 that I realized I was three pages into one single sentence, a Nile-like flowing stream of words, words like water pouring over polished granite. It was beautiful and I was in awe.
It is not just about the prose, though that is something important and inescapable. I can better stomach a poorly constructed story, the brick and mortar of which, the prose, is well mixed than other way around. The fact is, if the author knows how to mix mortar, she is likely good at construction too. Going back to golf, if you can smash it down the fairway, you’d better have a good short game once you get on the green. It’s been my experience that if a writer can put together words in an appealing fashion, she can also string together a story of those appealing words. It rarely works the other way around.
Hemingway said that you knew a book was good if you were sad that it came to an end. I wager, given the opportunity, you can say the same thing about life. To me that is the point. Reading is an extension, a way of putting out feelers like a spider plant seeking new soil. It is the manner in which we, to Sontag’s point, create inwardness. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen enough in this reader’s year. Too often I grew tired and wanted it over. By Hemingway’s measure, when this occurred, these books weren’t good. But I don’t think it was the book’s fault necessarily. It was more likely an impatient reader champing at the bit. That is a problem I have. I am learning to savor as best I can. Reading Infinite Jest was a good exercise at savoring. I read only ten pages a day. Ten pages a day for a book 1038 pages long. Do the math.
I have moved to Maine from out of state and my library is following me slowly, volume by volume. I didn’t have to move all at once so have taken pains and culled through my library. My plan has been to bring along with me only those books I wish to keep. My library consists largely of books read. But there is a surprising number of books purchased and shelved for a future read. This process of moving and reviewing my library has afforded me this knowledge: There is nothing so profound as an unread library. I don’t think many people understand that. They don’t recognize the potential for inward creation inherent in the unread library. It is, as I said, profound, and speaks to the suggestion that we all think better of ourselves than we’ve yet to realize. A writer cannot help but read a good book and be envious. A reader cannot help but read a good book. Period. Read on.
When I was back in the States for Christmas last year, what surprised me more than Obama-mania, or the eerie presence of snow, was the widespread fame of Roberto Bolaño. He went from obscure to star in little over a year, following the English translation of The Savage Detectives. Every reader seemed to have his own version of the story: the desperate bohemian, the heroin addict love poet, the Chilean-Mexican-Spaniard. For the next week I saw the book’s tabloidish cover on nearly every train I got on. Such are literary trends I guess.
There has been so much written about him by now, it’s hard not to disagree with somebody about who Roberto Bolaño was, never mind who he is. Without getting into any of the biographical debates, he was poet for most of his life, until he began writing novels in the 80s. Like most poets he was poor. As he tells it in his forward to Monsieur Pain, he began writing his first novels to win the literary contests that nearly every rinky-dink town in the Iberian peninsula awards annually. As absurd as that may have sounded, it paid off. Nearly every novel and novella won him something. So he repeated the formula and kept on winning. This went on for some time, maybe ten years, until his best friend died and he began writing The Savage Detectives, the book that would win him the grand mother of literary prizes in Spanish, the Premio Romullo Gallegos. His work was certainly popular by then, especially in Latin America, but nothing like the craze one finds in the States. I wouldn´t be surprised if someone gave Obama a copy of 2666 as a welcoming gift in the White House. Ten years ago when I bought Bolaño’s books in Spain, where seemingly everyone reads (or at least acts like they do), my friends would ask me why I was buying him. Why not Javier Marias? Why not Almudena Grandes? Because Bolaño’s books are dark, funny, allusive, erratic, and most importantly, sincere — at least, that’s what attracted to me about him. And I had never read anything like him. I just didn’t know what to make of him, so I read his novellas and his books of short stories, until I worked up enough courage to take on The Savage Detectives.
After reading just the first half of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima’s adventures I knew: (1) I wanted to be them, (2) I was only getting a quarter of the literary references, (3) I would likely have to reread it. As Belano and Lima poetically conquer Mexico City, and later the world – talking lit, getting drunk, falling in love, writing manifestos, being poor, being really poor – they emulate an entire generation’s experience. Like On the Road many key literary figures appear, in some cases cryptically, in others blatantly, sometimes with pseudonyms, other times with their real names. They are not solely from Mexico, or Spain, or Chile, where Bolaño had lived; they are all from that larger republic of letters, Spanish. (When asked about his nationality he told the Mexican newspaper La Reforma that he was from “Strangerland, whose natives are foreigners.”) I thought if I had spotted one or two writers halfway hidden behind a pseudonym, there were probably more. A name is just a name, but I don’t know if the book wouldn’t be as “extremely fun” as it could be – and as the Argentine writer Cesar Aira described it – without wondering about the real person behind each character. As revealed in an article published last year in the Spanish newspaper Vanguardia, Bolaño was a gamer, and as such clearly wants us to play. The mystery is laid out in the very first line of the novel, “I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.“ But who are the visceral realists?
They begin as teenagers in Mexico in the 1960s, an unprecedented period of turbulence, optimism, violence, vivacity for all of Latin America. In the rash optimism of their youth, they rebel against everything and everyone. They joke about murdering future Noble Laureate Octavio Paz, member of the New Left. They stumble into the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968 (retold in Bolaño´s novella Amulet; something like the Tianamen Square of Latin America); the very same year, socialist Salvador Allende is elected president. In 1970 Argentine former dictator Aramburu is kidnapped and killed by the leftist guerrillas the Montoneros. Three years later, Pinchoet strikes Chile with a military coup. Through Lima and Belano, they peripherally witness the fall of Franco. Finally, they follow the last Latin American leftist movement of the twentieth century to Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas have just claimed victory. Then the Sandanistas sink and the last hope for the Left is gone. From there some go to the Feria de Libros in Madrid, the world of boring book signings and banal book discussions. By the end of the twentieth century, the balls-to-the-wall bravado of avant-garde literature has gone the way of Barnes and Noble. By then our hero Ulises Lima, along with his nonconforming optimism, has also vanished; Belano, like an inverse Che in the Congo with a touch of Rimbaud, wanders through warring Monrovia hoping to die.
In Latin America, literature has always been a part of politics. Colombus’s records are the new world’s first book in Spanish, followed by other conquistadors and later their mendicant colleagues. Before Ronald Regan, Simon Bolivar was considered the great communicator. In fact, name any Latin American leader in the 19th century and chances are they have written a book of grammar or poetry. Likewise, many famous writers become politicians (i.e, Vargas Llosa’s presidential campaign in Peru; Ernesto Cardenal’s position in the Sandanistas). If not, being exiled because of your writing remains a possibility, as it was during the military dictatorships (the –ettis, Uruguayans Benedetti and Onetti suffice as examples). Thus, to write a book about Latin American writers – from the obscure to the famous – is to write a political work. The Savage Detectives is as much a story of a two artists as young men, as it is the trajectory of the Left in the second half of the twentieth century, which Bolaño eulogized in a brilliant speech when he won the Romulo Gallegos.
Traditionally Spanish publishers (most publishers that publish in Spanish are owned by Spaniards) stuff their books with introductions and notes. You have to skip the fifty pages of critical essays to read the twelve pages of poems. Although I don’t think this novel needs all of that, an answer key, a cheat sheet, what in Argentina they call a machete, might do.
Let’s start with the easy ones. Bolaño is Belano, although sometimes, Juan Garcia Madero. Ulises Lima is Bolaño’s real life friend the late Mario Santiago Papsquiaro. In Nicaragua, we encounter Pancracio Montesol, an older Guatemalan writer (referred to as don Pancracio), who, despite being often compared to Borges, is called the “legitimate son of Alfonso Reyes.” This is none other than Augosto Monterroso, modern fabulist, writer of the shortest short story in the Spanish language, who, in his playful, concise modern allegories, does resemble Borges, as the narrator, Hugo Montero alleges. Then there’s Reinaldo Arenas. If you’ve seen the movie starring Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls, you know the Cuban writer described in The Savage Detectives as “not afraid of police, or poverty, or of not being published.” Later Felipe Muller describes the Cuban as struggling to write his last book before he dies of AIDS, just as Arenas did. In Madrid, Pedro Ordoñez’s ultra-conservative complaints and aspirations to enter the Real Academia have brought many to conclude he is the nonagenarian Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer, who not incidentally was Bolaño’s friend. I think it’s worth mentioning that Bolaño was very sociable during his short period of fame; he seems to have met nearly everyone with a novel published in Spanish; like Belano, everyone has a Bolaño story.
In the end, the visceral realists are or were real people, a group called of poets the infra-realists, hardly known until The Savage Detectives rocked the world. Since then, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s poems have been anthologized and released by a major publisher last year. Thanks to Bolaño’s immortalization of his friend as Ulises Lima, his name lives on.
The last mystery, and the hardest to solve, is that of the mother of visceral realism Cesárea Tinajero. Some characters in the book think that Lima and Belano made her up, but at the end of the novel Octavio Paz remembers something Tinarejo published in 1924.
Literary detectives think Tinarejo is Salvador Novo, Mexican poet, playwright, a sort Modernist Mexican version of Oscar Wilde. Novo was respected greatly by the visceral realists as much as the real life infra-realists, and he began publishing just when Paz says. Also, like Tinarejo, Novo led a grandiose life of letters, much grander than his books bécame after his death. There’s only one catch: Cesárea is a woman. There are hardly any famous female poets from that generation in Mexico, at least none that I can find. So Bolaño wins. The Case of Tinarejo has not been solved.
I’m left like Amadeo Salvatierra raising my glass to “all those strange or unfamiliar names, remembered or forgotten even by their own grandchildren.” Is that it? Are they now just names? After rereading the novel a few times, I’m left wondering if who’s who is the really the stuff of literary history. If so, Ulises Lima’s poetic quest is an empty one, as is the reader’s. Or is this a parody of the secret language of literati? Or is it about the suffering, the innocence, the loss and loneliness that accompany artistic ventures? I can’t answer that; however, in an epoch that allegedly traded in sincerity for visibility, The Savage Detectives seems particularly apt at presenting us with difficult questions. I hope this machete can make those questions as real as it was to those who were living them.
Here in no particular order is a machete to cut The Savage Detectives to size:
Mario Santiago Papsquiaro, born José Alfredo Zendejas
Unnamed Cuban poet
Bonus Link (Spanish): The lesser known infra-realists are identified by José Vicente Anaya and Heriberto Yépez in their article “A Guide to The Savage Detectives” along with other suspects.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.
Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.
I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories. From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]
I had never been knocked out by a book – literally rendered unconscious – until a 4.2 earthquake dislodged my copy of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño from the top of my bookshelf. I was stunned by the fearlessness of the author, the sheer total awesomeness of the writing and by the weight of the volume. It’s a big book. Like seven or eight pounds.
Sitting in the waiting room of the neurologist’s office – the CAT scans were inconclusive as to why I had suffered from double-vision since the Bolaño book clobbered me – I read China Mieville’s The City and The City. That isn’t a typo, that’s the title of a novel that shocked me with its originality.
I was told to stay in bed until my vision cleared. My editor said he felt sorry for me, and yet somehow I got the impression that he believed I deserved to get whacked upside the head for reading an author published by another house, so he sent me Blood Safari by South African writer Deon Meyer with the cryptic note: “I think you’ll enjoy this.” I also enjoyed tomato soup, watermelon juice, Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo, You Must Be This Happy to Enter by Elizabeth Crane, a grilled cheese sandwich, and Other Resort Cities by Tod Goldberg.
“Here I am writing about him again, like a vicious old man who promises that this will be the last drink of his life.” – Horacio Castellanos Moya
If you’ve been tooling around the cross-referential world of Anglo-American literary blogs this fall, chances are you’ve come across an essay from the Argentine paper La Naçion called “Bolaño Inc.” Back in September, Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading linked to the original Spanish. When Guernica published an English translation this month, we mentioned it here. The Guardian followed suit (running what amounted to a 500-word paraphrase). Soon enough, Edmond Caldwell had conscripted it into his ongoing insurgency against the critic James Wood. Meanwhile, the literary blog of Wood’s employer, The New Yorker, had posted an excerpt under the title: “Bolaño Backlash?”
The basic premise of “Bolaño Inc.” – that Roberto Bolaño, the late Chilean author of the novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, has become a kind of mythological figure hovering over the North American literary landscape – was as noteworthy as it was unobjectionable. One had only to read reports of overflow crowds of galley-toting twentysomethings at the 2666 release party in New York’s East Village to see that the Bolaño phenomenon had taken on extraliterary dimensions. Indeed, Esposito had already pretty thoroughly plumbed the implications of “the Bolaño Myth” in a nuanced essay called “The Dream of Our Youth.” But when that essay appeared a year ago in the online journal Hermano Cerdo, it failed to “go viral.”
So why the attention to “Bolaño Inc.?” For one thing, there was the presumable authority of its author, Horacio Castellanos Moya. As a friend of Bolaño’s and as a fellow Latin American novelist (one we have covered admiringly), Castellanos Moya has first-hand knowledge of the man and his milieu. For another, there was the matter of temperament. A quick glance at titles – the wistful “The Dream of Our Youth,” the acerbic “Bolaño Inc.” – was sufficient to measure the distance between the two essays. In the latter, as in his excellent novel Senselessness, Castellanos Moya adopted a lively, pugnacious persona, and, from the title onward, “Bolaño Inc.” was framed as an exercise in brass-tacks analysis. “Roberto Bolaño is being sold in the U.S. as the next Gabriel García Marquez,” ran the text beneath the byline,
a darker, wilder, decidedly un-magical paragon of Latin American literature. But his former friend and fellow novelist, Horacio Castellanos Moya, isn’t buying it.
Beneath Castellanos Moya’s signature bellicosity, however, beats the heart of a disappointed romantic (a quality he shares with Bolaño), and so, notwithstanding its contrarian ambition, “Bolaño Inc.” paints the marketing of Bolaño in a pallette of reassuring black-and-white, and trots out a couple of familiar villains: on the one hand, “the U.S. cultural establishment;” on the other, the prejudiced, “paternalistic,” and gullible American readers who are its pawns.
As Esposito and Castellanos Moya argue, the Bolaño Myth in its most vulgar form represents a reduction of, and a distraction from, the Bolaño oeuvre; in theory, an attempt to reckon with it should lead to a richer understanding of the novels. In practice, however, Castellanos Moya’s hobbyhorses lead him badly astray. Following the scholar Sarah Pollack, (whose article in a recent issue of the journal Comparative Literature is the point of departure for “Bolaño Inc.”), he takes the presence of a Bolaño Myth as evidence for a number of conclusions it will not support: about its origin; about the power of publishers; and about the way North Americans view their neighbors to the South.
These points might be so local as to not be worth arguing – certainly not at length – were it not for a couple of their consequences. The first is that Castellanos Moya and Pollack badly mischaracterize what I believe is the appeal of The Savage Detectives for the U.S. reader – and in so doing, inadvertently miss the nature of Bolaño’s achievement. The second is that the narrative of “Bolaño Inc.” seems as tailor-made to manufacture media consent as the Bolaño Myth it diagnoses. (“Bolaño was sooo 2007,” drawls the hipster who haunts my nightmares.) Like Castellanos Moya, I had sworn I wasn’t going to write about Bolaño again, at least not so soon. But for what it can tell us about the half-life of the work of art in the cultural marketplace, and about Bolaño’s peculiar relationship to that marketplace, I think it’s worth responding to “Bolaño Inc.” in detail.
The salients of the Bolaño Myth will be familiar to anyone who’s read translator Natasha Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. Or Siddhartha Deb’s long reviews in Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. Or Benjamin Kunkel’s in The London Review of Books, or Francisco Goldman’s in The New York Review of Books, or Daniel Zalewski’s in The New Yorker (or mine here at The Millions), or any number of New York Times pieces. Castellanos Moya offers this helpful précis:
his tumultuous youth: his decision to drop out of high school and become a poet; his terrestrial odyssey from Mexico to Chile, where he was jailed during the coup d’etat; the formation of the failed infrarealist movement with the poet Mario Santiago; his itinerant existence in Europe; his eventual jobs as a camp watchman and dishwasher; a presumed drug addiction; and his premature death.
Alongside the biographical Bolaño Myth, according to Castellanos Moya and Pollack, runs a literary one – that Bolaño has replaced García Márquez as the representative of “Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader.”
Relative to the heavy emphasis on the biography, mentions of García Márquez are less common in North American responses to The Savage Detectives. But one can feel, broadly, the way that familiarity with Bolaño now signifies, for the U.S. reader, a cosmopolitan intimacy with Latin American literature, as, for a quarter century, familiarity with García Márquez did. And this must be irritating for a Latin American exile like Castellanos Moya, as if every German one spoke to in Berlin were to say, “Ah, yes…the English language…well, you know, I’ve recently been reading E. Annie Proulx.” (Perhaps Proulx isn’t even the right analogue. How large does Bolaño loom in the Spanish-speaking world, anyway, assuming such a world (singular) exists? I’m told Chileans prefer Alberto Fuguet, and my friend in Barcelona had never heard of him until he became famous over here.)
One can imagine, also, the frustration a Bolaño intimate might have felt upon reading, in large-circulation publications, that the author nursed a heroin addiction…when, to judge by the available evidence, he didn’t. As we’ve written here, the meme of Bolaño-as-junkie seems to have originated in the Wimmer essay, on the basis of a misreading of a short story. That this salacious detail made its way so quickly into so many other publications speaks to its attraction for the U.S. reader: it distills the subversive undercurrents of the Bolaño Myth into a single detail, and so joins it to a variety of preexisting narratives (about art and madness; about burning out vs. fading away). Several publications went so far as to draw a connection between drug use and the author’s death, at age 50, from liver disease. This amounted, as Bolaño’s widow wrote to The New York Times, to a kind of slander.
And so “Bolaño Inc.” offers us two important corrections to the historical record. First, Castellanos Moya insists, Bolaño, by his forties, was a dedicated and “sober family man.” It is likely that this stability, rather than the self-destructiveness we find so glamorous in our artists, facilitated the writing of Bolaño’s major works. Secondly, Castellanos Moya reminds us of the difficulty of slotting this particular writer into any storyline or school. “What is certain,” writes Castellanos Moya, “is that Bolaño was always a non-conformist; he was never a subversive or a revolutionary wrapped up in political movements, nor was he even a writer maudit.” This is as much as to say, Bolaño was a writer – solitary, iconoclastic, and, in his daily habits, a little boring.
“Bolaño Inc.” starts to fall apart, however, when Castellanos Moya dates the origins of the Bolaño Myth to the publication of The Savage Detectives. In 2005, editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux acquired the hotly contested rights to The Savage Detectives, reportedly for somewhere in the mid six figures – on the high end for a work of translation by an author largely “unknown” in the U.S. The posthumous appeal of Bolaño’s personal story no doubt helped the sale along.
FSG’s subsequent marketing campaign for the novel would emphasize specific elements of the author’s biography. “The profiles,” a former editor at another publishing house observed, “essentially wrote themselves.” Among the campaign’s elements were the online publication of what would become Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition. The hardcover jacket photo was a portrait of a scraggly Bolaño circa 1975. Castellanos Moya takes this as proof positive of a top-down crafting of the Bolaño myth (though Lorin Stein, a senior editor at FSG, told me, “I stuck that picture . . . on the book because it was my favorite and because it was in the period of the novel”).
As it would with 2666, FSG printed up unusually attractive galley editions, and carpet-bombed reviewers, writers, and even editors at other houses with a copy, “basically signaling to the media that this was their ‘important’ book of the year,” my editor friend suggested. When the book achieved sales figures unprecedented for a work of postmodern literature in translation “the standard discourse in publishing . . . was was that the publisher had ‘made’ that book.” Or, as Castellanos Moya puts it,
in the middle of negotiations for The Savage Detectives appeared, like a bolt from the blue, the powerful hand of the landlords of fortune, who decided that this excellent novel was the work chosen to be the next big thing.
But here Castellanos Moya begs the question: why did these particular negotiations entice FSG in the first place? He treats the fact that the book was “excellent” almost parenthetically. (And Pollack’s article is almost comical in its rush to bypass what she calls Bolaño’s “creative genius” – a quality that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of argumentation on which C.V.s are built these days.) Then again, it might be fair to say that excellence is an afterthought in the marketplace, as well.
Likely more attractive for FSG was the fact that, by 2006, much of the groundwork for the Bolaño Myth had already been laid. Over several years, New Directions, an independent American press, had already published – “carefully and tenaciously,” Castellanos Moya tells us – several of Bolaño’s shorter works. New Directions was clearly not oblivious to the fascination exerted by the author himself (to ignore it would have amounted to publishing malpractice). The jacket bio for By Night In Chile, published in 2003, ran to an unusually detailed 150 words: arrest, imprisonment, death… By the following year, when Distant Star hit bookshelves, the head-shot of a rather gaunt-looking Bolaño had been swapped out for a fantastically moody portrait of the black-clad author in repose, inhaling a cigarette. These translations, by Chris Andrews, won “Best Books of the Year” honors from the major papers on both coasts, and led to excerpts in The New Yorker.
Nor can the initial development of the Bolaño Myth be laid at the feet of New Directions. Lest we forget, the sensation of The Savage Detectives began in 1999, when the novel won the Rómulo Gallegos prize, the preeminent prize for Spanish language fiction. Bolaño’s work in Spanish received glowing reviews from the TLS, almost all of which included a compressed biography in the opening paragraph.
In fact, the ultimate point of origin for the Bolaño myth – however distorted it would ultimately become – was Bolaño himself. Castellanos Moya avers that his friend “would have found it amusing to know they would call him the James Dean, the Jim Morrison, or the Jack Kerouac of Latin American literature,” and Bolaño would surely have recoiled from such a caricature. But his fondness for reimagining his life at epic scale is as distinctive an element in his authorial sensibility as it is in Philip Roth’s. It is most pronounced in The Savage Detectives, where he rewrites his own youth with a palpable, and powerful, yearning. So complete is the identification between Bolaño and his fictional alter-ego, Arturo Belano, that, when writing of a rumored movie version of The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya confuses the former with the latter.
At any rate, Castellanos Moya has the causal arrow backward. By the time FSG scooped up The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s “reputation and legend” were already “in meteoric ascent” (as a 2005 New York Times piece put it) both in the U.S. and abroad. The blurbs for the hardcover edition for The Savage Detectives were drawn equally from reviews of the New Directions editions and from publications like Le Monde des Livres, Neuen Zurcher Zeitung, and Le Magazine Littéraire – catnip not for neo-Beats or Doors fanatics but for exactly the kinds of people who usually buy literature in translation. And it was after all a Spaniard, Enrique Vila-Matas, who detected in The Savage Detectives a sign
that the parade of Amazonian roosters was coming to an end: it marked the beginning of the end of the high priests of the Boom and all their local color.
A cynical reading of “Bolaño Inc.” might see it less as a cri de coeur against “the U.S. cultural establishment” than as an outgrowth of sibling rivalry within it. One imagines that the fine people at New Directions have complicated feelings about a larger publisher capitalizing on the groundwork it laid, and receiving the lion’s share of the credit for “making” The Savage Detectives. (Just as Latin American writers might feel slighted by the U.S. intelligentsia’s enthusiastic adoption of one of their own.) At the very least, it’s worth at noting that New Directions, a resourceful and estimable press, in Castellanos Moya’s account and in fact, is also his publisher.
On second thought, it is a little anachronistic to imagine that either publisher figures much in the larger “U.S. cultural establishment.” To be sure, it would be naïve to discount the role publishers and the broader critical ecology play in “breaking” authors to the public. There are even books, like The Lost Symbol or Going Rogue, whose bestseller status is, like box-office receipts of blockbusters, pretty much assured by the time the public sees them. But The Savage Detectives was not one of these. The amount paid for the book “was not exorbitant enough to warrant an all-out Dan Brown-like push,” one editor told me. “Books with that price tag bomb all the time.” And Lorin Stein noted that The Savage Detectives
surpassed our expectations by a long shot. How many 600-page experimental translated books make it to the bestseller list? You can’t work that sort of thing into a business plan.
I’m thinking here of Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories – an achievement comparable to The Savage Detectives, and likewise published by FSG, but not one that has become totemic for U.S. readers. Castellanos Moya might attribute Nádas’ modest U.S. sales to the absence of a compelling “myth.” But we would already have come a fair piece from the godlike “landlords of the market,” descending from their home in the sky to anoint “next big things.” And the sluggish sales this year of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones – another monumental translation with a six-figure advance and a compelling narrative attached – further suggest that the landlords’ power over the tenants is erratic, or at least weakening.
Indeed, it is “Bolaño Inc.”‘s treatment of these tenants – i.e. readers – that is the most galling element of its argument. The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya insists, offers U.S. readers a vision of Latin America as a kind of global id, ultimately reaffirming North American pieties
like the superiority of the protestant work ethic or the dichotomy according to which North Americans see themselves as workers, mature, responsible, and honest, while they see their neighbors to the South as lazy, adolescent, reckless, and delinquent.
As Pollack puts it,
Behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of Latin American culture and literature that the U.S. cultural establishment is now selling to the public.
Castellanos Moya and Pollack seem to want simultaneously to treat readers as powerless before the whims of publishers and to indict them for their colonialist fantasies. (This is the same “public” that in other quarters gets dunned for its disinterest in literature in translation, and in literature more broadly.) Within the parameters of the argument “Bolaño Inc.” lays out, readers can’t win.
But the truth is that U.S. readers of The Savage Detectives are less likely to use it as a lens on their neighbors to the south than as a kind of mirror. From Huckleberry Finn onward, we have been attracted to stories of recklessness and nonconformity wherever we have found them. When we read The Savage Detectives, we are not comforted at having sidestepped Arturo Belano’s fate. We are Arturo Belano. Likewise, the Bolaño Myth is not a story about Latin American literature. It is a dream of who we’d like to be ourselves. In its lack of regard for the subaltern, this may be no improvement on the charges “Bolaño Inc.” advances. But the attitude of the U.S. metropole towards the global south – in contrast, perhaps, to that of Lou Dobbs – is narcissistic, not paternalistic. Purely in political terms, the distinction is an important one.
Moreover, Pollack’s quietist reading of the novel (at least as Castellanos Moya presents it) condescends to Bolaño himself, and is so radically at variance with the text as to be baffling. The Savage Detectives, she writes, “is a very comfortable choice for U.S. readers, offering both the pleasures of the savage and the superiority of the civilized.” Perhaps she means this as an indictment of the ideological mania of the Norteamericano, who completely misses what’s on the page; such an indictment would no doubt be “a very comfortable choice” for the readers of Comparative Literature. But to write of the novel as exploring “the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth,” as James Wood has, is far from reading it as a celebration of the joys of bourgeois responsibility.
Instead, The Savage Detectives offers a disquieting experience – one connected less to geography than to chronology. Bolaño is surely the most pan-national of Latin American writers, and his Mexico City could, in many respects, be L.A. It’s the historical backdrop – the 1970s – that give the novel its traction with U.S. readers. (In this way, the jacket photo is an inspired choice.)
The mid-’70s, as Bolaño presents them, are a time not just of individual aspirations, but of collective ones. Arturo and Ulises seem genuinely to believe that, confronted with a resistant world, they will remake it in their own image. Their failure, over subsequent years, to do so, is not a comforting commentary on the impossibility of change so much as it is a warning about the death of our ability to imagine progress – to, as Frederic Jameson puts it, “think the present historically.” Compare the openness of the ’70s here to the nightmarish ’90s of 2666. Something has been lost, this novel insists. Something happened back there.
The question of what that something was animates everything in The Savage Detectives, including its wonderfully shattered form, which leaves a gap precisely where the something should be. And this aesthetic dimension is the other disquieting experience of reading book – or really, it amounts to the same thing. In the ruthless unity of his conception Bolaño discovers a way out of the ruthless unity of postmodernity, and the aesthetic cul-de-sac it seemed to have led to. Seemingly through sheer willpower, he became the artist he had imagined himself to be.
This is the nature of the hype cycle: if the Bolaño backlash augured by The New Yorker’s “Book Bench” materializes, it will not be because readers have revolted against the novel (though there are readers whom the book leaves cold) but because they have revolted against a particular narrative being told about it. And Castellanos Moya, with his impeccable credentials and his tendentious but seductive account of the experience The Savage Detectives offers U.S. readers, provides the perfect cover story for those who can’t be bothered to do the reading. That is, “Bolaño Inc.” offers readers the very same enticements that the Bolaño Myth did: the chance to be Ahead of the Curve, to have an opinion that Says Something About You. Both myth and backlash pivot on a notion of authenticity that is at once an escape from commodification and the ultimate commodity. Bolaño had it, the myth insists. His fans don’t, says “Bolaño Inc.” But what if this authenticity itself is a construction? From what solid ground can we render judgment?
For a while now, I’ve been thinking out loud about just this question. One reader has accused me of hostility to the useful idea that taste is as constructed as anything else, and to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” more generally. I can see some of this at work in my reaction to “Bolaño Inc.” But the hermeneutics of suspicion to which Castellanos Moya subscribes should not mistake suspicion for proof of guilt. Indeed, it should properly extend suspicion to itself.
It may be easier to build our arguments about a work of art on assumptions about “the marketplace,” but it seems to me a perverse betrayal of the empirical to ignore the initial kick we get from the art that kicks us – the sighting of a certain yellow across the gallery, before you know it’s a De Kooning. Yes, you’re already in the gallery, you know you’re supposed to be looking at the framed thing on the wall, but damn! That yellow!
When I revisit my original review of The Savage Detectives – a book I bought because I liked the cover and the first page, and because I’d skimmed Deb’s piece in Harper’s – I find a reader aware of the star-making machinery, but innocent of the biographical myth to which he was supposed to be responding. (You can find me shoehorning it in at the end, in a frenzy of Googling.) Instead, not knowing any better, I began by trying to capture exactly why, from one writer’s perspective, the book felt like a punch in the face. This seems, empirically, like a sounder place to begin thinking about the book than any preconception that would deny the lingering intensity of the blow. I have to imagine, therefore, that, whatever their reasons for picking up the book, other readers who loved it were feeling something similar.
Not that any of this is likely to save us from a Bolaño backlash. Castellanos Moya’s imagining of the postmodern marketplace as a site with identifiable landlords – his conceit that superstructure and base can still be disentangled – has led him to overlook its algorithmic logic of its fashions. The anomalous length and intensity of Bolaño’s coronation (echoing, perhaps, the unusual length and intensity of his two larger novels) and the maddening impossibility of pinning down exactly what’s attributable to genius and what’s attributable to marketing have primed us for a comeuppance of equal intensity.
But when the reevaluation of Bolaño begins in earnest – and again, in some ways it might serve him well – one wants to imagine the author would prefer for it to respond to, and serve, what’s actually on the page. Of course the truth is, he probably wouldn’t give a shit either way. About this, the Myth and its debunkers can agree: Roberto Bolaño would probably be too busy writing to care.
[Bonus Link: Jorge Volpi’s brilliant, and somewhat different, take on all this is available in English at Three Percent.]
Of Lists, Generally
Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time – which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile – we are nowadays “obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists.”
The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be “our egalitarian and plural society,” which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether.
Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to – lists that not only collect objects but rank them – would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order):
They are always incomplete – either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person?
They present a false picture of the world, wherein “best” appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does “Third Best Living Drummer” mean, exactly?
They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn’t? Who has the audacity? Who has the right?
Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it’s probably its hospitality to debate that makes the “Best Of” list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred – one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself – but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one’s own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away.
Of One List, More Particularly
We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call “the fascination of the list.” (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we’ve watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn’t resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the “Best of the Decade” cataloguing to institutions we didn’t quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, – as Gass knows – is fun.
We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. “Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like,” an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than “Best of the Millennium,” so we braced ourselves and went for it.
Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)” should be arrived at by voting. This meant – logically, unfairly – that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn’t mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there.
Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation – natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared.
Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial.
To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus.
We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five.
Can Anything Be Learned from a List?
For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we’d have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections, and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist.
Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres – science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free – for better or for worse – with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde.
Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list – a piece of potential evidence to mull over – seemed to increase the volume and the heat.
Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn’t make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we’d thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould’s Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can’t speak for our readers, but I don’t think there’s a single Millions contributor whose personal “To Be Read” list wasn’t shaken up as a result of this series.
Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn’t resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder’s preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive.
Of Lists, Personally
As the “Best of the Millennium” discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. “The panelists can’t possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections” was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I’d heard this line of reasoning, if that’s the right word.
As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.
To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.
I prefer Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I’ve nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of
purposiveness without purpose – either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task.
That last bit – an object “rationally shaped to perform an undefined task” seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I’ve loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our “Best of the Millennium” experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you’ve found ours useful, though for what we wouldn’t presume to say.
It’s not uncommon for a website based in Russia or Italy or Venezuela to link to The Millions. Keeping up with these mentions and trying to figure out how somebody in Milan or Caracas is reacting to an essay or review of ours has made me a frequent user of Google Translate, which lets you drop in a block of text and press “translate.” In ever magical Google fashion, a passable English translation appears.
What’s interesting to me is that over the last few years the translation seems to have become more passable and it’s now easier than ever for me to glean meaning and intent from the product of Google’s machinations.
If one assumes that the improvement in quality of these translations might continue in a linear fashion, then it follows that I might be reading a machine translated book one of these days. It’s a liberating notion. I have no affinity for languages but I have often wished I could dig into to the untranslated oeuvres of favorites like Alvaro Mutis or Ryszard Kapuscinski or read their translated books in their original forms.
But then again, the idea might inspire fear that some essentially human quality of the literature would, literally, be lost in translation. And certainly for translators, who would be replaced by stacks of processors in a climate-controlled warehouse somewhere, such a development would be devastating.
Even if computers never approach the craftsmanship of Natasha Wimmer and Edith Grossman, Google or something like might get good enough at doing the heavy lifting and letting the reader clean up the language here and there.
And indeed that might be fine for some applications even today, but using Google to create a passable translation of the blog posts of a Spanish or German blogger is one thing, using it to translate a work of literature is quite another. A translated novel needs to be perfect and Google’s success in completing undemanding translation tasks was no guarantee that it would be able to manage the nuanced language of a literary master.
An experiment was in order. In the interest of seeing how close we are to this brave new world of machine translation, I decided to give a recent work of fiction, written originally in Spanish, the Google test. I chose Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 because I haven’t read it and because I was able to find the same excerpt in both English and Spanish.
I began with the Spanish:
La primera vez que Jean-Claude Pelletier leyó a Benno von Archimboldi fue en la Navidad de 1980, en París, en donde cursaba estudios universitarios de literatura alemana, a la edad de diecinueve años. El libro en cuestión era D’Arsonval. El joven Pelletier ignoraba entonces que esa novela era parte de una trilogía (compuesta por El jardín, de tema inglés, La máscara de cuero, de tema polaco, así como D’Arsonval era, evidentemente, de tema francés), pero esa ignorancia o ese vacío o esa dejadez bibliográfica, que sólo podía ser achacada a su extrema juventud, no restó un ápice del deslumbramiento y de la admiración que le produjo la novela.
I plugged that passage into Google and it spit out:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier to read Benno von Archimboldi was at Christmas 1980 in Paris, where a university student of German literature at the age of nineteen. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish theme and D’Arsonval was obviously French theme), but that ignorance or the vacuum or the neglect literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, it detracts from glare and admiration that led to the novel.
The result is hardly poetry, but it seemed surprisingly decipherable. There are some issues with sentence structure, and trying to figure out the antecedents of the various pronouns is difficult. So, and this wasn’t an entirely unpleasant exercise, I jumped in and attempted to clean it up myself, knowing that I might be skewing the meaning of the passage badly, but interested in at least applying a certain degree of polish:
The first time Jean-Claude Pelletier read to Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980 in Paris, where he was a nineteen-year-old university student of German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier knew then that this novel was part of a trilogy (consisting of the garden, full English, leather mask, Polish themes and, obviously, French themes as well), but beyond that his ignorance or a vacuum or neglect for literature, which could only be blamed on his extreme youth, detracted from glare and admiration that he would have for the novel.
I decided that Pelletier is the nineteen year old and that Google’s muddled translation was trying to tell me that the young Pelletier is reading to this Archimboldi and though Pelletier had some rote understanding of the book D’Arsonval, he was too immature to appreciate it as he one day would.
Then I looked at Natasha Wimmer’s translation, and I saw what Google and I got right and what we got very wrong:
The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D’Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.
Pelletier is indeed the youth here, but he didn’t read to Archimboldi, he read a book by Archimboldi. Worse, Google and I totally misread Pelletier’s reaction to the book. We find that Pelletier, despite his youth, indeed appreciated D’Arsonval on a gut level, but did not yet appreciate its literary context, essentially the reverse of what the machine translation came up with. And Google and I totally flubbed the idea that the parenthetical list was a list of titles and not descriptors for D’Arsonval.
Natasha Wimmer, your job is safe.
Despite my failed experiment, machine translation might one day be able to figure out how to properly align those pronouns and antecedents and it might make short work of that complicated list of book titles, but would a machine ever, as Wimmer has, be able to convey the urgency in Pelletier’s literary discovery?
If a machine could one day do that, we might no longer think of it as a machine. It would have passed the Turing test (which tells us a machine has demonstrated intelligence when you can no longer distinguish a machine’s actions from those of a human). J.M. Cohen, a prolific translator whose efforts included Don Quixote and Rousseau’s The Confessions, put it another way: “It is impossible… to imagine a literary-translation machine less complex than the human brain itself.”
[Image credit: Jared Tarbell]
One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out.
The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week. Links in our reader list go to Amazon):
by Jonathan Franzen
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by George Saunders
by Cormac McCarthy
by Cormac McCarthy
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
Out Stealing Horses
by Per Petterson
by Jonathan Franzen
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro
by Marilynne Robinson
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Zadie Smith
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami
Twilight of the Superheroes
by Deborah Eisenberg
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
by Norman Rush
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
by Richard Russo
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Alice Munro
The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
by Colm Tóibín
Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link
Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
American Genius, A Comedy
by Lynne Tillman
by Marilynne Robinson
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade. Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth). But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows.
With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson’s much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today?
Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I’ve been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that’s always had a lot of support in the online literary community. Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner.
Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed.
We’ll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.
I read Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 on the beach last winter, and when I think about it now, there are still children running around at the edges of the book, burying each other in the sand. It seems only fair that memory should encroach on Bolaño’s magnum opus, the novel which he left uncorrected when he died in 2003. 2666 encroaches on memory; it encroaches on reality itself.
Centered, loosely, on the murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the novel creates a vast and nearly plausible planet inhabited by academics, sportswriters, petty criminals and their rich bosses, lawyers, victims, and, at the center of it all, two very tall Germans. Wait for them. Everything is how it is and everything is a little wrong: how does a little magazine in Harlem have the budget to hire a full-time boxing correspondent? Why doesn’t that house in the desert have any windows? A greater mystery: how is it that Bolaño is able to make writers seem so interesting? There’s a chilling moment near the end of the book, when Bolaño has one of his characters say, “Every work that isn’t a masterpiece is, in a sense, a part of a vast camouflage. […] Every book that isn’t a masterpiece is cannon fodder, a slogging foot soldier, a piece to be sacrificed, since in multiple ways it mimics the design of the masterpiece.” I don’t know if Bolaño himself believed that, but I’m of the opinion that 2666, for all its David-Lodge-style academic hijinx and its saggy ending, is a masterpiece. Given that there are basically no books like it, 2666 isn’t especially well camouflaged, unless it’s by those children, that sand, the fronds of memory that cover up a book which seemed, for a few days, more real than the world.
If I could read just one book by Author X, which would it be? This may be the hardest question we can ask a fellow reader, insofar as it assumes that we can teleport straight to the heart of aesthetic experience, rather than journeying there over weeks or years. In fact, we often come to the books we love – and learn to love them – by way of other books: Dubliners primes us for Portrait, which shapes our expectations for Ulysses, which earns our indulgence for Finnegans Wake.
In this way, the justified hype surrounding the English publication last year of late Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (If you read only one book this year…) may have done some readers a disservice. Like Joyce’s, Bolaño’s is a sensibility that demands immersion, and for the kind of person who prefers to adjust to the swimming pool by inches rather than jumping straight into the deep end, the massive 2666 may have felt a lot like drowning.
Further complicating the approach to Bolaño is the suggestion of a single roman-fleuve that glimmers around the edges of the work, now brighter, now darker. A knife in the story “The Grub” resurfaces in The Savage Detectives. The first mention of the number 2666 appears in Amulet, while a note among Bolaño’s papers announces that the narrator of the former is none other than Arturo Belano, protagonist of the latter. (And is Belano the same “B” who features in the short stories of Llamadas telefónicas? Or is that Bolaño himself?)
Moreover: like our own universe, Bolaño’s continues to expand long after the Big Bang that birthed it has gone dark. As Wyatt Mason recently noted in The New York Times,
In addition to the eight [books] that have swiftly and ably arrived in translation in the six years since his death in 2003 at age 50, four new books by Bolaño are scheduled to appear in 2010 (two novels, two story collections) with three others promised for 2011. What’s more, according to recent reports out of Spain, another two finished novels have been found among Bolaño’s papers, as well as a sixth, unknown part of . . . 2666.
And so, to help acclimate newcomers to this odd and essential author; to continue mapping the Bolañoverse, as Malcolm Cowley mapped Yoknapatawpha; and to impose some order on the flood of Bolaño releases, The Millions offers the following syllabus, which we’ll update as further translations become available, and as we take comments into account.
1. “Dance Card” and “Sensini” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
Together, these two stories offer a précis of the personal mythology that animates Bolaño’s most important work. The first explores Latin American – and especially Chilean – politics in the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on a generation of young writers. The second finds a Bolaño-like narrator many years later, in artistic and geographic exile.
2. Nazi Literature in the Americas 
This early novel, a compendium of fictional writers, offers our first glimpse of the hugeness of Bolaño’s ambition. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to his peculiar sense of humor, which compacts the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s a favorite (See our review).
3. Distant Star 
When it was published, this probably constituted Bolaño’s most compelling narrative to date. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives. Another favorite.
4. “Last Evenings on Earth” and “The Grub” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
Tales of young Arturo Belano, I’m guessing. The former provides one of Bolaño’s rare glimpses of fatherhood; the latter introduces the Caborca knife and Villaviciosa, the town of assassins. Both are implicated in Bolaño’s later work.
What remains to be said about The Savage Detectives? Once you read this book, you’ll want to read everything else this guy wrote (See our review).
6. The Romantic Dogs [1980 – 1998]
Now that you’ve read The Savage Detectives, you’re probably wondering: why all this fuss about poetry? You’re probably also willing to bear with this collection, which mingles wheat and chaff, cream and crop, as it further adumbrates Bolaño’s personal mythology. It’s worth noting that Bolaño’s gifts as a poet – narrative, character, and a dreamlike vision – are identical to his gifts as a novelist.
7. “Henri Simon LePrince,” “A Literary Adventure,” and “Anne Moore’s Life” ; “Phone Calls,” “Vagabond in France and Belgium,” and “Days of 1978”  (from Last Evenings on Earth)
The first three of these stories read like minor-key variations on Nazi Literature. The last three share a narrator, B, who in some incarnation – protagonist or revenant – haunts most of Bolaño’s fiction. (One wonders when all of Phone Calls (from which these three stories are excerpted) will appear in English.)
8. The Skating Rink 
I humbly dissent from Wyatt Mason; this isn’t a masterpiece. It is Bolaño’s first published novel, however, and is one of his most technically accomplished. It won a regional writing contest, back in the days when (per “Sensini”) Bolaño was entering scores of them. By this point, such things are probably interesting to you.
9. “Gomez Palacio,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” “Dentist” (from Last Evenings on Earth) [1997 – 2001]
To hell with technique; here the other side of Bolaño holds sway. These pieces are not so much crafted as dreamed into being, and the hallucinatory intensity of the latter two serve as a perfect warm-up for 2666…
…As does this novella-length expansion on an incident from The Savage Detectives. I don’t think this one is as successful as Distant Star, but by now, you’re willing to forgive that, right? Arturo Belano features heavily here. And the heroine, Auxilio Lacoutre, feels like a sketch for Florita Almada of 2666…about which Auxilio (like Césarea Tinajero) seems to be having visions…is anyone else getting dizzy?
11. “Enrique Martin” (from Last Evenings on Earth) 
This is one of my two or three favorite Bolaño stories. Enrique seems to have contracted his numerological delirium from Auxilio and Césarea.
Supernova and apotheosis. You can read my take here.
13. By Night in Chile 
Some people think that this short, late novel is Bolaño’s finest, and though I don’t agree with them, it’s always good to save something for dessert. Of all Bolaño’s books, this one seems to have the fewest connections with the others, and so perhaps it would be as good a place to start as to end.
The sooner you fall behind, the more time you’ll have to catch up.—Steven Wright
My life is running away from me, and I can’t keep up. Maybe you can relate. I’m starting to wonder if humanity is divided between those who thrive on speed and those who are pummeled by it.
The slowpokes have been rising up, in pockets here and there, for a few years now. slowLab is an organization devoted to “exploring slower rhythms of engagement with people, places, and things around us” (via projects like Slow Consumption, Slow Communities, and Slow Teen). At SlowMovement.com, you can learn about other Slow philosophies, like Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Money, Slow Travel, etc.
A Slow Blogging Manifesto, penned (typed) by technology consultant Todd Sieling in 2006, declared Slow Blogging
a rejection of immediacy… an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly… Slow Blogging is a reversal of the disintegration into the one-liners and cutting turns of phrase that are often the early lives of our best ideas. It’s a process in which flashes of thought shine and then fade to take their place in the background as part of something larger. Slow Blogging does not write thoughts onto the ethereal and eternal parchment before they provide an enduring worth in the shape of our ideas over time.
Sieling even has a recipe for how Twitter can be used in a Slow-ethos way.
Most recently, Granta editor John Freeman has written a Slow Communication Manifesto (adapted from his forthcoming book The Tyranny of Email):
The ultimate form of progress… is learning to decide what is working and what is not; and working at this pace, emailing at this frantic rate, is pleasing very few of us. It is encroaching on parts of our lives that should be separate or sacred, altering our minds and our ability to know our world, encouraging a further distancing from our bodies and our natures and our communities. We can change this; we have to change it…
It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the manifesto of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world.
(Deep exhale: I just have to take a moment to thank the gods of Hotmail for limiting email downloads via Entourage to a minimum of every 20 minutes.)
Is slowness luxury or necessity? I’ve begun to wonder about this in relation to writing and reading specifically. Novel-writing and deep-reading are slow. Blogging and twittering (and, yes, emailing) are fast. Can our brains do it all effectively?
As an experiment, I randomly picked five of my favorite novelists to see if they were bloggers/Twitterers:*
Denis Johnson – N
Annie Dillard – N
E.L. Doctorow – N
Tony Earley – N
Carrie Tiffany – N
*via quick google search, did not have time to search Twitter or Facebook specifically
Then I looked up novelists from recent The Millions Top 10 lists and Book Reviews:
Elizabeth Stroud – N
Thomas Pynchon – N
Dave Eggers – N (tweeted for a hot second in March, then stopped)
Junot Diaz – N
Bryan Gilmer – Twitter
Stieg Larsson – N
Joseph O’Neill – N
Kazuo Ishiguro – N
Dan Chaon – Twitter
Orhan Pamuk – N
Emily St. John Mandel – blog and Twitter
Richard Ford – N
Colum McCann – N
Just a random sampling, nothing conclusive here; though my findings – how few of the novelists I/we admire spend time/energy on short-form quickies – were even more skewed toward abstinence than I had imagined. Arguably there is a pattern, i.e. the more established the writer, the less the imperative to “connect” via blog and Twitter. Although, I understand Margaret Atwood has started tweeting. Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, who started a blog a year ago (in Portuguese), has just posted his final post, turning his energies and attention to a new novel: “Goodbye therefore. Until another day? I sincerely don’t think so. I have started another book and want to dedicate all my time to it.”
The competition between fast and slow writing – possibly incompatible parts of the brain, dissonant brain energies – is something I think emerging long-form writers — who are urged (“required” is not quite accurate and yet seems closer to the truth) to blog and tweet lest our literary careers be stillborn — worry about. We must “develop readership” or die, and yet what good is readership if the big-wide-slow writing doesn’t get done, or is somehow compromised?
And short-fast reading/writing competes not only with novel-making, but also long-form reading. The other day, browsing in a bookstore (quickly, of course, because I had just a few minutes before I had to be somewhere), I found myself pouncing on Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue; at 83 pages, 4” x 6”, and large-ish print to boot, it beckoned me like a mini-mirage, or like a life raft bobbing in the ocean of pages (2666, I’ll finish you yet!) that had engulfed me while I was busy updating my blog.
Nearly three-and-a-half hours I’ve been sitting at my desk working at this essay now, so I’d better speed it up. What have I missed or mis-stated? Where are the sloppy leaps in logic? To what degree is this piece a failed internal loop rather than a provocative work of essayistic exploration? No time to worry about it now; your comments will be my answer.