Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr
Recently J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell on the smoking remnants of one of the fiercest shipping wars of the last decade: “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” It’s from an interview conducted by Hermione herself, Emma Watson, excerpted in the Sunday Times; the full article, in an issue of Wonderland Magazine guest-edited by Watson, came out on Friday. (The words “publicity stunt” may be floating around, but that kind of speculation is useless.) The ladies, bafflingly, “agree[d] that Harry and Hermione were a better match than Ron and Hermione,” Ron wouldn’t be able to satisfy Hermione’s needs, and the pair as she wrote them would need relationship counseling. And then the internet exploded.
OK, first of all, JKR, please just stop. Is the most aggravating thing about all of this the fact that Hermione doesn’t belong with either of these jokers? Was there literally anyone else for her to get with? (Rowling’s shoddy math suggests possibly not; despite the insistence in an early interview that “there are about a thousand students at Hogwarts,” there remain just eight Gryffindors in the matriculating class of ’98, suggesting no more than three dozen in the entire year, a whole house of which remain irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil despite seven books in which to write convincing moral ambivalence and complexity. But I digress.)
But also, JKR, please just stop — for reasons that have a lot to do with literature. Because the weirdest thing about the statement is the “wish fulfillment” bit, which I’ve seen interpreted many different ways, none of them satisfactory. My read of it is accompanied by this question: how is a writer setting down a plot from her head wish fulfillment? Forced, sure — this certainly wasn’t the only instance where it seemed that Rowling was stifled by the tyranny of the outline she mapped out more than a decade before penning The Deathly Hallows. (I spent years wondering how the hell the final word would, as promised, be “scar,” though by the time I got to the last page of the epilogue I was too infuriated to care.)
This isn’t the first time that Rowling has “revealed” further details about her characters, as if she is their publicist rather than their creator. The Dumbledore announcement was, admittedly, totally awesome, for the political ramifications at the very least. But Rowling seems insistent on undercutting her authorial intent, or her position as omniscient narrator, the sort of “I would have loved for this to happen” statement, it’s like, really? I was under the impression that you were making all the things happen. (The full article in Wonderland—or the full interview, excerpted at Mugglenet — is worth a read for its continued, almost amplified strangeness — Rowling speaks of being shocked to see the filmmakers depicting things she hadn’t written but was feeling about the characters, like the scene between Harry and Hermione in the tent in the first installment of The Deathly Hallows. “Yes, but David and Steve — they felt what I felt when writing it,” Rowling tells Watson, referring to the director and screenwriter. “That is so strange,” Watson responds. Yes — this whole thing is so strange. It feels like there’s a simultaneous disregard for the concept of subtext and the idea that the characters were driven by something other than Rowling’s own fingers. “JKR, I think, probably is still in mystical mode when talking about her characters and work,” Connor Joel said to me in a Twitter conversation. “Which can be OK…sometimes.”)
Is a writer allowed to have regrets? Certainly. Is she allowed to air them publicly? I mean, yeah, it’s a free internet, why not? Do I want to hear a single additional word about the world of Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling that is not in the form of another book? Unless she is going to travel via Time-Turner to the past and personally validate all of my ships, no, not particularly — though that’s just me. (On second thought, no, not even that: sometimes the joy of delving into subtext is that it remains, well, sub.) The night all this came out (my new BFF) Anne Jamison kicked off a round of hilarious authorial regrets on Twitter, collected here. (For example: “‘I realize I made generations believe instant antipathy is a valid basis for ideal marriage,’ sighed Ms Austen, ‘I just thought he was hot.’”)
All joking aside, these tweets got me thinking: how often has this sort of thing happened in the past? Is there something fundamental in the author/reader relationship that feels like it’s being abused in Rowling’s admissions — or is she just following a long tradition of regretful writers undermining their own authority via statements after publication? Initial research suggests that some of the most famous writers haven’t stayed as faithful to their own original texts as I might have guessed. I mean, these examples aren’t exactly the same (I can hear you saying this, even now!), and that might get at what feels so incredibly strange about the “wish fulfillment” idea that Rowling’s putting forth. But regrets are regrets, and once the pages are printed — and even with all the revisions and retractions in the world — there’s essentially no going back. Here are five authors who had a variety of regrets and later said they really wished they’d done things differently — and, in many cases, went on to try to actually do things differently, to varying degrees of success:
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Twist’s greedy, villainous employer, Fagin, is most famously marked by his Jewishness, via every derogatory stereotype in the history of man and by outright assertion: references as “the Jew” outnumber “the old man” in the original text nearly ten-to-one. There was no doubt in Dickens’s mind, nor that of many of his mid-Victorian counterparts, that this was totally fine, that Fagin’s crimes fell right in line with his background: he stated later, by way of (really poor and blatantly anti-Semitic) defense, that “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” But in 1860 Dickens sold his house to a Jewish couple and befriended the wife, Eliza, who wrote him later to say that the creation of Fagin was a “great wrong” to the Jewish people. Dickens saw the light, albeit in a sort of, “Well, some of my best friends are Jewish!” sort of way, and began stripping out references to Fagin’s religion from the text, as well as the caricature-like aspects: at a reading of a later version, it was observed that, “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” But was it too little too late? After all, the original depiction of Fagin has endured through the centuries. Dickens tried, anyway. “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard,” he wrote. “And to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.”
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Typee, Melville’s first novel and the most popular during his lifetime, is described as “one of American culture’s more startling instances of a fluid text.” There appears to be no definitive version of Typee — the sort of book that makes you question just how definitive anything you read really is. “All texts are fluid,” writes John Bryant, a scholar who’s done extensive work on Typee, examining its states of flux. “They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.” Some of the changes — which were made over the course of half a century, from the first drafts Melville penned fresh off the high seas to the final years of his life — came from pressures from critics and his publishers: disparagement of missionary culture, expanded upon in first drafts, was largely removed in subsequent editions. Some requests for changes, including a toning down of the ‘bawdiness’ of earlier editions, took place decades later, when Melville was an old man — “Certain passages were to be restored, a paragraph on seaman debauchery dropped, and ‘Buggery Island’ changed to ‘Desolation Island,’” writes Bryant, though not all of these changes were honored in the posthumous edition. Bryant has developed a digital edition to view the fluid text as a whole, though perhaps even that can’t — and shouldn’t — answer the question of whether one version or another can be called the definitive text.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man prone to last-minute editorial regrets: he sent a telegram to his publisher as The Great Gatsby was going to press, asking to change the title to Under the Red, White, and Blue. It arrived too late. He’d wavered so much on the title already — amongst a dozen other suggestions, he’d been set on Trimalchio in West Egg for a good while. But Tender is the Night suffered, in his opinion, from problems far larger than what was printed on the dust jacket. It was published in 1934 to poor critical and public response, and Fitzgerald set to work figuring out why it didn’t work. When it was reprinted two years later, he wanted to make minor changes and clarifications, and wrote that, “sometimes by a single word change one can throw a new emphasis or give a new value to the exact same scene or setting.” But he soon decided it wasn’t a “single word” — it was the entire structure: “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” he wrote to his editor at Scribner, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He set to work slicing apart the novel — physically — and rearranging it in the order he felt it was now meant to be, the narrative now chronological rather than reliant on flashback. The copy is on display at Princeton, with Fitzgerald’s penciled note written inside the front cover: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley decided to try to fulfill these editorial wishes, rearranging the book based on the notes and cut-up version. But people weren’t any more interested in this version than the first, and in the intervening half-century, the original has endured.
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If the biggest disappointment of 2015 will be the fact that almost nothing resembles the 2015 bits of “Back to the Future” (what’s sadder — no hoverboards or no magical pizzas?), it speaks to the risks of setting a sci-fi novel in the not-so-distant future. When Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, first published in 1947, were reissued fifty years later, the stories’ chronological start date was just two years away. Bradbury and his publisher made the call to bump up the timeline by three decades, 2030-2057, and made some additional editorial changes while they were at it. The timeline shift isn’t unique in science fiction: Wikipedia’s got a poetically-titled “List of stories set in a future now past,” which reveals that Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also got a thirty-year bump. It’s an interesting question, and one that may crop up more and more as time goes on: does reading about some sort of alien “future” that’s now a few years in the past take a reader right out of the story? Isn’t there some joy in imagining Bradbury imagining 1999 in 1947, a vision of the future from that precise point in the past?
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And then what to do if an author wishes the entire book had never been written? One famous example: “J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it,” Shane Salerno and David Shields assert in their recent biography. But Salinger’s dissatisfaction appeared to stem from the extraordinary amount of unwanted attention he received for it over the years. But what about Anthony Burgess, who wrote about A Clockwork Orange in his Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, published in 1985:
We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Lawrence died decades before the obscenity trials placed his book at the center of the moral questions of literature and society. Burgess had decades to witness the unraveling of the “misunderstandings” of the novel he will always be most remembered for. As for its merits as a work of literature? He also described it as “too didactic to be artistic.” Ah, well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of a book and its characters. Even, I suppose, the author himself.
The Imp of the Perverse, not Patrick, may be the patron saint of this particular Irishman. Read the fictions of 2013 IMPAC winner Kevin Barry — he snagged the 100,000-euro prize with the bloody and lyrical novel City of Bohane — and you’ll discern the presence of a little demon stalking his people, a green-eyed creeping death with a rain-wracked ginger topknot. These souls find doing the right thing, whether it be moral or rational, quite the difficulty. The barriers are often karmically insurmountable. And as in his new book, the award-winning collection Dark Lies the Island, the affliction makes for consistently glorious, and often hilarious, reading.
Burn enough hours with the mind behind it all and you’ll detect certain immutable qualities, including a genuine affability, a grindstone work ethic, and immense empathy. The lattermost, a good thing for any writer, seems to be what also makes his readings among the most entertaining and virtuosic I’ve ever witnessed. The confidence and timing of a seasoned actor or comedian come naturally — the characters are made flesh — and as a story unspools in Barry’s easy Irish timbre, it reeks of the real, of the truth, no matter how fantastical the tale.
Barry recently visited Oregon for Portland’s Wordstock festival, and as is required by law here, I invited him out for some cycling (“I’ll ride 80k a day”) and some pints at the legendary Horse Brass Pub (“You Americans — look, if it’s over 5 percent, it isn’t beer; it’s fucking tawny port wine”). We inevitably found a good session beer to his liking and then talked at length about his work, the subconscious, the ’burbs, failure, the supernatural, Southern writers, comic fiction, and Ireland’s formidable literary legacy.
The Millions: Some biography, please.
Kevin Barry: I’m from Limerick city, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m 44. I’ve published three books, and I cycle my bike a lot in County Sligo. I live in an old police station there, in a swamp, essentially. And if I don’t write in the day, I don’t feel good for anything much.
TM: Did you grow up in Limerick?
KB: Pretty much in Limerick city until my late teens, in the suburbs. And when you grow up in an Irish suburb in the seventies, you may as well be in a suburb of Toronto or Phoenix. Most of the cultural feeds are precisely the same, except there’s also something slightly other about the language. Irish writers maybe have a slight edge because of the way we fucking mangle the English language. We have no rules for it. The way we deliver our stories is changing all the time, but I don’t think there’s any fear for the story. Human beings need stories as much as they need beer and trousers and hats and food and shelter.
TM: You hear early humans likely discovered fire a million years ago. We’ve been telling stories, in some form, around campfires for a million years.
KB: And it won’t stop. In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. But, yeah, I’m a kid of the suburbs and still have strange romantic notions about suburban life and that feeling on summer evenings. It always puzzles me that there isn’t more suburban art and literature.
TM: Maybe people are trying to escape the suburbs psychologically.
KB: Yeah, it’s like they’re so bland they can’t be mythic.
TM: Cheever made them mythic. It’s a liminal place, the hybrid city-country.
KB: There’s some French word that I can’t think of at the moment, where city bleeds into countryside, that edge of town. It’s a kind of nowhere land, with odd tensions from either side pulling. Nothing as eerie as walking around a suburb at 4 a.m. on a summer-night morning with nobody around and just a little bit of wind in the trees and leaves. And falling in love or out of love with some girl, and you’re 17. Those moments stay with you, in the sodium light.
TM: Does that shape your work?
KB: I remember talking once to a bunch of American students. And they were stunned and horrified to learn that Ireland has suburbs. Even though so many of us in Ireland grow up in the suburbs, they almost never show up in Irish literature. Because it doesn’t suit the mythos, which is either the Ulysses of the big city or the John McGahern small towns or the farm and the bleak austerity of the farmland. But Irish suburban life has almost never been done. The working-class cities, Limerick and Cork—that language has never appeared in Irish literature. I tried to bring some of it into City of Bohane. I hate the word resource applied in any way to literature or art, but it is a resource. It’s a very strange, weird, mangled, beautiful, tender, lovely take on English.
TM: You’re obviously besotted by the language, and you work its angles and curves to great effect. I picture the Oxford English Dictionary sinking into a Gaelic bog. But you don’t sacrifice clarity, even in your novel, which is a sustained, successful voice experiment. A high-low style seems to come easily to you, like a tune on the air.
KB: Thinking specifically in terms of the novel, I’ve always been drawn to work that tries to blend the high and the low. Saul Bellow in the fifties, with Augie March, trying to do Chicago street talk but the literary fucking high style as well, and really going for it. Martin Amis in the eighties in London. When I came to write City of Bohane, I had twin ambitions for it. I wanted it to be a grand, visceral entertainment, a real pulpy fucking page-turner, but also a serious language experiment. It was fun to write, and increasingly it seems to me that I should be having fun at the desk. On the very simple equation that if I’m having a good time at my end, the dear, beloved reader is having a good damn time at the far end. A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience. With City of Bohane, I sometimes think to tell the story right it should’ve been a much longer book, but the language was too intense. I think 280 pages is fine, because it’s fucking… It’s a wallop in the face.
TM: Some people can’t take it. Some of us eat it up, the sustained performance on the page. And it’s a first-person narrator. But there can be fatigue.
KB: People either tend to really love it and be evangelical of its cause or go, “Fuck all, this is not for me.” Which is fine. I would always take strong reactions over mild ones. It’s a book you have to read with the ears. You have to listen to it. And you have to do a bit of work at the start, and that’s kind of a difficult area now in novels. I think previously, as readers, we were prepared to give a novel a bit of time. You have a 900-page Russian door-stopper from the 19th century, and you give it a hundred pages, and it’d be fucking torture turning those pages. They’re like lead, you know? But then that magical thing happens where suddenly you’re trapped in the world. You’ve earned it.
TM: It’s the same with Shakespeare. Suddenly you’re in and it flows.
KB: I suspect now the reader won’t give you that much time anymore. It makes it a good time for the short story. I think, increasingly, people give as much time to a book as they will to an art-house movie or an indie film. I have this conversation all the time with my editor in London, and he says, “No, man, literature should be the alternative to all that white noise. It should be a quiet, immersive space where we go to get away from all that stuff.”
TM: A deeper escapism and amusement.
KB: Yeah, and maybe he’s right. Until recently, I hadn’t read the Booker Prize–winning Hilary Mantel novels, the Henry the Eighth stuff, you know? She has what I call “thumb.” You just want to turn the pages and keep going with it.
TM: In your work there seems to be the influence of writers from the American South. Barry Hannah and Charles Portis come to mind. A lot of Southern and Irish writers strike me as Hearers of the Music, profoundly taken by language. It seems that they particularly relish the poetry that can be drawn out of prose. Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
KB: To my shame, I’ve never read Charles Portis. Love Barry Hannah. There is an interesting correlation between Irish and Southern writers. We face similar difficulties, in terms often of the dialogue. You don’t want to over-egg it. But at the same time, people do fucking talk like that. So you have to be true to that as well. I think Hannah gets a beautiful balance.
TM: The dialects seem to have arisen from remoteness and insularity, fed over centuries by religious communalism. Flannery O’Connor wrote — and I once heard Hannah echo this — that the South is “Christ-haunted.” Is it the same for Ireland, with the huge Catholic and smaller Protestant presences?
KB: There’s no doubt. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but there’s Catholic prose and Protestant prose. Flannery O’Connor’s prose is Catholic fucking prose. John Updike’s prose is Protestant fucking prose. And that’s fine. There’s also Jewish prose, which dominated my whole reading staples in my twenties. I wanted to be the next great Jewish writer, which was difficult, as I was a ginger-haired child in Cork, in the south of Ireland. That didn’t work out. Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.
TM: Tristram Shandy.
KB: Yes. I like my literature to be funny, the comic mode, and I think most of my favorite writers at some level are comic writers. Someone like Saul Bellow. Herzog is a novel about a nervous breakdown, a crack-up, and it’s fucking hilarious. Philip Roth writes terrifying novels about all sorts of disintegration and horrible, awful masculine emotions that are deathly funny. I think comedy is the most true human mode. It’s how we get through, through…
TM: The tragicomedy?
KB: For sure. My short stories, a lot of them are very dark, but I think almost always at the end they are comedic.
TM: That’s a great insight, of being Irish and that choosing between Joyce and Beckett. Beckett said Joyce was a synthesizer — put everything in, tried to bring it all together — but that he was an analyzer, and he was trying to take out every fucking thing he could. A reaction against Joyce and that high postmodernism.
KB: Absolutely. What I love about Beckett’s stuff, really, is that he plowed the same kind of stony ground for 50 years. And did him no harm. You can still bring new things all the time. In my own instance, I think the novels are going to be very different. The short stories are in lots of ways. I want to let the story dictate the style.
TM: The story is the master.
KB: Rather than the other way around. Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.” I thought, Fucking heroic, man. And a story is a song, and it’s a tune. It’s a melody, and you follow it along.
TM: Dark Lies the Island is your new collection, your second. The stories are highly atmospheric. Whether you’re mixing despair and humor, delving into evil in disguise, or plying supernatural undercurrents, the particular psychology evoked just infuses the narrative.
KB: I think it’s the most intense prose form. There’s nothing like a fucking good story when you’re in its grip. I love the novel for its looseness, in the way that life is shapeless, but I just love that feeling when you’re in the hands of a really good storyteller and you find yourself sitting up a little straighter and turning down the radio and turning off the computer and chucking the kids out the window and just getting closer to the page. And you’re trapped, line by line. To make it that intense an experience for the reader is fucking difficult. I’m also really interested in the essay. It’s more front-of-the-brain.
TM: And you’re on the line. It’s you. You can’t blame it on a character.
KB: I think fiction is superior. You can’t lie in fiction. Your soul is there, pinned and wriggling on the page. You can lie much easier in nonfiction. Every single sentence in a short story is bearing weight, and for that reason most go wrong on me. Most end up on the floor. I write ten or twelve of the fuckers a year. One or two will get seen by anyone. I have a workroom at home in County Sligo that’s just littered with the corpses and near-corpses of half-dead zombie stories. It’s appalling shit. It’s fucking terrible. But I will always finish them, because I think that’s when you know you’re a pro: when you finish even the bad stuff. Just to get a finished object there.
TM: And to know.
KB: And to know. And I’ll do something else.
TM: Your stories read as deeply felt. Sometimes with the first-person stories, you think, That happened to him.
KB: I do think your best ones come out of your own experience. Everything is feed. Fiction happens in the subconscious, the back of the mind, that place, and I think your life experience has to sit back there for a while before it comes out. I think you have very little control as a writer, often. The decision to write fiction is a kind of a pact you make with your subconscious. You say, “Give me stuff. I’ll be there. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be at my fucking desk. I’ll be waiting for it.”
TM: “I’ll be the vessel.”
KB: Yeah. It’s sitting there. It took me a long time to get there. In my twenties I was writing music reviews, theater reviews, stuff like that, and it was doing fine, making the rent, having a good time out and about… Not getting happy. Knowing there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using that I wanted to use. But it’s difficult when you’re writing sort of journalism stuff all day to find the time and space to write the fiction. I had to get poor. I bought a 12-foot caravan, a little trailer home, and I sat it on a beach in west Cork, and I spent a summer out there writing the next great Jewish-American novel. And it was a fucking monstrosity. But it taught me it has to be your main thing, the thing you do when you get up in the morning. The time especially for first drafts is when I’m barely awake.
TM: Fresh out of the dream state. John Gardner talked about the “vivid and continuous dream.” And a dream is a wild and fuzzy thing.
KB: Writing fiction and dreaming are very close. I won’t even have a cup of coffee when I get up. I’ll have a cup of weak tea. I don’t want to come up from it too quick. I want to stay in that kind of murky, blobby, kind of dream-shapey world and just— I don’t care about the sentences or the sense or anything. I just want to spew down words onto the page. And just slow accumulation. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s very important to me to do something on it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes, to just try and make a daily connection with it. Because if you miss a day, it can suddenly completely start to go away. Writers have always sought ways to procrastinate. Editing and cutting is the enjoyable part.
TM: Bringing it out of the raw, like Michelangelo’s Captives.
KB: It’s the block of stone. Just cut away at it and see what you can get. There is a corollary to that. I think you can cut too much.
TM: The tendency toward the Carveresque, no pun intended. And a lot of that was Gordon Lish.
KB: Yeah. Or you can polish too much, hone too much, and take the original impulse and life force out of a piece.
TM: In your stories, and especially in your novel, place is always a primary force, a character, often sinister or supernatural.
KB: If I have a single, fundamental belief as a writer — and I suppose it’s quite an esoteric one — it’s that human feeling doesn’t just reside in humans but that it settles into our places, and I think very often fiction is about springing that feeling from places. [The recent New Yorker story] “Ox Mountain Death Song” comes from being out on my bike. I go out around the Sligo hills in the fucking drizzle and rain and wind. But it’s nice because your mind kind of unspews, you know?
TM: Woody Allen’s long, hot shower.
KB: For sure, and I was about three, four years going out cycling in the Ox Mountains, which by American standards aren’t mountains at all; they’re fucking hills, you know? But anytime I went, I got this kind of bleak, dark feeling into my bones. And eventually I said, “I’ll try a new method, a new tactic. I’ll go out and I’ll write the story on site.” I went out and I stayed in a cheap hotel in a little beach town in the shadow of the Ox Mountains and wrote a really rough draft in three days and kind of forgot about it for a few months. I’m often writing two stories at the same time, and one of them is kind of an attempt not to write the other one. There’s always a phantom story underneath. But there’s something John Cheever said in his beautiful introduction to his collected stories: stories remind you very much of the time in your life when you wrote them. Of the place, where you were. What I love about him is he’s deeply fucking weird, you know? Those are really strange, eerie, kind of crazy stories.
TM: He’s doing things that others just weren’t doing. You can say Shirley Jackson, a few others here and there, maybe. But, really, “The Swimmer”?
KB: Amazing story.
TM: Nobody was doing anything like that.
KB: Nobody was doing that stuff. I love to read stories that are coming out now and see what’s happening. But I do love to go back, to read the classic stuff. Someone like V.S. Pritchett, in the 20th century, was a hugely famous story writer. He was in The New Yorker five times a year. In Europe he was the most famous British man of letters. And he had one of those weird things where, after his death, in the late nineties, he just faded from view instantly. But you go back and read him and they’re nuts. And they’re all built on talk, on mad, deranged, demotic, provincial UK kind of talk. As much as you should always keep up with what’s happening and who’s pushing things out at the edge, don’t forget these guys. They put lifetimes’ worth of serious talent into developing the short story and bringing it to where it is. And it’s one of our greatest achievements as human beings, the short-story form. I think it’s really sublime when it’s good. I think what unifies the great story writers is that they stick with it throughout their careers. Sometimes you get the guy who comes out with a brilliant debut collection of stories and just goes on and writes novels. I really hate that shit. Keep writing stories. It’s not an apprentice form for the novel. It’s no accident that the very best writers of stories alive are the people who keep writing them all the way through their careers. Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders.
TM: But we want your novels, too. That expansion. Like in City of Bohane, you’ve got small town, big tapestry. The Bohane River divides the city physically and metaphysically. On its way out to sea it seems to leach and drag the wickedness of the long dead out of the boglands of the countryside to poison the city with “the taint.” It feels directly connected to all the great Irish mythology, especially the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic life and death sunk into the earth but fluid and moving.
KB: Those influences feed in subconsciously. Human feeling bleeding into the place. Limerick city is quite a troubled city, quite a violent place, lots of gang feuds. It’s known as Stab City. It’s always had lots of knife crime. Once, when I was a cub reporter in the late eighties, there was a great, since-passed-away local politician, a guy called Jim Kemmy, and I met him downtown one time. We were standing by the River Shannon, which is Ireland’s biggest, longest river, which enters the sea through Limerick, and there’d been some horrendous fucking gang feud in town with about five dead on either side. And I remember saying to him, “What’s wrong with us?” And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s coming in off the river.” And it stuck with me for years and years and years, and the first line of the novel is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The taint of place. I try to escape Ireland in the winter often, and I go to Spain, just for some bit of light and blue skies and get out from under the belly of cloud. And I’m a secret bird-watcher. A twitcher. So I went a couple of times, in southern Spain, in Andalucía, to a town called Ronda. There’s a very famous gorge a couple of thousand feet deep. And it’s famous for its choughs, which are crows with red beaks. Amazing fliers. They fly sheer up and down the face of it. So I went there and was looking, and this fucking dark, black, horrendous feeling coming over me, and I’m going, “What the fuck is it?” And getting out of town. Getting out of Ronda on the next bus. Went back couple years later, same thing, down around the gorge. Started doing some research about it and discovered that in the Spanish Civil War 300 prisoners had been made to jump to their deaths, at gunpoint, at the gorge in Ronda. And I’m certain that some of that feeling, that terror, that fucking primeval human horror, has settled into those stones, and I fucking picked some of it up. My brother is a fisherman, loves to fish for trout in Ireland. He talks about a particular lake that he found himself on once in County Clare. And same thing. “Amazing, beautiful summer night. I’m out fishing in my boat out on the lake. Suddenly, ‘Fuck, get outta here.’ Horrible feeling.” Doing some research after: horrible scenes in the Irish famine. Two hundred people starved to death on the shores of this lake.
TM: And you’ve got to have the antennae to pick it up.
KB: I think we all have the antennae at some level.
TM: Some are more sensitive.
KB: Sometimes you’ll shiver and say, “Get outta Dodge.”
TM: Bad mojo. Can you talk about the risks you took with Bohane? I’m curious if there have been any comparisons to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if only because of the idiomatic invention.
KB: A Clockwork Orange was a hugely important book to me as a teenager. If you go back to it, it’s very much about Britain in the sixties. It’s a projection on the moment when it’s written. It’s about mods and rockers and Brighton Beach. Burgess wrote it when he was living just outside Brighton, and he couldn’t describe that world directly, but he described it brilliantly by doing it at a future remove. In some sense I think City of Bohane is a projection on Irish cities as they are at the moment, when they have over the last 20 years changed unbelievably, for the first time become multicultural places. Lots of new weird, wonderful energies, lots of new dark, dangerous tensions.
TM: Bohane is like a west-of-Ireland western.
KB: It’s a complete western.
TM: It’s very cinematic, and that quite literally plays into the risky and experimental narratorial conceit, a magical first-person omniscient narrator who’s also a character. But not like Vonnegut’s intrusive god-author; it doesn’t come off like that.
KB: I wanted the reader to feel like they were in some awful, horrendous dive bar in a tremendously deranged Irish city in the middle of the 21st century and there’s some crazy old fucking whisky-drunk nut alongside them whispering this demented tall tale into their ears.
TM: And he knows what people are thinking. You believe him.
KB: Yeah, he’s kind of God out there. One of the technical questions was “How much do I show this guy?” I kept him very, very limited. He shows up once or twice. The I word comes in.
TM: It’s a mystery, but I wouldn’t say it’s soft-pedaled. The voice is so strong. But I haven’t noticed anyone else remarking on it. Then we see you win the IMPAC. Obviously, it’s resonating.
KB: That was very cool, winning a big prize.
TM: Can you talk about setting as character and parallel protagonist?
KB: In Bohane in particular, obviously the city is the main character. I guess what it comes out of is when you’ve lived in a city like Limerick or like Cork, you are aware that there is a world out there, outside the city limits, but really it’s just kind of a rumor. It really doesn’t matter. Where you are is the center of the fucking universe. And Bohane is all-encompassing. They refer to anything outside of Bohane as Big Nothin’. It’s that sense that this is the world and this is all that counts. I think that’s familiar to anybody who’s lived or grown up in small cities. They’re just about big enough to be anonymous in, but also they’ve got this kind of weblike, clammy sense of connection to everything. Coincidences can genuinely happen. When people and professors read Dickens now, they say, “Too many coincidences,” right?
TM: But London was a hell of a lot smaller.
KB: London was about 800,000. People would’ve bumped into each other all the time.
TM: So it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina or overwrought orchestration.
KB: I think he was absolutely on the money.
TM: Is Bohane a bit of a mashup of Limerick, where you’re from, and Sligo, where you live now?
KB: Equal parts Limerick, where I lived until I was 20, and Cork, where I moved to and lived until I was 30. The accent I would hear is quite a Cork singsong, quite a melodious accent. I physically see it as Limerick, which is a dark dock town. And there’s west-of-Ireland weather in there. And great, mad renditions of the English language.
TM: About that. Ireland has given us folks considered the greatest writers in, or innovators within, the English language. People think Joyce and Beckett, deathless giants. Yeats. Flann O’Brien. Seamus Heaney. The great Frank O’Connor. And it’s not a very big place. Is it a burden or a source of effulgent pride?
KB: [Laughs] I would never go to my desk in the morning and say, “I must settle down to do some Irish writing here.” One of my great problems with the whole edifice of Irish literature is that it was sometimes quite a hermetic world. The only influences on Irish literature were things that had happened in Irish literature. As if electric light and television and cinema and rock-and-roll and punk and electro and disco had never been invented. I honestly don’t think in nationalistic terms. If you’re positioned in any way in any tradition, it’s better to have good people behind you than fucking twats.
On our last day of school this year I opened class with an overview of the day’s agenda. I teach 14, 15 and 16 year olds, and like I said, it was the last day of school, so having any agenda at all was very foolish. But I had a few announcements I needed to make, and I felt confident I could persuade the kids to sit still and listen to me for three minutes.
One item on the agenda is Summer Reading, and at the very words my students groan, and throw tomatoes, and flip me off. (Teenagers can flip you off using only their eyes, but the tomatoes are an exaggeration.) So I pause, and look at them, (because I can say “Oh, hell no” using only my eyes) and then repeat the school’s summer reading assignment, which is measly and reasonable, and has no mandated reading list but instead allows them to choose whatever books they want to read.
“I’m not reading during the summer,” they proclaim.
This is a very curious thing for them to say, because these kids may have entered my classroom in September as non-readers, but by this point in June every last one of them has loved a book. These kids who scoff at my mere mention of summer reading have caught me before class to report proudly that they have already read thirteen books this year, or to tell me that they already finished the book I loaned them four days ago, and they need a new one. Each and every student, at one point or another in the year, has neglected to hear me announce the conclusion of independent reading for the day, so engrossed in a world of zombies, or first love, or football, that our existence in the classroom has become secondary.
“How can you say that you’re not reading during the summer?” I ask, my voice incredulous, and the kids sit back–a little delighted that they have provoked me into one last righteous defense of reading. “Don’t play like you don’t read. Don’t try to tell me that you hate reading. I know better!” I widen my eyes at a handful of students leading the moans and groans, one by one reminding them, wordlessly, that I witnessed the Bang! to Homeboyz to A Clockwork Orange evolution, Juan, and I was there for you reading Lexapros and Cons in two days, Eddie, and I heard you convince your friend to pick up Gym Candy, Matt, telling him to trust you, it was the “best book ever.”
For a variety of reasons, it’s just not cool yet to be a young teenager and an avid reader. I say yet, because my fellow English teachers and I are working on it. My students read a lot this year, and many of them really will be reading this summer. The thing is, they just might not be ready to gush about it yet. That’s OK. Allow me to relay three of the books that they loved this year, and would surely recommend, if they weren’t so busy pretending they don’t like to read.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth: When twelve-year old Cameron Post learns both that she likes kissing girls and that her parents have died in the same weekend, she assumes a correlation that tangles both her grief and her sexual identity with guilt. To further complicate matters, her legal guardian is her aunt Ruth, who fairly recently has been “born again.” In writing so honest it reads like a memoir, Danforth draws the reader into Cameron’s experience growing up gay in Miles City (“Miles Shitty”), Montana. She deftly avoids the pitfalls of painting the Gates of Praise church crowd as nothing but ignorant homophobes, and explores the self-doubt and fear that lurk in every belief system and sense of personal identity, along with the acts of unkindness, betrayal and desperation that these doubts invoke. It is in these complexities that Danforth’s first novel thrives: at once funny, heartbreaking and poignant.
Lockdown: Escape from Furnace 1 by Alexander Gordon Smith: Alex Sawyer doesn’t think of himself as a bad kid, but he’s been making some choices that have escalated from schoolyard bullying to home invasion and robbery. This is especially risky behavior in the dystopian future that Gordon Smith imagines, where a “Summer of Slaughter” ruled by youth gangs has provoked a state crackdown on juvenile offenders and the opening of Furnace, a penitentiary for teens serving life sentences, built a mile beneath the earth’s surface. When Alex is framed for murder, he is sentenced to Furnace, where he soon learns the horrors of hell are closer than he could have known. If he is to avoid a fate far worse than death, he must somehow escape. Gordon Smith imagines a world in which the adults turn their backs on a generation of hopeless teens, allowing the government to punish without regulation or limitation. Despite a few cheap scares in the vein of R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series, Lockdown truly horrifies, enthralling the reader in rapid action, and leaving him ecstatic that there are sequels to follow.
Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Caro: Try not to read a book whose first line is: “In the past year, I masturbated exactly 468 times.” OK, try not to read that book as a 15 year old boy. Try not to laugh and “Yo, dude” and pass it around to all of your friends. The fun doesn’t end there; happily, Aaron Caro’s debut novel manages to deliver on the delight and candid irreverence promised by the opening line. Meet Chuck Taylor, whose OCD isn’t making high school any easier. Beyond his counting and record keeping, endless hand-washing, and meticulously selected footwear, he still has to worry about trying to get the girl. Root for Chuck as he forges bravely through the last few months of his senior year in high school, and enjoy the pros of Caro, a very funny stand-up comedian, adding his voice to the world of YA fiction.
Throughout his career, William Boyd has evaded classification. What kind of novelist is he? What kind of books does he write? The themes in his works are various, and as a result stubbornly refuse to be filed under any handy group heading. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was farcical fun. 2002’s Any Human Heart was a magnificent fictional autobiography, and recent offering, Restless, was an evocative Second World War spy novel which shone a fresh light on the genre, chiefly in its treatment of identity. So what about the identity of the author? Who could he sit comfortably alongside? For if we can’t categorise his oeuvre then we may have more luck categorizing him – such is this British insistence on shacking British writers up with likeminded literary bedfellows.
Many critics think he has been robbed and should always have been the fourth wheel of the McEwan-Amis-Rushdie triumvirate (or sneaky fifth column if you accept the inclusion of Julian Barnes). Others feel he has a claim to inclusion only because of generation, not artistic merit. Boyd could be the outsider, ploughing his own furrow and glad of it. He has the dark naturalism of McEwan but eschews the verbal dynamism of Amis and magical realism of Rushdie. For my money his closest teammate is Sebastian Faulks. We might still be waiting for Boyd to produce something as durable as Birdsong but both write competent, confident fiction and are equally adept at relighting the past as they are at providing rich insight into the present. Any Human Heart has the same broad strokes and masterful period detail as Human Traces, and with its backdrop of war and desperation, Charlotte Gray is an antecedent for Restless.
Now, in his new novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd returns to the red thread that ran through its predecessor and spools it round a new reel. If Restless was about the search for identity then Ordinary Thunderstorms, is about the need to conceal it. Ordinary Thunderstorms begins with familiar territory. During a trip to London for a job interview, Adam Kindred gets into conversation with an immunologist in a restaurant. When Adam visits the man’s apartment later to return the folder he left behind he finds him dying, with a knife stuck in his side. The man dies on him in mid-sentence and Adam flees from the scene of the crime with the folder. The novel deals with Adam trying to evade capture by the police for a crime he didn’t commit, and a nut-job contract killer eager to get his hands on the folder for his paymasters.
Armadillo (1998) starts in a similar fashion, with the protagonist walking in on a hanged man. But Boyd has made no bones about this opener being an updated Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s a pity its beginning couldn’t have been as plausible. Adam’s fellow diner asks him the time and then “they inevitably began to talk.” This is a cheap conceit to join dots and unite characters. Also “inevitably” is too presumptuous, unless Boyd himself is one of those garrulous, gregarious sorts who like nothing better than to acquaint themselves with taxi drivers, check-out assistants and the person sitting next to them in the aisle seat. We make a sharp slide from presumptuous to preposterous. Following the dying man’s orders Adam pulls out the knife – yes, that was pulls out the knife – and then finds himself faced with a double quandary: his fingerprints are on the knife, but, now more pressing, he has heard movement on the balcony outside. Clearly the scientist’s attacker hasn’t yet exited the building. Managing to escape in one piece, Adam then acts even more recklessly by opting to head for a Pimlico pub where, temporarily shored up, he can recover from his shock by downing several whiskies and devouring bags of peanuts. The problem an author faces when presenting such characters is that one man’s reckless is another man’s idiotic; foolhardy is not a large jump to foolish. We lurch onwards and are forced to suspend our disbelief some more when Adam abstains from dialling 999 and protesting his innocence and instead settles down to a life lived rough on a patch of waste ground in Chelsea until things blow over.
The thriller that Boyd set out to write has by turns gripped us then cheated us, and we’re only at the end of chapter one. Luckily, chapter two heralds a new character, Rita Nashe, a policewoman, and chapter three introduces us to Ingram Fryzer, head of the pharmaceutical multinational for which our corpse once worked. Extra characters are needed to offset dopey Adam, and it is a relief to know he is not to carry the whole of the novel on his shoulders. Boyd brings Adam back in chapter four and in doing so takes two steps back from the one step forward he’s made by giving us the hope of a wider perspective seen through the eyes of Rita and Fryzer. Adam decides to stay off the grid and go underground. From now on he’ll shun phones, internet and cash machines and become an “urban ghost”, one of the 600 people who go missing in Britain every week. It isn’t long before he is erecting a make-shift tent, bathing in the Thames and eating seagulls.
He – or perhaps the reader – is bailed out as Boyd feeds us more characters from all walks of London life. He expands on the Fryzer strand by introducing Ivo, his brother-in-law and a louche Lord of the Realm; Mhouse, a prostitute, who laces her son’s cornflakes with rum and crushed Diazepam, and whose life on a Rotherhithe sink estate is unflinchingly portrayed as a daily fight for survival; and our two villains, Alfredo Rilke, the shady owner of Rilke Pharmaceutical, whose “controlling interest” extends to people as well as companies, and Jonjo our hitman-for-hire who injects not only violence but menace.
The novel works best when Boyd rouses Adam from his self-pitying funk and gets him away from his wasteland and interacting with the rest of the cast and London itself. We are gripped when it seems that Jonjo is closing in on him; there is a tenderness in the scenes where he teaches Mhouse’s son Ly-on to read; and the satiric scenes in the Church of John Christ – complete with charlatan preacher and a congregation made up of illegal immigrants, scamsters and paedophiles – are blackly comical. When he ventures out, London becomes alive, Adam becomes alive and the novel takes shape. With the city, Boyd is particularly interested in the river. The Thames opens and ends the book and permeates key chapters, providing settings for the vagrant Adam, a backdrop for Rita’s new career in the Marine Support Unit and her domestic life on her father’s houseboat, and a dumping ground for two bodies. With each tidal ebb the river shifts in character, sometimes sinister, sometimes with the same colours as a Fauvist painting – indeed, “at low tide everything changed”, and for the worse: “Correspondingly, the city suffered aesthetically.”
Thus the river has the power to transform the city, regenerating it and wrecking it, and in a similar way Adam’s changes bring colour to what would otherwise be a humdrum thriller. He goes from Adam Kindred, climatologist, to an identity-less nobody on the embankment, to John 1603, and lastly re-enters society as Primo Belem. In his essay”‘On Personal Identity” William Hazlitt states that for all the admiration and envy we feel for others, “no one ever wishes to be another, instead of himself.” However, necessity prevails here: Adam has to slough off one identity and assume another. It is when he does so that Boyd increases the momentum, as if remembering he has set out to write a thriller. And if the last section of the book has Adam running around the city a little too much like Jason Bourne, it is still immensely preferable to him sitting still in Crusoe-like solitude at the beginning. We might scorn them but the two main rules of the thriller are incontestable: excitement is the drama of movement rather than stasis; and you can strain the reader’s credulity but don’t try our patience.
The book isn’t as thrilling as a thriller should be, and it is almost as if Boyd got bored halfway through of the genre he had shackled himself to and was far more interested in fleshing out his characters. The scenes in The Shaft, Mhouse’s estate, are extremely effective, and Boyd is able to add colour and the requisite grittiness to the gangs, pimps and pushers, not to mention the poor victims caught in the crossfire, while remaining unpatronizing. Mr Quality, Mhouse’s landlord, is lightly sketched but we get enough strokes to learn it’s not only exorbitant rent he commands from her. Boyd even invents a Clockwork Orange-esque vernacular for The Shaft’s cheap hustlers: good things are flat, ordinary people are mims; “You scatter my head,” Mhouse tells Adam. A thriller writer is allowed to slow the pace and insert postmodern pyrotechnics but there had better be a good reason to do so. Boyd gets mixed results. True, the momentum is drastically impeded, but the characters are so good and their street-talk so vibrant that the reader is prepared to make allowances. Boyd is of course less successful when the bit-parters don’t light up the page. Fryzer’s family are stock caricatures, right down to his spoiled-brat kids and long suffering wife; and his doctor, a benign old Scot, is a chronically bad pick-and-mix stereotype who enjoys a dram of whisky during surgery hours and even says “You’ll have had your tea.” All that is missing is the kilt and shortbread. Finally, there is the nagging suspicion that Boyd is also keen to expand on this theme of identity, or better still, being identity-less in the twenty-first century. This would have been an intriguing topic to explore, particularly in a country which has a huge overreliance on CCTV and yet has reversed its decision to introduce mandatory identity cards. In fiction, we are fascinated by characters with concealed identities – from the amnesiac walking-wounded or Victorian dispossessed in search of an identity, to the spies or confidence tricksters with too many identities, multiple passports and aliases. Sadly the idea is only touched upon here, with more screen time being dedicated to the almost hackneyed thriller staples of innocent men on the run, maniacal rent-a-killers and the collateral damage caused by the corporate greed of bad Big Pharma.
Coming in at four hundred pages, Ordinary Thunderstorms is a lengthy thriller. The pace meanders like the river at its heart and only towards the end is there a current-like narrative pull. Miraculously Adam doesn’t die from drinking from the Thames (“brownish water with some sediment but the taste was acceptable”) but thanks to the strong omniscient voice the reader is kept guessing until the end as to whether Adam will elude Jonjo in their cat-and-mouse game. Weighing the strengths of Ordinary Thunderstorms we can declare it could be weightier, that it is full of untapped ambition and potential, with snapped-off strands which could have led off in more interesting directions but instead are left dangling. Boyd is not Buchan but nor does he try to be. Unlike many of his Scottish contemporaries he is also no purveyor of tartan noir. Which brings us back all the more tenaciously to our original problem: how to categorise him? How to categorize the novel? Does it even matter? It is clear the book suffers from the same identity crisis shared by its protagonist. Only Boyd will know if he has accomplished what he set out to achieve. Whatever, he deserves respect for attempting to do something new with London, and for creating a panoply of characters, low life and high society, all of whom in the main ring true enough to belong there.
John Wray is the author of the novels The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Whiting Award in fiction, he was recently named one of Granta magazine’s twenty best American novelists under thirty-five. His new novel, Lowboy, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this coming March.Most of the time, when a novel is forgotten, literary justice has been served: it’s atrociously written, or its attitudes have aged badly, or it’s simply a lesser imitation of a book that made the cut. Sometimes, though, a work of originality and genius slips inexplicably through the cracks, and it’s in search of these lost treasures – ‘black pearls’, as my friend Bill, an antiquarian book dealer, calls them – that poor sods like me spend their days in second-hand bookshops, blowing dust off of sun-bleached spines and flipping doggedly through voided library paperbacks we’ve never even heard of. Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, is a black pearl if there ever was one. Set in a post-apocalyptic England in which all but the most basic civilization has decayed, and written in a kind of radioactive pidgin that heightens both the absurdity and horror of the world it describes, the novel tells the story of the uneasy friendship between two adolescent boys – one a normal teenager, one a clairvoyant mutant – who happen, more or less by accident, on the secret of the atomic bomb. I won’t say more than that, but trust me, it’s a humdinger. In the words of Anthony Burgess, whose A Clockwork Orange is one of the only novels Riddley Walker owes a debt to: “This is what literature was meant to be – exploration without fear.”More from A Year in Reading 2008
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What was the book that started it all for you?Edan: According to my mother, I could read novels before I was potty trained. I’m not contesting that mythology, but the first time I remember being totally enamored with a book was later than that, at about age 8, when my mother bought me Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I’d read and liked other books – The Babysitters Club series, of course, and nearly everything by Judy Blume – but Anne of Green Gables felt more magical, and more mature. It took me to a faraway world, specifically, to Prince Edward Island in the early 20th century, and used big, unfamiliar words (I remember asking my mom what the word “abundance” meant on the ride home from the bookstore – I had a small tingling of fear – or was it excitement? – that this book would be difficult). I loved that the story’s protagonist had carrot red hair, and, even better, freckles like mine! I took to calling people “kindred spirits” and wondering if I could pull of puffed sleeves. I spent the next couple of years reading Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, and I started taping the following warning into my inside book covers:This book is one thingMy fist is anotherYou take thisAnd you’ll get the otherAndrew: During my senior high school year, on an otherwise unremarkable school night, my English teacher – an inspiring educator named Robert Majer – took the entire class out to Zappi’s Pizza, where, on a large screen, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange leapt off of the wall, tossed aside plates of steaming pizza, and grabbed each one of us by the throat, commanding our attention. The next day, in a private moment following a discussion of the film, Mr. Majer brought out his own copy of the novel (we weren’t actually studying the novel in the class) and lent it to me.There had been novels that floored me before (Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye affected me as strongly as it did countless other youths) and in a matter of months I would immerse myself in American masters from Hemingway to Irving, by way of Vonnegut, not to mention all those nineteenth-century Russians. But the singular experience of reading Anthony Burgess, who contorted and then caressed the English language, made a huge impression on me and left me with a feeling that anything could be achieved with language. And that fiction is an expansive and limitless medium.Emily: The book that started it all for me was Little Black, A Pony, by Walter Farley. I, aged three, woke my parents up sobbing with the anguished announcement “I can’t read!” Thanks to my mom and trusty Little Black, I am now an accomplished reader (and a competent horsewoman). While this 1961 children’s book has recently been translated into Navajo and re-illustrated by Baje Whitethorne, Jr., the one I knew and loved had a little very blond and very crew-cutted Hardy Boys looking boy on the cover, and this original edition is still available for about five bucks (including shipping) through Amazon Marketplace. Not for the last time (ehem, cat dissertation), I found myself entranced by the animal’s eye-view.Emre: You pose a difficult question and at best I have 15 different answers. Agatha Christie and Jules Verne were my elementary school darlings, but I really turned the corner summer of junior year in high school with an unexpected choice that is brilliant in its simple collage of people, geography, life, death, love and suffering. I was high on Kemal Tahir’s Yorgun Savascı, which we had read during the school year. My father was quick to seize on my excitement about this novel, which told the story of the resistance against the occupying Allied Powers in post-World War I Istanbul and the budding independence movement in Anatolia. So, my dad casually suggested I leaf through Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country. At the time a copy of Hikmet’s epic rested in our bathroom, atop the laundry machine. (Yes, laundry machines are often found in bathrooms in Turkish homes, to me it was the most normal thing growing up. And, yes, newspapers and assorted literature were always abundant in our domestic restroom.)One evening I took my seat on the porcelain throne and picked up Human Landscapes from My Country – never to put it down. My legs went numb and I forgot where I was as I dug into Hikmet’s verses, which in plain yet moving terms paint a startling picture of Turkey and its people. Starting with a traveler drinking at Haydarpasa, Istanbul’s second primary train station on the Asian side, the 17,000-line epic chronicles landscapes and people, wars and the birth of a nation. Don’t get thrown off by that latter part. Hikmet was a communist who, to the shame of the republic he loved so much, spent 12 years behind bars because of his political beliefs, eventually fleeing to the USSR. Naturally, he inserted his struggles with the republic’s authoritarian tendencies and his time in prison into Human Landscapes from My Country. But the beauty of Hikmet is his humanism, his ultimate love and trust in the brotherhood of all men. The verses reflect his deep-seated belief in people, who appear from all walks of life to provide a perfect landscape of Turkey from the bourgeois to peasants, politicians, factory workers, war veterans, struggling mothers and hopeless romantics. I still pick up Human Landscapes from My Country to reaffirm my own faith in people – it never ceases to make me weep or laugh with sadness and joy.Garth: True story: when I was in second grade, and in my second year of reading “chapter books,” I found a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in a ballfield dugout after pee-wee league practice one day. That cryptic title haunted me, and when my mother was teaching the book to her high school class a couple of years later, I asked if I could read it, too. She agreed, provided I would promise to read it again when I was in middle school, again in high school, and again in college. It would mean something different to me each time, she said. (Years later, when I attempted Middlemarch, she would extract a similar promise… the difference being that I was actually in college at that point.) I complied with my mom’s wishes, but nothing came close to that very first reading, which may have taken me two months. The possibilities of books (to be complex, to be layered, to communicate things the characters themselves don’t know) had grown by an order of magnitude or so. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, and with apologies to Beverly Cleary (whom I still love): “It was bye-bye, Ramona Quimby… we were airborne.”Max: As a young insomniac, I read myself to sleep each night, and it turned out to be habit forming. My shelves bulged with Beverly Cleary, The Hardy Boys, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I even discretely dipped into The Babysitters Club to see if I could get some intelligence on how the other half lived. (“They’re my sister’s!” I exclaimed to friends if I ever carelessly left a copy in plain sight.) Round about 7th grade I started raiding my parents’ large and haphazardly curated library. There were quite a few false starts, but one day I dipped into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and never looked back. It made me immediately realize that all the books I had been reading were “kids” books, and opened my eyes, ultimately, to the mind-bending (especially to a 12-year-old) possibilities of fiction. From there I read all of Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and T.C. Boyle, acquired the hobby of haunting local bookshops, and was on my way.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What was the book that started it all for you?
After my brief service was completed I spent a week in Istanbul and returned to New York. In the meanwhile I picked up a collection of Yasar Kemal’s short stories, Sari Sicak, Teneke ve Diger Hikayeler (Yellow Heat, Tin Can and Other Stories) from my parents’ library. I was in between cities and about to quit my job, hence a collection proved perfect for the time. Kemal has a very distinct style that reflects an Anatolian tone and includes long depictions of nature and rural life and lengthy character analyses. The collection included some of his most famous pieces such as “Sari Sicak” (“Yellow Heat”) and “Teneke” (“Tin Can”), which, as do most of the other stories, reflect on the difficulties of rural life in the southern towns and regions surrounding Adana, a city now known for its cotton farmers and back then for its rice plantations. The backwards methods of planting rice resulted in swamps and an increase in the number of mosquitoes, and therefore malaria. Kemal reflects on the ill approach of the government towards the rural population and the generous benefits it granted to landlords, who, without the slightest regard to the peasants, flooded villages, planted rice, created swamps and did not even wince at the death of hundreds of men, women and children due to malaria. Reading Kemal’s stories, the reader easily identifies with the daily troubles of the villagers that believe in a just government and seek help, all to their dismay. Depictions of corrupt and impossible situations reach a new zenith in Kemal’s stories, and, hold true even today – despite the changes in setting. Books by Yasar Kemal.Upon arriving in New York, I received four great books as birthday presents. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange from Sylvia and Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky and The Best American Magazine Writing 2005 compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by The Columbia University Press from Selin and Siddhesh. I immediately started reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2005. I am currently reading stories at random and so far I read four out of the seventeen pieces in the collection: Seymour M. Hersch’s “Torture at Abu Ghraib“, Ned Zeman’s “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies”, Andrew Corsello’s “The Wronged Man” and Samantha Power’s Dying in Darfur. I am not sure if I agree one hundred percent with Nicholas Lemann’s assertion that this specific collection comprises the best pieces of writing to come out of the U.S. in 2005, but nevertheless the stories are incredibly well written, insightful and fresh. I enjoyed the ones I read thus far and hope that the rest will be just as good.See also: Part 1, 3