For this year’s Year in Reading, I wrote about my 2019 reading grump—a restless disinterest in many of the novels that literary and social media were excited about. As readers we all go through these ruts. For whatever reasons, we are fickle—impossible to please, hungry for work that will stimulate and nourish our intellect, emotions, and spirits just so.
Enter the dramatic TV series.
Backing up: One of the reasons I feel disconnected from contemporary literary fiction is that it’s become a largely middlebrow medium. This assessment is admittedly vague, subjective, and not necessarily a wholesale critique. I really don’t expect anyone to agree with me, nor do I feel impelled to convince readers who love/admire the books in question that they should feel or think otherwise. Generally speaking I embrace subjectivity in relation to art: let’s disagree, let’s have varying experiences—all for the greater Good and pursuit of Beauty.
But what do I mean by “middlebrow?” I mean this: The story is centered around familiar types of modern people dealing with modern problems, including something related to race and/or social inequity and/or complicated romantic and familial relations; the protagonist(s) is (are) both earnest and flawed; pathos and wit co-mingle in good measure; the prose “flows,” i.e. is “well-written” and propulsive such that the reader does not trip over it, is guided along from sentence to sentence as if by a kindly butler or gentle ocean wave; there is a balance of interior (thought, reflection) and exterior (dialogue, action) drama; there are no more than two or three high-conflict scenes, which may be vividly unpleasant though tolerably so.
Another way of putting it is that a middlebrow novel need only be read once, perhaps in three or four sittings, and the reader will be satisfied by this experience, which is relatively passive while also still engaging. Yet another way of putting it—more grumpy—is that there is no strangeness or disturbing difficulty at the heart of the narrative or the characters, nor in the language or structure used to form them. The reader is not inclined to pause in mid-scene or mid-sentence—to take a moment to metabolize or review or recover—because these novels are meant to be smoother and more manageable than life, and thus no such slowing-down in response to unsettledness or confusion or wonder or alarm is demanded.
I have nothing against this experience of propulsive absorbedness. I enjoy and seek out this experience regularly. I just think: This isn’t what literature as an art form is/does/should do. Literature is not about smoothing out prickly spots or sharp corners or the essential misshapenness of existence; in a word, literature should be, at minimum, more courageous than life.
If this seems snobby, let me offer an analogy, which may seem equally snobby, but hopefully at least clarifying: I am not someone who wants my candidate for president to be primarily someone I can “have a beer with.” I want that person to be smarter and better than me—much smarter and better—a little intimidating, someone who will lead, challenge, and enlist me to participate actively in the greater good.
And so, these days, I am passing on middlebrow, aka “relatable,” novels. I think: For satisfying manageable engagement, why not watch good serial TV instead?
Prestige showrunners like David Simon (The Wire) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) have both spoken of their multi-season series as having been conceived “as a novel.” Each might be understood as a Great American Social Novel—the former roving through multiple sectors of urban life in a major city (Baltimore), season by season; the latter spanning socio-cultural transformation between 1960 and 1970 via New York City’s advertising world. In centering its many storylines around Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, Mad Men is perhaps more character-driven than The Wire, whose real main character (despite a richly complex ensemble cast) is the city of Baltimore itself. Yet neither is protagonist-driven, strictly speaking.
As someone interested primarily in the mystery and complexity of human personality—as reader, viewer, and writer—the series that has me thinking most about TV drama-qua-novel then, is The Good Wife.
For seven seasons (2009-2016), viewers followed the eponymous wife, Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies), through her mid-life coming-of-age—her journey the very model of an adult bildungsroman. In the pilot, we meet Alicia in high crisis: Her husband, Illinois State’s Attorney General Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), has just been convicted of corruption, while simultaneously exposed as a philanderer. With Peter serving prison time, stay-at-home mom Alicia is not only humiliated, but must now earn a living for herself and their two teens. Trained as a lawyer, Alicia sets off to interview at corporate firms for associate positions usually reserved for recent law-school grads. Between her resume gap and public profile, her prospects are grim, until by chance she runs into an old flame from college, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). Will is dashing, confident, a partner in his own firm. He says, “Call me sometime,” and when Alicia becomes desperate for a job, she does. Will gives her the break she needs, hiring her as an associate at Stern, Lockhardt & Gardner, where she thrives and advances quickly. In the midst of disaster, Alicia begins to not only find her footing, but also her latent talents and ambitions.
Alicia is both Hillary and not-Hillary: She stands by her man, but her public image could not be more different. Nicknamed by the press “Saint Alicia,” she eschews public attention, is temperamentally calm, deferent, laconic—feminine in the ways a “good wife” should be—slender and smoky-eyed to boot. Building each episode’s plot around a court case (or two), the strength of the series is in interrogating, challenging, redefining over and over this notion of “good” as it applies to “wife”—and to woman more generally—along with professional ethics. Through the vicissitudes of Alicia’s life over seven years, we come to know—or think we know and then realize there’s yet still more to know—the conflicted, hungering inner life of a character whose defining external traits are self-denial, quiet intelligence, and caution.
Series finales are high-stakes balancing acts: writers must satisfy audience, art, and network (CBS, in this case). To their great credit, The Good Wife writers stuck that ending (see in your mind Simone Biles, feet planted and arms stretched to the sky after her floor routine). They hit that surprising-but-inevitable sweet spot in a way that sent me right back to rewatch earlier episodes—not all of them, but particular ones that sent up pricks and sparks of resonance as the series’s final moments rippled back through the seven-year narrative like an electric current.
The upshot: Alicia, now truly free of Peter, arrived and confident (professionally, sexually, emotionally) at the same time she is thoroughly battle-scarred—is less “good” than we thought she was. More importantly, she is less good than she thought she was. Her relationships to the law, ambition, colleagues, money, friends, lovers, children—all these have both deepened and darkened, grown more complicated and more simple in thought-provoking ways.
This is true of our relationship to Alicia as well. After seven seasons of rooting for her, we find she is not so exceptionally sympathetic after all. She is—has either always been, or has become, or both—as self-serving and transactional as anyone. What we are left with then is the essential question of how we feel about that.
Is it more or less “good” to be (a) sober-eyed, seasoned, willing to claim your success and take your pleasure or (b) naive, soft-hearted and deferent, ever-longing after but unsullied by the triumphant sumptuousness of the big-bad world? This either/or proposition—how to be “good”—is a woman’s question; certainly it has been. (Perhaps, hopefully, this is changing). A woman cannot—in 2016 in Chicago, in 2020 anywhere in America—mindlessly, without cost, inhabit and manifest her Alpha dog, her Nietzschean mensch. The question is urgent, difficult, infuriating, and real.
But the incarnation of the how-to-be-good conundrum at the end of The Good Wife, open-ended and unsmooth, is to my mind comforting in its courage. This was network TV, mind you, the very breeding ground for middlebrow, redefining a “good woman” as a complete woman, a full person—neither relative object nor idealized vessel, but multidimensional Subject. She may or may not be likable; she is as disappointing as she is inspiring. She is no saint, and even publicly rejects religion (despite the entreaties of her earnest daughter and a straight-shooting African-American minister). In the finale’s final seconds, after her moral character and physical body are at once dealt a stunning blow, Alicia smooths down her pencil skirt, then lifts her chin. But that ending leaves a rough taste in our mouths: the messes Alicia leaves behind her and now faces before her are what lingers. As novelistic vision, this for me rises above middlebrow. It’s unmanageable. And true.
Serial format is inherently populist and thus fraternal with middlebrow: The serial novel, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries à la Dickens, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, Dostoevsky, et alia, made novels accessible to poor people (a periodical or installment was less expensive than a bound book) and even those who couldn’t read (excited readers would gather to read the latest installment aloud). Serialization has been good for creators and producers alike, generating communal conversation about the most recent installment and anticipatory predictions/hopes for what comes next, all of which bolsters interest and sales.
This phenomenon, of episodic buzzy chatter, has clearly energized today’s TV-viewing and the economics thereof. It also, interestingly, has the effect of making serial TV more novelistic: In slowing down the series’ central narrative tension—in the case of The Good Wife, the romantic-sexual-professional relationship between Alicia and Will—we experience the arc of that central narrative more completely. The Alicia+Will connection underwent intensity and diffusion, intimacy and distance; it was a slow, patient burn. Even after Will abruptly and dramatically exited Alicia’s life and the series in season 5, Alicia continued for two years to metabolize—more profoundly than she had when he was present—what had happened and not happened between them. As would be in life, it took the whole seven years.
Meanwhile, each episode, with its bite-sized court case, delivered its smooth, manageable dose of rising action, conflict, crisis, and (generally too-easy) resolution—replete with delightful and entertaining supporting characters and cameos (some of them well developed in themselves, others narrowly typed)—to satisfy the need for passive engagement and propulsion. Even marathon-watching the entire series in a few weeks delivered these shorter- and longer-term satisfactions.
In lieu of the proliferating middlebrow literary novel, might we bring back the serial narrative? Nonfiction has done so, with wild success, via podcast. On the upside, long-form fiction could, like serial TV, hook readers installment by installment and generate a wider base of word-of-mouth consumers (good for authors); on the downside, books with weak, unsatisfying arcs/endings would exploit reader addiction and anticipation (bad for readers and for art). In 2015, Washington Post book critic Hillary Kelly, recognizing that the serial form favors plot-driven work—for example fantasy fiction and YA, both forms currently producing serial publications actively—and/or “literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety,” nonetheless made a strong case for reviving the serial novel, across all genres:
[Serialization] requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum…While the plot of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is nearly as bloody and scheming as a Game of Thrones book, we all know that Anne Boleyn loses her head; it’s the inner workings of Thomas Cromwell’s mind that keep readers delighted and critics astounded…Imagine a Stephen King novella terrifying the readers of Time, a new Jeffrey Eugenides epic unfurling through the pages of the New Yorker or Jennifer Weiner’s curious, energized female protagonists occupying a prominent section in Elle. Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.
Perhaps the revived literary-fiction serial could, like the hit podcast Serial and its progeny, be in audio form. Or some other interactive hybrid that incorporates visuals, hyperlinks, choose-your-own adventure? I don’t know. Perhaps the novel is doing just fine, and I’m the grumpy defector here. I’m just saying: As both writer and reader, I’m rooting for literature and books; but for now serial TV has effectively replaced middlebrow fiction for me. Both the pleasures and substance of long-form TV drama are richer and ultimately more resonant than those of the sort-of-but-not-quite literary novel. Form and content are better matched; there is an integrity between the two. The literary novel, on the other hand, respects and optimizes its raison d’etre in respecting and optimizing language; its eggs are all—should be, more than it currently is—in that basket.
Call me a traditionalist or a dinosaur or whatever: I’m a Gen Xer who came to reading and writing for the richness and poetry of language. I’d be happy to see literary novels become less prosaic in both senses of the word—braver, more language rich and structurally inventive—shaping and challenging more than reflecting existence as we know it. I get excited about the ambitious structuring of a novel like As Lie Is to Grin by Simeon Marsalis, who both creates his own and channels his literary forebears’ language and polyphonic structure (specifically Jean Toomer and Paul Laurence Dunbar). As one reviewer puts it, “as a kind of vellum onto which this novel has been written…” Or the weird, dense sentences, and equally weird, lightly absurdist characters of stories and novels by Joy Williams, all of which invariably add up to something mysterious, vibrant, and sad. Or the precise, mesmerizing narrative voices of Yoko Ogawa and James Salter; the muscular, whirling, linguistic and philosophical energy of Sergio de la Pava.
I want these works too to be widely read, to generate buzzy chatter, to re-energize novel-reading. But I don’t know how that happens. Is there only one way to generate so-called “momentum” in a book? Is it always “what happens next?” Or “relatability” or manageable smoothness? Why not intensity, or depth, or unsolvable mystery—a more vertically-oriented driving energy?
We’re all figuring these things out. The golden age of TV, its captivation of our emotional devotion and resources, has yet to run its course, if ever it will. In the meantime, I wish you all bon courage—good luck and best wishes—but also the Good and the Courageous literally, in choosing your satisfactions.
I’m in the middle of Wuthering Heights as I write this, anxiously anticipating the greatest scene in all of English literature. You know the one. As I pass through what might be my fourth or fifth visit at the Heights, I wonder if it’s Emily or Charlotte I admire most. But then they’re both so wonderful. I can’t decide. My apologies to Anne whom I’ve yet to read. Thank god for these sisters though and their world to which I can escape the pre-apocalyptic nightmare of 2019.
Never one to shy from the cheerful thought of possible extinction, this year I slowly meandered through The Sixth Extinction from Elizabeth Kolbert, whom my best friend tells me writes great articles at The New Yorker, though I never read them because I find New Yorker articles far too long for my Twitter-addicted eyeballs, except for the one about sound being “permanently” recorded with sand. On every page of The Sixth Extinction is some criminally ignored fact—or warning—about the threat to humanity’s future on this planet. At the outset of the book, we’re introduced to a spore that is rapidly killing off the world’s frogs. Can you imagine a world without frogs? Or even less of them? What is the night without a symphony of croaks? I want to ask that to everyone. The threats to civilization pile high. The end is coming. I want to run down the street screaming this at people. A desire so fiery I couldn’t even keep a lid on it for this Year In Reading list. Dark days ahead my friends.
The salve for this existential worry is sometimes writing, poetry, big-time novels like Prey by Michael Crichton, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, all of which I giddily consumed in bed in the dark on my kindle—my third such device after the first was broken on a Carnival cruise ship off the coast of Mexico and the second was left in the backseat pocket on a flight from London to San Francisco.
But if I’m being totally honest, and if the editors of The Millions allow me, the greatest salve is The Relentless Picnic podcast. Obviously, a podcast won’t count as reading per se, but let me defend this. The three Picnickers are voracious and erudite readers, often sustaining two hours of discussion with recitations from philosophical treatises, strips of poems, incantations etched into the underbelly of pine bark. You’re their greatest friend, but also a humble receiver of what I imagine is like a more immediate version of an audiobook. Finally, and maybe most importantly for this venue, the Picnickers have led me to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Mark Leidner’s Under the Sea, two collections that not only display the writers’ brilliance but point at the possibilities of a new literature.
Another trio of books that has alternately cooled my jets and had me dreaming of the guillotine is The Xenofeminist Manifesto from Laboria Cuboniks, Cruel Fiction by Wendy Trevino, and Pink Privacy by Jessica Yatrofsky. Facebook’s recent invitation to have its technology and platform seized by the federal government fortifies XF’s central point that it is in our future’s interest to repurpose and redirect technological advancement. Across the board, companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, and Uber have shown they are incapable of working toward the good of human civilization. Like the Old Guard of Capital who have sold off the Everglades and the Mississippi River Delta, poisoned Flint’s water, bleached out the Great Barrier Reef, and committed countless other equally catastrophic environmental and human offenses, the new disruptors of economic development have proven too irresponsible to entrust with the tools of human thriving.
If we are to take back control of the future, Trevino’s Cruel Fiction is a poetry collection I hope every person has memorized—its lines splashed in red over a confederate monument or on the lips of a youth throwing a brick through Bank of America’s window. A song we might sing over communal dinners. Much of what Trevino writes appears self-evident to me, but then from that I assume maybe she’s speaking directly to me or at least people like me. In this Fake News-Trumpist Idiocracy, there aren’t people to “win over” after all. The site of rational political discourse is the fiction. Trevino writes not to worry about those who work against you. In an echo of an earlier manifesto from France, Trevino emphatically tells us it is through the fires of mass struggle that we will “see each other.”
When I think of the joy I might feel on the eve of revolution, I think of Jessica Yatrofsky’s Pink Privacy. Though less overtly political than Cruel Fiction and The Xenofeminist Manifesto, Pink Privacy sustains a personal-political project Yatrofsky has forged across a wide range of media from film and photography to neon installations and music. Pink Privacy disarmed me with its humor, often sexual and brutal, while proclaiming clearly the independence and vulnerability of its author. Like the dizzying dance at the crescendo of Midsommar, Pink Privacy elucidates as much as of the world as it inducts you into the as-of-yet-unrevealed experience of women in the 21st century. Also, as in the feel-good-hit of the summer, you’ll rejoice in watching Yatrofsky burn everything down.
I reread The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I’m no Woolf scholar, but this is her greatest book, right? No? I wept at her writing, thinking, Oh my god, this is what a novel could do, this is the power of writing… Somewhere in the middle of the novel, I went to a cafe for a cappuccino and a vegan lemon cake. The barista saw my book and told me she had been studying Woolf in school. Not wanting to seem like a weirdo I didn’t tell her the book was making me cry and instead mumbled something about how beautiful the prose was. I returned to my table outside with my cake and drink and, forgetting the barista, read as long as I could, until my cup was emptied.
I also reread The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which, though I still found it affecting, did not have quite the same impact as when I first read it 16 years ago while on a solo trip through New England. Back then I was a young and broken-hearted college senior and found myself renting a room at a Franciscan monastery in Kennebunkport, Maine. Young Werther was my only literary friend at the moment—well, him and Bartleby. Now, Werther just seemed sad to me and not in a good way. He is like a younger brother who has taken life way too seriously. A majority of my enjoyment rereading Werther was simply the nostalgia it created for the person I used to be, the gratitude that I had made it out of New England with only a bloody nose but dispossessed of the broken heart.
I read Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, In the Distance by Hernán Diaz, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. Chen’s novel about time-travel and protecting those you love resonated strongly for me, but nothing prepared me for how deeply I would be affected by its ending. I want to say something like Chen’s writing is deceptively good but I don’t want that to sound like a backhanded compliment. What I mean is his characters and their story work their magic beyond the text while you’re just flying through the pages. By the end of the book, I was so enthralled to the story I couldn’t help but ugly cry. Only Les Miserables has elicited a similar response, so bravo, Mike Chen. Similarly, In the Distance performed some emotional miracle, almost without my notice. Diaz’s writing confounded me at times in the best possible ways. His language is lush and rhapsodic but balanced against the austerity of the American west of 1850. I look forward to returning to Diaz’s novel when my own writing is missing something.
Kiesling’s The Golden State is a novel I’ve found impossible to escape. For me it was quite easy to slide into the familiarity of its Northern California setting. The ridiculousness of the State of Jefferson movement. The beauty of the wild and untouched vastness of California. There’s this joke about how tourists not from California think they can visit San Francisco and Los Angeles all in the same day. What? It’s only a drive down the coast right? No, it is not. (I also remember working at The Gap at Fisherman’s Wharf and selling sweaters and jeans to Swedish tourists clad in only t-shirts and shorts who believed the movies and thought California was always sunny and 75 degrees.) This state is HUGE and a lot exists here. Kiesling consolidates that vastness, the deserted menace of Northern-NorCal, into a lightning strike none-day road trip for Daphne and her small child, Honey. I think of all the books I’ve read this year, The Golden State has been the one I’ve recommended to friends the most. This is partially because over the last few years I’ve gotten to know Lydia and partially because I consider myself a “California Kid” and I love that there’s a contemporary novel out now I can point to and say Hey, look, yes, this is what it’s like here!
Back in 1988, Tad Williams published the first book of the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which inspired George R.R. Martin to start writing A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, more than twenty years after publishing the last installment (and just as the new season of Game of Thrones begins), Williams announced that he’s writing a sequel, The Last King of Osten Ard. You could also read our own Janet Potter’s review of the first Game of Thrones book.
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
The publishing world went medieval this month with the publication of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. The series inspires lifestyle-changing devotion among its biggest fans, seething ire among those it has lured in and let down, legions of new enthusiasts drawn in by the HBO adaptation of the first book, and bewilderment from those who can’t imagine what’s so interesting about knights and dragons.
These detractors, frankly, bore me. Seabiscuit wasn’t about a horse. You don’t have to like football to love Friday Night Lights. A great narrative is great in any genre, and A Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the most compelling, fully realized narrative in modern literature.
Set in the kingdom of Westeros and its neighboring lands, the series follows the political unrest that results from the king’s death in the first book. That king, Robert Baratheon, was himself a usurper, and his eldest son Joffrey is still in puberty. That, combined with the fact that Joffrey’s legitimacy is in serious question, means loyalty to the young king is easily shaken, and before long there are a handful of lords hoping to take the throne. All these claimants at war with each other throws Westeros into chaos and, as of Book Five, it still hasn’t calmed down. As one character says, “So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last. So we go on century after century, with us hating the Brackens and them hating us. My father says there will never be an end to it.”
The books are narrated in turn by several of the principal characters — Catelyn, the widow who supports her son’s campaign to be king of the North; Tyrion, the dead king’s dwarf brother-in-law who is brilliant, funny, and hated by his family and eventually the whole kingdom; Davos, one of the claimants’ lowborn adviser, as wise as he is downtrodden; Sansa, a beautiful young heiress, dumber than a box of rocks, who is fought over as a marriage prize; and Daenerys, the daughter of a murdered king, who has grown up in exile with dreams of reclaiming her father’s throne.
These characters, among several other narrators, are our windows into the upheaval in Westeros. Although the action has brought in dozens of noble families and their households, several kingdoms, and more than 1,500 named characters, the two foci are the Starks and the Lannisters. It seems that no matter who you are in Westeros, you will eventually be fighting for or against one of these families.
The Starks are a stoic, noble family who are prone to loyalty, principled action, and terse conversation. The late Lord Eddard Stark is still quite present in the books as a fallen paragon of goodness. All but one of his children are narrators, and they are impossibly lovable with their stubborn, well-intentioned ways. The Starks have been separated since Book One, and none of them remain at their ancestral castle. The beating heart of the series, for me, is the hope that the remaining Starks will be reunited and reclaim their home. Killing off the Starks, or putting them in mortal peril, is one of Martin’s most painful habits.
The Lannisters, on the other hands, are presented in the first book as the slimeballs of the series. They scheme, lie, betray, and murder. They are unpredictable, and complicated, and throw a chaotic element into every situation they enter. Where the Starks’ life has been stable and loving, the Lannister siblings have been pressured, rejected, and distrusted since childhood. Martin has spent five books fleshing them out — showing how their manipulative natures were formed, and are in turn forming their adult lives. If the Stark family is a study in the limitations of morality, the Lannisters are a study in the limitations of existentialism.
Because in Westeros, your family is who you are. The honor or dishonor of your family name defines you, sometimes despite your actions. This is where Martin’s multi-voice narration brings Westeros to life. Looking into the inner lives of the characters shows us the knight who is afraid, the Lannister with regrets, the leader who needs advice, the boy with a destiny who just wants to go home. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon Snow perhaps speaks the most. Newly elected the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, a small force that guards Westeros’ northern border, he finds himself with few allies and no good council. “I am a son of Eddard Stark,” “I am the commander of the wall,” he reminds himself, but more often than not he feels unprepared and outnumbered.
All of the narrators are constantly doing this — comparing who they are meant to be with who they feel they are. Self-reflection is always done on the move, though, in this world where duty never ends. As Tyrion puts it, “Fight or hide or shit yourself, as you like, but whatever you decide to do, you’ll do it clad in steel.”
The narrative is operating on three levels at all times. The first is the day-to-day lives of the characters as they sit in council meetings, tell dirty jokes over dinner, haggle with ship captains, or pass the time with kingdom gossip. Martin is not wont to say that a voyage to Oldtown took five weeks and was difficult, he’ll drop in on the voyage a few times, tracking the mood of the travelers, showing them hash over their plans. This attention to minutiae takes most of the credit for the books’ lengths, but it doesn’t try your patience.
The second level is book-length story arcs for the narrators, like leading an army against the lords of the west, or journeying back to the capital after escaping from prison. These arcs, though, are rarely completed. Rather, when a character is about to accomplish what they’ve been striving for, they will usually find that the situation has changed, and will start on a new path. Jaime Lannister, for instance, spends a book trying to get back to his beloved sister in King’s Landing, only to reach her and realize he no longer enjoys her company. The characters continue to make their plans and predict their outcomes, but these plans will usually be rendered obsolete in the reshuffling of loyalties and quests that typifies the last 200 pages of each book.
The third level of Martin’s narrative is the slow march of history that manages to make the series, even though it’s at 4,000 pages and counting, seem like a small part of a much larger story. Martin has not just invented Westeros and its people; he’s invented thousands of years of its history, which he doles out little by little throughout the books. Westeros has seen the rise and fall of dynasties, new conquerors, centuries-old blood feuds, and plenty of wars. The conflicts that take up A Song of Ice and Fire will eventually be summed up in a few words sung by one of the kingdom’s minstrels.
Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, trained us, Martin’s readers, how to read his books. The beheading of Eddard Stark, the series’ original hero, sent the message that none of this was going to be pretty. We’ve stopped expecting fair outcomes. We know that a young, handsome, brave king can be killed by an old angry man while they’re eating dinner. When we see a character say, “I’m going to rescue your lost daughters,” we don’t hold our breaths. And we’ve become patient. When I finished Book One, I hurried on to Book Two with the expectation that I would soon see Arya Stark reunited with her companion direwolf (long story). Four books later, I’m still waiting. Another subplot — the murdered king’s heir’s return to Westeros to reclaim the throne — which was promised in the early chapters of Book One, is only realized in the final chapters of Book Five.
Much as the struggles of the Starks and the Lannisters hold our attention, they are not, the reader comes to learn, the be all and end all of Westeros. History will eventually forget most of them. And yet, as we follow them, each narrator is on an epic journey of their own. We see their daily lives, their attempts at glory or happiness, the way each of them — to themselves — is the entire world. We also see how, to Martin, and to Westeros, they’re only drops in a bucket. Every epic battle, king’s reign, or family history is a fleeting moment, and a story all its own.
“I sit on the damn iron seat when I must. Does that mean I don’t have the same hungers as other men? A bit of wine now and again, a girl squealing in bed, the feel of a horse between my legs? Seven hells, Ned, I want to hit someone.”
Compare that to anything you’ve heard Aragorn say, and you’ve arrived at the salient difference between George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien, even while the frequent comparison of the two remains apt.
Aragorn, of course, is the true-born king in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who spends the trilogy fighting to claim his throne while being handsome and eloquent. The above was said by Robert Baratheon, king of the seven kingdoms in A Game of Thrones. He’s fat, drunk, and far too easily bored to be an effective ruler. The comparison isn’t quite fair, though, because Martin never makes the claim that Robert was destined to be king, or that anybody is destined to be king.
That’s just the thing with Martin. He’s created a fantasy world – warring families, usurped thrones, dark magic, heroic creatures – but hasn’t peopled it with fantasy characters. Yes, there are noble characters and yes, there are villains, but there isn’t a good army and a bad army. Although there are epic landscapes, close-knit brotherhoods, and a reverent relationship with weaponry, there is no one hero and no central quest. The particular gift of George R.R. Martin is that he’s adept at both the epic trappings and the gritty details.
Within the first 50 pages, we are introduced to the book’s four main families – the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Targaryens. Put as simply as possible, the Targaryens had long held the throne of the seven kingdoms, until Robert Baratheon seized it, with the help of his wife’s father and brother – the Lannisters, who betrayed and killed the former king – and his lifelong friend Eddard “Ned” Stark. Years later, the last remaining Targaryens – adolescent brother and sister Viserys and Daenerys – are in exile, planning to take back their family’s throne, which Robert Baratheon lazily holds, under the contemptful watch of his Lannister wife and brothers-in-law. When Robert’s closest adviser dies, he travels with his household to Winterfell, the isolated northern home of the Stark family, to ask Ned to take the position.
For a spell, almost all of the principal characters are at Winterfell – Ned Stark and his wife and six children, Robert, his wife Cersei Lannister, their three insufferable children, and her two brothers, Jaime and Tyrion. What a tangled, tangled web. Old grudges, new grudges, old secrets, new alliances, and more than one drunken revelation reverbate around the halls of Winterfell, just until you’ve got a feel for everyone, and then they all split up. (Even the Targaryens, off in exile, pack up and start moving.) For the rest of the novel, the cast is always on the move, traversing the vast geography of Martin’s world.
I was a Russian major in college, so I can’t read a 500+ page book without Isaiah Berlin whispering in my ear. Berlin was the author of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an essay based on an ancient Greek adage: “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin divides writers into these two categories. Hedgehogs view the world as a stage for a single, encompassing logic (power corrupts, love conquers all, that kind of thing). Foxes are more fascinated by the infinite variety of the human condition. In Berlin’s signature comparison, Dostoevsky is a hedgehog, and Tolstoy is a fox.
The fantasy genre, although I admit I’m not its most versed reader, is full of hedgehogs. Godfather Tolkien, certainly, is pure hedgehog. What I find most fascinating about Martin is that he’s a fox in a hedgehog genre. While his world looks like fantasy (bastards! dwarves! whores! knights!), and the action revolves around the question of the seven kingdoms’ throne (Will Robert keep it? Are the Lannisters plotting for it? Will the Targaryens reclaim it?), the focus is on the clashing relationships and motivations of the people involved in the struggle.
Eddard, for example, leaves his home to serve the king, whom he’s lost faith in. He has to work closely with the king’s council, who he fears are in league with the Lannisters. He has to protect his two daughters, who he’s brought with him, and trust in his eldest son Robb, still a teenager, whom he left in charge of Winterfell. His wife Catelyn is traveling around on a secret reconnaissance mission, which is a whole other thing. Each character’s path through the novel is equally hard to navigate, I can’t think of one who doesn’t fundamentally distrust a number of the people around them.
Destiny and heroics have little purchase in this murky world. No one is the people’s champion. In fact, the salt of earth rarely show up except to mug rich people while they travel. The conflict is confined to the elite of the seven kingdoms, squabbling over a throne, and no side can claim a right to it.
That’s not to say that you won’t take sides. The Starks are the crowd pleasers. They enter the game of thrones reluctantly – always a sign of moral fortitude – and Eddard is honorable to a fault (for which he is endlessly reproached, to reiterate that such nobility has no place in Martin’s universe). The Stark children, in the book’s coolest whim, each have a pet wolf that follows them everywhere, can sense their moods and when they’re in danger.
In the HBO series based on the book, the Starks are the heroes. When we meet them in the first episode, they’re wearing dark, dignified clothes and standing up straight, while the Lannisters wear pastels and lean on anything in sight. The Starks deliver their lines in earnest, the Lannisters in sarcasm. But for all that, the Starks have their ugly moments, and the Lannisters are sometimes kind. The series, as it has thus far, will do well not to ignore those nuances in favor of narrative.
My favorite moment of the series so far is a scene in which a midnight courier’s message forces Eddard and Catelyn out of bed. As Sean Bean, who plays Eddard, stands by the fire, his night shirt drapes open, revealing a wide swath of pectorals covered in scars. Really awesome scars. It’s a powerful visual, and one that conveys, in a heartbeat, the lives of these men. The men of Game of Thrones are rich, powerful lords, knights, and kings who rule over vast lands and kingdoms, and they’ve all had their asses kicked numerous times. Their lives are expansive, and extremlely hard.
“The things we love destroy us every time, lad,” says Tyrion Lannister, early in the book. And truly, if Martin were a hedgehog, I would say Game of Thrones is about the things we let destroy us. Sometimes those things are plotters, usurpers, or vengeance. Sometimes those things are misplaced trust or foolish love. It’s complicated.