“The wolf, I’m afraid, is inside tearing up the place.”
The severity of my daughter’s illness didn’t hit me until the day she collapsed at the hospital. An emergency response team whisked her into surgery to drain her lungs. The next morning, her heart. Her autoimmune condition, dubbed Lupus after the Latin word for wolf, the apex canine predator whose bites its facial rashes resemble, had her in its grip.
I remembered that Flannery O’Connor suffered and died prematurely from the same disease, one in which a body’s immune system wreaks warfare on its own organs. As an aspiring writer, I had embraced her stories then thrilled at the chance to teach them in literature and creative writing courses. With my students, although I’d point out the significance of her Catholicism and the South, I rarely referred to her illness. I failed to consider how the debilitating nature of her Lupus flares mandated that she live with her mother and how this development might have shaped her and the stories she chose to tell.
Flannery O’Connor believed in the autonomy of the text. She rejected the idea that her illness fed her preoccupations with distortion, humor, and redemption, saying, “The disease is of no consequence to my writing since for that I use my head and not my feet.” Her views, however, haven’t stopped critics from examining her work as a metaphor for illness, and her harrowing circumstances do validate the grotesque in her stories. Still, her stories are more than their particulars, these critical slants. They speak to the writer Ben Okri’s statement that “If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.” Sometimes revisiting a familiar story can help us do just that.
In the wake of my daughter’s diagnosis, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with its murderous characters was an unlikely choice to read. As Okri writes, “Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.” I came to O’Connor’s story intuitively, craving solace and perspective in a time of dwindling hope and thus approaching it from this new, specific angle. I considered the hard rigor of O’Connor’s disease and the grace manifest in her writing with the aim of puncturing a hole in my fear. I came looking for the “crack in everything” of which Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem,” because “that’s how the light gets in.” The best stories operate in this realm, a transcendent place that offers a wider context for a painful ordeal.
Devotion and purpose blur emotions when one’s child falls seriously ill. There are tasks. The management of recovery takes up time and ignites skills of advocacy and organization and patience and above all empathy. Post-diagnosis, grateful I’d left my job the previous year and had a settled life that meant flexible time to care for my daughter, I thrummed with compassion, for her heart, her breath, her skin, her energy, for every part of her, for who she was in the world and how the world received her. Yet I had guilt, too, hovering around the edges.
As I taught the story to my writing students, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” explores/reveals the mysteries of faith and acceptance. Through a narrative so familiar to us these days, that of the sociopathic killer and the imprudent, well-meaning victims, O’Connor teases out greater questions about human existence and purpose. Reading the story now, I am struck by how those mysteries speak to the complexities of my own experience.
“I’ve discovered an alternative treatment for your daughter,” a friend says on a walk one morning. “No side effects. You have to go across the border to get it, though.”
She is referring to the visible side effects (weight gain, hair growth) my daughter endures from the corticosteroids that calm the inflammation and pain until her immune system settles, the same corticosteroids that saved her life. This friend’s suggestion demands we eschew a treatment which distorts my daughter’s body in uncomfortable, unattractive ways, even if it means choosing a riskier protocol (taking a drug not approved in our country, for example.)
I get her concern. To those of us not afflicted, the nuances of pain and inflammation, of bodily wounds and invasions, of hair growth and weight gain, of lost mobility and the need to rest, seem monstrous, and especially appalling for a child to bear. Although my friend’s advice expresses care for my girl, I keep a firm stance grounded in what is, rather than what I might wish were true. The exchange leaves me questioning my own empathy and flummoxed (as I often am) by the well-intentioned.
O’Connor endows her characters with afflictions of the body and soul in the name of pushing the boundaries of “mystery,” or the agency of the divine in human affairs. “The central mystery,” she writes, “is why human existence has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.” A character like The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” perverts the mystery, having decided to “reverse” his soul’s journey through wanton crime. He comes to represent the crux of the riddle of God’s love. Through him, O’Connor grapples with issues of belief and perhaps her own morbidity.
Tending my daughter’s illness raises other questions, akin to O’Connor’s mysteries, about the unusual amount of hardship allotted my child in her life. The Misfit boils down a central choice:
If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.
Indeed, O’Connor would seem not to address indiscriminate suffering, favoring themes of redemption and morality instead, with her focus on “goodness” and the choice to follow Jesus.
Yet, the world O’Connor builds in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is nothing if not random. Yes, the Grandmother insists the family visit the house from her childhood, steering them onto the rough country road; yes, her son, Bailey, doesn’t stand up to her. In fiction, character can drive plot. Then an accident occurs. And the Misfit and his gang happen to arrive to murder them all. In other words, bad luck, though faith does have a place in this world of chance and hapless choices. This world view I find oddly comforting as I can no longer subscribe to any of the “thoughts causing illness” philosophies floated by new age healing types (see Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life). Not when it’s my child. To me, the coexistence of randomness and faith make comforting sense.
O’Connor considered herself to be dying from Lupus from the time of her diagnosis, though she lived with the illness for 23 more years. She spoke to friends about taking steroids to treat her flares: “Cortisone makes you think night and day until I suppose the mind dies of exhaustion if you are not rescued.” She suffered joint pain in her arms, hips and shoulders; blood transfusions; ACTH injections; bed rest; hair loss; necrosis in her jaws; a bloated face, and grew to think that she had shaped the illness through her writing, especially during the creation of Wise Blood: “I conceived the notion that I would eventually become paralyzed and was going blind and that in the book I had spelled out my own course or that in the illness I had spelled out the book.”
Most illuminatingly, she spoke about life before and after a Lupus flare, the fears of what the illness would take and relief at what it allowed. In a letter to Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote: “This is a Return I have faced and when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned the way it is necessary to be resigned to death and largely because I thought I would be the end of any creation, any work from me. And as I told you by the fence, it was only the beginning.”
“A Good Man is Hard to Find” is replete with symbols and small, vividly ordinary moments used to intensify horror. After the family, in the wake of their car accident near a “red gutted ditch,” meets The Misfit and his gang, comes the line: “Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” Nature, like the human maw, consumes, a formless receptacle much like the evil the Misfit embraces.
O’Connor’s stories dwell in a sad emptiness as odd as her own circumstances. Much of her writing centres on issues of class and the equation of coming from “good people” and “goodness.” The Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” fits this bill. Foolish, vain, manipulative, and judgmental, she pins on a hat with a spray of violets to make the vacation journey. Several times, despite rising evidence to the contrary, she insists the Misfit is a “good man,” without “common blood,” who wouldn’t “shoot a lady.” His “row of strong white teeth” signifies nourishment and a lack of abject poverty and the possibility of being above crime. Indeed, O’Connor’s illness may have felt like a gun to her head, exhorting her to raise questions of faith and grace in her characters’ darkest moments.
One of my grimmest hours came a few days into my daughter’s first hospital stay, pre-diagnosis, when specialists were cycling through the room doing tests, and all options were on the table. My daughter’s white and red blood cell counts had fallen dangerously low. At 4 a.m. a pediatrician doing rounds stopped to tell me she expected the worst. Terminal cancer. As something inside me broke, I wallowed in the dread potential of my daughter’s death. When her diagnosis came two days later, that shattered part of me had retreated, unwilling to scuttle out into the light. It was the fear that chokes all parents made manifest in that half-lit hallway surrounded by lurking shelves of bleached flannel and antiseptic smells and machines humming and every three minutes a long, shrill beep.
O’Connor’s hard vision complicates grace. The Grandmother extolls prayer, chants Jesus’s name, recognizes the unity of The Misfit and her son, but as the Misfit wryly observes, her moment of grace comes too late for this life: “’She would of been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” By the end of the story, The Misfit acknowledges, “It’s no pleasure in life,” cementing his change.
On my daughter’s first day back to school in late October after six weeks off, we stood stoic in the lobby until her grade-four teacher approached. My daughter’s face pinked as she shyly turned into my side and dipped down her chin, her eyes glowing. My eyes watered at how still she held herself as other teachers came. It was as hard if not harder to let her go as it was on the first day of kindergarten. But she didn’t cling.
Aside from the nights when I stayed home with her sister, I’d sat with her through two months at the hospital. I’d witnessed how swiftly a health change could come on, the fever, the working at breathing, the chest pain, the flushed cheeks. I worried about a flare happening at school and nobody noticing. Perhaps my pain was atonement for the summer before her diagnosis when she ached and felt tired and I cajoled her into activities like swimming that she found excruciating. I tell myself I could have done more to make her comfortable. Though I took her often to Emergency and to the doctor, I tell myself I could have done more to find out what was wrong.
It took effort to walk out the school doors and leave her behind. It was the fragility and the attachment and the welling up of her return and what she’d endured and how she’d changed. As Ben Okri says, we are “living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaningless.” Writing about “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in the wake of my daughter’s Lupus diagnosis admits the story that makes the heart bigger and lets the light in. The story in which a random act can result in a moment of unexpected grace.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Does Ernest Hemingway really use the fewest adverbs? Do authors write about their own gender more than others’? In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt uses statistical analysis to deconstruct popular and classic literature and interrogate truisms about writing fiction. Many of the claims he makes are intriguing. He finds that male writers tend to use the pronoun “he” far more often than “she” in their books, whereas female writers use “he” and “she” almost equally. Blatt also finds that over the last 200 years, writers’ tendency to use qualifiers (“‘rather, very, little, pretty, etc.'”) in their fiction has decreased substantially. Blatt’s quantitative approach to literature is novel — and very entertaining — but the book is undermined by poor copyediting and methodologies that call into question the conclusions Blatt reaches.
To a bibliophile, the flaw that jumps out is Blatt’s seeming unfamiliarity with some of the fiction he calls on to support his findings. In Chapter 4, “Write by Example,” Blatt claims that writers’ use of qualifiers has been declining for two centuries. (Between 1900 and 1999, he writes, qualifier use per 10,000 words dropped from more than 200 to a little more than 100.) He cites Jane Austen as prime example of 19th-century qualifier abuse: “Jane Austen is one of the English language’s most celebrated authors but her use of words like very is off the charts.” Blatt’s claim, broadly speaking, is believable, but the excerpt from the novel he cites is terrible evidence to justify that writers of a different era conformed to different stylistic standards regarding qualifiers. The quote he chooses from Emma is Austen’s summary of Harriet’s dialogue:
She was very fond of singing. He could sing a little himself. She believed he was very clever, and understood every thing. He had a very fine flock, and, while she was with them, he had been bid more for his wool than any body in the country. She believed every body spoke well of him. His mother and sisters were very fond of him. (Emphasis Blatt’s)
Later in the chapter, Blatt quotes Dead Poet’s Society to explain how qualifiers can vitiate speech: ‘“…avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.”’ Or, to put it another way, using “very” too often can make a person sound dumb. In Emma, Harriet Smith is an airhead and her vacancy is crucial to the novel’s plot. Thus, those abundant “verys” in the passage aren’t an indication either of Austen’s laziness or her conforming to the style conventions of another era; Austen uses them deliberately to telegraph to the reader that Harriet is dense. Blatt’s relying on this passage as an illustration of unconsciously absorbed literary standards suggests either shallow familiarity with his source material or a failure of literary analysis.
Blatt is also sometimes careless about the conclusions he draws from his data. For example, when he compares the relative frequency with which male and female writers use the pronouns “he” and “she,” Blatt concludes that, based on his sample, “Of the 50 classic books by men, 44 used he more than she and 6 did the opposite” and “Of the 50 classic books by women, 29 used she more than he and 21 did the opposite.” Both of these statements, however, are, at best, misleading, and possibly false, as Blatt identifies two books in his 50-book sample, one by a man and one by a woman, that use “he” and “she” at equal rates. Blatt rounds to the nearest percentage point, so it is possible that what he writes is, strictly speaking, true; there may be barely more appearances of “he” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and barely more appearances of “she” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, both of which round most closely to equal representation. If this is the case, however, why does Blatt not make this clear in the text?
Perhaps more importantly, Nabokov’s Favorite Word did not get the attention it needed from a copy editor. (On page 70, for instance, Blatt titles a list “Most Probable to be Richard Bachman” [Stephen King’s pseudonym], when what he means is “Most Probable to be Robert Galbraith” [J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym]). In a book of statistical analysis especially, Blatt’s lack of care defining criteria for inclusion in his samples (and adhering to those criteria invariably), calls into the question the conclusions he draws from his analysis. For instance, in the aforementioned analysis of gendered pronouns, Blatt waffles about whether his analysis is confined to novels or just to “books.” On page 41, he writes that he drew his data from the “100 novels on [the] classic literature list.” This list of “novels,” however, contains several collections of short stories, including A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Winesburg, Ohio. It is unlikely that including short stories would bias the results determining how often writers use “he” and “she;” it may, however, mislead the reader about how writers use gendered pronouns in fiction in general, as opposed to novels in particular. Blatt’s sloppiness in choosing his samples is not limited to this analysis alone. In another case of “Breakout Debut Novels,” he states that to qualify a work had to be “an author’s first novel.” Nevertheless, he includes in his sample Alice McDermott’s second novel, That Night, published in 1987, though McDermott’s first novel was A Bigamist’s Daughter, published in 1982.
Blatt’s problem defining criteria for his samples and adhering to them most profoundly undermines his investigation of different writers’ favorite words. Blatt concludes, for example, that Virginia Woolf’s favorite words are “flushing, blotting, mantelpiece;” Marilynne Robinson’s are “soapy, checkers, baptized;” and Lemony Snicket’s are “siblings, orphans, squalor.” Blatt designates only four criteria to determine whether a word is a favorite, one of which is that the word “is not a proper noun.” Blatt does omit all words that are unmistakably proper nouns; you won’t find Chicago, Arkansas, or Sahara among any writer’s favorites. Blatt, however, neglects to exclude words that writers use as proper nouns. This is most obvious in his choice of Virginia Woolf’s favorite word “flushing.” Based on searches performed on Google Books, Woolf only uses “flushing” (not as a proper noun) eight times in the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. There are, however, 55 occurrences of “Flushing” in Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, in which Woolf repeatedly refers to the characters Mr. and Mrs. Flushing. To determine a favorite word, Blatt also uses the criterion that the word “must be used in half an author’s books.” Excluding The Voyage Out, which never uses “flushing” as anything other than a character’s name, the word only appears in four of the nine novels that constitute Blatt’s Woolf sample. Thus, Blatt must be counting the erroneous appearances of “Flushing,” used as a proper noun, to arrive at his ranking.
Though I cannot prove it with the same certainty, Blatt likely repeats this flaw in several other authors’ favorite word lists. One of Marilynne Robinson’s favorite words, as determined by Blatt, for instance, is “soapy.” In her novel Gilead, “Soapy” is the name of the cat, who is mentioned by name 11 times. Excluding references to the cat, however, Robinson only uses the word “soapy” twice in all the novels in Blatt’s Robinson sample and never in Gilead. It is also possible the same error occurred in the identification of “squalor” as one of Lemony Snicket’s favorite words; there is a supporting character named Esmé Squalor in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Blatt could argue that names should be included in the analysis because a writer handpicks them for her characters. Nevertheless, Blatt either needs to redefine his criteria to make this inclusion clear or exclude from his sample instances where a writer uses common words as proper nouns.
Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve is a thoroughly entertaining romp, but the mistakes — especially Blatt’s lack of rigor in sticking to the criteria he defines for his samples — mean one should approach it with several grains of salt. Given the problems of methodology observed, one often can’t put faith in Blatt’s conclusions. It is unfortunate that his intriguing approach is compromised by lackluster execution. His analyses, approached with more rigor, could offer meaningful insight into the way great writers compose.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
On Thursday, The New York Times published an op-ed defense of prolific writers by one of the modern era’s most prolific writers himself, Stephen King. It was a timely bit of writing for me, a non-prolific writer with a first book deal in the works, for whom the question of appropriate literary output is often debated.
In King’s take, which is certainly worth a read, he basically argues two things. One, that there are great works buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of some writers. (i.e. “Alexandre Dumas wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers—and some 250 other novels.”) And two, that for some authors, like him and Joyce Carol Oates, “prolificacy is sometimes inevitable.” He describes the crazy-making clamor of the voices in his head since his youth, all the stories crying out to be written.
The potential for those unwritten works is an interesting point of entry. Like most everyone, I’ve always found a particular romance in the notion of lost works of literature. There are so many different kinds, aside from those that never manage to be written. There are the truly lost, like William Shakespeare’s missing play The History of Cardenio. The nearly lost, like the poems of Emily Dickinson. There are the mostly-lost works that could have died with their authors but were published anyway, like Vladimir Nabakov’s The Original of Laura or David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
But lately I’ve been struck by the notion that there might be no books more lost than those buried in the overwhelming bibliographies of authors who have simply published too damn much.
What’s your opinion, for instance, of the William Faulkner novel Pylon? How about Joyce Carol Oates’s Solstice? Larry McMurtry’s incredible doorstop of a novel Moving On? Or the only book in which Philip Roth wrote of a female protagonist, When She Was Good? Any non-John Updike scholars out there recall A Month of Sundays?
No? Well, who can blame you? Faulkner wrote 19 novels. You could hardly be expected to read them all. Larry McMurtry has written over 45 books. Roth, nearly 30 novels and novellas. Updike, more than 20 novels and almost as many short story collections.
Joyce Carol Oates, as King points out is “the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly).” But that’s just the novels. I stopped counting the short story collections listed on her Wikipedia bibliography entry after 20—which just brought me to the early 1990s. Oh, and that entry is listed as “incomplete.” Wikipedia would be grateful for your help in expanding it, though it’s unlikely you could do so faster than Oates herself.
Seeing a bibliography like that I can only wonder, isn’t it possible—even likely, perhaps—that Oates’s best novel is some forgotten, out-of-print book she wrote in, say, 1982, maybe one that hasn’t even landed on that incomplete bibliography yet? If so, most of us will never know it, because her massive output has built a body so forbidding that it deprives us of the experience of her books.
This kind of output isn’t limited to the literary scene, as King’s piece clearly illustrates. In fact, things only get really wild when you start talking about genre. There’s King himself, of course, who is at around 70 books all told. Agatha Christie who, as he points out, published 91 novels. Isaac Asimov, who, King says “hammered out more than 500 books and revolutionized science fiction.” James Patterson—also name-checked by King—has produced (mostly co-authored) nearly 150 books. He released about 15 in 2014 alone. And where would Modern Culture be without Nora Roberts, who has written more than 200 romance novels?
Maybe King is right that this kind of output is a good thing. But something about it still makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s because, upon discovering a book I love, I invariably feel compelled to track down and devour everything else by the same author.
With some it’s simple. Flannery O’Connor’s entire bibliography basically consists of four books, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Then, if you’re really hungry, there are her letters, interviews, whatever remains of her collected “uncollected” marginalia, and, most recently, a prayer journal. Finish those, and you’ve done it. You know Flannery all the way from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” and whatever else she thought, wondered, or murmured to the heavens. There’s something wonderful about having seen all that an author has to offer, following the progression of her skill, obsessions, the recurring tropes and themes, the trails of subconscious leakage.
The problem comes when I happen upon an author, like one of the above—King included—whose body of work defies, by its sheer heft, that kind of close study without lavishing a truly abnormal amount of time and devotion upon it.
It’s not as if reading a novel is the same as watching a movie or viewing a piece of art. After all, one could see all of Vincent Van Gogh’s 860 oil paintings in a few days if they were physically available. And a cursory appreciation of Johannes Vermeer’s 34 mightn’t take longer than an hour. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography amounts to 13 feature films I could watch in a few of days if I felt like a binge. But it’s not so simple for writers, unless I want this to become my own personal Year of John Updike, Two Years of Philip Roth, or Decade of Joyce Carol Oates.
King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books “because,” he says, “I want to read them.” I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival. Whoever has or does is in possession of far more free time than I. If we were immortal, if our time on the planet was infinite, I’m sure I’d feel differently, but as King wisely points out in his own piece, “life is short.”
And let’s say I wasn’t an obsessive completionist. When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in. If I wish to dig into the oeuvre of Oates, McMurtry, Updike, Roth, or even James Patterson, I’m forced to either choose at random or rely on others to tell me which work is most important and worthy. Which might be fine if the people on whom I were relying had read all of the work themselves, but of course they haven’t—with the exception perhaps of King’s devoted fan base.
I experienced a similar anxiety many years ago at a record store. I had gone there determined to finally delve into Frank Zappa’s music. Unfortunately, it was quite a good record store, and they stocked most of his 100 albums. Finally, after trying to make a decision based on the album art, I gave up and decided to get into punk instead, a lot of short-lived bands that self-destructed after just an album or two, tidy discographies I could learn by heart. Of course there were probably some truly great albums buried in Zappa’s discography, as in the Grateful Dead’s 144-plus record output. But I’ll never know. The volume of work becomes a barricade, a wall that one cannot reasonably scale even if one wishes to.
So it is with novels. It’s true that telling Oates, et al., not to write so much might deprive us of great works, but the net effect is the same either way. Each new book is, for me anyway, another lost in the flood.
Image Credit: Flickr/library_mistress.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike are going Back 2 School. (They have 2 go Back 2 School because they think “to” is spelled “2.”) Each month, they’ll be reading books they never got around to reading in high school. This time, Janet picks up A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, and Mike trudges through A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.
Discussed in this episode: Jurassic World (dir. Colin Trevorrow), Southern Gothic fiction, fatalism, gentility, poverty, Catholic literature, linking verbs, World War I, love, Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation, fireworks.
Not discussed in this episode: That scene in Evil Dead 2 (dir. Sam Raimi) when Ash traps his possessed hand under a can and weighs it down with a copy of A Farewell to Arms. Man, that was sweet.
Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.
Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?
I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”
Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.
At the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.
Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.
Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.
A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.
In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.
And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.
In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.
Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.
Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.
This is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.
So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.
And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.
Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.
For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.
“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.
No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.
Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.
Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.
When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:
1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)
2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)
3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)
The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.
4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)
After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.
5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)
6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)
A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.
7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)
“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”
Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.
8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)
Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.
9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)
Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.
Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.
It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.
On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson’s short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost…I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.”
Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” — is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.”
Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son…he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry…” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on.
But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry — a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common.
“The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”
In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty…This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.”
Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.”
Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path…” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground…”
Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.”
Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.”
What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”
Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways.
In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.”
Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look…I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.”
“What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.” He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.”
One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator’s inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one…”
In “Emergency” — the prescription-pill-loaded narrator — undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point — stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.”
Red Cavalry — in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways — is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.”
In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.”
Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, “Originally, in fact, I wasn’t even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.”
The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: “I told him, ‘I’ll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.’”
Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer — three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.”
Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and — in considering them closely — it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing.
After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.