Chicago gets two of its most famous nicknames from literature. Carl Sandburg deemed it the “city of broad shoulders,” while lifelong New Yorker A.J. Liebling tagged it the “Second City” in a 1952 New Yorker article. It’s a city that has given us or inspired novelists, poets, and journalists like Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Margo Jefferson, Aleksandar Hemon, and more than a few other great books. It’s a shining example of a truly great, often terrible American city.
And then there are the Chicago suburbs. Everything around the city, all the way into Indiana and even up to Wisconsin, at some point or another has been labeled “Chicagoland.” These suburbs, more specifically the suburbs to the north of the city, have come to define what we see as the all-American suburbs in popular culture, for better — bucolic, quiet, safe — or worse — insular, bland, blindingly white.
When you think of the suburbs in American literature, your mind probably wanders first to John Cheever or John Updike or Richard Yates or John O’Hara — drunk WASPs along the east coast. The Chicago suburbs tend to enter the conversation when talking of 1980s movies, e.g., Risky Business or John Hughes’s famous “teen trilogy” of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But it’s the books about this collection of towns to the north of Chicago that set the stage for those movies.
“Glencoe is thirty miles up the lake from Chicago,” Rich Cohen writes in his memoir, Lake Effect. “It is a perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around.” Once you leave Chicago’s city limits, Glencoe is the fifth suburb you hit on your way north if you’re driving along the lake. Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe; followed by Highland Park, Fort Sheridan, Lake Forest, and then Lake Bluff. Keep driving fifteen minutes north from there, past the Great Lakes Naval Base, and you’ll hit Waukegan, home of Ray Bradbury and the basis for Green Town, where he set Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. Although it’s a few scant miles north of Lake Bluff, Waukegan traditionally isn’t considered part of the North Shore. Lake Bluff’s median income, like other neighborhoods in the North Shore, is well over $100,000 per household; Waukegan’s is $42,335. Every town on the North Shore, save for Evanston and Wilmette, count over 90% of their populations as white. Near half of Waukegan’s population is Hispanic, with almost 20% African-American, and 30% white. The towns considered part of the North Shore are consistently called “affluent,” while 13.9% of Waukegan residents fall below the poverty line. You’re either on one side of the tracks or the other.
In Bradbury’s autobiographical fiction, the stand-in for early 20th century Waukegan was the all-American town; yet Bradbury didn’t shy away from commenting on the sinister aspects of the suburbs. A serial killer called the Lonely One stalks the residents of Green Town in Dandelion Wine (the chilling chapter was originally published in 1950 as “The Whole Town’s Sleeping”), while Something Wicked This Way Comes can be viewed as an allegory for growing up and realizing the world, the people you know, and the place where you live aren’t as innocent as you believed when you were a child. Bradbury, who was born in 1920 and whose family relocated to Arizona before his tenth birthday, was too young to know that Waukegan’s chief of police at the time was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and probably didn’t notice the town’s population grew nearly 75 percent between 1920 and 1930 as African-Americans moved to the area looking for manufacturing jobs. By the 1960s, those jobs started to dry up and the divisions between black and white, rich and poor became even larger — school and housing segregation pushed people into certain parts of town (the rich, mostly white citizens along the lake to the north; the poorer, black and Puerto Rican communities to the south). The “racial powder keg” exploded in the Waukegan riot of 1966. The things people tried to hide underneath Green Town finally came to the surface.
Hog Barbecuer for the World,
School Segregator. Mower of Lawns,
Player with Golf Clubs and the Nation’s Wife Swapper;
Bigoted, snobbish, flaunting.
Suburb of the White Collars…
So wrote “Carl Sandbag” in his poem, “Chicago Suburb” for Mad magazine in 1974. Around the time of the publication of the satirical poem, Dave Eggers was growing up Lake Forest. He’d famously go on to write about the experience of living in the suburb in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. According to Eggers, his family was “white-trashy” for the town; he was surprised, during an audition interview for MTV’s The Real World, that anybody had heard of it. “I didn’t know any rich people,” Eggers claims in his book.
“Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter a few decades before the Eggers would move there. Lake Forest, just like the rest of the area to the north of the city, slowly started to grow in the years after the Civil War. German farmers settled what would become Wilmette. Methodist ministers would buy the land that would become Lake Bluff in 1875. 24 years earlier in 1851, another group of Methodists bought land to the north and founded Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute. As an alternative, in 1857, rich Presbyterians came together for the founding of Lake Forest College. Soon enough, with the post-Civil War boom we today call the Gilded Age, secluded Lake Forest became a playground for the rich who could do their business in the city, but needed an escape. It was just the kind of place that Fitzgerald, who had fallen for Ginevra King, one of the more prominent young women from the Chicagoland area in the days leading up to the First World War, could obsess over.
A lesser-known author looked at the darker side of the supposedly tranquil Chicago suburbs. Judith Guest’s 1976 novel Ordinary People (the source text for the film directed by Robert Redford) serves as a perfect regional depiction of the things happening behind the closed doors of nice houses (think Updike’s Couples and Judy Blume’s “adult” novel, Wifey), Later, writers like Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), A.M. Homes (Music for Torching), and Karolina Waclawiak (The Invaders) would explore real suburban doom and gloom. Guest laid the groundwork for these later experiments.
Ordinary People describes a father who is trying to keep it all together after the death of his oldest son in a boating accident and the attempted suicide of his younger son. His suburban idyll was disrupted by “an unexpected July storm on Lake Michigan,” she writes:
He had left off being a perfectionist then, when he discovered that not promptly kept appointments, not a house circumspectly kept clean, not membership in Onwentsia, or the Lake Forest Golf and Country Club, or the Lawyer’s Club, not power, or knowledge, or goodness–not anything– cleared you through the terrifying office of chance; that it is chance and not perfection that rules the world.
Karen Hollander, the narrator in Kurt Anderson’s True Believers, is from Wilmette. In one passage, she talks of a place along the shore of the lake known as No Man’s Land, Illinois. An actual unincorporated area that “was the most urban, foreign-seeming place we could reach easily by bike,” for a kid in the early sixties. Anderson, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, says he knew of the city because of its high school, New Trier, which his own suburban high school emulated. While the story eventually moves on from Wilmette, Anderson perfectly captures the bored kids in the suburbs looking for things to entertain them, making their own fun. Running around during the Cold War years, pretending they’re spies and secret agents along the leafy streets of their hometown, getting their thrills from the part of town the narrator describes as the “sketchier” side of her little corner of the world — the underdeveloped area near the water. This part of Karen’s town is where you’ll find “the foundations of a couple of failed private clubs and casinos from the Depression and the charred remains of a Jazz Age roadhouse” dotting the landscape — cast away. Out of sight, out of mind is a major part of the suburban phenomenon. The suburbs were built on the idea of keeping people out, specifically poor, African-American, Jewish, and immigrant communities.
White flight away from cities is largely considered a post-war phenomenon, but the area where Anderson set his novel was shaping itself into an exclusive world for white and rich citizens even before the 20th century. Kenilworth’s history is one of the best examples of this. Founded by businessman Joseph Sears in 1889, the village that today is considered by Forbes the fourth most affluent place to live in America, has an ordinance stating, “Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only.” As of the 2010 census, there are only seven black residents living among Kenilworth’s 2,153 residents. Jews weren’t welcome either. In 1959, according to Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, the Anti-Defamation League reported, “The North Shore suburbs…are almost completely closed to Jews,” and that “Kenilworth’s hostility is so well known that the community is bypassed by real estate agents when serving prospective Jewish purchasers.” Jews weren’t admitted into the town until the 1970s.
There were alternatives, however. The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg’s bestselling 2013 family epic, takes place a little off the lake, away from the WASPs of Guest and Anderson’s novels, and peers into the life and times of Edie Middlestein. Her family made the move from the city to the suburbs sometime during the same post-war boom that saw countless American families leave behind the cramped apartments of the cities for the space, lawns, and backyards of the burbs. Attenberg’s novel struck a chord with me instantly as a native of the suburb where Edie’s family settled, Skokie, Illinois. Located just over the northwest shoulder of Chicago, Skokie isn’t a North Shore community. It rubs up against Evanston to the east and Wilmette to the north. Skokie, during the second-half of the 20th century, was known as “The World’s Largest Village.” A place that welcomed a large Jewish population who made it out of Europe alive after the Second World War, as well as a number of other immigrant and ethnic communities, including a 25.3 percent of its present-day population made up of people of Asian heritage according to the most recent census. A diverse city, especially compared to its neighbors to the east that stretch towards the north, Attenberg paints a picture of the promises the suburbs held, and continue to hold, to the people that move there, from the wealthy and established to immigrants and their American-born children. Early on in the book we see Edie’s family, a decade into their own suburban experience. There are some very minor cracks that, over time, grow into larger ones as Edie’s life progresses.
It’s film that has helped fix the area in the minds of most people as the quintessential suburbs. From Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and the Ordinary People adaptation two years later, both set in Lake Forest, to the boring house in Highland Park that Tom Cruise’s teenage character turns into a brothel in Risky Business, and John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, movies have helped solidify the Chicago suburbs as the American suburbs. Those films gave a very visual idea of what the suburbs are supposed to look like, the “rows of new “ranch-style houses either identical in design or with minor variations built into a basic plan, winding streets, neat lawns, two-car garages, infant trees, and bicycles and tricycles lining the sidewalks,” as sociologist Bennett Berger observed in “The Myth of Suburbia” for the Journal of Social Issues. A few decades after the post-war buildup of the suburbs, when living outside of cities had become more commonplace in America, the promises that suburbia held, the new way of living, a safer and more peaceful place for the “upwardly mobile” and “well educated” who “have a promising place in some organizational hierarchy,” as Bennett pointed out in the 1961 article, were starting to unravel. Books like Ordinary People and The Middlesteins show this; films often did not. In the cinematic version of the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, there are problems: teens can’t get the boy or girl they like to notice them, bullies bully, college looms on the horizon, parents seem totally oblivious, bills have to get paid, but all in all nothing too bad. Movies are there to sell fantasy, that everything is ultimately fine in the suburbs; books tell a different story. They tell you that marriages fall apart and habits consume people (The Middlesteins), security is just a myth (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and that there’s a whole fascinating world beyond the city limits for kids just willing to go out on a limb and explore it (Lake Effect). The suburbs are an idea that you have to be willing to buy into. Once cracks start showing, you’re supposed to do your best to look away.
There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life, “You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher,” as Ray Davies of The Kinks sings in “Shangri-La,” a song about his own country’s middle class in the years after the war. But as Cohen writes in Lake Effect, “What mattered to our parents could never matter to us. What mattered to us — a sense of style, of experience-collecting — seemed so simple and pure we were afraid to talk about it.” Things change; the facade slowly strips away and unveils the truth that no matter how well-kept or filled with smiling people, money, and good schools they may be, there’s something sinister about the suburbs.
In the last few months, Alaska has been brutal to people I know. A friend who’s so knowledgeable about the wilderness he teaches college classes on the subject got mauled by a bear on a mountain outside Haines. The outdoors-savvy boyfriend of a friend disappeared while running or hiking outside Nome. A bush pilot I flew with last year crashed into Admiralty Island; he and all but one of the passengers died.
But if Alaska can be brutal, it can also be transcendent. Another friend recently caught a beautiful king salmon with a fly she tied herself; the photo of her holding it conveys a form of worship. Earlier this summer, I traveled to Admiralty Island — Kootznoowoo, or “fortress of the bears” in Lingít, the indigenous language of the area. For hours, we watched male and female brown bears court — running away, snarling, following each other as if they were connected by an ever-shortening rope. For the last few years, my boyfriend and I have packed inflatable boats, food, and our tent and floated down a different river in Alaska or the Yukon — the Pelly, the Big Salmon, the Nisutlin, the Stikine. We’ve listened to a dozen wolves howl and bark on each side of the river around us long into the night. We’ve watched a pack of them ghost in and out of the trees, barely visible as they run. We’ve seen kingfishers beat in place above the water, ravens chase ospreys, a cow moose sheltering her two calves as she watched us float by, black and brown bears eating sedges.
Many fiction writers get wilderness wrong.
I recently received a copy of Dave Eggers’s newest book, Heroes of the Frontier, which is set in Alaska. I like Eggers’s books. I first read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in high school, when my love for it verged on the babbling. I appreciate the generous, expansive nature of his writing, and because he’s Dave Eggers, I really enjoyed everything about the new book that relates to people. Josie, the protagonist, is complicated, believable, moving, frequently hilarious — so is the way she interacts with others. The towns, and their quirky, touristy craziness, ring true.
This is not the case for the wilderness. At one point in the book, Josie watches a water snake emerge from a river and eat a snail. The only problem? There are no snakes in Alaska. In a later section, Josie and her two children pause to watch “a ten point buck.” Only problem? There are no “ten point bucks” in interior Alaska. Every now and then mule deer stray over from Canada, but when they do they’re so unusual people write newspaper articles about them. A “ten-point buck?” No.
In the first ten pages, Josie and the kids drive through an animal park that advertises its Alaskan mammals. They see “a pair of moose, and their new calf, none of them stirring.” I realize this is a zoo, but male moose do not hang around with their calves. They saw “an antelope, spindly and stupid; it walked a few feet before stopping to look forlornly into the grey mountains beyond. Its eyes said, Take me, Lord. I am now broken.” Again, a zoo, but there are no antelope in Alaska. If it wanted to flee into the Alaskan mountains it would find itself just as lonely and would die of cold, wolves, or starvation come winter. When they’re finished with the zoo, a ranger points “to a mountain range nearby, where, he said, there was a rare thing: a small group of bighorn sheep, cutting a horizontal line across the ridge, east to west.” Bighorn sheep do not live in Alaska. Alaska has Dall sheep, which are a different species.
To most Alaskans, these are big mistakes. But when reading Heroes of the Frontier, I was also thinking about something more intangible — the nature of a place versus the nature of a story set in that place.
Much of the novel is set on the road, but at the end Josie and her two children, Paul and Ana, decide to go for a hike. It ends up taking much longer than they anticipated, and they’re unprepared. There is lightning. It begins to rain; they get soaked. They decide not to go back the way they’ve come, but to run from copse of trees to copse of trees, somehow staying on the trail. If there’s one thing indicated by the very large number of people that get lost and die or have to be rescued in the Alaskan wilderness every year, it’s that it is very easy to accidentally veer off-trail, especially if the trail is not well traveled or near a city, especially if it’s not the best of circumstances. But somehow, despite the fact that they’re literally running for their lives during a massive storm, Josie and the kids keep finding clues as to where they’re going.
There’s something described as “an avalanche,” though its only elements seem to be rock and shale — Josie slides across it on her back with her upper body clad in only a bra, but Eggers never mentions snow, ice or cold. Somehow, Josie and her children make it to a cabin she didn’t realize was there when they began the hike. It is decked out with balloons and a feast for the “Stromberg Family Reunion.” I can get with a cabin; a cabin can be the deus ex machina of real-life salvation. But a cabin decorated and then abandoned, miles and an arduous hike into the wilderness, containing a table “overflowing with juices and sodas, chips, fruit and a glorious chocolate cake under a plastic canopy?” I wanted to believe in this cabin — I hope there is a cabin like that out there for all of us — but I could think of too many people for whom this cabin didn’t exist.
I am by no means immune to the perils of writing wilderness myself. I recently showed a new chapter in my novel-in-revision to my boyfriend Bjorn, a life-long Alaskan. In it, a young girl wanders around lost on Chichagof Island. It was the chapter he liked least.
“She would be afraid,” he said. “When does she start feeling like prey?”
My problem was that I wanted my character to be challenged, but like Eggers, I hadn’t accounted for the reality of the place that would challenge her.
A few years ago, Bjorn and I hiked the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, the route many would-be miners took to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was before the official start of the season, and except for a very fit German guy in his mid-twenties, we were the only hikers. We spent the first night at Sheep Camp, the last stop before the pass; the German guy woke before us, and we followed his tracks the rest of the day. We summited the pass in a late-May snowstorm on steps Bjorn cut with his ice ax and emerged from the clouds into what a Canadian ranger we’d passed called “a bluebird day.” It was surreal. We were still using our snowshoes, but bumblebees buzzed around us and landed on the snow. We started steaming. We followed the route the snowshoe-wearing rangers had flagged…right over a half-frozen pond. The German guy hadn’t brought snowshoes, and we could see the hole where he’d fallen through up to his waist, the drag marks where he’d pulled himself out. As we walked, we saw his footsteps — he’d been post-holing, sinking through the deep snow up to his crotch with each step. Post-holing makes for incredibly miserable walking. A few miles later, we saw a tiny figure waving to us frantically. The German guy hadn’t brought sunglasses, and his eyes were hurting; he was going snow-blind. Bjorn gave him an extra pair. The rangers had told him they’d marked the trail to Happy Camp, and he was wondering if he’d taken a wrong turn. We got out our GPS and figured out we were on the snow-covered trail, but the rangers had stopped flagging two or three miles short.
That is what happens in wilderness when you are unprepared — even with a flagged route on a trail thousands have walked before, even if you are experienced. You don’t magically find a party-food-filled abandoned cabin decorated for a family reunion, complete with a sheet cake under a protective dome. You end up miserable and wet and exhausted and snow-blind and far from where you’ve tried to be, and if you’re lucky, it’s a sunny day and there are other people around who can help you. It’s a transformative experience to realize how vulnerable, and how lucky, you are.
The idea of owing more to luck than courage, however, contradicts one of the basic themes of Heroes of the Frontier — that through acting bravely and persevering, you and those around you (in Josie’s case, Paul and Ana) can become the “heroes” of the title. That conflict is one of the difficulties of writing wilderness in fiction. Wilderness is what it is, not what a book requires it to be. The Alaskan wilderness challenges people in ways they don’t anticipate, and it is not kind to the inexperienced and underprepared, no matter how “brave” they might be.
Last year, I went to a panel in which Juneau writer Ernestine Hayes, author of Blonde Indian, said “A sense of place arises from the place itself… it is (not) a panorama to be conquered.” I thought of this as I read these lines, after Josie and company arrive at the cabin: “Every part of their being was awake. Their minds were screaming in triumph, their arms and legs wanted more challenge, more conquest, more glory.” At the end of Heroes of the Frontier, Alaska is a panorama conquered.
Ultimately, the novel is about a woman escaping the fears, restrictions and regrets of her life and trying to shape her children into good, brave people, like those she imagines live in Alaska. It’s an admirable goal. But both in towns and out of them, Josie, Paul and Ana seem charmed. In the wild, that means Eggers’s Alaska loses something essential to itself.
So here are some questions. Where is the line between artistic license and error? If we take liberties with the character of a place and we are aware of it, should we acknowledge that we’ve done so? This isn’t nonfiction, after all, and in spite of its bighorn sheep, Heroes of the Frontier is an enjoyable story.
Writers who write wilderness have a responsibility to it, partly because so many of us are disconnected from it, and partly because it’s been misrepresented so often. We’ve now constructed so much of the world — even in our national parks — that most of us never experience real wilderness, a place you can’t see from the road. It exists with or without us. It means only and incredibly itself, and when we are there, we become a part of it — something that can be terrifying, or exhilarating, or both.
There is lots of insightful, beautiful writing about Alaskan and northern wilderness, both fiction and nonfiction — see Seth Kantner, Sherry Simpson, Velma Wallis, a vast array of others. There are people who write wilderness gorgeously outside the context of Alaska as well — Louise Erdrich, Cormac McCarthy. If there’s anything wilderness can teach you, it’s the dizzying breadth of what you do not know, and if what you write is to resonate as true there is no lesson more important. So if you’re going to write wilderness, experience it. Respect it. Be prepared and scared and awestruck and relieved. Research. Fact check. Then represent the place you are writing as honestly as you can. You owe it to a world that has lost a sense of true wild.
Image courtesy of the author.
Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity.
Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce.
In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography — a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb — to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it:
We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the ‘mind,’ that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional.
Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod.
Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography:
If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress.
If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience:
And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.
Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel — a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself:
And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography.
There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern.
Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.”
In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter.
If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative:
And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category.
Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”
In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes the origins of his first publishing endeavor. The first ad (well, it was a sticker, but whatever) read thusly:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
In typically postmodern (and neurotic) response to this, Eggers realizes that something’s amiss about the sticker: “It’s unclear who is being screwed. Who are the idiots that should be getting screwed?” He imagines a few ways in which this ambiguity could have been avoided:
MIGHT MAGAZINE SAYS:
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS.
“SCREW THOSE IDIOTS,”
SAYS MIGHT MAGAZINE
SCREW THOSE IDIOTS
(“THOSE IDIOTS” NOT REFERRING TO THOSE BEHIND
MIGHT MAGAZINE, THE MAKERS OF THIS STICKER,
WHO ARE GOOD PEOPLE AND SHOULD NOT BE SCREWED.)
The whole point of the marketing strategy was to intrigue people, to make them think, “What is Might?…I do not know, but when it becomes clear what it is that they will be doing, I will be very interested in their doings.”
One could have easily said the same of Mr. Eggers at that point in his career. Who is this young, ballsy writer? Though older than the rest, Eggers’s debut came along with a group of writers we could call the Undergraduates –– young, precocious authors with daring, audacious styles. Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Z.Z. Packer all made their debuts around the same handful of years. (The Graduates, of course, being David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenidies, et al.) Eggers, here, would be that older guy in the class, somehow funnier and smarter than everyone else, even if he never ends up graduating.
For Eggers definitely did not graduate with his class. No, he dropped out and started his own ventures. Who would have been able to predict the trajectory of Eggers’s career? From that original (but now in some ways dated) first book, Eggers has since stepped in nearly every field relating to writing: he published two story collections (one of which is flash fiction), novels, and two nonfiction works; he co-wrote two screenplays; he has written comic strips and essays and song lyrics; he founded The Believer, Wholphin, and 826 National, a non-profit that helps kids with writing; and he edits the annual Best American Non-Required Reading series, with the help of students. He’s been nominated for numerous awards (including the Pulitzer and the National Books Critics Circle Award) and won others (including the Salon Book Award and the American Book Award). But by the far the most influential contribution Eggers has made on the literary landscape is McSweeney’s, the so-called “Quarterly Concern” that has, for the last 15 years, produced some of the most original fiction and nonfiction out there, all packaged in some of the most beautiful and innovative book designs ever printed. Who is this young man? We didn’t know, but when it became clear what it was that he was doing, we all became very interested in his doings.
McSweeney’s could be called aggressively progressive. Not only are the stories often unconventional, experimental, and unique, so are the issues themselves. Some are conceptual designs, as in Issue 21, the cover of which has a little flap and if you pull it out it makes the cover connect to the back, creating “an unending panorama, a revelatory 360-degree immersion into a packed and pointy world.” Or Issue 26, which came in three small, postcard sized books and were “based on the World War II-era Armed Services Editions released by the Council on Books in Wartime, under the auspices of the U.S. War Department’s Morale Branch.” Or Issue 33, which was presented as a full-blown newspaper called The San Francisco Panorama. Others featured extremely original (and sometimes downright odd) theme: Issue 31’s aim to unearth “neglected or deceased literary forms,” such as the pantoum, the whore dialogue, the Socratic dialogue and Graustrarkian Romance (whatever the hell that is), or Issue 32’s challenge for authors to “travel to somewhere in the world…and send back a story set in that spot fifteen years from now, in the year 2024.”
Even the issues without a conceptual design or a creative theme are elegantly and beautifully rendered. Behind this progressive innovation lies an old-fashioned love of books as objects. McSweeney’s, I think, deserves much credit (and should, in various ways, be followed) for figuring out a way to make printed works not only relevant but also wholly separate from the latest digital iterations. You can’t ever make an e-book as gorgeous to look at or as wonderful to hold in your hands. And to those people who think covers and jackets and designs don’t matter, well I say this: Screw those idiots.
Same goes for those who dismiss the entire enterprise of McSweeney’s as a hipster outlet for quirky nonsense and youthful haranguing. We have now The Best of McSweeney’s, a 600+-page anthology that samples from everything they’ve put out in the last decade and a half. I would defy anyone to read this thing cover-to-cover and still maintain that McSweeney’s has contributed nothing to the world of creative art. As the back of the books promises, The Best of McSweeney’s gives us “a fascinating glimpse into recent literary history.” This is true for more than just the merit of the pieces included (though they are nearly all great), but for the unexpected insights their inclusion brings out.
This book is simply brimming with priceless inside looks into the workings of contemporary writers. Many of the stories are introduced by their authors, giving us a little bit of backstory into the creation of the thing. Wells Tower’s presents us with two versions of the same story, “Retreat,” which appeared in Issues 23 and 30, respectively. Each contain the same characters, the same essential setup, and even much of the same lines. Only the perspectives are different, but boy does that change the whole of it. In explaining why he struggled so much with this story, Tower cites “all the long-form nonfiction” he’d been writing. Here, he explains one difference between fiction and non-:
Nonfiction –– even ‘literary’ nonfiction –– call for tools and processes that are pretty much useless when it comes to making short stories. In metalworking, they have this term, ‘cold connections,’ which is when you take two pieces of metal and rivet. A few smart bashes, and you’ve got a bracelet with lots of nice bangles on it, and you’ve spared yourself the hot, tedious business of soldering and sweating joints. In a pinch, nonfiction can squeak by on cold connections.
Tower’s two iterations of “Retreat” (as well as his comments on them) offer a fascinating example of how much one can do with a single premise.
We are later, of course, to see Tower’s “Retreat” reappear in his collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and we now know which version he prefers (the second one, FYI). Many of the stories here ended up in well-acclaimed collections, and one of the great aspects of this anthology is getting to see them in earlier drafts. David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” appears here, and one very subtle change that occurred between its appearance in McSweeney’s (under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm, a moniker everyone saw straight through)and its inclusion in Wallace’s Oblivion is worth noting. When “Mr. Squishy” graced the pages of Issue 5, the opening line read: “The Focus Group was reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt’s 19th-floor conference rooms.” In Oblivion, it reads: “The Focus Group was then reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising’s nineteenth-floor conference rooms” (italics mine). Besides spelling out 19th (Wallace often used shorthand, acronyms and abbreviations in order to fit as many words in as little space as possible) and clarifying just what “Reesemeyer Shannon Belt” did as a company, the addition of the word then is hugely significant. It completely changes the opening line, albeit in a small way. In the first version, the line functions as a beginning; in the final version, we join a narrative already in progress. We missed what came before then, as if the story had been going on long before we came to it.
Other highlights: a rare short story from Zadie Smith, taken from the issue that pitted McSweeney’s against They Might Be Giants. A section of comics from Issue 13 featuring funny and poignant pieces by Chris Ware, Daniel C. Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Adrian Tomine. Andrew Sean Greer’s hilarious account of his and his husband’s experience at a NASCAR event in Michigan (from the San Francisco Panorama issue). We get Jonathan Ames’s “Bored to Death,” inspiration for the HBO series of the same name, George Saunders’s “Four Institutional Monologues,” one of which only recently (despite the story being published in 2000) appeared in his latest collection, Tenth of December, and a trio of stories from International writers, deriving from issues dedicated to Norwegian, South Sudanese, and Indigenous Australian fiction.
But this being McSweeney’s, there’s a lot more than stories. Included here are also the best letters they’ve ever received, from the likes of Sarah Vowell, Peter Orner, and John Hodgman. There are four pantoums from the “neglected and deceased” forms issue, as well as a few 20-minute stories, which are exactly what they sound like: stories written in 20 minutes flat (although Aleksandar Hemon admits that his took 30). In other words, this is a fun and eclectic anthology, perfectly in keeping with the McSweeney’s philosophy, which Eggers explains in his Introduction thusly: “That’s what we look for –– writers who make us feel like they’re seeing their world, whatever that is, with fresh eyes, and who allow us to experience it through their words.” McSweeney’s, like Eggers himself, regularly provides the world with interesting and unique perspectives –– from different cultures, different personalities, and different aesthetic approaches. It does what all literary journals should aim to do. That is, be bigger than the sum of its parts, yet still allow each part to stand on its own. It’s a hard line to walk, but McSweeney’s, with its irreverent attitude and pure love of good writing, manage to do every issue, every year.
Despite some notable exclusions (no Joyce Carol Oates? no Yannick Murphy?), The Best of McSweeney’s is a triumph, not only as a stand-alone book, but also (and especially) as a testament to the power of the short story, the essay, the experiment. A tribute, too, to the power of one person’s vision, proof that writers can influence the world outside the borders of their prose. Eggers, lucky for us, has a great deal of passion for the work of other people, for supporting new writers and celebrating neglected ones. His and his colleagues’ (Jordan Bass and Eli Horowitz, the two editors of McSweeney’s) is an essentially artistic project but underneath that is a layer of fierce morality, one that believes in the rights of people and the importance of their stories.
The IQ Bubble
Oskar Schell, age nine, is a genius. Likewise Billy Argo and T.S. Spivet, both 10. At 14, Alma Singer is at least hella precocious. And with subspecialties including M-theory, French horn, and the Future of Humanity, her contemporary Ruprecht van Doren is off the charts (though with a name like Ruprecht van Doren, you’d sort of have to be). Genius is, by definition, exceptional, and until recently it was only in Lake Wobegon and the films of Wes Anderson that all children could be above average. But in the last few years the Anglo-American novel, full of characters like the foregoing, has come to resemble a kind of overdriven gifted-and-talented program: one your own kid would never make it into.
To be sure, the ‘tween geniuses of Jonathan Safran Foer et al. are not without precedent. It’s been almost two centuries since Dickens loosed his intrepid moppets on the streets of London. (Little David Copperfield is, if not quite Mensa material, surely a Child of Distinction.) And American literature has always been unusually interested in kids. If much of Russian fiction, as Dostoevsky reportedly said, emerged from Gogol’s overcoat, our own novelistic tradition might be said to have emerged from that of Mark Twain, who found in his Hannibal boyhood both a wellspring of vernacular comedy and a nexus of the great American tensions: freedom versus settlement, the individual versus society, the past versus the future. Huck Finn rendered James Fennimore Cooper’s Mohican fantasias on the same themes instantly old hat. Who needs noble savages when you’ve got adolescents? (Is there any difference, in the end?)
Even in America, however, literary innocence has historically been a rigged game. With its tropism for irony, the novel as a form prods its protagonists toward experience, toward compromise, and toward “sivilization” – in short, to growing up. Unless, that is, the child is more civilized than the man, as seems to be the case with the current bumper crop of prodigies. These kids’ real forebears are not Augie March or Maisie Farange, but comic book superheroes, Harriet the Spy, and – preeminently – the novels of J.D. Salinger. Like the Glasses, they seem too good for the lousy adult world, and perhaps too good to be true.
In this (and, it must be said, in its gargantuan length), Adam Levin’s literary debut, The Instructions, would seem to be some sort of apotheosis. Its 10-year-old narrator and protagonist, Gurion Maccabee, is not just another kid genius with an improbable name; he’s also worldly, charismatic, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, a martial artist, a sometime-telepath, a devout half-Ethiopian, half-Ashkenazi Israelite…and, oh, yeah: quite possibly the Messiah. It’s easy to see why, even if you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, you might feel you need this wisenheimer’s 1,000-page scripture like you need a hole in your head. But The Instructions turns out to be, for better and for worse, something like the Only Kid Genius Novel You’ll Ever Need. That is, it simultaneously makes good on the subgenre’s promise and exposes its limitations. And en route to its wacko finale, it begins to illuminate the begged question: Why so much genius? Why now?
And a Child Shall Lead Them
The Instructions opens with our narrator inside a cage. Or rather, CAGE—a special facility within Aptakisic Junior High School for students with behavioral problems. It isn’t explained at first how this CAGE works, exactly, or what those initials stand for. What we get, instead, is Gurion’s voice—baroque, headlong, impertinent, a gallimaufry of high-flying excursus and middle-school pidgin (“banced,” “snat,” “chomsky”). His monologue (“Scripture,” he insists) careens from linguistics to theodicy to how to build your own small arms from household oddments. Underneath, though, a single question niggles: What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?
Levin parcels the answer out slowly. Which turns out to be a good thing, because the plot—basically boy meets girl, girl’s a goy, mayhem ensues—is a pretty thin reed on which to hang three pounds of book. The entire novel covers only the four days leading up to what a mock-prefatory note has hinted will be some kind of in-school insurrection (variously referred to as “the Damage Proper;” “the 11/17 Miracle;” and “the Gurionic War.”) In the absence of much action, it’s the mystery of Gurion’s personality that keeps us reading. Well, that and to see what kind of crazy shit he’ll say next.
As any kid genius will, Gurion tap-dances all over the line between precocity and preciousness. Levin, who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse, clearly admires the miglior fabbro’s demotic hijinks, and Gurion often achieves a Saundersish charm, both in rat-a-tat dialogue and in casual stabs of description that bring the world of junior high back like yesterday’s hot lunch. Ron Desormie “taught Gym in shorts that his wang stretched the crotch of”—you pretty much had me at “wang.” But just as often there’s an inability to leave well enough alone (Desormie also “hummed out a melody with lipfart percussion and aggressively dance-walked and thought it was strutting.”)
Such compulsive effervescence is both a liability and an asset. On the one hand, it flattens the characters around Gurion (with a couple of exceptions), and thus the stakes for the impending “Miracle”-cum-“War.” Eliza June Watermark, his shiksa love-interest, is more a cluster of attributes than a fully formed person. The keepers of the CAGE are, like the lipfarting, dance-walking Desormie, cartoons. And I’d swear that Flowers, the middle-aged juju man who guides Gurion through the writing of the scripture we are even now reading, is actually Bleeding Gums Murphy, from The Simpsons:
Even if what you write about is boring, you can’t be writing boring. Seem to me like you want to write about you wang, anyhow. Now you wang—that’s a good example cause it’s boring to me […] One thing ain’t boring to me about you wang is how you’re callin it wang.
On the other hand, Levin ain’t boring, which is important, when your scripture is also a tome. And our inability to see actual people behind Levin’s antic renderings is a powerful corollary for what will come to seem the narrator’s egocentrism, the child trapped inside the prodigy.
The first half of The Instructions is also enlivened by lengthy “inserts”: emails, school assignments, a psychological assessment. Through these chinks in the monologuist’s armor, we begin to glimpse Gurion from angles other than his own. Flowers may not be, as therapist-in-training Sandra Billings suggests, his “imaginary friend” (after all—disappointingly—Mr. and Mrs. Maccabee can see him, too), but her otherwise reasonable conclusions and the vehemence with which Gurion doth protest remind us that, like any scripture, this one is open to interpretation:
It may be the case […] that Gurion is by nature an ideal student. […] On the other hand, it may be the case that Gurion, once an ideal student, has become […] the dangerous and even doomed boy indicated by his record.
It is in this kind of irony, rather than in verbal vaudeville, that Levin begins to earn the jacket-copy comparisons to David Foster Wallace. His greatest gifts are also, as Gurion would put it, his most “stealth”: a dialectical intelligence, and crucially, a sense of paradox. The specific paradoxes to which the novel keeps returning involve justice, peace, and power. And these are not mere abstractions, confined to the Torah stories that obsess Gurion; their real-world consequences range from in-school bullying to foreign policy. Such subtexts, handled subtly at first, come crashing into the foreground in a bravura set-piece near the novel’s midway point. The child prodigy thinks back to September 11 of his kindergarten year, and to events it takes more than a high Myers-Briggs score to comprehend.
In the novel’s second half, “The Gurionic War,” Levin dispenses, somewhat disastrously, with these insertions, leaving us with hundreds of pages of unadulterated prodigy. If this shaves a few ounces off the book, it also lays bare the geologic pacing of the plot. And the solipsism of Gurion’s point-of-view becomes not just something that seduces the other Aptakisic ne’er-do-wells, but something inflicted on the reader. It’s as if The Instructions has painted itself into a corner. Nonetheless, there’s always the possibility that Gurion will run up a wall, or sprout wings, and so we press on to the long-promised climax.
I’m not going to spoil that climax, other than invoking Einstein’s suggestion that no worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its conception. On the level of action, Levin gives us a significant payoff—he has to, after so many pages, or we’d want to egg his house—but in aesthetic terms, I was unpersuaded. Until. Until the abrupt return (right around the point where Philip Roth makes a cameo) of other, opposing voices. The novel’s conclusion, as distinct from the climax, juxtaposes several points-of-view and timeframes, throwing the central questions of Gurion’s existence back into high relief. And what saves the novel from self-indulgence is that they are also among the burning ethical questions of our time. For example: who has the right, in a fallen world, to dispense justice? Who has the right to judge? And what separates a savior from a lunatic?
Cult of the Child
It can’t be an accident that the current boom in novels about kid geniuses (or wizards) coincides with the dawn of a new age of catastrophe: buildings falling, anthrax, school shootings, wars, near economic collapse, and the palpable twilight of the American empire. Back in the ‘60s, establishment types liked to imagine that the young people mucking up the nation’s campuses were merely restaging their childhood as politics – acting out their Oedipal fantasies. Now, though, it has begun to seem that the terms are reversed; that we are trying to escape our political traumas by returning to childhood. Botox, Facebook, Pixar, skateboards and ringer tees…
In particular, Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, which publishes The Instructions, has made childhood into a cult phenomenon. Its quarterly is nostalgic in ways big (design) and small (plenty of coming-of-age stories), and most of its best books (What is the What, The Children’s Hospital, Here They Come) center on the experiences of children. Indeed, childhood delimits the McSweeney’s aesthetic as such—the meringue of whimsy on top, and underneath the moral fiber that is our birthright. (“I am tired,” runs one epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering…er… Genius. “I am true of heart!”)
The editors of N+1, precocious themselves, were quick to spot this. “Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood,” they noted in their first issue. But they were incorrect to claim that “Transcendence would not figure in [Eggersard] thought,” as anyone can tell you who remembers that moment at the end of AHWOSG where Dave and his kid brother run back and forth on the beach chasing the world’s most symbolic frisbee. To be a child is, for the duration of that childhood, to be transcendent.
The kid genius is, then—almost uniquely in our culture—a nakedly utopian figure (though a conservative one, in that his promised land lays in the past). He is wise. He is powerful. He is moral. The grinding compromises of bourgeois life and the adult obtusenesses that stands in for it do not concern him; growing up is selling out. He will, like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum (for whom Foer’s Oskar is presumably named) stay small, and, in so doing, stay pure.
Putting Away Childish Things
At its best, the kid genius novel works as a kind of allegory, albeit at the cost of turning everything—even the world-historical—personal. At its worst, it represents just another flight from the ethical, into the ready embrace of the aesthetic. In the end, the signal achievement of The Instructions is that it manages to reopen the communicating channels between these binaries.
In so doing, this entertaining novel clears at least one of the hurdles of art: its strengths become inextricable from its weaknesses. Levin’s willingness to hew to the boundaries of his character’s skull—a kind of cage inside a CAGE inside a cage inside a cage—may sometimes make us wish Gurion would just take a Xanax and go to bed. But it also brings us into the presence of a fully realized consciousness, which is surely one of the noblest tasks of fiction.
To call The Instructions a young man’s book is to say partly that Levin, who himself may be a kind of genius, has many books ahead of him. And like Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, that other hypertrophied iteration of the kid genius novel, this one ultimately keeps in view a world of very adult consequences. To the innocence we’ve been protesting this last decade, it manages to restore connotations of blindness, gullibility, and misapprehension. And so it may mark both the culmination and the dissolution of its subgenre—a turn away from the handsome doll-furniture of our childhood rooms, and toward the world writ large.
Sidebar: A Brief Timeline of the Literary Kid Genius
Seymour Glass, Seymour: An Introduction (1963)
Simons Everson Manigault, Edisto (1984)
Phillip, A History of Luminous Motion (1989)
Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (1996)
Magid Iqbal, White Teeth (2000)
Ludo Newman, The Last Samurai (2002)
Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Blue van der Meer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)
Billy Argo, The Boy Detective Fails (2006)
Rumika Vasi, Gifted (2007)
Saul Dawson-Smith, The Truth About These Strange Times (2008)
T.S. Spivet, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009)
Ruprecht van Doren, Skippy Dies (2010)
Gurion Maccabee, The Instructions (2010)
It’s a business-school truism that great leaders make for messy successions. Not only are their shoes hard to fill; no boss likes to contemplate his or her own obsolescence. (Think of Steve Jobs. Hell, think of King Lear.) And though its masthead is more likely to have graduated from Brown than from Wharton, the literary magazine is as subject as any other enterprise to the general principle. William Shawn’s 35-year streak as editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, for example, yielded to the comparatively brief reigns of Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Roger D. Hodge’s tenure at Harper’s, following the second long Lewis H. Lapham regime, lasted all of two years.
Even amid such tough acts to follow, the case of George Plimpton stands out. As the longtime editor of The Paris Review, Plimpton did the traditional things imposingly well. He charted the magazine’s direction. He developed features. He cultivated and supported good writing. But he also, through his journalistic talents and his presence on the social scene, expanded our idea of what an editor could be: founder, ringmaster, patron, host, impresario, fundraiser, cheerleader, public face, presiding spirit, and living embodiment of the brand. Though slender of frame, he cast a big shadow.
Upon Plimpton’s death in 2003, Brigid Hughes, then the managing editor, was tapped to lead the magazine. She was soon shown the door (a circumstance which led to the founding of A Public Space, with the help of a cadre of writers and donors loyal to Hughes) and the journalist Philip Gourevitch slotted into the role, somewhat against type. Gourevitch’s Paris Review has been more consistently appealing than one might have expected it to be. (A great reporter does not always a great editor make.) But, given that Gourevitch has been more of a caretaker than a visionary, it was no great surprise to learn in November that he would be stepping down to focus on his own writing…leaving The Paris Review searching for its fourth editor-in-chief in seven years.
The good news is that the pool of available talent is probably larger now than it has been in years. I’d happily read a Paris Review run by former Spy editor Kurt Andersen, who writes well, is interested in everything, and seems to have a Rolodex the size of a card catalog. Likewise Dan Menaker. In the wake of Hodge’s departure from Harper’s last month, his name has been thrown around as well. If I was on the search committee, I’d certainly be looking at Keith Gessen, who, though young, is something of a scholar of the little magazine. Or The Paris Review could again try to hire in-house. (Having had a piece edited by Meghan O’Rourke, who pulls double duty with Slate, I’d hire her for just about anything.)
Finding the next Plimpton, however, is more than a matter of editorial acumen. The Plimptonian editor must be out in the world. She cuts a figure. She makes fireworks, and shoots them off, too. Tina Brown, now of The Daily Beast, and Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter have certainly learned a thing or two from Plimpton, but the only editor currently working in the world of little magazines who fulfills the polymathic model is Dave Eggers. And so, as absurd as it may sound prima facie, I’d like to propose that Eggers is the best candidate for editorship of The Paris Review. And, somewhat counterintuitively, that hiring him for the job might be as good for Eggers as for the magazine.
Eggers is an entrepreneur of distinction, a gifted fund-raiser, a networker, a talent scout, a celebrity, a philanthropist, and an accomplished graphic designer. Moreover, he has a particular editorial capacity that’s always in rare supply: the capacity for vision. At his first two magazines – Might and (especially) McSweeney’s – Eggers helped to distill into literary form the sensibility of those who came of age after The End of History…and before history unceremoniously resumed. Whimsical, highly aestheticized, conspicuously casual, reverent of childhood and its signifiers, bound by the dialectic of irony and sincerity, the style of McSweeney’s has become the style of post-post-Modernism. It is No One Belongs Here More Than You and Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever, yes, but also American Apparel and Avenue Q, the films of Michel Gondry and the career of Michael Cera. It is vast swaths of Echo Park and the Bay Area and Brooklyn.
The first obvious objection, then, to the marriage of Eggers and The Paris Review comes from Eggers’ side of the aisle: he already has a magazine. But the truth is that McSweeney’s (reportedly intended to have a forty-eight issue run, followed by a long hiatus) has, in its middle age, begun to run up against its built-in limitations. One need not slight the magazine itself (the recent “Panorama” issue, a loving tribute to the print newspaper and a manifesto on its behalf, reportedly sold out), or rehearse the whiplash speed at which subculture becomes mainstream, to feel that McSweeney’s some time ago made the move from innovation to institution.
The Paris Review, too, is an institution, but one with a broader mission and a broader potential audience – a place where readers of McSweeney’s, readers of Newsweek, and readers of The New York Review of Books might meet and mingle en masse. And because its appeal is less bound up with youth, it might offer Eggers, now pushing 40, new and different challenges…even as McSweeney’s continued under the able hands that one sort of imagines mostly run it now anyway.
The second obstacle to the union is that Eggers, like Gourevitch, is a writer, and writing takes time away from editing. But here, too, Eggers, for all his successes, seems like a man in need of a jolt. His literary talent has always recalled for me David Foster Wallace’s description of the tennis player’s physique: hypertrophied in places and underdeveloped in others. This is true to some extent of all writers, but truer of Eggers than of, say his kind-of contemporary (and sometime collaborator) Zadie Smith. With impressive consistency, his books display visual acuity, inventive turns of phrase, and a fine ear for dialogue. Most importantly, they are full of compassion. But they also betray a countervailing tendency toward solipsism that the home crowd around McSweeney’s has been unable or unwilling to call Eggers on, and that has held him back from being the novelist he seems to aspire to be. Which may be a way of suggesting that Eggers is still in his literary adolescence.
This solipsism expresses itself as constraint. There is, on the surface, a kind of airless stylization of the prose, all those floating pronouns and studied flatnesses. More deeply, there is the constraint solipsism imposes on plot and drama – on the interaction of characters, and thus, on their development. Of Eggers’ longer narrative works, three are more or less nonfiction, one is a rewrite of a children’s book, and two (You Shall Know Our Velocity and Away We Go) are lashed to picaresque conceits that substitute vignette for scene and propulsion for plot.
Most recently, these two forms of constraint – micro and macro – converged in the disappointing novelization, The Wild Things. Max goes to the island. Max does some stuff. Max does some other stuff. Then Max comes home. At no point in the book does Max, or his writer, feel the sense of discovery and possibility we saw in Spike Jonze’s filmed sprint through the trees – or that marked the finest passages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The oddity of this is that Eggers is profoundly interested in other people. His best book overall, to my mind, has been What is the What, based on the story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng. (I have not read Zeitoun, which seems to follow a similar strategy in telling the story of a Hurricane Katrina survivor.) This reportorial interest in the wider world is one that The Paris Review could nourish, even as it exposed Eggers to an even wider audience – one that might be less satisfied with his tics, and more demanding of writing in proportion with his enormous gifts.
Whether or not Eggers seriously considers throwing his hat into the ring, The Paris Review could certainly benefit from having an editor of his stature. The task that awaits Gourevitch’s replacement may be more daunting than that which awaited him in 2005. In addition to hosting parties, raising funds, tending to the needs of writers, and serving as the public face of The Paris Review, the next editor will have to make the case to readers that, in this era of YouTube and the iPad, the bound literary quarterly is still worth their time and money. That’s a mission Dave Eggers has already proven himself to be committed to. And The Paris Review, for nearly 60 years, has proven its commitment to the kind of great American writing I’d like to see more of from Eggers. Odds are these two commitments will be pursued on parallel tracks. But wouldn’t it be great if they could meet?
Lincoln by Gore Vidal: He does a great job keeping all the historical characters lively and interesting. Mary Todd Lincoln actually ends up the most entertaining. He also illustrates the complex relationship between many historical events (battles, elections) and Lincoln’s surprisingly shaky political standing, and uncanny political prowess.
Bullet Park by John Cheever: I’ve gotten really into his writing this year. I recommend Falconer too. He also has a lot of short stories about waspy-ness that can be funny. Anyhow, Bullet Park was a very quick, very entertaining read about a family with some very complicated dynamics. The second half takes some very unexpected turns, but it all works.
As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden: A large collection of long and short poems from one of my all-time favorites.
One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis: I just cannot get enough of Kingsley Amis. I can’t say that the British humor I’d previously come across was ever my thing, but he’s flat-out one of the funniest people going. The great thing is that there are so many books. Without actually knowing the guy, once you read a handful of them, you really get familiar with their common voice, and you can just go from one to the next. In my favorite ones, like One Fat Englishman and The Green Man, the main character is just such a prick in such a funny way, you just know Amis is really enjoying writing about himself. I’m actually looking at Everyday Drinking, which I keep on my bedside table.
What is the What by Dave Eggers: Incredible story about one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys” and his journey from his tiny village in southern Sudan to his home in Atlanta, Ga. His problems are not over when he hits the states. I’ve really come to like Eggers writing. I also recommend A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… I really liked the part about Mr. T.
The Art Student’s War by Brad Leithauser: I’m about to start reading it. I’m sure it’s top-notch!
In July, a crowd gathered in the atrium outside of Garden St. Bookshop in New Orleans for an appearance by Dave Eggers. Four years after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and books and movies about Katrina started flooding the media, a new Katrina narrative may seem uncalled for, but this one is not. You may not expect a guy who had the audacity to write a memoir of his twenties and call it A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to be humble, but when he when he entered the room followed by a short, round-faced woman wearing a brown-swirled hijab and her husband, a handsome Syrian man, the humility Eggers exuded rang genuine.
Eggers, addressing a room of around two hundred people, introduced Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. In his new book, Zeitoun, Eggers chronicles the experience of Abdulrahman, a Syrian immigrant, and his family as they face not only the worst natural disaster in American history but a justice system in which Abdulrahman becomes stranded, rendered helpless and stripped of his identity “as a neighbor, as a countryman, as a human”.
Eggers, rather than reading, held a panel discussion with the couple. With the three of them sitting, Eggers realized, most people in the room would be unable to see them. So, for a good part of the time, the three of them stood. Eggers spoke for a moment before turning the talk over to Kathy, who addressed the room with warmth and confidence. One of the first things out of her mouth was a defense of Islam against “what you might see on TV. It’s a very peaceful religion.” Zeitoun (Zey-toon), as people call him because they can’t pronounce his first name, speaks English well, but Kathy did most of the talking as he stood with his hands clasped behind his back, casting his eyes between the floor, the listeners and his wife. As she spoke, Kathy and Zeitoun exchanged looks, and the love between them, the parents of five children, was visible.
Kathy is from Baton Rouge. She converted to Islam when she was nineteen and searching for a religion. “I wanted to be Catholic,” she joked, “but it takes too long.” Kathy said that by converting to Islam, “you’re not changing your beliefs, just your religion. Through Islam, I found God.” While Kathy’s journey led her to Islam, Zeitoun’s led him to New Orleans, and where the two met they built their life as a couple committed to their family and working hard to raise their children and run a business: Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor, LLC. In their community, they were loved for their generosity and respected for their honesty and reliability.
Like Eggers’ previous novel, What is the What, this third person narrative is an epic of survival and the challenges of the immigrant, illuminating the flaws of the American dream even as they are met with optimism and persistence. But Abdulrahman Zeitoun is not a stranger. He is a New Orleanian. His wife begs him to leave the city before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, but he insists on staying behind to help his neighbors, rescuing people trapped in their houses and feeding abandoned dogs. “This is my family, too,” he says. Zeitoun paddles his canoe around post-Katrina New Orleans, a world made new by flood, accompanied by memories of his childhood in Syria and invigorated by a sense of freedom and purpose. Zeitoun’s odyssey through his own city is paralleled by Kathy’s vigil over the family, not as Penelope in the family home but as a vagabond in a Honda Odyssey, roaming west in search of shelter while she waits for her husband to leave New Orleans.
“The dissonance woke him.” This is the last line of Part I, as Zeitoun wakes to the sound of floodwaters rushing past his house from Lake Pontchartrain. In this story, the word dissonance looms large. Zeitoun, although not an outsider, retains the innocence of an immigrant expecting something different from this country. His home becomes strange and the behavior of others sometimes confounds him. “Why had he said he would come if he did not plan to come?… He had promised help and he had not kept that promise.” Bewilderment gives way to shock when he is arrested a house he owns and, incredibly, locked in a cell that is more like a cage, surrounded by men with guns and treated as not only a stranger but as an enemy. In a place that he recognizes but that is no longer his home, he is stripped, literally, and then figuratively, of his pride and his rights.
Across the world in Istanbul, where I was living and teaching English when the storm hit New Orleans, my students expressed shock at the images they were seeing on television.” The dissonance woke them, too. They said to me “We can’t believe this is America.” In the atrium, I asked Zeitoun if his experience changed his perception of America. He replied that when he saw so many people left helpless by their government and when he sat in prison being treated worse than a criminal, not knowing why he was being held and denied contact with his family, “I said to myself, this is not America.”
Speaking to the crowd in the atrium, Kathy recounted the ordeal in the weeks after the storm when she could not find her husband or any information about him, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. She laughed and gestured with animated hands and face as she conveyed the frustration of explaining to his panicked family in Syria and Spain that she did not know where he was. “It was like I had lost someone else’s pet.” Billy Sothern, a Louisiana attorney and anti-death penalty advocate, briefly explained the series of legal breakdowns, before and after the storm, that held Zeitoun in prison for weeks without a hearing, without charges and with no way to contact his wife and children. “Even after we knew where he was,” Kathy said, “he didn’t know we were looking for him. He thought we had just forgotten about him.” At this comment, Zeitoun cast a sheepish glance at his wife then hung his head for a moment.
When outsiders write about New Orleans, we denizens often find ourselves cringing at things like “gumbo parties.” But New Orleans rendered by Eggers through Zeitoun’s eyes is the New Orleans we know. Zeitoun’s is not the view of an outsider. Through Zeitoun’s eyes, in scenes that alternate beauty and despair, Eggers portrays encounters and events that I recognize as the idiosyncrasies of my city–the kind of place where neighbors know each other, where a prostitute hitches a ride to work in a canoe in the middle of a flood, where people make a party on the roof in a city of apocalyptic destruction.
There was one disappointment, however. Towards the end, Eggers gives a one-paragraph history of the state prison in Angola in which, among thousands of facts and stories, he picks a few that offer a narrow and demonized picture of a complex subject. Why was it necessary to point out that one of the crops grown at Angola was cotton? It wasn’t. Such facts, presented in isolation, play on social stereotypes and racial sensitivities to unnecessarily inflame and prejudice a reader. As a person who has actually been inside the gates of Angola (as a guest), I wish that Eggers had looked more deeply into the subject before coloring it with such a wide stroke of ignominy.
Despite this misstep, this love story and adventure tale is a great read, rendered beautifully in simple prose with a pace that will keep you reading. Heartbreaking at times, the tale of Zeitoun leaves the reader with a hopeful view of a world in which people like the Zeitouns respond to its imperfections not with bitterness but with a desire and an effort to build a better one.
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
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.
A Review of Dave Eggers’ What is the WhatOn paper, Edward P. Jones and Dave Eggers seem to have little in common. The former grew up poor in predominantly African-American Northeast D.C., made his critical reputation with a collection of deceptively understated short stories, and even after a National Book Award nomination, continued to labor in relative penury and obscurity. The latter grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb and found commercial success early, with a memoir that placed the Dave Eggers voice – inventive, flashy, ironic – front and center. And yet this literary season has found the two stars aligning in the literary firmament. First, in August, Eggers penned an appreciative and thoughtful Sunday Times review of Jones’ new collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children – a book which, at least superficially, could not be more different than Eggers’ recent collection How We Are Hungry. Then, two weeks ago, Eggers published a novel embodying the very qualities he praised to in Jones’ work: “its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose and [a] steady and unerring” narrative force. And though it may surprise critics of McSweeney’s to hear it, What is the What is the finest American novel I have read since The Known World.The novel is a gently fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a living casualty of the ongoing Sudanese civil war. Having fled from his ruined boyhood village on foot, Deng grew up in U.N.-run camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He settled in Atlanta in 2001, and after a series of setbacks began looking for a writer who might help him tell his story. As stories go, this one is dramatic and wrenching prima facie, and in a two-part article for The Believer, Eggers gave it respectful, even tentative journalistic treatment. But, sensing that this approach placed barriers of “objectivity” between the audience from the material, he decided, boldly and correctly (with apologies to La Kakutani) to recast Deng’s story as first-person fiction.The urgency and earnestness of Deng’s voice seem to have provided the necessary pressure to render Eggers’ prose crystalline:The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped. The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. The first boy’s name was Ariath.This paragraph alone would be an extraordinary act of self-effacement for a writer given to flourishes, and an extraordinary act of trust on the part of Deng. That they sustain this voice for 475 pages is something like a miracle. The writer speaks from inside his narrator – from his heart, from his gut, from his intellect. And the distance between audience and subject narrows until we feel that we, too, are Valentino Achak Deng, in all of his complexity and contradiction.Because imperfect as a human being, he makes a perfect protagonist. He is whip-smart yet perpetually naive, generous and selfish, strong and weak, courageous and timid, full of both faith and doubt. In other words, he is a lot like the Dave Eggers of that other fictionalized autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… not because Eggers has played ventriloquist, but because he has tapped into something universal. In the course of the novel, Achak becomes as real to us as we are to ourselves, and we feel his every loss and triumph as though they were our own.The first half of the book concerns the destruction of the tranquil Dinka homeland in Southern Sudan by agents of the Islamic government in Khartoum and his harrowing walk across the country in the company of thousands of other “Lost Boys.” The novel grounds every historical exigency in the dramatic interactions of rounded characters. If the expectation of a simple story of good vs. evil (and some of the political nuances) gets confounded in the process, we can appreciate more fully the quiet heroism of children who talk each other out of suicide, of young teachers who lead groups of boys through minefields and crocodile-infested rivers, of villagers who risk the disapproval of their elders by sharing their food with these unwanted boys. And though it feels inappropriate to render an aesthetic judgment on Deng’s experience, his quest for safety generates a narrative force to rival anything in Lord of the Rings. The difference is that there are no invisibility cloaks or magic breads here.Things get quieter in the second half, as Deng finds some measure of safety in the refugee camps. But his earlier struggles resonate poignantly in his attempts to contact the father he hasn’t heard from in a decade, and especially in a visit to the relatively prosperous and stable capital city of Kenya. Without ever editorializing, What is the What reminds us of the brutality the world’s millions of impoverished children face daily; how decadent something as simple as a grocery store can look to those who are living on U.N. rice. And calamity continues to bedevil Deng as he waits to be relocated to the U.S. – which will prove to be no promised land.In a rare instance of overt artistic license, Eggers uses the invasion and robbery of Deng’s apartment in Atlanta as a frame for his novel. We return periodically to scenes of Deng being assaulted in his apartment, or filing a police report, or waiting to be treated for his injuries in the ER. His internal monologues – his memories of Africa – are directed at the various characters he meets along the way. For the most part, this device works just fine. We are deprived of the solace of seeing Deng as exotic, someone “over there”; rather, his struggles are ours… and the injustices he faces in America are the ones we perpetrate every day with our impatience, our pettiness, our indifference. And Deng himself is guilty of these human failings. Occasionally, though, Eggers seems to overreach in his transitions between the fictional present and the fictional past, and to milk the robbery too aggressively for suspense. In almost every other particular, however, What is the What’s formal features merge perfectly with its moral authority, until it is impossible to speak of artistic “choices.” It is equally difficult to analyze the rich relationship the reader develops with Mr. Deng. Like The Known World, and like Deng’s life, the book just is. And that’s about the highest praise I can think of.Eggers has been a fixture on the American literary scene for long enough that it’s easy to forget he’s in his mid-thirties. Like his near-contemporaries Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace, he has occasionally suffered in his writing from a kind of IQ overload, an analysis-paralysis. His second book (and first novel), You Shall Know Our Velocity was not an unqualified success, and some readers have been rubbed the wrong way by the antic quality of his fiction. They may be tempted to write off What is the What, rather than read it. But its large-heartedness is an antidote to such small-mindedness. It takes us deep inside a person we will never forget and heralds the arrival of a writer who has found himself by looking beyond himself, and who has learned the difference between intelligence and wisdom.(All proceeds from What is the What go to aiding the Sudanese in Sudan and America.)
Today I met the author Nick Hornby. He was passing through town and he decided to stop in to sign copies of the new paperback release of Songbook (which, unfortunately, is a million times less cool than the hardcover book and CD combo that McSweeneys put out). He told me that he is halfway through a new novel, but he didn’t offer any details about it. He did, however, say that he is hard at work adapting Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for the silver screen. Should be quite interesting if it ever comes to fruition.