The characters in Polly Rosenwaike’s debut story collection, Look How Happy I’m Making You, have children or choose not to, experience infertility, miscarriage, or abortion, and deal with postpartum depression and the aftermath of secrets and longing. They work inside and outside the home and renegotiate parental roles. They come together to form a portrait of modern life, centering on the struggles, choices, and realities of reproduction.
With stark images and metaphors (menstrual blood on white underwear “like a botched Japanese flag”) and an undercurrent of humor, Rosenwaike’s stories explore topics from women’s lives that are often underrepresented in contemporary literary fiction.
Rosenwaike has published stories, essays, and reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, The Millions, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is fiction editor for Michigan Quarterly Review, and lives in Ann Arbor with the poet Cody Walker and their two daughters.
The Millions chatted with Rosenwaike via email about secrets, plotting, and writing about women’s lives with honesty and humor.
The Millions: The experiences of the women in Look How Happy I’m Making You provide a window into traditionally underrepresented or ignored subjects. Did you find yourself freer in writing these stories, or wishing for more models to draw from? Were there any books or authors that served as inspiration?
Polly Rosenwaike: I’ve had a great number of wonderful models for writing about new motherhood, as well as about the experiences of young(ish) women and their relationships with their families and romantic partners. Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, Helen Simpson’s Getting a Life, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, and numerous stories by Alice Munro have inspired me with their candor, artfulness, and humor about emotionally complex subjects in women’s lives.
I’d say I felt free in writing on these topics in the sense that writing has been for me, as I think it is for many shy or private people, a space in which I can be open about things I might not fully express to many others. I didn’t see myself as venturing into new territory—to the contrary, I worried that I might be treading on too-familiar ground (and indeed was told as much by several agents who rejected my collection).
TM: You tackle subjects that often carry social taboos: infertility, miscarriage, abortion, choosing not to have children. What was writing about these topics like? Did you get any pushback?
PR: I haven’t gotten any pushback, which I think speaks to the fact that everyone I’ve worked with on the book has understood that these are aspects of women’s reproductive lives and choices that are worth discussing and representing. My relationship to writing about each topic was different. I had two miscarriages, and I fictionalized this firsthand experience in various ways when I created the characters who have miscarriages in “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop” and “Tanglewood.” Like many people, I think, the prevalence of miscarriage wasn’t on my radar until a number of women I knew started getting pregnant, and a significant percentage of them had miscarriages. I think it’s scary to become aware of how common it is—10 percent to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage—but I also think it’s comforting to view it as a common part of the reproductive process, and to know that most women who have one will eventually have a successful pregnancy.
I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten pregnant only when I wanted to, and despite the miscarriages, I didn’t have to wait very long, and so I haven’t had an abortion or had to struggle with not conceiving. I entered into writing about those topics delicately, with the fiction writer’s hope that I would portray the lives of invented characters in a way that felt true. As for the matter of choosing not to have children, I find it frustrating that women are often judged harshly for what feels to me like a perfectly understandable choice. I really love how Sheila Heti takes on this subject in depth in her book Motherhood. In my story “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” I wanted to explore what happens when a couple disagrees about whether or not to have a child.
TM: This book explores grief, longing, and depression, and there’s also so much subtle humor from line to line. The title comes from Audrey in “Grow Your Eyelashes.” She doesn’t want children, and her mother tearfully tries to convince her that children bring joy. Audrey replies, “Look how happy I’m making you.” In “Love Bug, Sweetie Dear, Pumpkin Pie, Etc.,” when Serena goes back to her job as a research librarian after maternity leave, she thinks, “No one would scream or fall ill because she hadn’t satisfied them.” How do you see humor informing your stories?
PR: My partner Cody Walker’s first book of poetry, Shuffle and Breakdown, has an epigraph from Richard Pryor’s stand-up show Live & Smokin’: “This ain’t as funny as we thought it was gonna be.” I wish my book were funnier. Cody’s books, let me just say, are really funny; I like to think I’ve learned a bit from him. He studied comic theory for his dissertation, and I stole some of his stuff for “A Lady Who Takes Jokes,” about a cognitive psychologist who does research on babies’ laughter. I think humor helps to cut the sentimentality that often accompanies the portrayal of new mothers and babies. And I love how it can work to intensify (rather than lighten) a dark and difficult situation. Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a wrenching story about a mother whose young child has cancer. It’s also terribly funny. That’s the kind of humor I aspire to—the kind that makes sadness and longing and fear even more acute.
TM: “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression” uses a listing device and structure to tell the story. How does experimentation play into your writing? Do you often write across different genres and forms?
PR: In my 20s, when I was trying to escape how hard it was to write a story, I puttered around with poetry, screenwriting, creative nonfiction; but it turned out those genres were just as hard. So I accepted my fate as a fairly traditional fiction writer. In the second-person story “Ten Warning Signs,” I really enjoyed how the structural framework—the 10 warning signs listed in a pamphlet about postpartum depression—helped me to generate material I might not otherwise have come up with. I’m hoping to experiment more with form and content in my next longer fiction project. And I have some hope of returning to genres I’ve abandoned. Though probably not poetry. I love to teach it, and I love to encounter it in my house (Cody writes a poem every single day), but it’s probably best that I stick to being a fan of poetry rather than a failure at it.
TM: Secrets are deeply woven into these stories, some shared and others kept hidden. How, for you, do secrets operate within fiction? Are they tied more closely to character or to plot?
PR: What an interesting question—I hadn’t quite thought about it, but yes, I guess there are a lot of secrets in these stories, and indeed, secrets play an important role in fiction generally. Everyone knows fiction writers are liars, right? Considering the characters that keep secrets in my collection, I think there’s something about their personalities—a deep insecurity mixed with pride, a calculated self-armoring—that makes this an enticing behavior for them. But for me as the writer, a character’s keeping a secret from other characters is definitely a means toward trying to increase the level of drama and conflict in the story. So in that way, it’s more closely tied to plot.
In “Period, Ellipsis, Full Stop,” it was quite late in the drafting process when I decided to have Cora hide her suspicion of having a miscarriage from her husband. I needed a way to externalize the conflict in their relationship and create more tension between them, and so I added in this secret. In “White Carnations,” it was always inherent to the story’s structure that when Karyn gets together with other childless, motherless women on Mother’s Day, she hides her pregnancy—until the final paragraphs, when revealing it to Anne allows the two women to get closer and the story to end with that moment of connection. My inclination has been to use secrets to explore the consequences for the characters rather than to conceal things from the reader. A reader of “The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy” figures out pretty quickly, I think, that the narrator has stopped taking the pill without telling her sort-of boyfriend. The narrative question, then, becomes, what will this deception mean for their relationship? For the deceiver herself?
TM: What were your early experiences and influences as a writer? What’s next, writing-wise?
PR: I’m going to interpret this “early” as really early, because I’ve wanted to grow up to be a writer for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was a great fan of Maud Hart Lovelace, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Rumer Godden, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jennie Lindquist, Astrid Lindgren, Louisa May Alcott, Judy Blume. When my friend and I got the idea to make a celebrity cookbook like they do in a Sweet Valley Twins book (Yes, I read a lot of not-very-literary stuff too.), Judy Blume sent us a letter with a recipe for noodle kugel, which was hugely exciting. I never made the recipe, though, because it sounded gross, and I never made the cookbook because Judy Blume was the only celebrity who wrote us back.
As a girl, my favorite books were almost all by women writers, now that I think about it, and they were almost all realistic fiction. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, who lives on her own with a monkey and a horse (which she can lift up in the air), does stretch the bounds of realism a bit.
My grandmother’s first cousin Roz, an English professor who I think of as my first real-life literary influence, gave me a diary when I was about eight or so. It was royal blue with a shiny gold fan on it, and I viewed it as a sacred object, the beginning of my writing life. For many years, keeping a journal was the main genre of creative writing I practiced, and I see it as a precursor to the kind of fiction I began pursuing in my early 20s. Though my journals were certainly filled with lots of angst and emotional excess, I think articulating and obsessing over some of the elements of my daily life helped me develop an attention to detail and to “the mystery of personality,” as Flannery O’Connor calls it in her brilliant essay, “Writing Short Stories.”
Now I’ve conveniently run out of space and can’t discuss your second question. Writing about a work-in-progress feels to me like trying to describe a book I haven’t read.
TM: This collection seems to capture a significant cultural moment in that most (perhaps all?) of the mothers work, and parental roles are in negotiation. These stories collectively paint a portrait of working motherhood as the norm, rather than an either/or proposition. Was the idea of choosing to work in your mind while writing the book?
PR: Recently, Joshua Johnson interviewed Terry Gross on his NPR show 1A, and he asked about her plans for retirement. The gist of Gross’s answer: she plans to keep working as long as she can. Alluding to that oft-heard trope, “No one ever says on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office,’” she said something like (I’m definitely paraphrasing), “Well, you don’t say that if you don’t like your job, but I love my work.” The work in my own life—writing, teaching, nonprofit work, editing—has always been really important to me: intellectually, emotionally, practically. In the collection, I wanted to represent women who enjoy their work and find meaning in it. For most people, this doesn’t go out the window when you have a baby. It’s hard to manage everything, of course, but I think we need to assert that mothers have just as much reason and right to continue devoting themselves to their work lives as fathers, if that’s what they want to do.
TM: Is there a question about you or your work that you wish someone would ask? How would you answer it?
PR: I’m flattered that I’m being asked about myself and my work at all. A question I guess I’ve felt poised to answer, and did answer for my editor when she asked about it, is why I don’t have a birth story in the book. A few births are briefly alluded to—a sudden C-section in “June;” a “natural birth” that goes fine but “hurt so much you thought something must be terribly wrong” in “Ten Warning Signs of Postpartum Depression”—but for a collection of stories about having a baby, it might seem odd that this crucial experience is essentially skipped over. One reason why I avoided it is because I think childbirth often functions like the marriage plot trope, where a singular joyous event is meant to serve as the crowning culmination of a woman’s story. All the difficulty and pain of childbirth, as well as the hard work of mothering to come, is subsumed by the image of the shining newborn. For me, labor and childbirth, though certainly interesting—in the way that an extreme physical experience is interesting—was also a time when I felt least myself, most disconnected from the observing, reflective brain that I think of as me. It totally wiped me out. And so I didn’t write about it both in reaction to the way it’s often represented and because I couldn’t come up with a better way.
This year made things of us all. I was reminded of a part of myself I wish did not exist: what I dub the fainting goat inside of me. The fainting goat seizes when it panics, as if thinking of the plan, not realizing that seizing, pausing in place for a period of time, is not a great survival strategy. And yet I have this goat in me. When things become overwhelming, I slip into a kind of fugue state during which on a psychic level I am chanting somewhere, think, Gross, think, Gross, how do we get out of this? I suspect many of us slipped in and out of fugue states in order to cope with this year, but of course survival depends on getting out of the fugue state to fight the powers that be.
I also spent the year finishing my own book about motherhood, a topic around which I am profoundly ambivalent. If you are ambivalent about something as large as becoming a parent, there is the idea that reading hundreds of books about it will help. For me, it did not help. It only deepened my ambivalence and made me realize that the grandness of the question would make any thinking person torn. I suspect that only people of great faith can take on new parenthood during these times.
I read every book on motherhood and the report is what you might imagine; most books on the topic are terrible, and because you should avoid them, I will not even bother to list the 40+ of them I read this year. However, some are terrific. Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter is a love letter full of conflict both to her own mother and herself as a new mother. Being Here Is Everything by Marie Darrieussecq is a beautiful portrait of the iconic modernist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker whose work epitomized maternal ambivalence. Mothers by Rachel Zucker examines how to become a mother without becoming your own mother. And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell is one of those books I suspect is terrific for women who actually do become mothers. As is Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes, which is a terrific book and the kind of book you should buy every woman you know who is pregnant. It’s a perfect balance of the personal and the political, and it’s the only book about becoming a mother that didn’t make me feel like motherhood isn’t for me. And I read two novels about motherhood: Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which is a book that perfectly encapsulates how I feel and is a gift to all ambivalent women everywhere, and Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which chronicles actual motherhood in its glory and plainness, connecting women through time, and makes me feel a sense of anticipatory loss at not entering into that space.
And of course reading about the history of motherhood was depressing in the ways that reading any history related to women is, but particularly how it dovetailed with the news this year. Sexual abuse going unpunished, white campus rapists going free, white predators taking and maintaining their place on the supreme court and presidency and in every nook and cranny of power-holding positions. Abortion rights on the brink of being taken back from us. Young black women going to prison for 51 years for killing their abuser in self defense—a sentence no white woman would face. Mothers continuing to do the bulk of the work while the gender pay gap persists, without child support, and often with retribution when they do return to work. Black women three to four times as likely to die from maternal causes as white women. The list is too long to list. Between systemic racism and misogyny, what women, and particularly women of color, have endured and continue to endure is unbearable. It is important to realize and celebrate the gains we’ve made, but sobering to realize how far we have to go.
Finally after all of the less-than-cheery wading through historical research I managed to find some time to read for pleasure. I waited until Rachel Cusk’s trilogy was finished so I could binge read them in a hotel in Greece. It is so worth waiting to read books like this all at once. I should add that while Outline, Transit, and Kudos are clearly brilliant works, her book on motherhood, A Life’s Work, remains my favorite.
I also read the following books which I recommend in spades: R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries (God how I admire her spare sentences; no word seems misplaced in this jewel of a book), The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham (nonfiction that reads like a novel about twin brothers that escape the violence of El Salvador), The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America by Onnesha Roychoudhuri (this book is so accessible and important and did not get the press it deserves), Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (I wanted to live in this book of sake drinking, mushroom foraging, and complicated platonic-ish love), There There by Tommy Orange (a polyphonic novel about contemporary Native-American life and the history it holds), Heavy by Kiese Laymon (another complicated love letter to a mother and a searing look at the ugly truths of America), and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (I loved this book!).
Of all the books I read in 2018, my favorite was Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Just read it. For me it came at a fortuitous time. In my frozen fright-filled state, it was like a wise and benevolent voice that gently tapped me on the shoulder and said, unfreeze my child, there are better things you can do than faint. It made me realize that once I came out of this period of fugue, I would return to the work that my little goat self came to do: read, write, speak, act up—all as my own way of mothering.
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To start, a list of the books I enjoyed very, very much:
I expected to like Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, not only because she is my friend, but because I only made her be my friend after reading her genius nonfiction on this very website. However, I did not like the book. That puny, superficial word doesn’t portray my experience with this powerful, singular work. Never! The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation. Of course! This is what parenting a young child is like! The novel begins, “I am staring out the window of my office thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.” Its brilliance never lets up.
My favorite nonfiction book of the year was Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. In her book, Garbes shares her personal experiences as a pregnant person and mother, and balances these with larger investigations into the history and science of reproduction, pregnancy loss, childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on. Her writing is accessible and compassionate, and filled with wonder at the miracle of the female body. (I get it! The placenta, for instance. HOLY SHIT.) Garbes’s project takes on political weight as it becomes increasingly clear how the medical and scientific communities have ignored and/or devalued women, especially black and brown women, which is perhaps why it’s taken this long to get a book this good.
This summer I found myself about to get on a plane without a book. The horror! I ran into the nearest Hudson Gum and Magazine Store and bought the first novel that looked the least egregious. I have to admit, I wasn’t planning to read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but I’d read and not cared for a previous novel of his, and the premise, about a writer trying to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding by accepting every literary invitation to come his way, and thus traveling the world, sounded annoying. Writers! Who cares? Well, turns out, I do. Less was by such a delight: funny and moving, with paragraphs that made me weak. The writing made me at once jealous and full of joy. Everyone and their mom has read this book, but if you’ve resisted, please just give in and read it. Here’s a taste: Greer describes a jellyfish as “a pink frothing brainless negligeed monster pulsing in the water.” Negligeed. Isn’t that perfect?
For professional events, I re-read two books that I had the pleasure of reading for the blurb-industrial-complex the year before: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. Celt’s second novel takes its inspiration from Vladimir and Véra Nabokov’s famed marriage: it’s got sex, intrigue, a vicious all girls boarding school in 1920s New Jersey, and lines like, “On a budget, eggs are the perfect food, until they’re not.” It’s delicious and smart and I want HBO to adapt it into a mini-series. O’Connell’s is a collection of funny, irreverent, cry-fest-inducing essays about becoming pregnant by accident at age 29, and follows her pregnancy and the beginning of her son’s life. Yep, another motherhood book, and a necessary one. In the tradition of A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, And Now We Have Everything doesn’t hold a single thing back in its mission to convey the mindfuckery that is becoming a parent for the first time.
I read these and many other wonderful books in 2018 all by my lonesome: in the bath or in bed or over lunch, or, as mentioned, on an airplane. My favorite reading experience, however, occurred with another person—my son, who turned seven in June. Most of the time, since I am busy putting his sister to bed, or making school lunches, or hiding in the corner with my phone, he reads alone or with his dad. However, a few times this year, I took over. Have you recently read a chapter book to a child? Sometimes they cuddle. Sometimes they wipe their snot on your shoulder. Sometimes they pace the room as you narrate. Sometimes you have to argue about the division of labor (in our house, it’s supposed to be two pages per person, back and forth). The experience is different from reading a picture book, for there is no shared visual to comment upon; it’s a comforting alone-together feeling, each of us projecting images inside our own brains as we read from the text.
Together we’ve read Because of Winn-Dixie, and the first Harry Potter, and began the new translation of The Odyssey (but, I admit, stalled out at Book 3). My favorite book I got to read with him, though, was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love the beauty of the sequel, the more famous Little House on the Prairie (there is an image of the stars in the sky that pretty much ruined me…), but Wilder’s racist depiction of the Osage Indians—and the fact that the family is taking their land—is, though an important history lesson, not my favorite book to share with my kid.
Little House in the Big Woods, however, takes place in Wisconsin, before the family moves to “Indian Country” and it offers some of the same pleasures as the later, more problematic books, including detailed-yet-simple descriptions of their everyday tools and domestic duties. We learn how Ma colors the butter with some carrot-soaked milk, and how Laura and her sister Mary get a pig bladder to toss around like a ball, and how to smoke some Venison in the hollow of a tree. Wilder’s prose is clear and easy for a young reader, but it’s not without its poetry. The final paragraphs are the best thing I read all year:
“She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Reading these words, I recalled what it was like to be a child, to be seven again, my son’s age. I didn’t just think about it, I felt it.
What a gift reading is.
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When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”
O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms. When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.
As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.
After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.
The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?
Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.
Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.
I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!
Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.
TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?
MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.
In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.
So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.
The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.
But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.
The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.
Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.
TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.
MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.
I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.
I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.
I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…
As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.
TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now! Any hypotheses of why that is?
MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this? My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feminist—in an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.
2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.
TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.
For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.
Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t — but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.)
But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned — always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning — for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness — a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness — and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading — and abandoning.)
Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand — I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book — but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity — at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed.
I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She’s inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way — both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers.
Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single — and, crucially, female — late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed.
I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so — a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. “Before inventors created engines to take the place of men,” he writes,
the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx — these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age.
An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it.
The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 — or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction — who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders…Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen — really for the first time in any kind of serious way — to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again.
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In her essay “The Getaway Car,” now included in her nonfiction collection This is a Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett describes well-meaning readers who approach her at events with ideas for books. To them, it’s a simple equation: their premise plus Patchett’s prose equals literary gold. Patchett deftly points out that ideas for stories are everywhere and easy to find; it’s the sitting down and writing them that takes hard work.
Now that I’m finished with my forthcoming novel, I see what she means. Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative. Patchett is right: there are so many stories! Alas, I have only one life, and one voice, and only three days of childcare a week to write.
But maybe the ideas that don’t snag my prolonged attention would occupy another, different writer. Let’s try it: Here are a few novels I won’t write. Maybe you will.
The Doctor Is In
When I was pregnant with my daughter I read Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History and the Wonder of Childbirth by Mark Sloan. There are so many remarkable details in this book, from the cool, weird things a fetus does in the womb, to theories about why labor is so easy for gorillas and so difficult for human beings. I was especially compelled by the story of James Barry, the first surgeon to perform a successful cesarean (meaning that both mother and child survived). Barry, born in the late 1700s, was an Irish military surgeon in the British Army, and Sloan describes him as not being particularly likeable: pushy, without tact. After his death, it was revealed that Barry was born a woman but passed as a man for decades. When I read that I couldn’t believe his story hadn’t yet been told (or not adequately; whoever does this book right will have a bestseller followed by an HBO adaptation). Because I am not up for the task of writing historical fiction, I nominate my friend Anna Solomon for the job. She would be perfect: her two novels, The Little Bride and Leaving Lucy Pear, explore gender, sexuality, and motherhood in bygone eras; plus, she’s the co-editor of an anthology of birth stories called Labor Day (one of mine is in there).
Trouble in Oakland
This summer, the East Bay was rocked by a police scandal that included officers in Oakland and Richmond, as well as deputies in the Alameda county sheriff’s department. As of mid-September, criminal charges have been made against seven officers and Oakland has witnessed one Police Chief after another step down, with Mayor Libby Schaaf struggling to explain the multiple resignations. In June, a sex worker going by the name of Celeste Guap revealed in an on-air television interview that she’d had sex with a handful of police officers, some of them when she was a minor. As the East Bay Express reported:
According to text messages between police officers and the victim, at least three OPD officers leaked her confidential information about undercover prostitution stings. One Oakland cop obtained police reports and criminal histories and shared them with the victim, which is against department policy. Guap also said she slept with cops as a form of protection.
In a quote from Guap that I keep coming back to, she said that she and one of the officers would hook up “like every Saturday night for three months straight…He had a mattress in his back seat and slept in his car in the OPD parking lot, so we would hook up after work.”
This scandal exists against a much larger backdrop; it coincided with the release of Stanford University’s 2013-2014 research study of the Oakland police department, which found “a significant pattern of racial disparities” regarding who is stopped, handcuffed, and arrested; according to the report, police officers showed implicit bias against the African-American community. For many in the city, this came as no surprise. Mayor Schaaf made relations with the community even more tense when she identified the race of officers involved in a totally different department scandal; according to the Oakland Black Officers Association, Schaaf had never before identified the race of officers involved in an investigation.
Fiction has always helped us understand and grapple with the complexities of the real world, and a book like this, in an era of highly visible police violence, feels necessary.
Who is this young woman? Who is this young cop? This would be a big, multi-voiced novel, with community members, law enforcement, and savvy political players. I nominate Attica Locke, author of three crime novels that deal with race in American life, including The Cutting Season, about the discovery of a dead body on a plantation-turned-tourist attraction-and-event space. (Though Ms. Locke might be a little busy right now — she’s currently writing for, and producing, the TV show Empire…)
In early September, Rachel Cusk published an essay called “Making House: Notes on Domesticity” in the New York Times Magazine that so closely aligned with my interests I was practically levitating with excitement as I read it. First, I love Cusk’s writing, in particular her essays about mothering in A Life’s Work. Second, I read design blogs daily and enjoy browsing furniture catalogues and real estate websites; if I’m anxious, nothing calms me more than thinking about sectionals in imaginary living rooms. Third, I am interested in the ways women’s identities are shaped and influenced, and this line from Cusk felt truer than anything I’d read in a long time:
Yet there are other imperatives that bedevil the contemporary heirs of traditional female identity, for whom insouciance in the face of the domestic can seem a sort of political requirement, as though by ceasing to care about our homes we could prove our lack of triviality, our busyness, our equality.
Well, that explains my shame at admitting my couch-fantasies here — shouldn’t I be above all that? Cusk’s essay led me to think about depictions of household maintenance and design in fiction. I’m usually a plot-lusty reader, but one of my favorite sections in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman was when its hero…cleaned his apartment. I still remember how gracefully it transported me to the more mundane aspects of life. I recently loved The Stager by Susan Coll, which is in part about a woman who prepares properties for the housing market by changing their furniture, painting a few walls, and so on. I could’ve read about her work for hundreds of pages! I wonder, could someone write a domestic drama which contained no drama, only its domestic details? Can a novel exist on descriptions of laundry alone, on musings about where to best mount a living room television? I’m thinking the main character wants a “clean” house, like so many of the women on House Hunters. This would be a short and intensely claustrophobic book — but also, somehow, sexy. I nominate Rachel Cusk to write this book. If she’s unavailable perhaps Nicholson Baker wants to take on the challenge.
Ice Age Coming
A few days before my senior year of college, I did mushrooms with my best friend. Aside from walking into a field of corn shrieking, we also sat in his car and listened to Kid A by Radiohead. When the song “Idioteque” came on, and Thom Yorke began to sing, “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming…” I had an entire vision about a novel set during a new ice age, with people grappling with the elements, wearing furs, re-purposing ceiling fans as weapons, and turning bathing suits into flags. I thought this idea was so brilliant that I refused to tell my friend about it for fear that he’d steal it. (I hadn’t yet gotten the memo from Ann Patchett about ideas v. work.) Sometimes I think about this unwritten ice age novel, and how fun it would be to read. I was going to nominate a Jean M. Auel type to pen such a saga when I read about The Sunlight Pilgrims by the Scottish author Jenni Fagan. Set in 2020, it shows us a world much like our own, but cold, and getting colder. In her review of the novel, Marisa Silver highlights Fagan’s poetic prose: “Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.”” I’m putting on mittens and reading this! Thank you, Ms. Fagan.
Crystal Geyser by CG Roxane
Have you ever read the label on a plastic bottle of Crystal Geyser water? (Why would you? The graphic design is horrendous.) Well, I did recently, and was struck by the words I found there:
Alpine Spring Water
by CG Roxane
Now, I realize I could turn on the magical Google Machine and find out that CG Roxane is a corporation or whatever. But what’s the fun in that? Instead I imagined this CG Roxane as a person. He’s got on a Stetson cowboy hat and a large-collared Oxford shirt. He’s obsessed with water. His mother calls him Charles Gomez, which is what the “CG” stands for. In my mind, this book would be a little like the movie There Will be Blood, or a fictional version of the Robert Caro biographies of LBJ. A story about power, politics, insanity. It could also be a satire — an absurdist, playful romp. If that’s the case, I nominate Mark Leyner to write it. In 2012 the New York Times Magazine described Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe as “an adrenalized, needle-to-the-red satire of (among many other things) the derangements of celebrity mass worship in a disjunctive culture-gone-wild.” That’s pretty much what I had in mind with this story. Imagine Charles Gomez Roxane. He wants to own all the water. All of it!
What novels won’t you write?
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers:
What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade?
We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds.
The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened — beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” — that rape was
the price one has to pay for staying on…they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid…about what human beings do to other human beings” — such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” — yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote:
Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it…A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel…I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion…The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life.
For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility.
Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre:
For the South African novelist…how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing?
Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: “[C]ontemporary political novels — the ones that sell, at least — are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through…is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.”
Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist — David Lurie is — her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal — are as relevant as they’ve ever been.
In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
That’s a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men — which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop — and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much.
Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described — the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck — all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.”
But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn’t be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life’s Work, although again it’s not fiction. But I don’t suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant — finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now.
I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn’t participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again…on and on, and I haven’t even gotten into international issues!
I don’t want politics to be a source of entertainment — there is too much at stake for that — and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don’t misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let’s keep them separate.
But maybe that isn’t possible.
Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel’s novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it’s whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn’t feel overtly political; it’s concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn’t shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth — with black slaves, for starters.
The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family’s history: for instance, one mother’s goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can’t have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming.
Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the “finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” It’s a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”)
Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain’t makin’ carpenters who know what nails are for.” And this year, crazy has gone national, though it’s New York, not Texas, to blame.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer’s wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There’s a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it’s the perfect Austin novel.
The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there’s not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it’s happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump).
The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it’s a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y’all. Or at least we meant to.
One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics — with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall.
Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head.
I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about.
At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk.
Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable.
As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.”
As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world — to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman — feels like a slow death.
Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice — the most important political weapon there is.
Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”
Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.
From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.
And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?
Why the omission?
Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.
Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.
But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:
The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.
And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.
Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:
We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.
Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:
It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.
There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.
In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?
The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.
Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”
Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.
For the first five months of this year I was too deliriously happy to pay much attention to anyone’s written words, including my own. I was pregnant, due in August. Though I knew when our daughter was born I’d read and write much less for a while, focusing my time and energy on her, I made only halfhearted stabs at parenting literature both practical (Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé) and philosophical (Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work). I gave up on other literature almost entirely. Most of what I read those months I read on the August 2015 Babycenter.com birth board, where other mothers with babies expected the same month as mine gathered to share their weird anxieties and basic biological ignorance. I forget now too much of what it felt like to be cheerfully, healthily pregnant with that so loved, so desired child. But I remember the Babycenter posts of other women like scraps of weird poetry recited in old dreams: will Kraft mac and cheese / make my kid dumber? If you live in a haunted house while pregnant / will your baby be the ghost reincarnated? We found out it was a girl and / my husband went outside to vomit.
Our daughter was not born in August. Her heart developed weirdly, wrongly, and she was stillborn in May. For the past six months I’ve been tending not to the baby I’d anticipated, but to the sorrow of having lost her, as tangible and time-consuming a presence as any tiny person. To say I’ve been miserable this year is both overstatement and understatement — because I have many good days, more good days than bad ones, and yet when the bad ones arrive they can sometimes seem so dark as to be almost unendurable.
To endure them, I read. I read Edith Wharton, detective novels, memoirs by chefs. The Night Circus. Frankenstein. Elena Ferrante, who left me embarrassingly cold. (As if grief were not isolating enough, I am apparently the only literary feminist of my acquaintance who is inexplicably immune to Ferrante Fever). I read the copy of Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time that my wonderful agent sent me — a witty, absorbing book in which no one feels too bad for too long. P.G. Wodehouse, Meg Wolitzer, Nancy Mitford, countless YA novels, cookbooks, chick lit. The Middlesteins. Dept. of Speculation. Rules of Civility. A Visit from the Goon Squad. In every one of these books I looked for, and in nearly all I found, shades of the awful, comforting truth: everyone despairs; nearly everyone survives.
Some books were more explicit about this than others, and these I devoured, though reading them felt sometimes like pressing down hard on a bruise. Matthew Baker’s melancholy and clever middle grade novel, If You Find This, follows a young narrator who confides in a tree in his backyard that he believes contains the soul of his stillborn brother — I waited anxiously for another character to disabuse him of this notion, but, kindly, no one ever does. Elizabeth McCracken’s story collection Thunderstruck captures the mundane and the surreal of grief, such as “the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.” Before this year, such a sentence might not have even registered with me — but by the time I read it, a few weeks after my daughter’s death, after the initial rally of support gave way to a lot of uncomfortable silence, I heard in it the delicious snap of truth. (I’m still reading, very slowly, McCracken’s memoir of her own stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and have never felt so grateful for a book I’m too tender, most days, to open). And for the first time, I waded my way through T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, a more haunting book than I’d expected, in which Merlyn prescribes for Wart the best cure for sadness: “Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”
I’d found my way to White through Helen Macdonald’s beautiful H Is for Hawk, a book that’s part hawking manual, part literary biography of T.H. White, and part meditation on grief. Macdonald writes about her experience training a goshawk, one of nature’s most vicious predators, in the wake of her father’s death; she interweaves this narrative with one of White’s own emotional pain and falconry. It’s a strange book — crisply written, funny, and wrenching, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. But this year, it also happened to be intensely familiar to me. “There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things,” Macdonald writes. “And then there comes a day when you realize…that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses.” Like Macdonald, my loss made me feel disconnected from the world I’d once inhabited. I thought of myself as a Grief Monster: a creature too sad and angry to be rightly categorized as human, unable to appreciate simple pleasures, sent into a tailspin at the sight of other mothers’ healthy babies. I could not imagine feeling normal around other people again; I could not imagine wanting to. Macdonald channeled her Grief Monsterhood into the wild, into her hawk, longing somewhat more than wistfully to achieve the bird’s isolation, her self-sufficiency. It doesn’t work that way, Macdonald finds, nor should it: “Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.”
Even before I was pregnant with her, when she was nothing more or less than a dream my husband and I shared of a cozy, sunny future, we’d given our first child a code name: Hawkeye. It was partly a nod to the Marvel superhero as written by Matt Fraction, mostly an homage to my husband’s love for M*A*S*H. We called her Hawk for short. We figured when she was born we’d give her a “real” name; we had one chosen and ready, but through what we then considered silly superstition, we never said it out loud much. When she died, it became impossible to think of her as anything but Hawk — impossible to separate the real, sweet, three-pound baby we’d held for a few quiet hours early on a morning in May from her infinite and unrealized potential. We’d imagined too many happy possibilities for the girl with the other name. For ourselves. So Hawkeye was the name we shared with the diplomatically unperturbed nurse who asked; Hawkeye was the name we wrote on the death certificate. Hawk is the name we call her still and always. It’s a word that can’t help but mean more to me now. Bird, daughter. Love, loss. Despair. Survival. Losing Hawk helped me understand that I remain stubbornly, sublimely human even when I’m hurting. Thanks to H Is for Hawk, her name reminds me that I want to be. Macdonald writes of dreams she’d had after her father died, anxious dreams in which a hawk glided out of her sight:
I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk — one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees. But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields. I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.
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