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Observers, Bystanders, and Hangers On: Ten Novels with Unlikely Narrators

Many—maybe even most—of my favorite books are novels narrated by an observer who does not consider themselves the main actor in the story. Think Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby’s sort-of friend, the perfect mournfully sardonic narrator for one of American literature’s most enduring novels. I love stories told by the supposedly innocent bystander; the less charismatic best friend; the hapless fan or scholar whose own life recedes in the shadow of their subject of adoration.

I especially love books like this because they are honest in two ways other narrative forms are often not. First, a non-protagonist narrator acknowledges the fact that storytelling is always, always about perspective. In the same way history is dictated by the victors, stories are dictated by the people with the ability and inclination to write them down, and the meta-fiction created by a self-aware narrator telling someone else’s story can be beautifully tense, disarmingly frank, and entertainingly specious. Second, the non-protagonist narrator acknowledges obsession—an obsession with another person that inspired the character to take the time to set down this story in writing at all. They seethe with charisma, jealousy, and longing of one form or another. This is why I chose this narrative form for my own novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.

I’m not the only one who loves to read this mode of storytelling; many of the traditional candidates for Great American Novel follow the format: besides The Great Gatsby, there is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, in which reporter Jack Burden tells the story of politician Willie Stark; or John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, in which jealous introvert prep schooler Gene obsesses over his outgoing and talented roommate, Phineas. But the list of relevant masterpieces is long and absolutely need not adhere to the reading we did in high school back before “the canon” was including much besides white men. Here are a few of my favorites.

1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Let’s go ahead and go all the way back to the beginning, to what is argued to be the first-ever novel, composed around the year 1010 AD. The story is related by an unnamed female speaking to a social superior, as is evident in the form of verb conjugation used. It describes the love affairs and misadventures of Genji, a minor son of the Emperor. The identity of the narrator is never revealed, but some believe the text hints that she might be one of Genji’s (rather many) lovers.

2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Detective fiction has a long tradition of an average Joe narrator who relates the adventures of a whimsical genius investigator—a tradition that goes all the way back to the mystery genre’s inception with Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With The Name of the Rose (1980), Eco offers a hyper-intellectual pastiche of that archetype with a murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian convent in which a bumbling Benedictine novice, Adso, describes the crime-solving antics of his master, a monk named William of Baskerville.

3. Passing by Nella Larsen

This 1929 novel is narrated by Irene Redfield, a light-skinned black woman who learns a friend from her Chicago childhood, Clare Kendry, has been living as a white woman, married to a virulently racist white man and completely cut off from her roots. Irene’s obsession with Clare’s choice—and the light it sheds on her own choices—cause her to spin back into the woman’s orbit no matter how much she tells herself she’s done with Clare.

4. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

The narrator of this 1945 novel is Fanny, an upper-class English girl who is abandoned by her parents to live with wealthy relatives. Fanny is relating the life and exploits of Linda Radlett, her cousin and best friend, whose love affairs and impetuous adventures wholly distract the reader from Fanny’s absence in her own story.

5. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

This 1994 novel is the story of Sophie Caco, who is 12 years old when she emigrates from Haiti to join her mother in New York, but really it is the story of Sophie’s enigmatic mother, Martine, whose traumatic history inflicts itself not only on her relationship with Sophie but also, viscerally, on Sophie herself.

6. The Chosen by Chaim Potok

Set in the New York City Orthodox Jewish community at the end of World War II, this 1967 novel is narrated by Reuven, a Modern Orthodox boy from a Zionist family, who is deeply committed to and fascinated by his sometimes controversial friendship with Danny, the genius son of a Hassidic rabbi.

7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Another favorite of mine that highlights the emotional intensity of a platonic friendship. In this 2012 novel, Elena, the narrator, builds her life around and in relief against her unpredictable and addictive best friend, Lila, a thwarted and moody genius who causes steadfast Elena to underestimate herself.

8. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Quentin Compson, the troubled Harvard student we saw commit suicide in The Sound and the Fury, narrates the life story of Thomas Sutpen, a larger-than-life slave-holding plantation owner from Quentin’s native Mississippi in this 1936 novel. The narrative framework, a conversation between Quentin and his roommate, incorporates historical fact and conjecture and highly personalized interpretation—one of my favorite allegories for the way it shows how history is preserved.

9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

This 2005 novel hits heavy on one of my favorite themes: remorse. Its 80-year-old narrator, Lily, reveals how the story of her own long life has been framed by that of her long-lost best friend, Snow Flower, and how she let her obsession with their friendship ruin both their lives.

10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

A bit of a cheat selection, because the narrator of this 1961 novel is a third person omniscient, but it connects the reader to a group of six Scottish school girls who are all equally obsessed with their vivacious, unconventional, and fascist teacher, Miss Brodie, whom they adore, obey, and betray.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Design Ecologist.

Southern Discomfort: The Millions Interviews Snowden Wright

On Feb. 5, William Morrow will release Snowden Wright’s second novel, American Pop. Early reviewers have called it “supremely entertaining,” “not only excellent Southern Gothic fun but a panoramic tour of the American Century.” Snowden and I were college roommates, where we dreamed of one day becoming novelists and then manufacturing a public feud to help drum up book sales. We talk pretty much every day, about nothing and everything, but we have never been as formal as we are in this interview:

The Millions: So, what’s the book about?

Snowden Wright: I’ve always enjoyed describing American Pop with a hypothetical question: What would a novel about the Kennedys be like if they’d made their fortune by inventing Coca-Cola? Of course, the imprecision of that question often leads people to ask, “So it’s about the Kennedys?” and I have to say, “Well, uh, no.” Then they ask, “But it’s about Coca-Cola, though?” and, breaking out in a sweat and wrenching an imaginary necktie, I say, “Not exactly.”

More precisely, then: American Pop is a multi-generational saga about a family that owns a soft-drink company named PanCola. The novel follows the Forster family through more than 1000 years of American cultural history. It uses techniques of historical reportage to depict the Forsters’ personal lives, showing how, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “families are always rising and falling in America.”

In an article on Coca-Cola for a trade publication, a journalist once wrote, “Why read fiction? Why go to movies? The soft drink industry has enough roller coaster plot-dips to make novelists drool.” My immediate thought after reading that was, “Challenge accepted.” American Pop is the result.

TM: Where did the original idea for the novel come from?

SW: My first novel, Play Pretty Blues, is primarily set in the 1920s, focused primarily on one central character, and takes place primarily in Mississippi. With American Pop I wanted to do more. I wanted it to span a longer period of time. I wanted it to explore more characters. I wanted it to have a broader setting and scope. Why not, I thought, take on the incredibly easy task of writing a novel that encapsulates a century of culture, popular and personal, in America?

I honestly can’t remember whether that ambition came before or after the peg on which to hang it. Soda has always seemed to me such an American drink. It is to this country what wine is to France, tea to England, beer to Germany, or toilet water to misbehaving dogs. Soda is especially pervasive in the South, where I’m from and the region I love exploring, scrutinizing, praising, and criticizing in my work. As Nancy Lemann wrote in the sublime Lives of the Saints, “Southerners need carbonation.” Soda, I figured, would enable me to wed the national and the regional, America and the South, and examine the relationship between them.

TM: Can you elaborate a little on that? What makes a Southern story Southern, both in fiction and on a porch in the middle of a day? Is it a genre, with certain characteristics?

SW: Southern stories require at least one dog, but it does not have to have four legs. Southern stories know how to whistle but not necessarily “Dixie.” Southern stories are never served without a cocktail napkin, must own at least two pairs of duck boots, and always remember to return the casserole dish.

Honestly, though, what makes a story Southern, in my experience, is that it’s a story. That’s the only criterion. I grew up in a family of regalers, the type of people who love when a new girlfriend or boyfriend visits over the holidays because it allows us to repeat the same nuggets, buffed to a high shine, of family lore. And they are, in fact, typically told on a porch.

If I had to give a response that’s a bit less of a tautology, I’d say that Southern stories tend to involve a reckoning with the past, give a strong sense of place, feature colorful characters, and try, first and foremost, to entertain the reader. There are many Southern writers out there, myself included, who appreciate tightly constructed sentences and beautiful language, but I’d argue there are many more Southern writers, myself also included, who appreciate an engaging narrative most of all. The art of storytelling, I always try to remember, is just that: an art. Writers should give it as much of their attention as they do the more seemingly highbrow aspects of their craft.

TM: I want to force you to get a little more specific on this, so I’m going to follow up with a two-part question. Part one: What’s your Mount Rushmore of Southern fiction?

SW: George Washington, respected, somber, and not, in fact, wood-toothed, would be Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Thomas Jefferson, renaissance man about town, would be O’Connor’s Complete Stories. Teddy Roosevelt, that quotable rapscallion, would be Hannah’s Ray. And Abraham Lincoln, emancipator and proclaimer, would be Morrison’s Beloved.

TM: And part two: Do you see those books having anything in common?

SW: The past’s persistent intrusion into the present. From Ray Forrest confusing memories of his time in Vietnam with those of Jeb Stuart’s Civil War campaigns, to the spiteful haunting of 124 by what won’t stay buried, to Quentin Compson yelling, “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” after recounting the story of Thomas Sutpen, the past, in all four of those books, refuses to stay put.

Think of Faulkner’s most frequently quoted line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I’ve seen that used as an epigraph for probably a dozen books—Ace Atkins’s White Shadow, Willie Morris’s North Toward Home, and Tiffany Quay Tyson’s The Past Is Never come to mind—and most of them, from what I recall, are by Southern writers. Why? The line is universally applicable. It’s the O negative of epigraphs.

TM: I suppose, yes, the line is universally applicable, but it seems particularly so in Southern fiction. Can you talk about why? And perhaps how American Pop wrestles with that? 

SW: Freshman year of college, I had two roommates, one from New Jersey and one from Maine. They used to joke about how nervous they’d gotten when they found out they would be living with some guy from Mississippi who lived on Confederate Drive. That really was the name of the street I lived on.

I don’t blame them for having been nervous. The South has, to put it lightly, a fraught past, with slavery and the Civil War and, more recently, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism. We have a perpetual BOGO sale on social issues. In American Pop, I tried to grapple with those issues, not only as they relate to the South, but also as they relate to the country as a whole. There’s a reason I didn’t title the novel Southern Pop. The South’s problems are also America’s problems, and that’s never been clearer than it is in our current political situation.

TM: I’m glad we’ve finally gotten around to the issue of race. As a Northerner myself, as an outsider, when I think of the South I automatically think of the legacy of slavery, and the way it seems to permeate every aspect of Southern culture, from the food to the music to the laws. You’re publishing a novel in 2019 about a rich white family in Mississippi. How does this book grapple with the legacy of slavery?

SW: With empathy and honesty, I hope. Although the main family in the novel is white, I made a point of including many characters of color, characters who are also not defined solely by their race. Sometimes I tried to address racism overtly, such as a chapter in which wealthy Mississippi farmers brazenly discuss how to disenfranchise black voters, and sometimes I tried to address racism more subtly, such as a chapter that involves Josephine Baker, a black woman who enjoyed immense success after she left America for the more racially tolerant France. The key, I think, to addressing any social issue, be it race or sexism, homophobia or nationalism, is to keep it character-based. Make the issue universal by making it personal. Don’t stand on a soapbox. Stand in someone else’s shoes. Stand in the characters’ shoes. Let the reader feel what they feel.

TM: Empathy’s such a tricky concept. A friend of mine, James Dawes, recently published a brilliant book, The Novel of Human Rights, in which he argues that exercising so-called empathy is not only performative but potentially destructive, but then Obama says we need to cultivate more of it. I don’t know. When people ask me questions like the ones I’m asking you, I feel ill-equipped to answer them. That’s why I write fiction. For the most part, I think novels are probably more articulate than novelists—and yet here we are, in an author interview, a genre I legitimately love. The first thing I bought after selling my first novel was a collection of out-of-print Paris Review interviews. Do you read a lot of these things? What do you get out of them?

SW: The first thing I bought after selling my first book was The Clapper, which ever since I was a kid I considered the peak of luxury. Fancy people don’t even have to get up to turn out the light! I could not get it to work. Maybe I clap weird.

Which is to say, yes, absolutely, I love author interviews. Even though I agree that novels are more articulate than novelists—lovely way of putting it, by the way—interviews not only humanize authors (“Her French bulldog has the same name as mine!” “He can’t afford anything nicer than Bustillo either!”), making a writing career feel attainable, but they also, oftentimes, provide a unique, insider perspective on craft. You get a sense of writing as a job. To hear an author recount how agonizing a copyedit was makes you realize writing takes work. It also makes you realize writing is work.

I’m especially fond of hearing bits of trivia. Alternate titles. Hidden allusions. Want to hear one from me? Every novel I’ve written, published or drawer-filler, has included an indirect reference to the movie Die Hard.

TM: I recently found out that a friend of mine used to work in the actual Nakatomi Plaza, and it blew my mind. While we’re here, talking about craft and being meta about author interviews in general, can you talk about your decision regarding the metatextual elements of American Pop, the ways in which the book seems narrated by a real-life scholar of this fictional cola company?

SW: My first conception of the book was for it to be the opposite of Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. I wanted American Pop to be fictional nonfiction. To achieve that effect, I used certain techniques of nonfiction, such as source citations, quotes from interviews, and the use of specific dates and times, similar to what Michael Chabon did in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay and Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Aside from the playfulness that allowed me—I get an absurd thrill out of making readers wonder if a metatextual source is real or made-up—it also allowed me, I hope, to create a greater sense of verisimilitude, to heighten the readers’ suspension of disbelief, to make them feel that this really happened.

A Year in Reading: Simeon Marsalis

William Faulkner
Books provide me an escape from the horrors of our modern reality until they call me back to what I am trying to escape. When I read the work of authors who captivate me, as Faulkner’s work does, I feel there is something underneath the text the writer is communicating. Here, I must add that I am captivated by things that contain content I dislike. For a more nuanced explanation of this phenomena, read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992).

I was reading an early draft of Zachary Lazar’s Vengeance (2018) when my friend told me that my novel, As Lie Is to Grin (2017) reminded them of Absalom, Absalom! (1936). I had not read this book, and was embarrassed by the fact, so I went to my local bookstore to find a copy.

Faulkner had taken great care in the naming of places. The city where Sutpen finds his first wife is called Jefferson. Every time I saw Jefferson, the fictitious town began to take on a historic meaning. Every time he wrote Jefferson, I began to wonder if the whole tale about Sutpen was not a thinly veiled psychoanalysis of Thomas Jefferson and his offspring. So distracted was I by this presumption that I went to a bookstore in my old neighborhood, to see if this link were true.

In my hands was Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy (1997). It was supplemented by DNA evidence, which confirmed the theory that our founding father had, in fact, had children with his wife’s sister (after her death), who was one of his slaves. We had been robbed of history because Jefferson had tried to conceal the unseemly parts of his life with falsified legal documents and delayed freedoms. I wanted to get closer to Jefferson, so I went back to the bookstore, and picked up something he had written.

Although, The Jefferson Bible: The Life & Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1803), was not written by the former president, but edited by him. The Jefferson Bible was a combination of verses from a select few gospels that told the story of Jesus Christ, without mention of (what Jefferson perceived to be) the fantastical. The narrative fits within the Founding Father’s grasp of reality, underneath that apathetic God-head.

The tale begins with Jesus’s parents being taxed. In the end, there was no resurrection. This was not what interested me though, what was in my brain then were these three texts, all-in-one. The City of Jefferson, or the person, peaked between lines 38 and 39 of Book LXVIII in a wildly confused man on a cross, calling out to a dead prophet, Elias.

Clarice Lispector
I made a new friend in late February. She gave me The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (2015) translated by Katrina Dodson. It was around this time that I had been walking around New York City, with my head in Sharifa Rhodes Pitt’s Harlem Is Nowhere (2011), so my memory of Lispector’s stories was incomplete. I do remember, “Explanation.” I laughed out loud. She wrote (Dodson translated), “Someone read my stories and said that’s not literature, it’s trash. I agree. But there’s a time for everything.”

I purchased Machado De Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881, translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1998) and Hilda Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D (1982, translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo in 2012). John Keene wrote the introduction, which was funny, because I had just finished his Counternarratives (2016). Hilst’s work reminded me of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (1964, translated by Idra Novey in 2012)—this made me pick up my copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915, translated by John R. Williams in 2011), again. Although, it is hard for me to get through that story now, with all of these other words, from another world, on top of it. Not that the work seems less modern, but I could not get back to the original feeling I’d had when I first read it. Or so it seemed, on certain afternoons.

Washington Irving
There was one book that stalled my reading in 2017: Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809). I was trying to finish reading it before my stay in New Orleans was to end, this June. Irving had created a character, Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was retelling the history of New York from the beginning of the universe. It was written in lofty prose to mock the Historical Societies of the time. From their pretenses about the origin of man and race to the way they quoted from unreliable yet primary sources, Irving had crafted a witty tale in which the pioneers were would-be-dictators, drunks, and dullards. I can imagine that the publishing of this work meant a great deal to Irving. The year that it was published, the 24-year-old was mourning the loss of his 17-year-old wife.

To drive sales, Irving took out advertisements in New York’s newspapers declaring that an old Dutch Historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, had gone missing. The number to Knickerbocker’s hotel was listed for any who had information. Some days passed. Irving took out more ads in the paper declaring, We have not found Knickerbocker, but we have found his manuscript, an inexhaustible history of New York, which we will publish to recoup the cost of his stay. Needless to say, the history was Irving’s novel.

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What Qualifies as Greatness: On Literary Awards Season

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?

In 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?

In 1937 Margaret Mitchell took the prize for Gone with the Wind, the same year that William Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom!

Poor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.

Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?

Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known —  are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?

Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”

About awards, author Alix Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good ones who never win (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”

What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”

The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?

Joyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee.  A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”

Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.

When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”

I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.

Image Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann.

The Other Kind of Country People: On Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God


1.
Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum.
Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It’s fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day’s headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug’s features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence.
The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge:

I don’t know where I am
I’m dancing in my corpse
I don’t remember anything
I’m wearing your flesh
Your flesh is my face
I love your face

Though Morris’s writing shares some of that song’s dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.”
The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book):

This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears.
“i’ll go first.”
“No,” Nikki says.
“Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says.
“No.”
“Nikki,” Mama says.
“God,” Nikki says.
Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up.
“Nikki.”
she slips a step and then jumps.

Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father’s house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.”

Tragically, she find her father’s expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical:
“is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?”
“What?”
“That you’re a pimp?”
Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back.
“What?” Nikki says.
she laughs, too. Though she doesn’t think it’s funny.
“You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.”
Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her.
“You were,” she says.
“everybody’s on pills now,” Coy hawkins says.
“so?”
“This is my new thing. This is the future.”
Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding.

As in Winter’s Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy.
Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon: 

“i don’t need you,” he says. […]
all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing.
he does need her. He couldn’t have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing.
she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn’t hear them scream.

Watching her father’s casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn’t particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki’s emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family’s status. 
The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire’s Push, is meant to convey the main character’s lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot.
2.
What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It’s clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes’s poem, “Hawk Roosting:”

Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly —
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body.

Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.”
If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris’s secular world from O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris’s novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self’s ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O’Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias. 
The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom! 
Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father’s words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife. 

A Year in Reading: Michael Robbins

As usual, my job as a book critic dictated much of my reading this year. My favorite book of the year — the best book of the year, I think — is Hilton Als’s White Girls, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune. The following are some of the best books — there were also sundry poems, comics, essays, and horror novels — I managed to read for free:

I first read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in my mid-twenties, sitting on the floor beside a bookshelf in Borders because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. I’d picked it up with the intention of leafing through it a bit, having heard it referred to here and there in reverential tones. I started reading and, astounded, didn’t get up again for two hours. This there-but-for-grace loser’s manifesto, this perfectly sane cry. Someone called it the best novel written in English since The Great Gatsby, but it seemed to me much better than that. Rereading it fifteen years later, without overlooking its flaws, I’d place it above every American novel except Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!

Hobbes’s Leviathan is not nearly as funny as A Fan’s Notes, but I can now almost agree with William H. Gass that Hobbes was one of “the three greatest masters of English prose” (in case you were wondering where my obnoxious impulse to rank works of literature comes from). More arduous were Fredric Jameson’s Hegel Variations: On The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. And no matter what you believe or think you believe, Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is well worth your time.

I reread some favorite books this year — Thoreau’s Walden, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria, Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy — and added some new ones to the category: Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Confucius’s Analects (in both the D.C. Lau and Burton Watson translations). It’s a pity Weil and Cioran never met.

Scary fun: David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer; Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open; Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels.

Finally, two books I’m reading at the moment: T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. As a sort of free-floating Kierkegaardian becoming-Christian on the Way or whatever, I’ve spent a lot of time loathing conservative American Protestants — people who believe in the Rapture, or that the earth is six thousand years old, or that homosexuals are going to hell, or, um, that there is a hell. People who take the Bible literally except for the part about selling your shit and giving the money to the poor. I grew up around such folk. But of course my condescension and hostility are beside the point, forms of cultural capital that — oh, you know the drill. Luhrmann’s and Worthen’s books cut through all that by attempting to understand evangelicalism from within, critically but sympathetically and without easy irony. Worthen’s is the more scholarly study, tracing the variety of evangelical movements, complicating received wisdom about their anti-intellectualism. Luhrmann reads like good journalism. Embedded in an evangelical church, she tells real people’s real stories. She occasionally betrays a lack of theological grounding, referring to God as “a powerful invisible being” and assuming a dualism of soul and body (Turner’s Aquinas would help her on both points). And she frames much of her discussion in terms of an opposition between science and religion that rather begs the question. But I’m learning things on almost every page (and, again, I’m still reading these books, so perhaps my concerns are addressed at some point in the text): the evangelical practice of speaking in tongues seems to have arisen, after lying almost completely dormant since the Acts of the Apostles, in my birthplace of Topeka, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century; the path of the religious right was blazed by the hippies. I still think conservative evangelicalism is wrong about almost everything — society, theology, politics, Christianity, people, love, God, sex, family, economics. And I still believe, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that the rabid intransigence of fundamentalism is a clear sign of its own doubt and insecurity (which makes it quite dangerous). But that’s precisely why I’m grateful for these books, which deepen our understanding and broaden our empathy.

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The Millions Interview: Peter Mountford

Herman Melville wrote, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many have tried it.” The realm of great literature covers death, love, religion, war, sex, and politics, but rarely economics. There are novels that tackle money and greed, but usually not from an insider’s perspective. Peter Mountford hopes to change that with his debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. Mountford’s views are formed not by cursory glances at Paul Krugman and Noam Chomsky, but with acuity worthy of The Black Swan author Nassim Taleb.

Mountford, whose father worked for the International Monetary Fund, studied international relations and became the “token liberal” at a think tank. He has lived in Sri Lanka and spent time in Ecuador researching the country’s development. He understands how markets function. Mountford weaves his knowledge into a captivating tale about an American in La Paz, Bolivia, during Evo Morales’s rise to the presidency and offers a twist to the conventional “love or money” saga. Mountford and I recently met at the Tin Hat, a great dive bar in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. We took advantage of cheap beer and eats, and talked about the pros and cons of wealth and romance.

The Millions: Why do literary works generally avoid economics?

Peter Mountford: Finance and economics are complicated and often poorly understood, for one thing, and they’re not thought of as sexy, for another. People, especially of an “artistic” inclination, are proudly dismissive of economics– they paint it as boring – it’s either viewed as nerdy, in the unattractive way, or it’s associated with these cartoonish preppy monsters – like in The Bonfire of the Vanities or American Psycho.

This is nonsense. A cursory glance at our recent history reveals that economics and finance are not just the engines of our era, not just what defines virtually everything about our time, but they’re also spectacularly dramatic. It’s not abstract. Not just a guy with a calculator. It’s very emotional and makes and breaks the lives of – well, everyone.

One example: Bernie Madoff’s son put his kid to sleep and then went to the next room and tried to hang himself. But his noose broke. So, he picked himself up off the floor and scoured the apartment until he found a stronger implement, something that would hold his weight better, but the second one broke, as well. Finally, he found a sturdy enough object, a dog leash. And that’s how he killed himself. Broken nooses scattered around the apartment, his child sleeping twenty feet away, it was like slapstick, except that it’s unimaginably horrific.

Think about the bailout negotiations that happened between the Greek finance minister and the IMF team. They sat down in a room for a few days to figure out how they were going to solve that problem. Those people have lives: children, spouses, friends – and they’re in this ludicrous situation together. I’ve never read a book that attempts to comprehend that kind of material.

When I was in college, I took a class on 20th Century Mexican history. We got up to about 1970 and then the professor halted class, and basically said, “Look, if you haven’t studied macroeconomics or international economics, you’re not going to be able to follow much of the rest of Mexican history…best of luck.”

TM: Without giving too much of your novel away, your protagonist’s moral ambiguities might make him difficult to embrace. Do you think there’s a commercial interest, even in higher literary circles, for books to have “happy” or “noble” characters and an upbeat conclusion?

PM:  Yes, there’s no question that such a bias exists – and it’s not even just to do with the end of a book, but the very fabric of it. It’s no different than what you find in the film business, where financial success requires the product to be marketable to a known audience of book buyers and also…entertaining. An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made. You can’t blame publishers for wanting to remain in business. The fact is, 95% of books bomb. A certain kind of reader, a very common kind, reads literature to get away from the world. Even when they read something artistically ambitious, they want to escape from the world. It’s a difficult contradiction for writers to address.

That’s why there’s so much fantasy and historical fiction.  Even among more straightforward literary fiction, a lot seems willfully antique. The world most people live in has more in common with The Office than, say, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. But think of how uncommon it is to read a book about someone’s office job. Then count how often a debut author gets compared to Faulkner. One book that I think did a superb job of satisfying the escapist need and the desire to provide more than re-heated Sherwood Anderson was Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. It was a deeply escapist fantasy of this beguiling and cushy life in Manhattan, a very fun place to frolic in while you’re reading, but beneath that seductive veneer the book became a savage critique of that very escapism, of our blinkered philistinism. I loved that book.

TM: You mention Che briefly in the novel, alluding to why he failed in Bolivia, leading to his eventual death. How should history look at Che?

PM: He was an incredibly interesting guy…a passionate idealist who got distracted by the adventure of war. After Cuba, he went looking for that feeling, building up ragtag bands of revolutionaries and heading off to the mountains to wage a guerrilla war.

You know, when he went to Bolivia, I think he sort of knew he was going to die. What happened, though, was quite instructive about the limits of rigid ideology. He thought Bolivia had all the elements that Cuba had: disenfranchised poor people in a small country, lots of hills and jungle, a long history of wanton exploitation. But Bolivia had undergone a different revolution not long before, they felt like they’d done that, they’d already ousted the fuckers. So, when Che came along telling them it was time to get rid of their oppressors, the Bolivian peasants called the cops. The cops called the CIA and then he was dead.

TM: Distracted by the “adventure of war”? I hope that’s a euphemism. Che has been romanticized. I lived in Argentina, traveled through Bolivia, and while there bought and read a copy of Che’s Bolivian Diary. Che’s ideology evolved into one reminiscent of Abimael Guzman of the Shining Path. In Havana, he oversaw executions. He lost most of his humanity by the time he reached Bolivia. Why does literature insist on ennobling him?

PM: Yes, that’s a euphemism. What I mean is that, like you say, he became a warrior, a person who lived for battle. Of course he believed in what he was fighting for, but the fight became the main thing. People ennoble him because he’s like William Wallace, or any doomed crusader for justice. Plus, it’s easy to hate the CIA, and when you find out that they sawed the hands off his cadaver and sent them along to Argentina and then Cuba, basically as a warning – well, that’s ghastly. Still, that doesn’t mean Che was a good guy and the CIA were bad guys. Life does not provide actual heroes or villains, unfortunately.

TM: Developing countries don’t react well to infusions of money… corruption is rampant and often increases, benefiting the oligarchy and not the common person. How should wealthier nations appropriate aid, and how important and effective are microloans?

PM: Indeed, corruption has been the ruin of an amazing number of would-be success stories. The aid organizations have a hell of a time working with and against those forces, from what I gather. In Sri Lanka, I heard a story about a project, partially financed by a major aid institution. The plan was to get cell-phone towers into rural areas, but they found they had to bribe a complex and changing array of officials in each zone, and the officials had different expectations, different limitations. It took years and years and people were getting replaced, so they’d have to bribe the new guy. Finally, they bribed someone higher up in the government, who then got the lesser officials on board and the project was finished in a few months.

Microloans are fantastic. There are different models: the not-for-profit microloans and the for-profit microloans and there’s a healthy argument underway about which is better. I’m not sure, personally. I did a research project once on a for-profit micro-bank that was administering a subsidy for housing in Ecuador. People were to get cheap houses and the bank would make money, and it should have been wonderful. The subsidy was financed by USAID in a soft loan, but the architects of the project in DC hadn’t done enough research. In order to qualify for the loan you had to have saved five thousand dollars, and you had to earn less than a certain amount, and it was a ludicrous combination of criteria. The bank had zero applications for the subsidy in the month that I worked on it.

TM: What countries’ development would you point to as success stories?

PM: Chile is my example. In the 1990s they taxed any foreigner who invested in the country and then yanked it out in under a year, safeguarding against speculative foreign investment. As a result, they didn’t enjoy the wild bonanza a lot of other countries had, but they also didn’t get demolished during the Asian crisis. Once the bubble burst, the emerging markets started reeling as capital fled back to Wall Street, and Chile removed that tax since it was no longer necessary. It was a modest policy to limit exposure to frenetic hedge fund activity, and it worked: they didn’t implode.

TM: Your novel follows Gabriel as he decides whether or not to forsake “love” for money. What’s more important? Money or love?

PM: Love is better, unless you’re in sub-Saharan Africa, then money trumps. Also, if your lack of money ruins your love…since money problems are the number one source of fights between married couples, then that’s a problem. I think Gabriel’s question is a bit more complicated. He’s in his mid-twenties, you know, so love will probably come along again, but financial opportunities like his don’t grow on trees.

TM: I think that’s one of the things about Gabriel that made him genuine, his take on the fleetingness of love…that it’s easy come easy go. People in love can suffer, but people with money rarely suffer, although they seem less happy. Your novel concludes with a powerful statement about money and the…er, soul. What are your own personal desires for wealth?

PM: You know that Liz Phair song “Shitloads of Money?” The chorus goes: “It’s nice to be liked / But it’s better by far to get paid / I know that most of the friends that I have / Don’t really see it that way / But if you can give ’em each one wish / How much do you wanna bet? / They’d wish success for themselves and their friends / And that would include lots of money.”

Personally, I’d like to be on the next financial plateau. I think all my problems would be solved if I could just get there. But I know once I got there I’d just want to be up one more step. It would be nice to get away from that paradigm, somehow. Any suggestions?

Ask a Book Question: the Twentieth in a Series (A Guide to Yoknapatawpha County)

Edan and her beau have decided that they want read one of America’s greatest writers, but they don’t know where to start:Neither my boyfriend nor I have ever read any William Faulkner. We thought it might be fun to read one of his novels at the same time, so we could talk about it together, while sipping some bourbon on the porch. Do you, or any of your readers, have any suggestions? Most people recommend Light in August as the best novel to begin with…what do you think?I’m no expert on Faulkner. In college, inspired by my discovery that Faulkner had once taught at my alma mater, I wandered into the local used bookstore and chose The Sound and the Fury at random from the shelf. I muddled my way through it, deciding then that I would need to approach Faulkner with a bit more rigor should I attempt to read his work again. As such, I am hardly qualified to answer this question. Luckily, when I turned to one of the world’s foremost Faulkner experts, he was happy to answer the question for us. Dr. John B. Padgett is a graduate instructor at the University of Mississippi who has been studying Faulkner for years. In conjunction with his studies, he is the “sole owner and proprietor” of Faulkner on the Web. Here’s what he had to say:A good place to start reading Faulkner is The Unvanquished, I think, in part because it’s fairly easy compared to some of Faulkner’s more difficult work. The novel consists of six previously published Civil War stories which he reworked into a novel (he also added a final chapter that was not previously published). Faulkner himself recommended it as a good starting point.Another good place to start, I think, is As I Lay Dying or Sanctuary.I don’t usually recommend beginning Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! because of their difficulty; however, for those who are prepared for the challenges posed by these novels, they are well worth the effort.Thanks Edan and John!

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