It’s tough being a novelist of ideas these days. Just ask Scarlett Thomas. Her newest novel, The Seed Collectors, is laugh-out-loud funny for pages at a time. As British reviewers noted, it fits securely into the great tradition of the modern British comic novel represented by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, and Terry Pratchett, and offers considerable further satisfactions. The blurbs are from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. And yet it looked like the book would not even come out in North America until it was picked up by the venturesome but tiny Soft Skull Press. Far worse British novels have been published in the United States and Canada; far worse British novels have won the Booker Prize. So why did the best novel yet from the most ambitious novelist in the United Kingdom almost fail to get published in North America?
The Seed Collectors is the saga of an extended family the members of which are (un)happy in their own ways; Anna Karenina updated by both Amises. That saga starts with the death of Aunt Oleander. Oleander has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of her Gardener grandnephews and nieces — Clem(atis), an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker; Charlie, a botanist at Kew; and Bryony, a part-time real estate broker and graduate student — and to Fleur Meadows, her longtime factotum at Namaste House, her New Agey retreat. It seems that the seed pods, retrieved from a Pacific island by the vanished middle generation of Gardeners, confer enlightenment — but also death.
Fleur is the only major character to reach enlightenment; she consumes her seed pod and — shades of The Master and Margarita — finds herself capable of astral flight, able to see all things at once as if she’s become Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph. For the rest, sex will have to do. “There is quite a lot of sexing in it” — a comment on the journal of one of the vanished pod seekers — applies to the book as a whole. Little wonder that the family tree at the start of the book needs to be revised by the end.
The Seed Collectors is a departure for Thomas. Her three most recent novels, PopCo (2004), The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010), were first-person narratives about young, unattached women on knowledge quests, all told with humor and inventiveness, but broadly similar. In The Seed Collectors she widens her canvas to encompass at least seven major characters including a child and a bird, a gallery that showcases her mastery of “free indirect style.” Consider the Namaste House pet robin, Thomas’s tribute to Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina, who thinks — don’t all robins? — in a quasi-medieval dialect:
Through the bedroom window he can see that Fleur is nesting, Fleur often nests. But she never lays any eggs. That man in her nest has made it yblent. Did he make Fleur put out the firedangerfish? Did he eat the other macarons? Did he make her cry out in the night, as she so often does now?
But Thomas’s real comic masterpiece is Bryony. Thomas has never written a character remotely like her before. Surrounded by the ascetically inclined, Bryony is all id and no superego: fat, spendthrift, alcoholic, shopaholic, able to resist anything except temptation, and dedicated to ludicrously self-defeating schemes for self-improvement. She is all these things, and she is magnificent. Her 15-page rampage through Selfridge’s onto Oxford Street and the train home (starting with extreme shopping, escalating through way too much wine, eating the children’s candy, inappropriate flirting with hooligans, and ending with toilet masturbation — yes, there’s a lot of sexing in this book) is the novel’s tour de force; her progress from one appalling yet hilarious act to the next is a high-wire act on Thomas’s part, requiring a virtuosic command of tone and structure. If there is anyone in greater need of enlightenment yet less susceptible to it, they are not to be found in this book:
There are 165 calories in this glass of wine, but Bryony won’t log it in her food diary later because it isn’t very nice and she didn’t really mean to have it. When she gets home she’ll have 250mls of Chablis and she’ll log that instead…Fuck it. She just won’t fill in her food diary at all today. She’ll start afresh tomorrow. That means she can drink all the Chablis when she gets home.
More important, Bryony does monstrous things to her family out of self-absorption (pulling her daughter Holly from tennis camp out of pique, choosing wine over her husband, James, when he gives her a foolish ultimatum), No wonder Holly develops an eating disorder. No wonder James pours a kettle of boiling water over his head. But, but …We’ve all reached for that last glass of wine or Twinkie while saying to ourselves “I’ll start cutting down tomorrow.” Bryony is no different, except that she takes self-indulgence beyond comedy into the realm of menace to those closest to her. We may laugh at her or we may cringe, but she’s never uninteresting.
Why did it take this book almost a year to find a publisher? I believe that a combination of industry-specific reasons and more significant cultural attitudes are to blame. The state of American publishing is a problem for any writer without a preexisting mass following. Certainly with the death of the mid-list, an idiosyncratic British writer can expect trouble with American audiences (though Paul Murray’s similar The Mark and the Void at least got published in the United States—and reviewed, with an interview, in The Millions). And in a tweet on June 29, 2015, Thomas summarized some of the reasons publishers gave for rejecting the novel: “Too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much…” We can only take Thomas at her word here, but “too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much” could once have been part of a rave reader’s report on, say, Money, or (“British” apart) Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It’s impossible not to notice that these are books by male authors centered on powerful male voices. Would Thomas have had less trouble if she were male and her main character had been Bryan rather than Bryony? I’m inclined to think not in this particular case; Thomas doesn’t mention the issue, and her defiance of literary convention is extreme enough to make an American publisher nervous. (This issue deserves a full discussion, which might begin by noting that Bridget Jones is a less extreme version of Bryony in many ways, but her self-deprecating first-person voice and the Jane Austen–derived structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary, promising a happy ending, ensure that Bridget is reader friendly. Thus, a very different woman writer achieved worldwide success with a fairly similar female character; there are lessons here.)
In fact, Thomas’s unconventionality, perhaps her greatest literary virtue, has paradoxically diminished her appeal to some of the very readers who should love her. Readers seem to have particular trouble getting their heads around her notion of the “storyless story” (as a character in Our Tragic Universe calls it, “a vagina with teeth”). For example, in a piece ostensibly arguing for the publication of The Seed Collectors, Laura Miller opined that the book’s difficulty in finding a U.S. publisher was largely due to the failure of Our Tragic Universe to engage Miller and her friends as much as its predecessor, The End of Mr Y. (The friends’ opinion: “Nothing happened.”) Where Mr Y was a science-fiction thriller that featured a lengthy chase through a Victorian, computerless cyberspace, Our Tragic Universe deals with a young writer of sharecropped science fiction (think the Star Trek series) living her coincidence-inflected life on the Devonshire coast. It is, Miller complains, “a book about stories that tries mightily to avoid telling a story,” one that “deliberately avoids introducing the sort of mechanical crises, complications, and adventures that would make the proceedings more conventionally exciting.” A succinct statement of the idea of the storyless story; but it’s hard, Miller concludes, “to see why masses of people would want to read it.”
Although this is exactly the kind of book I want to read, Miller seems to align herself with Jonathan Franzen’s statement that “fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” But Franzen’s assumption is optional, and Thomas’s signature strength as a novelist is showing how. From her early novel Going Out — where the young protagonist Julie observes, “In real life nothing means anything. Stuff just happens and there is no structure…Not all events are stories.” — she has acknowledged that “stories give events meaning” (as Luke, the other protagonist of Going Out, responds) while battling the distortion of meaning that results from formula, cliché, and convention.
Meg in Our Tragic Universe is depressed that her own writing is the equivalent of “flat-pack furniture,” screwing pieces together according to a recipe “in exactly the way anyone would expect.” The storyless story is a protean concept in Thomas’s hands, but the reader will find Our Tragic Universe much more tractable if it is defined as the rejection of the flat pack: non-IKEA writing.
The Seed Collectors may appear less storyless — it has a beginning, middle, and end, and teems with stories the way a forest teems with trees — but look closer. Along with conventional stretches in “free indirect style,” the book contains voiceless elements such as lists and elements the voice of which comes from nowhere, such as a series of metaphysical puzzles for the reader akin to koans. At least one of the lists is Charlie’s and at least one of the puzzles is Fleur’s, but neither can be the narrator, because so much happens that they could not know. The Seed Collectors may not have an identifiable narrator, confirming Edward Champion’s insightful suggestion that “the novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along.” If so, the plot itself would mirror one of the book’s principal themes, the exuberant unstructured living mess that is nature, specifically the plant world. Whatever else it is, The Seed Collectors is not flat-pack writing, and is all the more exciting for it.
Somewhere James Wood claims that “broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from [Samuel] Richardson and the other from [Henry] Fielding.” Among many other inadequacies, this distinction ignores the current that flows from Laurence Sterne, the patron saint of non-IKEA writing. Tristram Shandy is more than the fount of postmodernism and metafiction. By using these techniques, Sterne reminds us that fictions are made out of words and therefore rejects a crude Richardsonian realism. Sterneans are above all playful; at the same time, they create characters readers can care about: Tristram Shandy, Leopold Bloom, Bryony Croft. As a Sternean, Thomas is more interested in rubbing words and ideas together and seeing what sparks they throw off than in telling stories that reinforce what we already think and end happily for likeable characters.
Not so long ago, a novel like The Seed Collectors would have been enthusiastically received in North America. What is a writer like Thomas to do in the Age of Franzen? Kudos to Soft Skull Press for the courage to bring out The Seed Collectors — but such a small press, however estimable, just doesn’t have the resources to ensure mainstream success. Thomas may have to resign herself to cult status on these shores.
But at least The Seed Collectors is finally available in the United States and Canada; you can judge for yourself. And if you don’t like sophisticated work that makes us laugh and think at the same time? There’s always Purity.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
Tonight at Columbia: A conversation with Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and most recently Super Sad True Love Story. Moderated by McKenzie Wark, professor of media and cultural studies at The New School and author of Gamer Theory. “Rewiring the Real” at 6:30 P.M.
A few weeks ago, in a small town in the southern Netherlands, I found myself in a cramped and musty used bookstore. If the bookshop was small, the section of books in English was miniscule, barely taking up two thin shelves. Not expecting much, I stumbled upon not one but two copies of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The price, at a euro fifty, was right, and I snagged one of the copies off the shelf.
Back when I was in college, not all that many years ago, back when I read more books in an average week than I do now in a good month, I picked up Kundera’s magnificent novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I think I read the whole novel in one sitting, a rare occurrence. It’s a book I still think about fondly. For me, the best books are the ones that do not sacrifice form for function or function for form. That is, the writing must work well both stylistically and on the plain level of plot, and I remember The Book of Laughter and Forgetting doing both.
I meant to pick up The Unbearable Lightness of Being immediately upon finishing Laughter and Forgetting, but something else got in the way. Maybe it was Joyce, maybe it was Faulkner, maybe it was some obscure book of Twain’s that I needed to reread for my thesis. I don’t remember anymore, but Kundera somehow fell by the wayside, and I never read what today I assume is his masterpiece.
If it hadn’t been for a fortunate coincidence, I probably would have let The Unbearable Lightness of Being sit on my shelf for another few months or years while I made my way through the books in a to-be-read pile that never seems to grow any smaller.
The day after my purchase of Lightness, I happened to be reading a review of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. I am a big fan of Shteyngart, and am just as excited to delve into his new dystopian world as I was to devour his painfully funny novel Absurdistan. In the course of reading the review, I was surprised to find that The Unbearable Lightness of Being plays a semi-significant role in Shteyngart’s new work. Apparently one of the protagonists of Love Story, a bibliophile in an age of hyperactive technojunkies, in which books are all but obsolete, dreams of reading passages of Lightness to his girlfriend in bed.
After reading the review, I did a little Googling and discovered that Lightness is indeed considered one of those romantic books that lovers have been reading to each other in bed for decades.
A romantic Czech novel endorsed by a character in a Shteyngart novel? The coincidence, along with the approbation, was almost too much to bear.
I decided to eschew the pile of novels currently sitting on my nightstand for the moment, and jump right in to Lightness.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of those books that you don’t know you need to read until after you’ve read it.
Possibly the perfect post-modern novel (written in the early eighties, at what I think of as the zenith of the post-modern period), Lightness plays wonderfully inventive games with the reader without sacrificing an iota of plot or detail. The book is written in a close third person, with the omniscient narrator butting in every now and again to provide commentary and remind the reader that the characters you are reading about and identifying with are his creations and nothing more.
The book’s first five chapters form a chiasmus (A-B-C-B-A). The outsides of the chiasmus follow the story of Tomas, a Prague physician and philanderer who makes a point of sleeping in his own bed alone every night, while at the same time sleeping with hundreds of women.
Tomas meets Tereza, a waitress from a small Czech town whose personal story is followed in the B sections of the chiasmus. Tomas is unbearably stricken with Tereza: “It occurred to [Tomas] that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream. He couldn’t very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river!”
A paragraph later, Kundera’s narrator explains: “Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”
The center of the novel’s chiasmus, the C-section, tracks the life of Sabina, an artist who is for a time a lover of Tomas and a rival/mentor of Tereza.
Near the end of this third section of the book, long before the novel is over, we learn that Tomas and Tereza died in a car crash. The rest of the book backtracks and details the lives of Tomas and Tereza, although now, of course, everything is different. Now we know that their every step foretells an impending doom.
The protagonist of Super Sad True Love Story, the one who wanted to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being to his girlfriend in bed, had it wrong. Lightness is anything but a love story. At the very least, it is not a love story one should desire to read in bed to their beloved.
Tomas, the book’s main character, cannot stay faithful to his lover and wife Tereza. He spends the bulk of their lives together cheating on her, so she goes to sleep at night smelling “the aroma of a[nother] woman’s sex organs.” When he finally does come around and stop sleeping with other women, it is only because they are living in a small hamlet in the countryside, and there are no eligible women available.
Tereza, for her part, becomes so disenchanted with the love she has for Tomas that she dreams continually of his abandonment and her suicide, or alternately of his ordering her execution. It becomes so bad that, even after they move to the country, even when Tomas is a beaten down and weary old man, she still suspects him of cheating on her.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not a love story. It is a story about survival in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing one can do to stop it.
Tereza survives Tomas’s overwhelming destructiveness. Tomas survives the loss of his position as a doctor and, along with it, his sense of purpose, in the face of Soviet repression and Czech indifference.
The both of them survive a lifetime of pain together, until they don’t. The two of them die, together. Their death is hidden somewhere in the middle of the book, and it doesn’t mean a thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a love story. It is a story about two people surviving together in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing they can do to stop it.
It is a story of two people who die together, needlessly and hopelessly in love.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is full of coincidences. In fact, the novel can easily be read as a treatise on the nature of coincidence.
Tomas broods throughout the book on the nature of his relationship with Tereza:
Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, but the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Tereza was employed. He happened to have had enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Tereza happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza.
That afternoon a few weeks ago, I too suffered six chance happenings. I happened to be in Den Bosch. I happened to wander down a small side street and notice a tiny bookshop. I happened to go in and notice a worn copy of a book I had wanted to read for a number of years. I happened to purchase it, planning to put it aside and read it some time in the future. The next day, I happened to read an article about a book by a contemporary writer I greatly admire, touting (if only through that book’s narrator) the book I had just picked up. As I read the article, I happened to have the book by my side, so I could begin to read it immediately, before life got in the way.
Six coincidences that are not really coincidences. After all, isn’t everything we do a coincidence? I choose to walk down street A over street B. I meet a woman on street A I would have missed had I walked down street B. We fall in love. We get married. We spend our life together.
Is my walking down street A and not street B a coincidence? Had I walked down street B and met a different woman and spent a similar life with her, would that have been a coincidence as well?
Life, all life, can be read as coincidence, as a series of happenings that could just as easily not have happened. But where does that leave us?
Nowhere. Looking back, like Tomas, wondering how different things would have been had he chosen street C or street Z.
By the end of the novel (not the middle of the novel, where Tomas and Teresa are killed, but the end of the novel, where they are hopelessly alive), Tomas has stopped his endless questioning. There is no more what happened to be. There is only what is.
In this manner, the experience of reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being is reflected in the text itself.
Sure, it was a coincidence that I stumbled on this book and almost immediately read it after years of benign neglect. But the coincidence isn’t what matters.
What matters isn’t what street you walked down. What really matters, ultimately, is that you married the woman you met walking down street A.
What really matters is that you read this magnificent book. And, of course, that reading the book changed your life.
“Oh, dear diary. My youth has passed, but the wisdom of age hardly beckons. Why is it so hard to be a grown-up man in this world?” Bemoaning his fate thus is 39-year-old lovable loser Lenny Abramov, the bookish and neurotic Russian-Jewish-American protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s feverish, boisterous, wildly funny yet also contrived and histrionic new novel: Super Sad True Love Story. And Lenny’s philosophical lament, equal parts rueful and self-deprecating, does not begin to encapsulate his troubles. The not-too-distant future world in which he feels himself an anachronism is a place generally negotiated with the aid of an äppärät, an electronic communication and data-collecting device with which Lenny hardly feels comfortable. His need for genuine human interaction instead of the äppärät-generated classification of humans according to everything from their credit to their “Fuckability” ratings, not to mention his preference for books over text-scanning—again courtesy of those infernal all-purpose äppäräts—sets him apart.
And another thing: the world teeters on the brink of financial ruin. Which is too bad, not least because Lenny has just met the woman of his dreams, fellow confused American Eunice, during a sojourn in Rome, Italy. And he knows it: “For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.”
Super Sad True Love Story comprises Lenny’s diary entries alongside Eunice’s text-messages, sent via her äppärät to family members and friends. Intriguingly, such a format enables Shteyngart (who is about Abramov’s age, was born in Leningrad to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the United States when he was a child, and has written the acclaimed novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan) to explore the versatility of language, whether masterfully employed or scandalously abused. Shteyngart clearly savors the adventuresome possibilities of English, possibilities made nearly infinite in this book by the profusion of infectiously silly youth argot, pompous and pseudo-scientific technical jargon, grammatically convoluted but always colorful dialects, and self-pitying meditations—sometimes uproarious, other times poignant—on the mystery of love and the evanescence of life. Indeed, aside from satirizing the corruption of American society by consumerism and its subversion by militarism, Super Sad True Love Story celebrates the power and beauty of words. Shteyngart endows Lenny—who finds himself in a world considerably more illiterate than our own—with an innocent, almost primordial logophilia: “I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data.”
Back in New York City after his sabbatical in Rome, Lenny resumes work at the Post-Human Services division of a huge and—unbeknown to him—possibly sinister company. His department’s ambitious task is to make eternal human life possible. For Lenny, who suffers from an acute fear of mortality, his work is also very personal. He desperately hopes to qualify for the dechronification and cell-regeneration treatments necessary for immortality, thereby joining his visionary boss Joshie on the road to foreverdom. He may never prove eligible; his credit’s pretty good, but he hasn’t been fanatically monitoring and tweaking his triglycerides and pH levels and whatnot. Still, he has an unrelated reason to rejoice; Eunice unexpectedly moves in with him despite being unsure as to whether to pursue a relationship after their dalliance in Rome. Eunice is 24, Korean American, pretty and petite, and alternately grossed out by and drawn to the shambolic, technologically inept, emotionally cloying, and physically unimpressive guy who’s nuts about her and quite willing to put her up for as long as she likes while she avoids moving back in with her family and abusive father in New Jersey.
It’s in the States that the reader becomes exposed to the full measure of madness hinted at by Lenny’s ordeal at the US embassy in Rome. America, where television seems limited to Fox Liberty-Prime and Fox Liberty-Ultra, has become virtually a police state. The country is governed by the Bipartisan Party, with soldiers of something called the American Restoration Authority patrolling the streets, ready to quell unrest by Low Net Worth Individuals (so-designated because of their poor credit ratings and meager assets) as well as disgruntled members of the National Guard, who are fed up with official neglect at home after having served in a disastrous invasion of Venezuela.
Readers of George Saunders’s novellas and short stories may find the socio-economic landscape of Super Sad True Love Story somewhat familiar, what with the hegemony of corporations and the crazed consumerism of citizens. But Shteyngart charts his own course. The economy, run by gargantuan corporations such as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit, is being bought out by China, itself run by the Chinese People’s Capitalist Party, at whose head sits the all-powerful Chinese Central Banker. Already, yuan-pegged dollars are worth a lot more than the plain old kind. Meanwhile, sexuality has become so commercialized that one can watch a political commentary show the gay host of which interrupts his observations to engage in live sex. And while the United Nations no longer exists, in its place can be found the United Nations Retail Corridor, which features stores such as JuicyPussy (and JuicyPussy4Men) selling transparent onionskin jeans and nippleless bras.
Much of this is quite funny—if over-the-top—in addition to being scathing. Ironically, however, the source of its humor is also the book’s greatest weakness. The broader the satire—and Super Sad True Love Story is pretty broad, even when compared to Shteyngart’s earlier two novels—the more one-dimensional and artificial many of its characters. For example, Lenny’s youth-obsessed boss Joshie, his media-crazed friends Noah and Amy, and, to a lesser extent, his and Eunice’s fathers—his rabidly right-wing, hers motivated almost solely by shame and status—embody societal phenomena rather than the complexities of real people. To be sure, Lenny and Eunice do not fit this mold, what with their delightfully complicated personalities, together with the fact that Shteyngart has neither completely dissociated them from nor submerged them in the respective cultures of their origin. But, to the detriment of the story, they remain surrounded by caricatures.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, for someone given to frenzied social parody, whatever drama is conscripted for the sake of ballast will be similarly overwrought. Shteyngart’s sense of humor largely abandons him and he begins to take himself much too seriously when, two-thirds of the way through, the story veers toward violence and socio-politico-economic breakdown. Forget dystopia; what we have here is much closer to Armageddon than the atomization of humankind Lenny previously found so soul-destroying. This time, though, it’s the avarice of a privileged and blithely murderous section of humanity, rather than the retribution of a vengeful god, that sets everything ablaze.
Make no mistake. Super Sad True Love Story boasts two tormented but appealing protagonists locked in a deliciously tortuous love affair. It is indeed super sad, though thankfully untrue and difficult to imagine as prescient, while proving by turns incisive and hilariously exaggerated in its skewering of American society’s excesses. But its own excesses, the product of a willfully cynical attitude on Shteyngart’s part toward the future trajectory of American culture and politics, prevent the story from transcending the restrictive confines of satire, and eventually madden and exhaust even the most amenable and patient reader.
2010 has already been a strong year for fiction lovers, with new novels by the likes of Joshua Ferris, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, and David Mitchell. Meanwhile, publishing houses offered up posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Robert Walser, and Henry Roth, and the font of Roberto Bolaño fiction continued to flow.
The second half of 2010 will bring much anticipated work by Gary Shteyngart, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and especially Jonathan Franzen. So that readers may set their literary calendars anew, we’ve selected a few dozen books we’re looking forward to. (The writer of each preview is noted in parenthesis.)
July (or already available)
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman: I first took note of Allegra Goodman’s off-kilter prose thanks to a New Yorker short story five years ago. As it turns out, that story, gently poking fun at the exuberance of the late 1990s, but also quietly weighty, touching on pain, religion and the whole idea of being “centered,” was a piece of Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector. The book focuses on a pair of sisters at the turn of the millennium toiling on either end of the technology continuum, one the founder of a dot-com startup, the other an antiquarian book dealer. PW loves the book, calling it “Goodman’s most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet.” (Max)
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now…er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody’s short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth)
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr: Doerr came to the attention of many readers with his debut collection of stories The Shell Collector. Now, after a novel and a travel memoir, he’s back with another collection that includes two novellas and four short stories. As with The Shell Collector, Doerr’s scope in Memory Wall is global. A recent profile with Boise Weekly — Doerr is wrapping up his tenure as Idaho’s writer in residence — places the action in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and, of course, Idaho. (Max)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The author of the critically acclaimed and deliriously off-kilter novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan returns with a third novel set in an apocalyptic near-future. Books are all but extinct and America is functionally illiterate, there are riots in Central Park and National Guard tanks on every Manhattan street corner, and the narrator is, as the Random House publicity department puts it, “the proud owner of what may well be the world’s last diary.” It’s difficult to resist the book’s opening lines: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.” (Emily M.)
Faithful Place by Tana French: Faithful Place is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of July. (This is a big deal—it means that independent booksellers across the United States have picked French’s new novel as their favorite out of all the books being published in the US in July 2010.) This alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice,
but the plotline is particularly beguiling: when Frank Mackey was nineteen, he made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to leave the poverty and dysfunction of their lives in Dublin’s inner city and flee to London. But Rosie never appeared on the night they were supposed to meet, and Frank, assuming that she’d changed her mind, went on to England without her. Twenty-two years later, a suitcase is found behind a fireplace in a run-down building on the street where Frank grew up; when it becomes clear that the suitcase belonged to Rosie, Frank returns home to try and unravel the mystery of what happened to her. French is also the author
of two previous critically-acclaimed novels: In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and The Likeness. (Emily M.)
The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: Adam Langer, who is the author of the well-received Crossing California and two other books, will publish The Thieves of Manhattan this month. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “an über-hip caper that pays homage to and skewers the state of publishing and flash-in-the-pan authors… Part Bright Lights, Big City, part The Grifters, this delicious satire of the literary world is peppered with slang so trendy a glossary is included.” (Edan)
The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) — more stories, plus two essays — was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there’s more “new” Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max)
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: Simpson, author of Anywhere but Here and Off Keck Road, among others, took ten years to write this new novel about Claire, who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young son, and Lola, their Filipina nanny. In Publishers Weekly, Simpson said, “There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what’s important.” (Edan)
Hollywood by Larry McMurtry: Although Texas epicist Larry McMurtry has written dozens of novels, he’s best known for the films that have come from them: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud, and the CBS colossus “Lonesome Dove.” Over the last five decades, he’s turned others’ work into triumph (Brokeback Mountain), seen his own ground into pabulum (Texasville), and written a screenplay for The Cougar (John Mellencamp’s Falling From Grace). In short, he’s a veteran of the L.A. movie wars, and in Hollywood—his third memoir in as many years—he’ll share the stories behind them. Or, at least, he should: in a harsh review of his second memoir, 2009’s Literary Life, The New York Times wrote, “Too often… Mr. McMurtry will sidle up to an interesting anecdote and then tell the reader to wait for his third and concluding memoir, Hollywood… He’ll explain then.” (Jacob)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max)
Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya)
You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin: In this debut novel by the co-founder of one of The Millions’ favorite sites, The Morning News, Alzheimer’s researcher Victor Aaron discovers his late wife’s notes about the state of their marriage. Her version of their relationship differs greatly from his own, and Victor is forced to reexamine their life together. Wells Tower says the novel “is a work of lucid literary art, roisterous wit, and close, wry knowledge of the vexed circuits of the human mind and heart.” (Edan)
Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt: This anthology will collect stories from an impressive roster of writers — Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others — with the devil being the common thread. This being a reprint anthology, fans of the individual authors included may find nothing new, though they may appreciate the clever theme and may encounter work by writers they don’t regularly read. (Max)
The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: While many readers might associate Guilfoile with McSweeney’s, where he’s a frequent contributor, or The Morning News, where with John Warner he provides essential commentary for the Tournament of Books, his fiction occupies a space that some readers might not associate with these latter-day literary tastemakers. Case in point, the titular Thousand are “a clandestine group of powerful individuals safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras.” That may sound like Dan Brown fodder, but you’ll be getting something much, much smarter. (Max)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nearly a decade, is a love story – albeit one surrounded by more ideas and insights and plot-lines than many novelists manage in a career. As he anatomizes the marriage of Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund, Franzen also looks at environmentalism, politics, sex, gentrification, and the pains and pleasures of growing up. And though a youthful anger animates his writing on the Bush years, his patience with Patty, in particular, suggests a writer who has done some growing himself. Franzen’s longest book is also, for great swaths of pages, his best. (Garth)
Bound by Antonya Nelson: If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level. (Anne)
Zero History by William Gibson: Zero History will round out a trilogy that also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson recently laid out how the three books fit into our 21st century milieu: “If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event.” (Max)
Ape House by Sara Gruen: Following her surprise hit with Water for Elephants, Gruen earned a $5 million advance for Ape House and whatever she writes next. Whether or not Gruen earns back that hefty advance, the new book sounds like madness: super smart apes — bonobos, specifically — escape a lab in an explosion and not long after, a mega-hit reality TV show appears featuring the missing apes. This reminds me of that movie Project X. (Max)
C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne)
True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd: The Official Preppy Handbook had that rare spark of wit that makes a good joke many things to many people. Actual preppy people were chuffed to find themselves the subject of a well-drawn lampoon (or earnestly concerned with inaccuracies), the great unwashed found an arsenal or an atlas, depending on their aspirations, and people somewhere in the middle could feel a sheepish pride in being kind of sort of related to a tribe important enough to have its own book. People with real problems, of course, didn’t care either way. Now, True Prep is upon us, and if it fulfills the 1.3 million-print run promise of its precursor, Knopf Doubleday and authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd (original collaborator Jonathan Roberts did not participate, fearing the project wasn’t true to the subversive intention of the Handbook) stand to rake it in. But the popularity of the original book, the shifting sands of American society and wealth, and the proliferation of lifestyle blogs by people with no sense of humor or irony have created a monster simulacrum of “prepdom,” one without easily defined parameters. Will the sequel be able to paint such a sharp and comic portrait as the first Handbook, or will it be yet another non-book littering the aisles of Borders? (Lydia)
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, who is the author of one other novel, Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger, is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps the Workshop inspired her new book, which is about poets at a renowned writing school. At just over 200 pages, this slim novel examines the age-old question, “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” (Edan)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Cunningham’s last novel Specimen Days didn’t quite replicate the critical and commercial success of The Hours. This new novel was initially called Olympia, and a long excerpt of it was published in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature. Discussing the novel, Cunningham told Entertainment Weekly, “Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife.” (Max)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez: In early 2009 in these pages, Sana Krasikov considered the contention the women aren’t known for writing novels of ideas. Her rejoinder to this was Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, “a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters.” This new novel exploring a dystopia — it’s set in the near future after a flu pandemic has ravaged the world and a sheltered, but cultish community has survived the carnage — seems likely to extend Krasikov’s thesis. (Max)
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago: From the late Nobel laureate, this novel “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria.” (Max)
Nemesis by Philip Roth: This latest novel from Roth should prove to be more accessible than his last, The Humbling. The book is set during a war-time polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. At the center of the book is a 23-year-old playground director who sees polio ravage the children he looks after. The book has been in the works since at least early 2009, when it was first described by Roth. (Max)
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier: If, like me, you were wowed when you read in The New Yorker Ian Frazier’s expansive, two-part travelogue of a trip across Siberia at the turn of the millennium, then you’ll be thrilled to find out that this massive piece was likely just a small fraction of Frazier’s forthcoming 544-page book. Frazier’s entertaining guides Sergei and Volodya (they are a pair of lovable, though sometimes frightening, curmudgeons), his insistence on traveling by car (which lent Frazier’s NYer piece many comic moments but also an unimpeachable authenticity), and the moment in history when his trip takes place (he arrives at the Pacific on September 11th, 2001), seem likely to make this book a classic. (Max)
Listen to This by Alex Ross: If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s second book Listen to This lives up to its title essay, then we’re in for a treat. I remember being floored and invigorated by that essay in 2004; Ross’s depth of knowledge, passion, and youth – just 36 then – converted me to his cause in a blink. “I hate ‘classical music,’” he wrote, “not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past… Yes, the music can be great and serious… It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values.” In other words, no music, classical or otherwise, is categorically superior nor the moribund realm of rich ladies; all great music is by definition “something worth loving.” In Listen to This, Ross reaches beyond “classical” (his award-winning first book The Rest is Noise explored 20th century classical composers) into a more eclectic canvass — in Ross’s words, a “panoramic view” – of music worth loving, including Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Chinese classical music, Kiki and Herb, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Bob Dylan. (Sonya)
Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry: For the visually patient—those who inspect collage, squint into details, and willingly sift through doodles—Lynda Barry’s work is a unique gift. The cartoonist/novelist/lecturer’s Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book will continue the thread begun with 2008’s What It Is, her bust-out graphic memoir-cum-instructional. As What It Is encouraged the act of writing, Picture This will push the reader to draw and remind us of the happiness it once could bring. Remember when you filled your looseleaf margins with rough Darth Vaders and ridiculous monsters? If anyone can get us to put down our phones, pick up our pencils, and get back to that pleasure, it’s Barry—whose boundless, cramming technique is evidence of both the work and reward of creation. (Jacob)
The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul: V.S. Naipaul, hoping to reach “the beginning of things,” traveled to six sub-Saharan African countries and examined the belief structures found therein for The Masque of Africa, a travelogue and treatise on the role of religion in culture. Apparently Naipaul learned much from this project, which complicated his sense of an old-new dichotomy and his notion that religious practices varied greatly between nations. Naipaul’s detractors have accused him of being a colonial apologist, so it will be interesting to see how this work of non-fiction will engage with complex ideas of faith and progress, neither of which can be separated from Africa’s colonial past, nor, as Naipaul concedes, from the present-day politics of the nations he explores. (Lydia)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): Pevear and Volokhonsky’s vigorous translations have turned new editions of the Russian greats into publishing events, and we’ve watched as their translations of classics like War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories climbed our otherwise contemporary-leaning top-ten lists. Last year, we interviewed the husband and wife team and got a sense of their unique process. In an interview around the same time with the Wall Street Journal, the couple called Zhivago the toughest of the 16 books they’ve translated: “The issue is the prose. It’s not that rich or ornate, but it’s extremely difficult to translate. His language is very studied. Even when it looks simple, it’s not. The sentences aren’t long or complex, but it’s the quality of the words. It’s never what you expect.” (Max)
The Great House by Nicole Krauss: Bestselling author of The History of Love, Nicole Krauss returns with The Great House, a novel about a desk that, according to the publisher’s description, “contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through… a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away.” Krauss was one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers, and “The Young Painters,” published in the magazine’s June 28, 2010 issue, is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. You can read a Q&A with her here. (Edan)
X’ed Out by Charles Burns: I once saw a comics panel discussion in which Charles Burns complained, fairly wryly, about the amount of effort he forces into his work: in one issue of Black Hole, he said, he spent hours applying his sharp black inks to an endpaper image of twigs—a picture that each reader would spend “maybe three seconds on,” then move along. Such frustration is understandable, but I don’t know that he was actually right. Each page, each panel, of Burns’ work claws you in; each line is unsettling in its perfection. He cannot be read casually. His newest, X’ed Out, will touch on typically Burnisan themes: quiet distress, eerie isolation, a heavy apocalyptic oddness. But, as always, the look of the book is the thing: we’ll be gripped by its feel as much as by its story—and, yes, take our time with its potent renderings of splintered boards, broken walls, and specimens shut in jars. (Jacob)
False Friends by Myla Goldberg: We included Goldberg on our own “20 under 40” list and suggested that “literary mandarins” put off by her smash-hit debut Bee Season take a look. Another opportunity to do so will arrive in October with Goldberg’s third novel. (Max)
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki: In October, Millions contributor Edan Lepucki will publish her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me under Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint. The title will initially be available for limited edition presale under Flatmancrooked’s LAUNCH program, designed for emerging authors. (Max)
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: In the wake of the fatwa and accompanying media frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, apparently at the prodding of his then nine-year-old son, shifted gears to focus on something much less contentious, a children’s book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now, twenty years later, Rushdie is returning with a sequel to the book he wrote for his son. Fatherhood has once again inspired Rushdie, who, according to bookseller.com, decided to write this new book for his “youngest son, Milan, who was born in 1999.” (Max)
Autobiography of Mark Twain: On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died of a heart attack. His death brought to a close maybe the greatest literary life America has ever known, and it started the countdown to the publication of Twain’s autobiography, which Twain instructed was not to be released until he had been good and gone for 100 years. Well, the waiting is finally over, and from early reports it appears as though it might have taken an entire century to wrestle the mass of writing Twain left behind into publishable form. This November, the University of California Press will release the first volume in a trilogy that Twain wrote according to the rambling dictate, “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment.” (Kevin)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher’s description of this one lays out its unique premise: “In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives.” It’s another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max)
Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer: FSG will collect the “best” short fiction from the South African Nobel laureate in this hefty volume. (Max)
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Readers mourned the death of punk poet Jim Carroll last year. As Garth wrote in these pages, “Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.” For Carroll fans, this posthumously published novel that takes the late-1980s art scene as its inspiration, will at the very least be another opportunity to experience his work and at best may be another one of those “very good books.” (Max)
Selected Stories by William Trevor: This volume will collect nearly 600 pages worth of short stories from this verable master of the form. (Max)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick: This forthcoming novel from Ozick is framed as a nifty literary trick. It’s a retelling of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, but, according to the publisher’s description, “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.” (Max)
Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy: It’s actually been seven years since the last Tom Clancy book came out, the longest gap of his career. This fact plus the usual excitement from Jack Ryan fans could make this more of a publishing event than expected. (Max)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard’s focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: “Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Karen Russell was just 23 when she had a story in The New Yorker’s 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, she has published an acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and been named to The New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 list. With the accolades already piled sky high, this will be one of the more anticipated debut novels in recent years. The publishers’ description suggests we should expect big, ambitious things: “think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades.” (Max)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III Dubus, already much feted for his short stories and novels, will be trying his hand at the memoir. In this case, the trajectory is from hard-bitten youth to redemption in writing. Fans can expect perhaps to gain some insights into the genesis of Dubus’ fiction. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard: You Think That’s Bad will be Shepard’s fourth collection of short stories, and from the Knopf catalogue description, it sounds like it won’t disappoint; there’s a story about a farm boy who “becomes the manservant of a French nobleman who’s as proud of having served with Joan of Arc as he’s aroused by slaughtering children”–need we say more? Shepard’s previous collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was nominated for the National Book Award. (Edan)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Obreht secured a special place in the literary pantheon not just by being on The New Yorker’s recent 20 under 40 list, but by being, at 25, the youngest one on it. With her debut novel, readers will get a larger sense of what the praise for Obreht is all about (an excerpt of the novel, in the form of a peculiar story of the same title, appeared in the magazine last year). (Max)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When he died in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left behind more than 1,000 pages of notes and drafts of an unfinished novel that he had given the preliminary title The Pale King. The book had been in progress for more than a decade and one of the last things Wallace did before taking his own life was to tidy what he written so that it would be easier to sort after he was gone. Since then the manuscript has been in the hands of Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, and it is expected that a version of the book running about 400 pages will be published late this year or early next. Four confirmed excerpts from The Pale King have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s. They suggest a story centered around IRS agents at a Midwestern processing office struggling to deal with the “intense tediousness” of their work. (Kevin)
There are many other exciting books coming out in the coming months not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in the comments section below.
Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.
It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.
To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.
We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.
This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle. We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine
Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.
Today represented some kind of personal tipping point. As if by prearrangement – or super-stealthy guerilla marketing plan? – the Kindle was everywhere I went.
First: a faculty meeting. More than one colleague praising the seductions of the e-Reader, as opposed to the good old book. Except who am I kidding? They didn’t use the term e-Reader. They used the term Kindle.
Then: the subway. I fell into the pleasurable habit of scanning the titles being read by my fellow travelers.
The New Yorker.
Last Evenings on Earth.
Something in Chinese.
The Raw Shark Texts.
Something by Donna Leon.
Something by Daniel Silva.
Something by Stephen L. Carter.
Yup: Kindle #3.
(The woman reading Bolaño switched halfway through my ride to a Kindle, on which she may or may not have continued reading Bolaño . I’m not making this up.)
Finally: Bryant Park. Right behind the New York Public Library. Summer Associates getting their drink on. Kindle. Abandoned newspaper. Coddled Kindle. Homeless man with obscenity scrawled on jacket. Kindle in handy Kindle carrier. Outdoor library. Outdoor Kindle.
I began to imagine a day where outdoor libraries won’t exist. Nor will my beloved newsstands (already struggling with cigarettes at $10 a pack). Indoor libraries will struggle even harder than they already do to justify their existence; everyone will be carrying her own. Well, everyone but the guy with the obscenity scrawled on his jacket. And Nosy Parkers such as myself will be unable to tell what anyone’s reading on mass transit. Except that they’re all reading on e-Readers.
This day is doubtless drawing ever closer, but as a lover of newsstands, libraries, and ubiquitous dustjackets (remember, MTA riders, the month when everyone was reading Absurdistan? Remember the autumn of Oscar Wao?), I realized today that I’m not looking forward to it. Nor do I believe my life will be improved when putting down The Magic Mountain to check TMZ.com is as simple as clicking a button. Which is to say: I won’t make it past page 2 of The Magic Mountain. And also: I believe reading The Magic Mountain will improve my life. But the Kindle is just a tool! my colleagues insist. I want to remind them: when you’re carrying a hammer, everything starts to look like a Kindle. Er…nail.
Ted Heller is the author of two novels, Slab Rat and Funnymen, and is senior writer at Nickelodeon Magazine.I work during the daytime and write my own books (and watch way too much sports) at night, so I don’t read as much as I should. However, once in a while I do get a chance to read.The best book I read this year was Seven Ages of Paris by the historian Alistair Horne. A thousand years in the life of a city in 400 pages… it was tres magnifique and was so good that I then read his wonderful and poignant The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 I also read and enjoyed American Prometheus, the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. It was thorough and terrific but just not quite as funny as the section of my masterpiece Funnymen which takes place in Los Alamos while the A-bomb is being invented.I also read and liked Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It had me laughing aloud and, at times, envious. It fell apart a bit toward the very end but I liked it and recommend it to anyone who needs a guffaw or two. I will certainly read whatever he comes up with next.I also began re-rereading the early short stories of Hemingway. You know something? He wasn’t bad.I hope to work a lot less and read a lot more next year.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Alas, the Tournament of Books is over for my bracket as it was revealed that the “Zombie Round” brought Against the Day and Absurdistan back into the competition. With my finalists now officially out of the competition my bracket is dead, and it looks like I’ll finish in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, fresh off the Oprah selection shocker (more on that in my next post), I’m think The Road is a lock to win this thing.Book Chronicle has organized an award for litblogs. In my post about book blogs being snubbed by the major blog awards, I argued that book blogs didn’t need to recognized in this way to legitimize them. Still, I do appreciate Book Chronicle nominating The Millions for their award.Harry Potter obsessives can now have a look at the cover for the final book in the series.The Paris Review has given its $10,000 Plimpton Prize for Fiction to Benjamin Percy, for his story “Refresh, Refresh,” which is excerpted on magazine’s Web site.Tom Bissell reviews Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close at Wet Asphalt.