Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation

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A Year in Reading: M.C. Mah

Standing athwart the evident passage of a year, shuddering, “No.” Never have I claimed to be well-read; I exhibit reading behavior. Taking honest account of it feels akin to my book of the year 2017, Alissa Nutting’s “Grub Street Diet,” wherein she wrote, “I like texture more than flavor.” Because I tend to read what’s in the vending machine. At the end of this Year in Reading installment I will award the 2018 Achievement in Vended Prose from among these ruffles, puddings, and cool, ranch-flavored corn crunches: Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer; KellyMom and Lucie’s List; the indistinct voice of Maggie Haberman and coauthor; half a dozen servings of sportswriting for my health; “TFW” Patricia Lockwood has been assigned a review; “Russian meddling”; Rotten Tomatoes audience reviews for “research”; Babycenter’s “My Baby This Week” emails, a little on the nose; NYT’s “Sunday Routine” or, “Roast a chicken to graze on for the rest of the week—what’s wrong with you?”; Janet Malcolm and “SJW garbage”; Zadie Smith and r/Relationships (where peevish 21Ms ask nicely that their girlfriends lose weight); tweets urging newspapers to use the word “lie” in their headlines; Elif Batuman’s “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry” as read aloud by my mom; the epic of heterosexuality that is Allison Benedikt and John Cook’s entry in “Our One Fight”; buzz for A Star Is Born so I’d know just how seriously I was supposed to take it when I went to see it alone. I read about unaffordable cities and segregated schools, every time. Because it’s up to us not to want what we want. A Year in Words Mattering “Words matter,” it is said tragically, because of the damage they can do even when strung together incompetently. Words matter because people believe them. I believed Caitlin Flanagan’s “I Believe Her.” And Jia Tolentino on the front lines of male anxiety: “He would ask me if I didn’t think it was dangerous to lump all these things together, and I would try to find the words to say that the fear of things being lumped together does more to lump them together than all the speaking up.” But if words matter in that good writing still affords deep human pleasures, this was the year of the Taffy Brodesser-Akner profile. On Goop, GP in the flesh, and the price of feeling improved: “We are doomed to aspire for the rest of our lives. Aspiration is suffering. Wellness is suffering.” (Pause.) The nominee in the category of Words Mattering: Sarah Miller’s “The Movie Assassin.” Clip: Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot? This “butterfly flaps its wings” scenario differs significantly from the one about the housing bust, fentanyl, and the alt-right because it imagines instead street riots over the critical consensus regarding Minghella’s Best Picture winner. And yet I found it plausible: to pinpoint a time when the culture fell out of its delicate balance; when it stopped being serious, and at the same time, lost its sense of humor. Does the edgy joke overtake the country in a timeline that includes the English Patient Riots of '96? I don’t think so. A Year in Nothing Mattering Here’s the thing: I read what you read. I read apologies. I read testimonials and denials. I read evenhanded appraisals, self-congratulations, and baseless claims. I read the takes and the takes read me. So I can’t be alone here: I hate reading anything about Trump; I hate reading anything that doesn’t take place in a world where the giant novelty scarecrow came to life, outperformed polling in the upper Midwest, and governed on white identity. My loyalties lie with a presiding anguish. Traister, Cobb, M. Gessen, Bouie—I regret to inform you that what cannot be allowed to stand, stands. I read all criticisms of Facebook, rooting for the articles to break through the supposedly salient issue of digital “privacy,” as if, in the end, small fighters could fly preposterously to a central engine and destroy it. I read a tweet about the privilege of deleting Facebook (practically synonymous with Internet access in some countries) approximately 15 seconds before news of its role in the murderous expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar. I’ve thought about it every day since. At times, reading felt like perpetual debate prep. Bari Weiss’s “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web”—you read it, I read it, we looked upon our friends who had not read it with envy and then resentment—the arrogance! To make us read it for them! (To salvage that rare good tire out of the tire fire, try Amia Srinivasan, “Does anyone have the right to sex?”) We tend to think of reading as exemplary, enriching. What is the opposite of that? 2018 was a banner year in abject reading—hostile, morbid, “social.” I tried and failed to not read amorphous content by those dedicated to the defeat of people like me in rhetorical combat. Day and night they worked to flatten us in the post-lecture-Q&A-session-before-the-raucous-university-audience of their minds. I take it that I find there to be no biological differences between women, men, squid, and cauliflower; I want to repeal the first amendment; I am unable to disagree in a civil manner. And if you believe that, Reader, fuck you. There is no nomination in the category of Nothing Mattering. Nobody deserved one. A Year in Making Certain That an Infant Is Breathing “The cube is fun for everyone,” sings the cube. The cube’s fine reviews did not mention the sounds it made. However problematic it may be to lay my incapacity at the feet of an infant, I have found it difficult to read and work. (I didn’t get into Knausgård—this is not a defense of the wage gap.) Little known to the unparenting, those manuals one promises themselves that they’ll read in dire preparation for what otherwise, it is said, cannot be prepared for, are virtually unreadable lists of number-ranges in reference to behaviors and bodily functions in the zero to six rough months at the start. Even now I am left with the feeling that I did not read what I had to, only what I could: the Boards, over-the-shoulder Slack, the newsletters (Laura Owen’s I’ll Be Right Back, Emily Gould’s Can’t Complain), and Bringing Up Bébé, the only parenting book to make an argument (the galling superiority of the French style. “Le Pause,” I say to the baby. “I have spit up,” he says, or more precisely, does not say). [millions_ad] For advice on gender roles in parenting, Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: “My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female.” Sure, I’m there. On the spiritual logic of procreation, the great and generally acute Heather Havrilesky: “Have a baby. Then have another baby!” Parents themselves I like. In their own way, they keep pace with troubled times. I see them everywhere, their progeny swathed in Big Muslin and reclined in Uppababys, and I try to respect and dignify them, as I would anyone who publicly admitted to a willful mistake. An honorable mention for first story, first sentence, goes to Lauren Groff’s Florida: “I have somehow become a woman who yells…” But the nominee in the category of Making Certain That an Infant Is Breathing is Meaghan O’Connell, And Now We Have Everything. Clip: “For the first few weeks I was always expecting to catch the baby, somehow, mid-death.” The lights are off; it is hard to tell. A Year in Reading IRL The sheer scale of the irony of the Internet! The techno-polymorphic way forward turned out to multiply our envy, streamline our anger, tease our anxiety, and make an independent sense of value—the very sense one would have to have to ably exist with the Internet and within it—seem like snobbery or, what’s worse, performative contrarianism. We know for sure that our reading habits, books culture, and journalism literary and otherwise were upended by five companies that gave no aforethought to what it might do other than earn them market share, but the distinct effects of this gerrymandering our minds is an open question. My wife and I “read the Internet,” which is a casual way of saying we barely read anything about everything. My wife would read the Internet while nursing. I would read the internet in line at Trader Joe’s, where I am able to go on civil weekday afternoons to buy eggs and rolled oats and some other bullshit. Or is it that we read everything about nothing? Before the baby was born I read all day, but didn’t have much to say about it save for an over-cultivated sense of what other uncompromising people would have to say. We were never right about anything, but what chance did we have? The technological distillation of both reading and writing is pressing again and again that button that says we’re just as different as everyone else. But late at night, in the lulls between tragedy and farce, the writers do their affirmations; that genres other than Speculative Mueller are not only viable but necessary: Fiction! The post–personal essay! I must confess that I find these songs of relevance to be well-meant but off the mark. There is no principle that makes writing essential to the reader. Truly necessary writing is defined by scarcity, anomaly. At the same time, I don’t mean to lionize “failure,” now a euphemism describing a kind of moxie-building pre-success. It’s just that a piece of writing almost never works. It is not as though culture cannot continue now that children have been caged, but if form and subject matter have narrowed for writers as their readers’ moral imaginations are strained to a breaking point, then so be it. There is no accounting for the era that does not find the culture diminished. This is going badly for all of us. So badly indeed that it is with a renewed sense of unexpectedness that we find the culture alive and well. My 2018 Year in Reading Award goes to Caity Weaver, taking it upon herself to personally taste-test one of four new flavors of Diet Coke, Diet Coke Feisty Cherry: A better name for this drink would be “Diet Coke Psychotically Violent Cherry.” After sitting open for hours, the potency of the feisty black pepper flavor diminished not one iota. It is sobering to sip a soda and realize while every day I inch closer toward death, the soda is only growing stronger, smarter, and more powerful. Hearing so often as of late that words matter, one could get the impression that they don’t. But what if they did, to anyone or anything? If words are to matter, our problems only deepen. Words mattering is the problem. The language will never achieve wellness. If anything, the present moment has made plain our insufficient disillusionment; it is not now, nor has it ever been the case that if words mattered, there’d be nothing left to do but tell the truth. More from A Year in Reading 2018 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Danzy Senna

Reading books rather than trawling social media makes me feel connected—the act of entering a perspective and narrative other than my own. This year especially reading felt like an act of resistance. I read works that reminded me to prize complexity and depth over their opposites. One of my favorite reads this year was After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus. It's about Acker’s life and work but is also, and perhaps more so, a social history of the counterculture, punk, avant garde poetry world of the 1980s. It's furthermore a meditation on the particular struggles of a female rebel in the literary world. I’m not that wild about Kathy Acker’s writing, but I am a huge fan of Chris Kraus—and her lucid, intelligent mind was for me the real pleasure of this book. On an airplane over somewhere I discovered an incredible short novel called Class Trip by Emmanuel Carrère, a French writer I have long admired. It’s a realistic horror story told from a child’s point of view, and is coldly written, without a word out of place. I was aware reading it that I was in the hands of a literary master. The book ends in the most stunning, disturbing place. Speaking of short novels, I also read and adored Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Transit and then went on to read her memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. Her writing has the same quiet hilarity as Ben Lerner and Lydia Davis. I'm fascinated by what she does with identity and the oddly hidden first person voice. This year I also got to go back in time to a kind of Afrofuturism of the past. That is, George Schuyler’s  1934 satirical novel, Black No More. I was asked to write an introduction for the new Penguin Classics edition of the book. I hadn't read it since my college class on the Harlem Renaissance. I was stunned, re-reading it now, by how shocking and ahead of its time the work still feels. Schuyler’s wicked and bold satire leaves nobody sacred. It gave me a chance to think about comedy and iconoclasm in the black literary tradition. It also reminded me to be fearless when writing. Finally, I found time to read some short stories by two of my favorite Los Angeles writers: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s published two new stories in The New Yorker, “Likes,” and “The Burglar,” which were exceptional, and Dana Johnson published a brilliant story, “She Deserves Everything She Gets,” in The Paris Review, from her equally excellent collection, In the Not Quite Dark. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]

Write What You Know? Identity Politics and Fiction

1. No novel has entranced me this year like the French author Mathias Énard’s Compass, short-listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. Énard, a writer with tremendous empathy for his characters, both as individuals, and also as contextualized individuals embedded within contemporary geopolitical conflicts—the book is dedicated on the last page “to the Syrian people”—writes what ostensibly seems a didactic treatise on the world of orientalist academics. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist whose dreamscape and memories over the course of one sleepless night populate the entirety of the text while taking us through both Eastern and Western lands: Vienna, where Franz lies on a sickbed in the present, to Aleppo, Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and Istanbul, to which Énard pays special attention as the historic "conduit" between Europe and Asia. As Franz dreams restlessly about the woman he loves— another orientalist scholar, Sarah, a historian, whose polyglot prodigiousness on all things worldly and otherworldly pays homage to all forms of scholarship—Compass emerges as both a technical and scholarly feat as well as a love letter to the "Orient" and a rebuke to the fiction of its otherness. In amusingly familiar academic segues we can see, through Franz, what Sarah might write about: a fanciful article entitled “On the Cosmopolitan Fates of Magical Objects,”  Franz imagines (probably accurately) as a title for an article that Sarah would write to show “how these objects are the result of successive shared efforts…that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other, and that these words—Orient, Occident—have no more heuristic value than the unreachable destinations they designate.” Énard’s brilliance is as self-evident as it is comical: Where else but in the idiosyncratic exchanges of academics could we ruminate on such grand ideas through the study of genie lamps and flying carpets? Through Franz’s one-night journey through memory, we meet quirky Egyptologists, composers, writers, archaeologists, philosophers, even charlatans; many of whose stories, whether they physically featured in Franz’s life or not, peter out in a tale of heartbreaking fits and starts. Franz and Sarah’s own story is, predictably, no less sad. I have been in awe of Énard’s gifts since Street of Thieves, during which I marveled at the empathy with which he treated his Moroccan protagonist, Lakhdar, a young man who travels from Tangier to Tarifa and finally, Barcelona, haunted by an Islamist bombing he had minor involvement in and his excommunication from his family, but assuaged by his love for literature and art: Ibn Battuta and Naguib Mahfouz, the familiar beauties of Tangier and the exotic newness of Barcelona. In Compass, Énard ostensibly faces less of a challenge writing a protagonist with whom he shares at least some cultural sensibilities (although obsessed as Franz is with the appropriation of Oriental music on European composers from Franz Liszt to Hector Berlioz to Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom get several fascinating pages of description, we shouldn’t minimize the author’s feat: to my knowledge Énard is not an ethnomusicologist), even as the ghost of Edward Said hangs insistently over the orientalist scholars’ cerebral quibbling. Books like these give me an unerring hope in the human capacity to reach out to an unknown self and try, with meticulous research, observation, erudition, but principally with empathy, to understand a self distinct from one’s own. When I first began to read Compass, I had just begun writing another short story of my own: the first that didn’t include subcontinental Muslim characters. I struggled with the sweep and ambition of the story I wanted to write—one that would have to pass through many generations of an interracial family to plumb the effects of environmental disaster—the Dust Bowl for instance—to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of intergenerational memory. I settled on a four-monologue, play-like structure for the story: one for each generation. I spent months reading first-hand accounts, history texts, longform stories about the impacts and memories of natural disasters. I used my historiographical research in environmental history to think about the people in books as people I could try to know. I read books that described catastrophes: starting off with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I remembered as a ruthless story of tenant farmers trapped in economic hardship and poverty as the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head; as crops failed and harsh drought swept over the prairie. When I finally had a draft I could consider complete, I gave it to my first reader—my most generous reader. She returned it with the terse comment that I should “write what I know.” What had I done wrong? Had I failed in my research? The details were all correct, I was confident about that. Had I failed to do justice to the two white characters from whose perspective I wrote the first two monologues? Or to the two mixed-race black characters in the last two monologues? Had I failed to empathize? I went back to the drawing board, trying to convince myself to jettison the story entirely. But the logic of writing solely what I knew was unconvicing. How can I reconcile myself to writing stories about people solely from my cultural background when the stories I want to write have a different sweep, a distinct subject matter that requires me to understand characters outside of my lived experience? That is what I have always seen as the point of literature: its capacity for universality. 2. As it turns out, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for writers today. Rachel Cusk, recently profiled in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, had her first book published at 26. She now deems her early work as inferior. Thurman takes Cusk’s disillusionment as a reflexive turn away from the earliest iterations of herself because she managed “to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings.” Cusk is now married for the third time; about her book Aftermath, a painterly if perplexing memoir about the dissolution of Cusk’s marriage with Adrian Clarke, Thurman argues that Clarke “haunts the text like a ghost.” Thurman wonders: Why doesn’t Aftermath explain why the marriage dissolved? “This was partly for the children’s sake,” Cusk says. But Aftermath met with some cruel reviews, after which Cusk seemed to change course. She says of her trajectory: “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can find it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.” Profiling writers of fiction, mining their lives for clues to explain the eccentricities and artfulness, or perhaps even artifice inside the work themselves—not just thematically but as a direct analog for a protagonist or an entire plot—has become a bit of a trope. Ever since Lena Dunham burst on to the scene, the justification of using autobiographies as the principal quarry from which to mine stories from the vantage point of the writer (what is essentially primary research for the literary critic) has become increasingly more ubiquitous. But of course, you don’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to know that the tradition is far older than Dunham. One could argue it is steeped in the pursuit of the Great American Novel itself: in the specificities of Philip Roth’s Newark Jewish oeuvre, or Norman Mailer’s racially-charged machismo, or as literary critics rigorously argue, on any work of fiction anywhere and any time. But a certain timbre of particularity, coincident with the rise of the personal essay, has most certainly become more central and self-aware in literature of late: specific questions about which characters represent the author and whether plots actually occurred in the author’s real life pop up in interviews when they were once considered gauche to ask a novelist. A recent interview between writers Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria finds them talking about “self-serving writing,” work inspired by autobiography, as if it represented the pinnacle of truth-telling. Escoria talks intimately about her book Juliet the Maniac, contending that she doesn’t really “understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction.” There’s more than a whiff of writers being far too hard on themselves. The problem is why contemporary literary trends motivate young writers to believe that their own personal histories are the only histories they can plumb with any believable depth: a belief that visibly flails when confronted with the Enlightenment origins of humanistic “imaginative” capacities that can be traced to at least as far back as Denis Diderot. As Jean le Rond d’Alembert demonstrates in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, for Diderot painting, sculpture ,and architecture were deemed at the head of knowledge known as “Imitation,” but it was poetry and music that demonstrated imagination: that the skill demonstrated “by the warmth, the movement, and the life it is capable of giving, it seems rather to create than to portray them.” This creation was rarely conceived merely as reproduction, nor has it been for a very long time. After all, with writers like Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion, as Daniela Serrano so powerfully writes, the compulsion is reversed: it is not looking at yourself that is the most uncomfortable, but at other people. There can be no doubt, however, that "identity"—with all the limitations and deliverances the word connotes—has become so powerful in popular culture, that the imaginative arts, across different mediums, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Dunham, when criticized about the whiteness of Girls, claimed that she wanted “to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately.” In Sofia Coppola’s recent remake of the Civil War-set, Don Siegel movie The Beguiled, she shifted the perspective from that of the male interloper’s to the women in the cloistered Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, but crucially she also excised the role of a slave character—one that was present both in Thomas Cullinan’s original book, which served as the source material for both films, and in the first film, where she was played by Mae Mercer. Coppola received her share of outrage for "whitewashing," an accusation she deflected the way Dunham did: by essentially arguing that she didn’t wish to take an important subject lightly the way the original source material did; instead, by focusing on what she knew best. But if the dogged discoverers of Elena Ferrante’s true identity are to be believed, Ferrante didn’t know much about the poverty of Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan upbringing either. Has lived experience supplanted all other forms of knowledge as the sole true source of authenticity? As an avid Ferrante fan, I take umbrage with such a reading: I could care less about her true identity—and if she hasn’t truly lived it, then the Neapolitan novels merely display a capacity for virtuosic observation and insight. 3. But if this is truly an impasse, the contemporary moment in fiction, then it is a problem we must contend with. Arguably we are already contending with it, although perhaps with less success than one would hope. Lionel Shriver told an audience at a writer’s festival last year that, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are 'allowed”'to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” As Sarah Schulman reported, Viet Thanh Nguyen responded in the L.A. Times by saying: “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.” Nguyen makes a compelling point: we can use this schism to our advantage, but only if we understand the baggage that attends literary, cultural, and political history. Personally, I found Coppola’s version of The Beguiled captivating—with a particularly heartbreaking performance by Kirsten Dunst with a depth almost entirely missing from the earlier incarnation—just as I find much to admire in Dunham’s writing on Girls. But both come saddled with a crucial lack of ambition and not, as they had ostensibly hoped, racial sensitivity. Wouldn’t The Beguiled be all the more interesting if Coppola had extended her nuanced portrayals to a black female character? If it weren’t so illustrative of the loaded identitarian schism at the heart of leftist politics, it would make for the perfect right-wing conspiracy: not only have well-meaning liberals become too PC, they are now roundly dismissed as blinkered by the same folks whose ire they hoped to deflect in the first place. It goes without saying that the problem doesn’t operate solely at the level of the artist herself. Somehow the gambit has been working, arguably with a deep historical legacy, to widen gaps between artists and audiences, with publishers eager to pander to particular readers depending on the artist. It is by now a cliché that many novels written by women are designed to look like romance novels. On the covers of her books being targeted to specifically to female audiences, Margaret Atwood, in an interview in 2015, mentioned that “there were probably some quite disappointed readers.” Atwood’s interviewer Jessica Stites responded that she couldn’t get her friends to start reading the Neapolitan novels because the first book has a wedding dress on it. Meanwhile, author Nnedi Okorafor wrote a book with a female Muslim protagonist, only for her publisher to suggest a cover with a white female figure on it.  One wonders: How could publishers be failing so much to adapt? Surely this is not what Nguyen had in mind. Indeed, if writers are to be brave they must truly go there, and like any writer for any story, do meticulous research. But that may not be enough: one hopes writers have the capacity to publish in a world less maladapted to receive their work as well. How did we find ourselves here in the first place? Surely writers never decided in closed-door meetings that the social scientific and humanistic academic emphasis on Culture with a capital c would bleed into fiction to such a degree that writers would begin to parse identities into little parcels, keeping only those they could hold ground on; seeing the act of storytelling itself as one circumscribed by the belonging of a identitarian category. Far more likely is that for writers this is a passive process, one driven by our politics (and/or publishers), by reading the expectations of audiences or anticipating outrage, fears, and concerns that are exacerbated by the near-monopoly in fiction of white authors. Surely writers writ large know there is something reductive about using our own lives as not only the canvases for our art, but of art itself. The argument, or perhaps merely a passive trend riding on a form of herd mentality, seems to dictate that the craft itself has become one’s calling card. Which is to say: not only has the liminal space between identity and individuality been overcome, but storytelling has crashed right through its center, obviating the need for anything else. Why should a story need anything more than an identity? Why shouldn’t Kumail Nanjiani plumb the comedic depths of his own lived trajectory the same way Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and countless others do? There can be no prescriptive answer on this question that is not simultaneously political. But I suspect that there comes a point when the regurgitated version of one person’s life, especially when that person belongs to a minority group, begins to feel tired: a genre as trope; Oriental fiction with veils on the covers. The ruse being played here is that there is no more a sense of a story without an identity preserved through the complex Venn diagrams one inhabits (or fails to); no universality, no totality: merely a small set of interlocking bricks that hold together the walls of our perception of the world. A place where Plato’s Cave is now color-coded, numbered and charted—hierarchies everywhere, opportunities only to move up or down or sideways like chess pieces. And now that the Cave is so stratified, why feel the need to leave it and see it as it is? How can one tell a story, any story, about any form of universal phenomenon if the response one instinctively pre-empts is: How could you know anything about that? This should have been written by a white gender non-conforming person who grew up without money or the awareness of privilege but nonetheless took advantage of it and grew to believe in less humane economic precepts than she/he/they would have had they not been white. It underlies an inherent paralysis, not too different from the paralysis Amitav Ghosh describes for storytelling which is failing to grapple with climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Climate is not identity or racial politics, however, regardless of how closely their consequences are intertwined, but the concept of paralysis, I suspect, prevents talented artists like Sofia Coppola from stretching the bounds of their own ambitions; and more dangerously than for the minority writer it becomes a convenient alibi for the white artist’s conception of believability. But as with most things, it is a double-edged sword. How can we disregard the critique of the white writer who considers himself (often himself) objective enough to take on any character, a critique which has only become more prominent because marginalized writers have pushed it up in discourse after decades of unrewarded work? Today, at least, it is acknowledged in some circles that not only do minority writers deserve a pulpit, but that storytelling in turn requires minority writers (although certainly not a standard held up nearly enough). Still, it requires a peculiar moment in contemporary culture when certain white male writers can comically (and of course also infuriatingly) decry that their jobs are harder as white men than if they were minorities. In that way, storytelling as with most things bears a truly striking institutional likeness—to the extent that the enterprise of writing and publishing is an institution—to our current politics. Regardless, the argument of constriction applies to minority writers too—identitarian thought has bled into the wholesome creed of “write what you know.” We have erected walls for ourselves that are both comforting in the way that occupying a niche gives a writer and claustrophobic in the sense of wells running dry, new writers providing old stories that are tired reflections of the works of older writers. Nowhere in my experience is this more true than in fiction from my native South Asia, where the timbre of even the most lauded works by Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie has acquired a quality of permanence most subcontinental writers cannot help but emulate in the sprint for awards success. Interestingly, the most incisive critics of Roy have recently pointed out the utter lack of tonal difference between her abundant nonfiction and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: where non-fiction can afford to proselytize, fiction ceases to breathe when crafted in the same mold. Again, however, publishers erect roadblocks in the name of pandering to certain audiences. From a Pakistani perspective, it is all to easy for me to envision publishers who expect me to deal with Islamophobia or terrorism on some level in all my writing, even if apropos of nothing. And thus: in reifying the fictions of identity (the baseline fact most left-leaning writers can agree on), we have elevated almighty Culture, enforced monopolies of singular identities and mashed them all up. No longer can storytelling be ambitious in the fashion of Doris Lessing (who admittedly dabbled in both very autobiographical and very non-autobiographical work, the height of the latter reached in her sublime Canopus in Argos space fiction). Instead, every story would serve itself best as another iteration of your own personal diagram, chipping away at your own identity slowly, painstakingly, even dully over the decades like Philip Roth, but surely not like Mathias Énard: there would no imagination, only personal research. No external perception, only introspection. 4. With this conversation raging in my head as a writer of color, it’s fascinating sometimes to dissect my own responses to my work. Had my first reader got it right—was she letting me off the hook by telling me to write what I knew because the story didn’t hold up to the literary standards she knew I aspired to? Very possibly. I didn’t let the story go, however. I doubled down, and worked even harder at it. But even more intriguing to me than the cases where I double down are those where I have chosen to let go. When my first work of fiction was published, at The Rumpus, my editor told me that the website had commissioned an artist to illustrate my story. I couldn’t wait, both for the story, and for the art it would sit alongside. When the story was published, I was astonished. The style of the art was sparse and completely appropriate to the story: three drawings in all. But curiously, the second illustration, inspired by a pivotal scene where my male Pakistani protagonist has a brief exchange with a friend’s grandmother, looked suspiciously Western. There was a reference to chai in the text, but scant other details. I remember instinctively thinking: there’s no way the grandmother would look like that. A Pakistani grandmother would be wearing a loose dupatta, along with a shalwar kameez—a long tunic and loose trousers. I thought about it for a long time. Ultimately, I decided that there was something about that drawing that captured other specificities—the posture of the grandmother, her spirit—that moved me. I concluded that it was great as it was. The artist had read my story and decided to interpret it the best way she could, and despite the initial skepticism it aroused in me, I liked the idea of the illustration reading my work as something transcendent, something neither here nor there but everywhere: maybe, something even universal. The day after the story came out, I contacted the artist: one of her works hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder both of my resistance and release and of the artist’s intended or unintended attempt to universalize my work. I don’t wish to ask. Why should I? No matter how much specificity we try to achieve, we will always fall short. After all, as the (white, male) writer Mark Greif tells us, “your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know it feels.” Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.

A Tree That Is All Branches: On Rachel Cusk’s ‘Transit’

  In a much-quoted Guardian interview, the British novelist Rachel Cusk said that following the publication of her divorce’s chronicle, Aftermath, she was unable to write memoir.  Trying instead to write a novel she found herself, additionally, “embarrassed by fiction.”  “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she said, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”  Where does that leave a writer, when you can neither invent, nor tell the truth?  Transit, along with its predecessor, Outline, seems to be an attempt to solve this problem -- and I suspect that whether or not a reader responds to this book ultimately depends on whether she finds Cusk’s solution successful. Transit pursues Outline’s unusual formal strategy, in which a cagey first-person narrator relates the stories of people she encounters during the novel’s plot, or “plot.”  As with Outline, the story is, at best, wispy -- our interlocutor, Faye (like Cusk, a divorced writer), has returned to London and bought a run-down apartment in a fashionable neighborhood.  She has two children, though we never meet them.  They are installed with the former husband while she gets the flooring replaced and deals with unpleasant downstairs neighbors -- the central problem of the book.  She also has a haircut, goes to a literary festival, tutors an annoying woman, teaches a class, and attends a dinner party. If this sounds slight, it is.  The story serves only to bring the narrator into contact with other characters, all of whom have a story to tell, related in chunks of dialog and third-person exposition.  The effect of these stories, essentially novelized dramatic monologues, is both interesting and tiresome.  There is interest in what they replace, the silence they fill, as the narrator’s reticence communicates a traumatic past that is finally -- though incompletely -- revealed by novel’s end.  There is also a voyeuristic interest in hearing these voices speak.  We have no real reason to care, for instance, about the abusive youth of Julian, the voluble festival co-attendee, yet it is compelling, the same way overhearing a stranger talking on a flight or train ride can be compelling. But just as that chattering voice behind you can become dull, even maddening, so it sometimes is here with these reported anecdotes.  Though Cusk has a good feel for how long to linger before moving on to the next talkative stranger, the book is necessarily hemmed in by its own rules.  The book is told from her perspective, yet the narrator cannot or will not divulge too much of herself; the interesting walk-ons quickly walk off stage again, eliminating any conventional narrative drive.  For me, the experience of reading Transit was largely the experience of wondering about these constraints -- mainly, what purpose do they serve? For one thing, perhaps, they allow Cusk to write quasi-memoir without any personal shame.  By creating a narrator of such fuzzy reluctance, she offloads the confessionality onto these peripheral voices, emboldened to speak precisely by not bearing the burden of the novel’s focus.  At the same time, by promoting these extras and crafting the book from their summarized stories, she dodges the embarrassing task of “having them do things.” In one representative section, the narrator, teaching a creative writing workshop, thinks while gazing out the window at a cloud:  “I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it.”  The workshop continues without her instruction, digressing from a student’s appreciation of his dog, a Saluki, to a several page biographical account of the breeder from whom he purchased his dog, to a history of Saluki breeding and dog training, culminating in an philosophical riff regarding “the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one’s perceptions, but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level.”  Here, our narrator turns away from the window and asks another question that occasions two pages of reported introspection. This is extraneity elevated to art, an aesthetic choice that strikes me as perverse in several senses.  It is perverse in its effect, in the engrossing alienation it creates.  It also seems grandly perverse for an author reportedly hostile to fiction, and the artificial demands of invention it imposes on writer and inflicts on reader, to create a book from marginal anecdotes.  Read in this light, Transit can, at times, feel like an expression of this hostility, alerting the reader to the arbitrariness of story by telling dozens of arbitrary stories. It is also surprisingly effective.  The accumulation of peripherality works as both a critique of narrative, and as narrative in its own right.  Though perhaps narrative isn’t the word, exactly -- it’s more of a thematic scaffolding, as experienced by the exquisitely inert and receptive character at the center of the novel.  Her receptiveness is sincere, and in the end, I don’t believe that Transit is fundamentally an exercise in formal cleverness.  There is a generous spirit behind this storytelling mode, articulated elegantly in the last scene of the book: What mattered was to learn how to…see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth.  It was hard to do that while still believing in identity…just as it was hard to listen while you were talking.  I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible. And through this listening, what a reader hears, in the end, is philosophy.  I find these novels (a third in this loose trilogy is slated for release in 2018 or 2019) best appreciated as philosophical tracts, full of mini-disquisitions on subjects like representation, literature, authenticity, modernity, hate, anger, and love, among many others.  By the end, my reader’s copy was full of little colored flags marking places where I’d admired the clarity of Cusk’s perceptions, trains of thought worked fully through in her smooth and stylish prose.  Try this:  “The idea -- of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated -- was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.”   Or: He had come to the conclusion…that up to a certain point his whole life had been driven by needing things rather than liking them, and that once he had started interrogating it on this basis, the whole thing had faltered and collapsed…He was used to being with [his wife]:  once she was gone he was left with a need that could not satisfy itself because the cycle of repetition had been broken.  But he had started to realise that what he called need was actually something else, was more a question of surfeit, of the desire to have something in limitless supply.  And by its nature that thing would have to be relatively worthless, like [a] cheese sandwich, of which there was an infinite and easily accessible number. The peripheral narrative construction of Transit -- the feints and evasions and elisions -- is finally peripheral to the central pleasure:  spending time with the book’s animating intelligence.  The slipperiness of this intelligence -- the refusal to express itself in banalities like plot and conflict -- can be frustrating at times, but is also integral to its character.  It is a perceptual mode that is necessarily elusive, and it builds something up into the air like a tower that is all crossbeams, a tree that is all branches.

A Year in Reading: Mark O’Connell

Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal -- I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t -- but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.) But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned -- always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning -- for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness -- a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness -- and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading -- and abandoning.) Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand -- I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book -- but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity -- at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed. I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation -- two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She's inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way -- both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers. Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single -- and, crucially, female -- late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed. I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so -- a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. "Before inventors created engines to take the place of men," he writes, the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx -- these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age. An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it. The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 -- or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction -- who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders...Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen -- really for the first time in any kind of serious way -- to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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