I finished All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang on a Sunday afternoon at my local coffee shop. The sun bathed the high-ceilinged room in gorgeous light, and my cappuccino had me nicely buzzed. I was not going to cry for the beauty of the small book I held in my hand, nor for the sadness of time passing and friendships lost or changed, but I wanted to. I’d started Chang’s novel with the expectation that it would be a book about three poets in writing school and their magnetic teacher. It was about that–but only at first. The story spans many years, and many concerns, including what it means and takes to make art, and to love someone. It basically slew me, and I read it a second time a few days later, to get that feeling again.
Chang’s first year as the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was my last year there as a student. I was lucky to have her as my thesis adviser.
The Millions: I decided to read this book a second time soon after I had finished it, something I rarely–if ever–do. On my second read I saw so many more connections, echoes and motifs in the novel than I did on my first. The subjects and ideas that the novel is soaked in, poetry and love, yes, but also mortality and aging, marriage, and success, can be traced through all three parts. What’s introduced thematically in part one, when Roman, Bernard and Lucy are students at The School (and when Roman has his affair with Miranda), ripples through the entire book. These ideas deepen and complicate and change with each part, as the characters get older, and that development is stunning. How did you come upon this structure, and how did you conceive of each part, both on its own and in relationship to the other two?
Lan Samantha Chang: The structure came instinctively. After finishing my first novel, Inheritance, I was unproductive for a few years. I’d reached the end of a creative period. There was almost no desire to write, and when I wrote, the work did not feel vital. Then in summer, 2006, a 50-page sketch of this novel tumbled out in the space of two weeks. My husband Rob, a landscape painter, and I were living at a painting school on a small farm in France. I opened my laptop one morning and began a classroom scene, not knowing who the characters would be. The writing felt unusually urgent and went at a feverish pace. By the end of our two weeks in France, the sketch contained the dance and graduation scenes from Part One, the final scene between Roman and Lucy in Part Two, and the final scene between Roman and Bernard in Part Three. I had a strong sense of what I’d need to fill the white space, but wasn’t entirely sure. I put the work aside.
Then two years went by when I didn’t touch the sketch. I felt the subject matter was esoteric and controversial. Although the story isn’t about writing programs, it begins in a program setting. I assumed many readers would not see beyond their own opinions about the setting in Part One. Moreover, the work felt very private, and I had started two other projects that seemed more socially acceptable. I’d also fallen, suddenly, into mid-life, with its responsibilities: my new job as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was demanding and, to complicate things, Rob and I had a daughter in 2007. After she was born, I realized I would not be able to get creative work done without taking a leave from work. The next year, I was fortunate to be given a Guggenheim Fellowship, enabling me to do so.
There’s something about having a family and full-time job, about always being aware of the needs of others, that can give the act of writing an illicit, desperate feeling. Every hour is bought by denying other people. During the Fellowship period, I tried for weeks, then months, to work on the two “more acceptable” projects, feeling more and more frantic. I got nowhere. Finally, my husband suggested I spend just one month of this precious time on the poets’ manuscript. During the month, I set up Bernard’s visit in Part Two; I wrote the long flashback between Roman and Miranda. Then I gave myself “just one more month” and wrote the long scene, set in the parking garage, between Roman and Bernard. The project had taken on, for me, the feel of a guilty secret. The hours of work were intense and concentrated, with very little time to doubt what I was doing. I was spending precious fellowship time on a story that gave me enormous pleasure, but one I assumed no one would ever want to read. When I had finished a draft, in fall 2008, I showed it to a good friend and then to a former teacher. They told me to keep going.
I see I haven’t answered your question, which is about the form of the novel. The form grew organically from the story. I wrote the story for my own pleasure, and I put it together entirely on instinct. I hardly tinkered with it and I never doubted it.
TM: In the past year or so, I’ve also interviewed Michelle Huneven and Jennifer Egan, whose recent novels, like yours, depict the passage of time in ways that have startled and moved me. What went into covering this much time passing. How thrilling was it compress whole years into a single sentence? Did you realize this would be necessary before you began writing?
LSC: I wanted to write about characters whose adult lives’ defining moments took place in relatively concentrated sequences. To portray those defining moments required skipping a lot. I did take great pleasure in the leaps through time, as I was writing; there was a thrill in the ruthlessness of it.
TM: The language of this book is beautiful in its simplicity and there’s an elegance that comes with the slightly elevated third person perspective that’s able to distill consciousness in crisp, perfectly-articulated phrases. What was your approach to the sentence-making in this book? Since you were writing about poets, did the poetry of the language seem more important than usual?
LSC: I’m personally convinced that the authority of the “slightly elevated” third person comes from my having learned to write in the voice of “Workshop Director.” In the last five years, the University of Iowa has gone through a budget crunch, and I had to write a lot of documents in order to protect our program’s funding. It was imperative that I learn to write in a third-person voice with a weight of authority behind it.
It was not a goal to write poetically; the poets I know are so far beyond me in that arena that I tried to capture only their desire to write beautifully. But I do think there was a special pressure on the language in this project, a pressure related to its brevity.
TM: Bernard is such a compelling character to me. In Part Two, Roland observes in his friend’s gaze: “that startling blue clarity, veering toward judgment, which Roman, feeling weary, now recognized as the extremity of innocence.” Throughout the novel, Bernard is a figure of purity, an artist who labors in the pursuit of truth until he reaches what Roland calls “a piercing clarity of feeling” in his poetry. Bernard contrasts with Roland, who is so ambitious, and doubtful about his own work, and often quite selfish. How did Bernard’s character emerge for you?
LSC: During the composition of the first classroom “bludgeoning,” Bernard appeared in his red tie, quoting Emily Dickinson. I was happy, even relieved, to find him. (I’d been writing from Roman’s point of view, sitting inside Roman’s malcontent.) Bernard’s “purity” felt familiar to me. In graduate school, we used to sit around asking ourselves, “If you had the choice between writing several decent books, and writing one great work, which would you choose?” Bernard would choose the one great work. Implicit in our discussion was another question: What would have to have sacrificed one’s life in order to make that work?
TM: Roman is also compelling to me: unlikeable, incredibly vulnerable, and often utterly devoid of self-knowledge. I was most interested in his relationship to women in this novel. Was that a big part of creating his character? What do you make of Roman, both as a man and a poet?
LSC: Roman is Roman. I can’t critique him or his relationships to women.
I wanted to write about a powerful feeling I’ve had as an adult: the sense of becoming aware of a truth long after it was too late to do anything about it. This feeling, akin to waking up after a dream, is central to my experience, and it seems to come after periods of great blindness, or lack of attention—periods that can last for decades. If anything, Roman’s defining quality—his awareness of his own desires, his needs, and the consequences of his actions far too late—requires that he be self-involved, also inattentive.
TM: Early on, Miranda tells her class that “few outside our world read the poetry that is written.” Nowadays, this could be said not only of poetry, but short stories, maybe even literary fiction in general. I certainly felt a connection to these poets, even though I myself am a fiction writer. Why did you decide to write about poets and poetry? Was it a big leap from your own process and struggles as a prose writer?
LSC: At the risk of making gross generalizations: The lives of poets seem to distill and illuminate many of the questions all writers face. Because poets never write for money, the art-vs.-life choices they make are brought into sharp relief. Most of the poets I know are keenly aware of mortality and survival, they know we are all living on the edge of an abyss. This awareness brings them joy, and anger, and the ability to see clearly. Poets are the canaries in the coal-mine of our collective consciousness.
TM: Much of this novel is concerned with the question of whether poetry can be taught, and what makes a good teacher of poetry. It also considers the ways we become poets beyond instruction in the classroom—be it through romantic relationships, friendships, suffering, loneliness. You studied writing at Iowa and have been the director of the Workshop for a few years now. Do you have a particular philosophy of teaching or a way of considering writing in the classroom?
LSC: Every workshop is different, and what works well in one classroom conversation fails utterly in another. I don’t have a set philosophy about teaching, but more of an awareness that things are always shifting in the world and in the classroom, and that over the years it is the instructor who must adjust. At Iowa, I’m also highly aware of the limitations of teaching. The students are so gifted that the sources of their creative leaps, and of their periods of productivity, are internally discovered as much as they are externally provided. Why does one strong writer fail to grow, and how does another find discipline? It’s certainly not something over which I, as the instructor, have much control. Sometimes I feel I might achieve the same results as I do now if I were simply to gather my students and feed them chicken soup. I do see things very differently as an instructor than I ever did as a student. I’m aware now of the instructor’s vulnerability in a way I never was as a student. I’m fascinated by the academy’s current discourse about power dynamics that assumes the instructor holds all the power. It’s been my experience, as a teacher and director, that the students hold much more power than this discourse allows.
In 1936 the University of Iowa became the first school in the United States to offer a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. Forty years later there were only a dozen such programs in the world. Today, according to an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine entitled “The MFA Revolution,” there are nearly 200 creative writing MFA programs worldwide, and at least 4,000 aspiring writers apply to these programs each year in the U.S. alone. “What is clear,” the article concludes, “is that the burgeoning network of fully funded MFA programs is rapidly becoming the nation’s largest-ever patronage system for young artists.”
Whenever the words “patronage” and “artists” appear in the same sentence, questions must be asked. Is this mass patronage system a boon for American fiction, or is it a poison pill? Do creative writing programs nurture genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? And more broadly: Just what good does schooling of any kind do for a writer?
In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl points out the “seemingly banal” fact that virtually all contemporary American fiction writers have attended college. “In previous generations this would not likely have been the case,” McGurl writes, “both because fewer individuals of any kind went to college before the postwar advent of mass higher education and because a college education was not yet perceived as an obvious…starting point for a career as a novelist. Rather, as the un-credentialled, or rather press-credentialled, example of the high school graduate Hemingway makes clear, the key supplementary institution for the novel until mid-century was journalism.”
In a dazzling essay in the London Review of Books called “Get A Real Degree,” the brainiac Elif Batuman deftly fillets McGurl’s claim. “According to the internet,” she writes, “writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years.” In a footnote she lists dozens of writers, from Balzac to Joyce to Graham Greene, and the universities they attended. She concludes: “I have been able to find only a handful of famous novelists who, like Hemingway, avoided university in favour of journalism.” She names Defoe, Dickens and Twain. (The deftness of this filleting job is greatly enhanced by “according to the internet” – sly shorthand for “as any high school sophomore with a laptop could have found out.”)
Batuman, a Harvard grad with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, argues persuasively that the problem is not that virtually all American fiction writers go to college and that growing numbers of them then go on to grad school; the problem is that they study the wrong things. She comes down squarely in favor of writers studying literature as opposed to studying how to make fiction. After conceding that the creative writing program is equally incapable of ruining a good writer or transforming a bad one, she asks: “Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?”
One result of the creative writing boom, according to McGurl, is that MFA grads are producing “more excellent fiction…than anyone has time to read.” Which, according to Batuman, is precisely the problem: “That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?”
McGurl’s spurious claim about the place of college and journalism in writers’ lives brought back my own experience as a young man trying to figure out a way to reconcile my urge to write with the need to make a living. As it turned out, college and journalism figured largely in the solution.
I went directly from high school to Brown University in the fall of 1970 because that was what was expected of me, the grandson of a distinguished professor and son of a college graduate who became a newspaperman and then a successful Detroit auto executive in the post-war boom years when all Detroit auto executives were successful and almost always sent their children to college. I knew even then that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and so in my freshman year I was thrilled to win a coveted spot in a course called “Writing Fiction” taught by the late R.V. Cassill, who had just published a fat bawdy novel about the Profumo scandal called Dr. Cobb’s Game. The things I remember most vividly about Cassill are that he wore a beret, he chain-smoked Gauloise cigarettes, and he tried to seduce my girlfriend. I guess he was part French.
His weekly classes – now they’re called “workshops” – were torture, a dozen bright sensitive kids sitting around a room tearing apart each other’s stories and egos. In the requisite end-of-semester written summary of my performance and prospects, Cassill needed all of eight words to cut my heart out: “Mr. Morris works hard but possesses limited talent.” I haven’t set foot in a creative writing classroom since.
Cassill’s evisceration did have one positive result. It made me realize that since college couldn’t teach me how to write, I would have to teach myself. I would have to keep reading copiously, of course, but I would also have to live, to gather “experience” I could write about. I was still under the spell of the worst advice anyone ever gave an aspiring writer: Write what you know.
So I dropped out and took off, traveling cross-country and working jobs as a farmhand, racehorse groom, dishwasher and fruit picker while writing an apprentice novel that achieved the one thing such exercises can be asked to achieve: it gave me the courage to keep writing. In time, my resume would grow to include jobs as a bartender, New York City bicycle messenger, telemarketer, porn actor and Nashville disc jockey. Always I was writing on the side, only rarely about my personal experiences.
It wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand that “experience” was beside the point. It was Flannery O’Connor who set me wise. “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she wrote in a collection of essays called Mystery and Manners. “If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
One hot dusty day I found myself high up in an apple tree in Sonoma County, California. As I twisted a fat green Gravenstein apple off a branch and laid it gently in my canvas shoulder bag – “Treat ’em like eggs,” was the foreman’s mantra – a voice whispered to me: Do you really want to do this kind of shit work for the rest of your life? I knew the answer. No, I wanted to be a writer, which meant I needed to find a way to get paid to write while continuing my apprenticeship as a novelist. I needed to get a newspaper job. Which meant I needed to get a college degree.
So after a two-year hiatus I went back to school, where I studied whatever interested me – geology, drawing, French novels, Russian history, Italian neo-realist movies, anything but creative writing. I also put together an independent-study project – I spent my senior year researching the history of the city of Providence and writing a book-length monograph. With an eye toward life after graduation, I published a handful of articles in the student newspaper. School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth; and it would not have happened without the guidance and support of inspiring teachers, access to magnificent libraries, and every student’s most precious gift, free time.
When I finally graduated, Nixon had recently flown away in disgrace to San Clemente and every swinging dick in the land ached to be the next Woodward and/or Bernstein. It was a buyer’s market and I was selling untested goods. I spent nine months roaming up and down the Eastern seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, pounding on doors at podunk newspapers and listening to one editor after another tell me: “Come back when you’ve got some experience.” It was all I could do not to shout at them: “How the fuck am I supposed to get any experience if nobody’ll give me a job?!” Finally the publisher at a small Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania backwater gave me a shot – a job covering local school boards for $140 a week, and don’t even think about asking for overtime pay. Of course I jumped at it.
I’m convinced I would not have gotten even that dismal job offer if I hadn’t possessed a college degree. I still recall the job interview, the way the publisher’s eyes got big as dimes when I told him I had a bachelor’s degree in English from an Ivy League school. The days of Defoe, Dickens, Twain and Hemingway were long gone by then. A college degree was a bare-bones requirement for even the lowliest cub reporter’s job, and in retrospect I can’t say that that turned out to be an altogether bad thing. Newspaper writing flourished from the 1960s until the Internet caused newspaper executives to commit mass hari-kari beginning in the 1990s. (For a hilarious gloss on this unpretty group suicide, I refer you to Jess Walter’s novel The Financial Lives of Poets.) I worked on daily newspapers off and on from 1976 until 1996, and I became so convinced I was part of a golden age that I deluded myself into believing it was destined to last forever. But even during those golden years – or, rather, that long twilight – there were gruff, unsettling voices of dissent.
One of the loudest belonged to Lewis Grizzard, a booze-marinated Atlanta columnist who made a fortune writing best-selling comedy books that trafficked in the author’s cracker upbringing and his disdain for anything that smelled of sophistication, including college graduates, feminists, Yankees and anyone who could write grammatical sentences of more than eight words. A typical Grizzard book title was Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.
Grizzard had a lucrative side career as a lecturer and stand-up comic, and I remember being sent to cover one of his performances at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. This would have been in the early 1990s, when Grizzard’s fame was at its peak, shortly before the booze and a faulty heart ganged up to kill him at the age of 47. That night in Durham, inevitably, he got off on the topic of how newspapers had gone to hell. Why, reporters wrote on whispering machines called computers instead of on clattering manual typewriters! Newsroom floors were spongy carpet instead of creaky hardwood! The green eyeshades and spittoons were gone – and, by implication, so were the pints of sour mash in bottom drawers! To top it off, newsrooms were crawling with college boys – and, sweet baby Jesus, college girls! (Grizzard’s spiel conveniently omitted the fact that he held a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia.) “When I walk into the average newsroom today,” he moaned, “I don’t know whether to write a column or ask if I can take out a loan.” Of course the audience lapped it up like corn liquor.
Grizzard was not alone in lamenting the passing of romance from the newspaper business, the death of the supposed good old days of “The Front Page” and “Get me rewrite, sweetheart!” What the nostalgists failed to realize – or admit – was that most American newspapers before the mid-1960s were dreadful, full of factual errors, dry writing and dreary layouts. Those computers and college educations Grizzard despised so much helped produce the best written, best edited and most visually attractive newspapers in the history of American journalism – not to mention the flowering of magazine writing, non-fiction books and the uneasy but fruitful marriage of fiction and journalism by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Marshall Frady, Gay Talese and many others. Computers and college educations didn’t kill the American newspaper; on-line car ads and real-estate listings and classifieds did, with a generous assist from newspaper executives who were pie-eyed drunk on years of artificially fat profits.
Furthermore, those newsroom Hemingways with their high school diplomas and their hip flasks were, for the most part, hacks. I know this, second-hand, because my father worked on newspapers in the 1940s and ’50s and he told me stories. The exception who proved the rule, according to my father, was a colleague at the Washington Post in the early 1950s. His name was Al Lewis and he was a legendary police reporter – even though he was barely able to write English prose. He and my father collaborated on a series of articles about a D.C. racketeer that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. That is, Lewis did the legwork and my father, a fine writer and lightning fast typist, did the writing. Lewis’s street smarts wouldn’t have amounted to much without a college boy like my father to distill his raw knowledge into readable prose. It was Al Lewis, incidentally, who broke the story about a break-in at the Watergate complex in the early hours of June 17, 1972.
So I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today. Flannery O’Connor graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent some time at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and neither experience bleached the color, the humor, the horror – the felt life – from her fiction. Sometime in the early 1960s she wrote: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher… In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”
Elif Batuman adds in her essay: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA grad leaves Stendahl in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”
As if to prove their point, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a review of a slim new novel called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang. It’s a story, according to the review, of the paths followed by “two budding poets” who come together at “a prestigious unnamed writing school in the Midwest.” Chang, the reviewer notes, is a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been its director since 2006; she has received fellowships from Stanford, Princeton and Radcliffe; and her new novel poses “provocative” questions: “What is the relationship between talent and craft, genius and mediocrity? Can writing be taught? Does anyone ever improve? Yet the central characters in All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost are neither mad enough, wise enough nor even, so it seems, well-read enough, to dare answer them.”
It’s bad enough that Chang has written about a cloistered world she knows too well. It’s worse that her story is one that you almost certainly can’t bring yourself to care about. What’s worst of all by far, though, is that her characters are not even well-read enough to answer a bunch of inane questions. Apparently they’ve been too busy at their prestigious writing school studying adverbs and themselves.
Like Elif Batuman, I’ll pass. School can’t kill writing. But who, indeed, has time to read such books?
New releases this week: All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang, “a writing-school success story” according to the New York Times in its review, Obama’s Wars, the latest book by legendary reporter Bob Woodward, Listen to This, a collection of essays published by music critic Alex Ross during his 12-year career at The New Yorker, and (almost new) is David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, as reviewed by Rayyan Al-Shawaf for The Millions.
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.