Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike talk about how it feels when your favorite authors let you down. Discussed in this episode: Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, denial, grief, bargaining, the Rabbit Angstrom books, Roger's Version and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike, Radio On: A Listener's Diary by Sarah Vowell, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer. Not discussed in this episode: Alice Munro's disappointing short story collection, The Cottage by, I Don't Know, Let's Say, the Pond or Something.
As I write this, I’m listening to the new Beach House album. This is not because I like the new Beach House album (although I do), or because it gives me the chance to say so, thus making me sound slightly cooler (although it might, in a desperate sort of way) or because I’m plugging the record (although it is great, if you enjoy the band’s drunk-on-a-beanbag effect). I’m listening to it because I’m writing -- an activity that for me, in recent years, has demanded musical accompaniment. Far from being a background diversion -- something to make kitchen chores a little less soul-killing -- I’ve come to believe that the music I listen to while writing bears a definite, if ineffable, relationship to the words that wind up on the screen. This paragraph might not carry the woozy dreaminess of a Beach House song -- but how would it have sounded if, while typing, I’d been listening to Public Enemy? Or Def Leppard? Or nothing at all? In 1999, Nine Inch Nails's The Fragile was released to a flood of media attention. This was when a new CD could seem like a cultural event, and, as such, though I didn’t particularly care about Trent Reznor, I read dutifully about the album. And although I’ve largely forgotten The Fragile -- I think it gave me a headache -- one nugget from its publicity blitz has stayed with me: Chuck Palahniuk was quoted as saying that he listened to Nine Inch Nails as he wrote Fight Club. I remember being sort of shocked by this, not because it didn’t make sense -- one can certainly picture Palahniuk in a dim little room, gritting his teeth at the monitor, bashing out his story as Reznor screams at him -- but because until then, I’d thought of writing as a monastic pursuit. Writing, to me, was Philip Roth in a cabin somewhere, the only sounds the tapping of his fingers and the wind rushing through the trees. That was the ideal. To write, you needed calm, and for calm, you needed silence. Perhaps the image of Palahniuk mustering a novel against the shriek of industrial noise helped to change my view. Because not only do I no longer believe it, I’ve gone in the opposing direction: music is now as central to my writing as an idea and a comfortable chair. I now feel almost unhinged if I try to write without something playing to whisk my mind along. Music has become a brace that props up my thoughts, fences them off, prevents them from slipping away. Silence has come to feel like an unfamiliar field, with too much space to roam. Along with Beach House, Boards of Canada -- makers of beat-driven, dystopian electronic music -- has lately been my brace of choice. Such sounds somehow hem me in and push my focus outward, into whatever I’m writing. When I need less help, some sort of jazz usually does the trick -- with something buoyant like Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts scores reserved for the easiest days. Which brings me back to my original question: what is that music -- Boards of Canada’s creepy soundscapes, John Coltrane’s hard bop, Snoopy’s dancing tunes -- doing to the words? I went online in search of answers, and was at first encouraged by what I found. A number of sites have devoted space to the topic, with pieces ranging from the listy (“10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse”) to the self-helpful (one Goodreads thread, “Listening to Music While Writing,” sits under the “Struggling Writers” heading). There are endless suggestions for albums that will not only “summon the muse,” but keep her with you: In a Silent Way, Music For Airports, anything by Philip Glass. No mention of Nine Inch Nails. The cumulative effect of these posts was the feeling that, with the correct music, you can become the next Joyce Carol Oates, effortlessly meeting your daily quota of words. It’s a tempting narrative, and one that fits with the Internet’s culture of simple solutions: If you’re having trouble with that short story, just put on some Brian Eno. Your latent genius will be unleashed. But mixed in with all this good feeling were numerous studies and papers the results of which were both consistent and surprising. A New Jersey Institute of Technology study found that “background music significantly disrupted writing fluency, even though no response to the music was required.” The explanation: “music may increase cognitive load because the brain has to handle the additional information.” A University of Windsor study found that its subjects’ “time-on-task was longest when music was removed.” Another, from Indiana State University, on the “Mozart Effect” -- the idea that classical music can somehow boost intelligence -- found that “playing background music in the creative writing class had a significant improvement on the student’s behavior, but not a significant improvement on the student’s writing.” In other words, music can provide the inner calm that I used to imagine in my Philip Roth fantasy. It just won’t help me write the next American Pastoral. Time’s Annie Murphy Paul, in a synthesis of such studies, provided the most concise blow to my assumption of music’s benefits: “Playing music you like can lift your mood and increase your arousal -- if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks...when you need to give learning and remembering your full attention, silence is golden.” And on and on. If the science is correct, my Eno-loving peers and I may be deluding ourselves as to music’s utility. We’re most likely being too romantic. “Writing can get lonely,” a Quora contributor wrote, “but when Moby is in my ears, it feels like he’s on the journey with me.” It’s a charming sentiment. But maybe we’re being too eager to make an unappealing task seem less so -- the ice cream cone after the doctor’s office -- without any thought to the consequences. Maybe Boards of Canada is less of a brace and more of an anchor, slowing down a part of my mind that otherwise would be free. There’s no way to prove that the things I’ve written would have been better had they been written in silence -- but what if they could have been, even just a tiny bit? Though I’ll never know, it’s unsettling to think about. It’s equally unsettling, though, for me to picture a future in which I write in a totally quiet room, with no one “on the journey with me.” The idea is as unappetizing to me as Palahniuk’s habits once seemed. So what, then, to do? On the one hand, I have my habits and experience, my comfort with routine. On the other, studies that show that music is, at best, a nonfactor, and at worst, a hindrance. Hovering over both is the thought that I’m being unserious, the kid who can’t get a flu shot without the promise of a mint-chip cone. I’m not sure what to do. I’m now listening to Miles Davis’s Someday My Prince Will Come. I’ve listened to this album, while writing or reading, close to 200 times. It’s delicate and warm, gentle and easy. I’ve got the volume turned down low. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters. (Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.) There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite. The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby's equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing): Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth. My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general -- the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality. Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it. Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.” Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom...and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin: He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder -- and releasing it then like an explosion -- he seemed to us invincible. Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason. Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively: Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees -- he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it. It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– -- his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves. Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it. Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ -- which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible -- may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed). Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov -- truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction -- guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does: I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– -- quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note. I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency -- the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist -- they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity -- the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all -- it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you -- give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up -- take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty! See? It’s easy. Now everybody -- See Also: The End of the End: Writers on Last Lines Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
1. This year, to celebrate the centennial of the great Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, the University of Chicago Press published an early short-story collection previously unavailable in English. Rambling On: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab was written and published in the 1960s, a mid-career work bringing together some of his best short fiction, like “The Feast” and “A Moonlit Night.” In the final story, “An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of Gab,” written by Hrabal as part postscript, part manifesto, he writes, I’m a corresponding member of the Academy of Rambling-on, a student at the Department of Euphoria, my god is Dionysos, a drunken, sensuous young man, jocundity given human form, my church father is the ironic Socrates, who patiently engages with anybody so as to lead them by the tongue and through language to the very threshold of nescience, my first-born son is Jaroslav Hašek, the inventor of the cock-and-bull story and a fertile genius and scribe who added human flesh to the firmament of prose and left writing to others, with unblinking lashes I gaze into the blue pupils of this Holy Trinity without attaining the acme of vacuity, intoxication without alcohol, education without knowledge, inter urinas et faeces nascimur.(We are born between urine and feces.) Bohumil Hrabal was born near the beginning of World War I in Brno, in the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was raised by a gallery of colorful relatives, including an uncle who served as an early model for the gregarious and unscrupulous type that populated his later novels. His legal studies at Charles University in Prague were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Communists took over, he worked as a stage hand and industrial worker. He published one book of poetry in the late 1940s, but didn't publish fiction until he was 42. When he did begin writing stories and novels, his methods for composing fiction were radical. According to David Short, one of his translators, the Czech writer was a prolific cut-and-paste stylist. The expansive tone and patient rhythms of Hrabal's writing belies just how drastic his revisions were. According to Short, Hrabal uses “words unknown to anyone;” his cryptologisms still confound lexicographers. Married in 1956, Hrabal traveled between a co-op flat in a northern district of Prague and a chalet in the Kersko in central Czechoslovakia. He routinely fled the cramped Soviet-style apartment for the more idyllic countryside. A film adaptation of his novel Closely Watched Trains came out in 1967, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a high point of the Czech New Wave. According to the film historian Philip Kerr, Hrabal preferred the movie over his novel. Less than two years after the high point of his success, the Soviets invaded, removed the reformer Alexander Dubček, and initiated “normalization.” In post-normalization Czechoslovakia, his manuscripts were heavily censored by the publisher Československý Spisovatel. Nevertheless, Hrabal was being praised internationally as a prose master. He influenced Philip Roth and Louise Erdich. Roth, as the editor of the series Writers from the Other Europe, called Hrabal, in 1990, “one of the greatest living European prose writers” and it's difficult to imagine the barbed mania of Sabbath's Theater or the absurd feast scene in American Pastoral without Hrabal's earlier Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age or I Served the King of England. During the 1970s and 1980s, Hrabal was noticeably silent and did not sign Charter 77. In the cant of Soviet occupation, he “released self-critical statements that made it possible for him to publish.” He died in 1997, after falling out of a fifth-floor hospital window while feeding a cat. 2. “Ambiguous” and “ambivalent” are overworked terms in the critic's vocabulary, and vague. The words are accurate for Hrabal, though: a writer engaged with how meaning can shift in the telling and understanding of a story. He dramatizes story-telling (anecdotes, confession, harangue) and he also dramatizes interpretation. Hrabal is preoccupied with how a story can seem to change with an alteration of mood or perspective. How, to pick up a concept from Ludwig Wittgenstein, understanding is deeply aspectual. In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explained this concept of “seeing-as.” First, you see a man's face. Then, you might see a resemblance between the face and another face, a familial resemblance. You haven't seen the face differently, but an “aspect” of the face has “dawned on you.” You now see the face as resembling another face. Or take the picture of the “duck-rabbit:” Looking at the picture, you might see the “duck,” then see the “rabbit.” There's a cognitive shift between seeing the one and seeing the other. Nothing has changed about the picture. Wittgenstein writes, “I distinguish between the 'continuous seeing' of an aspect and the 'dawning' of an aspect.” Wittgenstein writes: “If you ask me what I saw, perhaps I shall be able to make a sketch which shows you; but I shall mostly have no recollection of the way my glance shifted in looking at it.” Produced in the Academy of Rambling-on, at the Department of Euphoria, Hrabal's fiction teases out these effects. His protagonists begin as typically superficial readers, who linger on those damaged surfaces or mordant anecdotes for a little longer than they're comfortable with. They glimpse briefly past the equivocations and the evasions. Finally, their tone becomes urgent and fraught, and their perspective begins to disintegrate. Translated by Short, the story “Friends” takes up what seems like a hopelessly trite premise, two handicapped friends who teach a friend a deeper life lesson: And the two friends each had their own truth, their moral fibre was so awesome that all who knew Lothar and Pavel, however slightly, if ever they were a bit despondent, if ever they began to wonder if life was worth living under such-and-such conditions, they’d all..., me too, when, at moments of such blasphemous thoughts, I think of Pavel and Lothar, I feel ashamed of myself compared to the moral compass that backs Pavel and Lothar’s view of the world. Drawing inspiration from the handicapped? A cliché, sure. Editors who draw a red line through each “batted eyelash” or “on the horizon,” though, would be well-advised to read Hrabal closely, because he understands how cliché eloquently obscures fatigue, despair, and tragedy -- writers who work under juntas and dictatorships are especially familiar with the sinister authority of cliches. Hrabal turns the cliché inside out toward the end of the story. The narrator accompanies them on a trip in which they are bizarrely hassled by a police officer who is interested in how well Lothar speaks Czech. He takes them home and then waits outside the house, watching the two men struggle up the stairs. I saw Lothar disappear from his wheelchair and then I saw him, like when soldiers crawl through hostile territory, haul himself up with his powerful arms one step at a time, dragging his powerless legs behind him...and then Pavel the same, by his elbows… and I saw how they both had to pause half-way, how though the trip to the pub hadn’t got the better of them, those twelve stairs had, and they had to summon all their strength, turn and turn about, to haul themselves up to the top. The protagonist Ditie, of Hrabal's masterpiece I Served the King of England, hides behind cliché, too. Ditie repeats the phrase, “how the unbelievable came true,” in the novel, by my count 12 times. But the narrator's trite expressions seem to gloss over his own moral dubiousness. One of the finest novels of the 20th century, I Served the King of England was written in 1971, only a few years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of President Dubcek from office. Shortly thereafter, Hrabal began working on the novel, a searing indictment of Czech complicity during World War II, with a protagonist that affects powerlessness and servility. After being inspected by Nazi doctors for his suitability to marry and procreate with a German woman, Ditie marries Lise. She brings him a suitcase full of stamps. “At first I didn't realize how valuable the contents were,” the narrator explains, “because it was full of postage stamps, and I wondered how Lise had come by them.” She explains to him that “after the war they would be worth a fortune, enough to buy us any hotel we wanted.” As the Nazis are losing battles, Ditie is mistaken for a resistance fighter -- according to his explanations, he is often mistaken for being much worse (a thief, a murderer) and much better than he actually is (an anti-Nazi fighter and activist several times). The interrogation becomes a happy accident, since his being targeted by the Nazis will gain him purchase as a subversive in post-war Prague. After being released, Ditie helps an elderly prisoner on a long journey to his home. “I was doing this not out of any kindness,” Ditie explains, while hesitating to return home, “but to give myself as many alibis as possible once the war was over, and it would be over before we knew it.” Though Ditie goes to great lengths to exculpate himself from the horrors of Nazism, his own alibi-forging strains credibility: how could he have married a woman like Lise and not recognized her involvement? Wouldn't the gaps and evasions in his story indicate a more significant crime? Is his confession more significant because of the large-scale omissions that seem implied? 3. Hrabal, following Joyce, offers up several instances of how mirrors and reflections can misapprehend our true selves, or how we can misapprehend ourselves in reflection. In Joyce's “Araby,” the narrator's reflection gives rise to misconceived feelings of piety and self-loathing. Hrabal picked up the theme in I Served the King of England. The main character becomes a waiter in a prominent hotel and becomes entranced by how pomp can elide one's own vulnerable identity: I saw myself in the mirror carrying the bright Pilsner beer, I seemed different somehow, I saw that I'd have to stop thinking of myself as small and ugly. The tuxedo looked good on me here, and when I stood beside the headwaiter, who had curly gray hair that looked as though a hairdresser had done it, I could also see in the mirror that all I really wanted was to work right here at this station with this headwaiter, who radiated serenity, who knew everything there was to know... Being a waiter requires Ditie to cultivate a kind of passive omniscience. The headwaiter, not Ditie, served the King of England. When a character asks how he knows that a couple is Bavarian, or how a customer likes his veal, the headwaiter simply says, “I served the King of England.” High Culture is another way Hrabal's protagonists conceal their motives. Like By Night in Chile's priest-critic, Ditie's confession is gilded with references to literature, culture, sophistication, but in stark denial of any moral purpose. The narrator of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age tells his employer, “Like Goethe, I have a weak heart and was more inclined to poetry, which slowed them down for a while.” Ditie is entranced by the rituals and culture of European decadence and hides behind them. After a lavish feast during which the exiled Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie honors him with a sash, the protagonist is accused of stealing a spoon. Devastated, he takes a taxi to a remote spot in the countryside. He laughs and tells the taxi driver he plans to hang himself. He says it impulsively, but saying the words propels him inextricably towards suicide. Seriously? The cab driver said, laughing. With what? He was right, I had nothing to do it with, so I said, My handkerchief. The driver got out of his cab, opened the trunk, rummaged around with a flashlight, then handed me a piece of rope. Still laughing, he made an eye in one end and ran the other end through it to make a noose and showed me the proper way to hang myself. Ditie stumbles into the stand of darkened woods. I made up my mind to hang myself. As I knelt there, I felt something touch my head, so I reached up and touched the toes of a pair of boots, and then I groped higher and felt two ankles, then socks covering a pair of cold legs. When I stood up, my nose was right up against the stomach of a hanged man. That reversal might seem familiar. Philip Roth re-imagined the scene in Sabbath's Theater, a novel deeply influenced by Hrabal. In that scene, the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath has gone to his mistress's grave to pay homage by writhing in the dirt and simulating sex. As he's approaching the grave, he sees another figure near the grave: When Sabbath saw Lewis bending over the grave to place the bouquet on the plot, he thought, But she's mine! She belongs to me! What Lewis did next was such an abomination that Sabbath reached crazily about in the dark for a rock or a stick with which to rush forward and beat the son of a bitch over the head. Lewis unzipped his fly... Roth follows Hrabal in a mode of amplified realism -- never magical but wryly attuned to absurdity -- and featuring narrators and protagonists whose appetites match their verbosity. Hrabal's palpable influence, acknowledged by writers such as Roth and Erdich, is a reminder of how vital his work has been to American contemporary fiction. 4. Months before the Velvet Revolution, at a time when the Czech Communist party was showing its frailty but its decline did not seem inevitable, Hrabal reported on Czech politics in early 1989, with excerpts appearing in the New York Review of Books. He wrote in direct, austere sentences, as if acknowledging that irony was giving way to deeper melancholy impulses: I walked down deserted Parizska Avenue. A police car quietly pulled up at the curb, a man got out and began quietly placing parking tickets on the windshields of illegally parked cars, then quietly the headlights turned toward Maison Oppelt, from the fifth floor of which Franz Kafka once wanted to jump, and then I stood all alone in the square. The place was deserted. I sat down on a bench and began to reflect...In front of me loomed the monument to Master Jan Hus. In his afterword to Rambling On, Václav Kadlec points out how Hrabal had begun to focus on longer fiction by the late 1960s, eventually leading to the triumph of I Served the King of England and Too Loud a Solitude. But Hrabal was a great short-story writer, whose works were strained with pathos, absurdity, and beauty. The stories in Rambling On also show a unique range, partly because in 1960s Czechoslovakia, he was able to experiment with theme and language more freely and partly because he is still deciding on a tone, a style, and a subject. Read the stories. Read the novels. Just read Hrabal.
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. 2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year? I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W >6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - P, C 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
A sure-fire way to irritate a short story writer is to ask if her stories could be turned into novels. But the stories in Molly Antopol’s debut collection, The UnAmericans, have such a deep sense of place and character, that it’s hard not to see them as novels in miniature. They are exceptionally diverse, set in the U.S., Europe, and Israel, and informed by Antopol’s lifelong interest in history and politics. Antopol estimates that each story took a year to write. This past fall, Antopol received the National Book Foundation’s 2013 “5 Under 35” award, which annually recognizes promising young writers. (Past winners have included Téa Obreht, Fiona Maazel, and Karen Russell.) Jesmyn Ward, who selected Antopol for the award, said of The UnAmericans: “It’s so rare to read a story collection — let alone a debut — that is this big, ambitious and brilliantly realized.” Antopol is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow who now teaches at Stanford University. I spoke with her last November, when she was visiting New York to receive her “5 Under 35” award. We met in a coffee shop in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where we shared a croissant and spent an hour discussing her new collection, the joys of research, her complicated admiration of Philip Roth and her simple love of Grace Paley. (The interview had been condensed and edited.) The Millions: This book is informed so much by your family history. Can you tell me a little about your background? Molly Antopol: My family from way back is from a village called Antopol in Belarus. I come from this family of storytellers and they would tell stories about everything in their lives and so the stuff that I mostly heard about growing up, probably because it was the most present, was their involvement in the Communist Party, and what it was like for my grandparents to live under that much surveillance and to be arrested and to be on list after list. And so those were the first stories I was interested in, before I was even aware of what I writing about thematically. When I was in Israel, I wound up at this party where I met this woman from Antopol, who had known my family way back. I had never known that family and never known those stories from this village. She led me to this enormous book that basically sort of mapped out the village of Antopol, this place that was sort of mythic to me, and I was able to fill in a lot of spaces. And once I knew I was seriously working on these stories I just started applying for every grant I could get to Eastern Europe. Whenever I could I would travel and do research. TM: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? MA: Probably when I was a kid. My mom has all these stories of me being a really nerdy kid. I was an only child and I would write my way into books, like I would imagine that I was a sibling in the books. But I think I just never thought anyone could be a writer. I knew no writers growing up. It seemed like this total pie in the sky thing. It would be like being an astronaut. I really thought I wanted to be a psychologist or a social worker. So when I was in Israel — actually, before I started living in Israel — I was doing union organizing. That’s very much like the family business. Everyone in my family was doing political stuff so it just felt easy to slip into that. I was working for United Farm Workers and I thought I would do that and just write on the side, but every time I got a little more room to write, whether it was through a fellowship or graduate school or whatever, I just found I wanted all that time, and so it just sort of ballooned out that way. TM: And so how did you decide to write fiction as opposed to nonfiction? MA: I write some nonfiction. I’ve done some radio stuff and I really like writing essays. But even as a kid fiction was what I loved to read, and even as a kid it was stories. I think I’ve always had this sort of deep love for short stories and so I’ve never really questioned it. I’ve had so many people say, "Oh, could you turn this story into a novel?" Because everyone wants to ask every story writer that. But to me, stories are this perfect beautiful form. TM: I loved your stories. I’d like to describe them as miniature novels, but that’s not it exactly. They’re very compressed with a lot of exposition, but it doesn’t feel like exposition, it’s just pure storytelling. MA: Thank you. That was something I worried about, because I think that, especially since I’d been in these writing programs, oftentimes the models are these 12-page, single-scene stories where everything takes place in a kitchen or a car ride, and I really love those stories and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to write that story, and I just can’t. I had this real fear, for years, that I wasn’t doing it right. That they weren’t novellas or these tight poetically compressed stories, so what were they? Honestly — and this is advice that I give my students but it took years to take it myself — you have to go to your favorite writers and let their work teach you. I started to read Alice Munro, and her stories are long, and there’s so much exposition. Or Deborah Eisenberg or Edith Perlman. There’s this group of people who take their time. And that was really helpful to me. TM: You’re working on a novel now. How is it different from writing short stories? MA: So far it’s been really enjoyable — although everything kind of is for me in the beginning. I like getting into the world. But I do feel like it’s coming naturally because I’m allowed to move into every piece of backstory that I want to. TM: And what’s the novel about? MA: It’s called The Afterparty and it’s set in Israel right after the fall of communism. It follows a dissident from Eastern Europe who is being groomed to become this political celebrity in Israel, because of what had happened in Europe. It’s about how that level of ambition is affecting his wife and his family. TM: What inspired it? MA: I have no idea! I never have any idea what inspires anything. I read a lot about politics and have been interested in it. But at the same time I’ve been very aware of not wanting to become a “political writer” that would be in any way didactic. I love the research. There’s a part of the book where a member of the Israeli secret police is following this guy because he’s coming from Russia and they were very suspicious of that. And so I’ve been interviewing people from the Israeli secret police and that’s just been totally fascinating. TM: You do a lot of research, all different kind of research, but when you finally sit down to write the story, how do you use it? MA: The way I do it, and I don’t know if this is right — and I read a ton of author interviews for advice, because I’m always like, someone’s going to have the magic key and then I won’t have to do as much work — but the way that worked for me, even though this takes a long time, is that I have to completely immerse myself in the world. That means watching all the films, reading as many books as I can, everything that I can find. And I read it all, but I don’t write about it or take notes. Once I’m finished, I try to take a break from it and then a couple weeks later the characters will start to percolate in my mind. By then I have the environment in my mind, so I can think about the characters and the situation. I want to know who is in the most complicated place in the situation and then I’ll see how the environment is informing their lives. TM: It’s kind of like an actor’s process, a little bit. MA: When a story is working, it feels like method acting. And I can tell when a story isn’t working — and those are the ones that didn’t make it into the book — because I’m still thinking so much more about the situation than the person. If the people aren’t living with me, then it doesn’t work. TM: How did this collection come together? MA: It was interesting. I didn’t want to finish the book until I felt like I had written from the point of view of men and women, young and old, American, European, and Israeli. It felt important to me as a writer to feel like I could do that. There are a lot of writers I really love who kind of have the voice that comes back over and over, and I admire that, but for me, that wasn’t the kind of book I was interested in writing. Some of the stories that didn’t make it [into the collection] felt like they were too much in companionship with another story. I also didn’t have any thematic ideas while I was writing. I just kept trying to write really different stories and to try different things. And I was like, oh my god, my book is all over the place and I don’t know what to make of it! And then Tobias Wolff — he’s been my workshop teacher at Stanford — said, "Oh, these stories are all about politics." It was so basic to him. But it had never occurred to me. Once I had that in mind I was able to move forward. I realized I was obsessed with the idea of legacies, the idea of devoting your life to something that means everything to you, but what happens when history changes and it has lost relevance? What does that do to everyone around you? And once I figured that out, I noticed it was happening in every story, even the contemporary ones, and that felt exciting, like it was a cohesive book. TM: Were there any stories that gave you particular difficulty? MA: All of them! I feel like whenever I talk to older writers, they say, "Every writer gets that gift, you get a story that just comes to you fully formed" and I’m like, that’s bullshit, I’ve never had that! Every one of those stories, probably from start to finish, was at least a year. One that was particularly difficult was the story, “A Difficult Phase” about the Israeli journalist who dates the recently widowed guy. I think what was hard for me was that the character was the closest to me, just in the fact that she was a youngish writer. And so I think I was just sort of sorting through a lot of my own stuff in that story. Which made it harder to write than some of these others where I could have a more omniscient sense of everything. TM: When did you know the collection was complete? What was your road to publication? MA: The book took me ten years to write. For a long time, I wrote with blinders on. I didn’t send my stories out and tried not to think about how the collection would come together. I just focused on trying to get each story to work the way I wanted it to. To back up, I had started these stories when I was in grad school living here. And then after graduate school I was still living in New York and I was massively broke. I think I had four jobs. Every time I’d get on my computer I’d be on Craig’s List looking for the next job, never writing. I was also teaching ESL at night. So everything in my life was just trying to figure out how to live in New York but not really how to be a writer. It was really fun, but it just wasn’t productive for me. Once I realized that, I thought about moving back to Israel because it’s cheaper there and I had enough job contacts. But then I found out I got the Stegner. So I thought, OK, this is amazing...this is such sacred time. I tried really hard to tune out any noise so I could focus entirely on the book I wanted to write, regardless of whether or not anyone would ever want to publish it. About three and a half years ago I showed an agent, Bill Clegg, some of my stories. I had only about a hundred pages ready to show him. That he wanted to work together was incredibly gratifying. Every six months or so, I’d send him a new story, and he’d give me comments and we’d go back and forth. He read my stories so carefully and thoughtfully, and didn’t seem concerned at all that he’d spent years essentially working for free. TM: What does it feel like now to be honored as a "5 Under 35" nominee, and with your book coming out? What does it feel like to have the blinders off? MA: It’s really great. To be honest, I think it’s just that writing is so lonely and this book was just so deeply personal. It was that book that I knew I had to write. And I kept telling myself that as I was working on it, because I wasn’t convinced that anyone would publish a bunch of historical stories about communists. I just kept telling myself, well that’s okay. I had so many talks with my friends where I said that’s okay, I have to do it for myself and not worry. And so the fact that it’s coming out and that people are interested is the most extraordinary feeling. TM: Let’s talk a bit about influence. I recently read a book about Philip Roth's work and I was wondering if he is an influence of yours. MA: I love Philip Roth. I’ve read everything he’s ever written. I completely agree with what a lot of people say about his depiction of women in some of the books. I mean, there have definitely been books where I think, wow, this is such a phenomenal book except for the fact that you clearly have an axe to grind and you’re pushing it through this specific character. That can be disappointing. But I’ve admired him since I first wanted to be a writer. He’s a writer that’s been in my head the whole time. He’s so idea and character-driven, so we have such a sense of politics and history and the society around the characters, but we’re also in the character’s head in the same time, and it’s just happening simultaneously. He’s also able to come up with these alternate realities for our society that I just think are just mind-blowing. I love The Human Stain, that’s my favorite, I love American Pastoral, I love The Counterlife. Those books are going to sit on my shoulders for the rest of my life. Even the ones that I love a little less, I’m still like, wow, who writes sentences like this? TM: Who are some of your other influences? MA: Grace Paley is my favorite writer. My love for her is deep. I grew up in this really political home and I remember when I read her for the first time in college, I had never read anyone who wrote about kitchen-table politics, about how it happens in the home and goes out into the neighborhood and the world. And also, I had never known of a writer who writes about the role of women in these supposedly progressive places, and she does it in this gentle and really loving way. James Baldwin is another favorite writer. He was big for me because when I first started writing I was worried, a little bit, about being sappy and sentimental and overly emotional and so I was trying to write these cool stories even though it’s totally not my personality at all. And then when I read him I thought, he’s writing just what he needs to write, it’s just pure emotion, it’s passion. And that alive-ness of his writing was so inspiring to me. Every time I’m stuck, he’s the one I read, and I think, this is what it means to write: to put everything on the table and just write about what you really care about.
I went to college in the late nineties, when any mention of Philip Roth was prefaced with the label "misogynist." As a result, I did not read him until I was out of school and attempting to catch up on contemporary fiction. I read Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus back-to-back, expecting to be at least mildly shocked by the subject of these two controversial-in-their-time books. Instead I was more startled by the difference in tone; Portnoy’s barreling comic monologue seemed to have nothing in common with the traditional realism of Goodbye, Columbus. How could this even be the same writer? I decided I had to read more Roth, misogynist or not, and I've been reading him ever since. I tend to go on Roth binges, reading three or four of his books in a row. Eventually I get worn out (his books, at least for me, require a lot of concentration) and I take a couple years off until say, the New York Times publishes a list of the best American works of fiction of the past 25 years and six of Roth’s novels receive mention. Or maybe a librarian friend tells me I have to read The Counterlife, that it’s secretly the best Roth, the writer’s Roth. Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound, a new critical study of Roth’s books, brought me back to Roth again, this time to Sabbath’s Theater, a novel that has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for several years. Pierpont has also persuaded me to take a look at a couple of Roth’s short late books, Exit Ghost and Nemesis. She’s an unabashed Roth enthusiast, so if you’re looking for a provocative critique that delves into the less flattering aspects of his career and persona, then this is not the book for you. But if you’re someone like me, someone who has read Roth on and off for years in a haphazard way, then this book may help to fill in the gaps in your understanding, both in the way it puts Roth’s work in a larger context (social, political, historical) and through its gentle (but astute) assessment of his books. Pierpont’s approach is straightforward: she reports on each of his books in chronological order, providing reviews of the books, summaries of their critical reception, and, when relevant to the book’s subject matter or creation, details from Roth’s own life. Roth and his books are her primary sources, and in her introduction, Pierpont explains that Roth Unbound began as an essay but turned into a book for two reasons: first, because Roth had written so many books, and second, because he was willing to talk to her about them for hours at a time. Pierpont’s access comes out of a long friendship with Roth, which began in 2002, after Pierpont, a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote an article about the anthropologist Franz Boas, someone Roth had researched while writing his (then) most recent novel The Plot Against America. Roth often writes letters to writers he admires, and in the case of Pierpont, it turned into a genuine exchange, with Pierpont eventually becoming a first reader of drafts of his novels. Pierpont’s previous book of criticism, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World, is a series of portraits of female artists, including Mae West, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Mitchell. It’s easily one of my favorite works of criticism, one that is especially sensitive to the particular obstacles female artists face. I would never have guessed that Roth would be the subject of her next book. But she is a good match for the material. In Passionate Minds, she marries biographical details to artworks in a way that illuminates both the artwork and the life, and she brings the same precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word. Roth’s last book, Nemesis was published in 2010, capping a fifty-year career, and one thing that makes Roth Unbound interesting is that Pierpont was able to interview Roth in the first years of his retirement. You can feel Roth’s reflective, relaxed state of mind as he looks back on his career, cataloging his regrets and triumphs. His regrets mostly fall in the realm of his personal life, most significantly his first marriage, which he believes held him back, emotionally and artistically, for most of his late twenties and early thirties, years Roth now views as lost. Another low point occurred in the late nineties, when his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, wrote a memoir that included a scathing account of her marriage to Roth. The memoir had, in Pierpont’s words, “a tremendous effect on Roth’s personal reputation — perhaps more than anything since Portnoy’s Complaint.” Published in 1996, Bloom’s memoir interrupted a peak moment in his career, coming shortly after the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995, and just before American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. In retrospect, Roth sees the two books as related, novels whose “essential subject” is the “vulnerability, even of the apparently strong.” He also describes the creation of each book as an “outpouring.” Roth’s insights into his own work are fascinating, but Pierpont’s are more instructive. She’s particularly good on describing his technique. I have always found Roth’s style difficult to grasp; is his prose playful or brutal? Is he telling a story or is he having a conversation? Sometimes he seems sentimental beneath his bluster, and at other times he seems determined to wipe every last bit of nostalgia off the face of the earth. Pierpont acknowledges these contradictions in her assessment: His style has always been hard to characterize beyond the energy and concentration, the uncanny capturing of voices...He distrusts extended description — the glinting observations of a surrounding world that give Updike’s work its texture — and seems ever wary of the risks of pretentiousness or of diffusing the pressure of the voice. The comparison to Updike is useful and one that Pierpont returns to several times in Roth Unbound. In one analogy, Pierpont likens Roth to Picasso, “the energy, the slashing power,” and Updike to Matisse, “the color, the sensuality”: The essential difference in their perspectives isn’t so much Christian versus Jewish, or believer versus nonbeliever, or small town versus city, although it involves all of these. As writers, their greatest virtues seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear. Updike was a painter in words...Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joke, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work. It’s this mix of voices that makes Roth such an exciting (and sometimes exhausting) writer. It’s also, I think, what makes him so vulnerable to criticism. Just as his prose isn’t clearly beautiful, (as Updike’s is), his opinions are not clearly delineated. He refuses to write about his convictions, only “the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.” In fact, Pierpont reports, “there is hardly anything he considers more crucial to his work...one of the great strengths (and sources of confusion) in Roth’s novels — as opposed to his political satire — is that he rarely takes an open stand. Countervoices clutter up every discernible argument, even shout it down.” The phrase “countervoices” is a reference to The Counterlife, Roth’s fifteenth novel, and one Roth considers a breakthrough, the book that taught him “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” Pierpont references it through Roth Unbound, as shorthand for the way Roth uses his fiction to explore the lives he might have lived, the people he might have been or known, and even the alternative histories he might have witnessed. It also alludes to the way Roth has truly lived through his work, devoting hours and days and years to the slippery task of putting his restless mind into books. There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts — his fiction — I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair. “No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.” I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.” I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties. Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant. “Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.” And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse. “I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.” “I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight. The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns. When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony. He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy...’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.” “Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage? It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it. “The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.” Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it. Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage...Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.” Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.” However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.” The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything. “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster. Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general. “I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood...But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998...I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.” “And the French love you,” I interjected. “I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn't issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”) He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he's not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.” As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.” “It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.” “That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived. I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried. Image credit: FNPI - Joaquin Sarmiento
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table. With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities. But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America? In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans. During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor's note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.] Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia). Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places - U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia - they might normally never visit. But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples. The New Yorker During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.” The Expat Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe -- is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone. The Soul Mate Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations? The Autobiographer Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency. The Poet Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris -- like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year. The Cowboy Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating. The Philosopher-Poets According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces... of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry -- a sort of win-win, all things considered. Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac. Image via christine zenino/Flickr
Like many people, I was saddened when it was publicized that Philip Roth had quietly announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine. By chance, the news came near the end of a year during which my attitude toward Roth changed from appreciation to obsession. Before 2012, I had read perhaps 10 of Roth’s books in a decade. This year, I read 15 Roth novels in a row, the literary equivalent of binge-watching multiple seasons of a serial television drama. The more I read, the more I appreciated how Roth writes not only with technical virtuosity and aesthetic mastery, but also with profound spiritual intent. In this way, he reminds me of the 85-year-old Japanese master chef portrayed in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At the top of their fields and now in their twilight years, both come across as men who vacillate between narcissism and humility, perfectionists for whom life is work and work is life. As a tribute, I offer the following 10 key ideas I gleaned from Roth’s work and career. I hope these inspire fans to revisit his books, detractors to give him another try, and newcomers to read him for the first time. 1. Work hard. With 31 books in 51 years – from Goodbye Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010), Roth cranked out copy like Danielle Steele, James Patterson, or Stephen King, not like a precious literary genius. He could have rested on his laurels in any of the last six decades, gone off the grid like Salinger, or found a nice sinecure at a writers’ workshop. But he just kept on writing. Roth was probably at the height of his powers in the late 90s and early 2000s, the years of the masterful trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) and The Plot Against America. But his recent books are equally elegant, the kind of short novels that demand to be read in one sitting. If you think you work too hard, think about Roth and think again. If you’re satisfied with your accomplishments, think again. Roth’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice each), the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times), and is the only writer to have his canon published by the Library of America while still alive. The protagonist of Everyman quotes the painter Chuck Close as saying “amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work." Indeed. 2. People are animals. Roth’s male characters cannot keep it in their pants. Their lives are filled with sex, mostly adulterous sex, mostly sex with younger women. His titles alone suggest carnality (The Professor of Desire), physicality (The Anatomy Lesson), beastliness (The Dying Animal), ejaculation (The Human Stain) and straight-up sex (The Prague Orgy). In his silliest novel, The Breast, a philandering professor David Kepesh wakes up to discover that he has become a giant mammary. For all the misery their lust causes them and their wives and lovers, these guys rarely seem to learn from – or apologize for — their peccadilloes. While these tales both celebrate and caution against lechery, they are not pornography. Roth’s books lack the soft-core aspect of Haruki Murakami or John Updike or Anne Rice sex scenes. Although many of his characters objectify and mistreat women, it’s reductive to call Roth a misogynist. If anything his characters love women too much, albeit in an oft-misguided way. As Roth writes in Deception, “With the lover, everyday life recedes.” Such characters’ urges seem motivated not by hedonism, but by the desire to slake needs, to find companionship, to stave off mortality. Following the classic writing teacher advice to take away your hero’s central desire – Roth makes his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman impotent, which only makes him hungrier for sex and more appreciative of its power. In a country where sex is still taboo, Roth’s embrace of such a core biological and psychological compulsion is not merely titillating or salacious, but refreshing. 3. We are alone and want to be known. Despite their busy bedrooms, Roth’s characters are often hermits, recluses, and lone wolves. His three major recurring alter egos – Zuckerman, Kepesh, and “Philip Roth” — are all lonely, as are many of his secondary characters, whether they are young, middle-aged, or old. Yet for all their solitude and secret lives and double lives, they still strive for the love of friends or mentors or heroes or parents or siblings or lovers. Throughout his work, Roth suggests that the deepest human longing is the desire to be known, not merely biblically, but intellectually, emotionally, and existentially. Yet we are all fundamentally mysteries to each other. As Zuckerman says in The Human Stain: “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Another character in the same novel speaks to the dilemma at the heart of Roth’s characters and perhaps of all humanity: “afraid of being exposed, dying to be seen.” 4. The flesh is weak. This is true for Roth’s characters not only in their lasciviousness, but also in their fascination with their own physical frailty and mortality. Like an episode of Law and Order or The Wire or Midsomer Murders, nearly every Roth novel features at least one death. His work is also filled with illnesses – cancer, strokes, chronic pain -- and a multitude of scenes at hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries. All this death – and the possibility of death — raises the dramatic stakes and adds to the existential malaise and weightiness. In The Human Stain, Zuckerman describes a crowd at a concert as “an entity of sensate flesh and warm red blood, separated from oblivion by the thinnest, most fragile layer of life.” And it’s not only old people who confront death. In Nemesis, a polio epidemic strikes kids. In The Plot Against America, the narrator’s adolescent cousin loses a leg in World War II. “The Life and Death of the Male Body” — a phrase from Everyman — seems to sum up Roth’s oeuvre. But it’s not all gloom. For all their physical frailty, Roth’s characters want to live, to love, and often, to write until their last breath. 5. Beware of ideology. In Roth’s world, personal tragedy and political tragedy go hand in hand and ideologies like communism, fascism, terrorism – and their antitheses — have deadly consequences. I Married A Communist is the biography of a radio host who falls victim to McCarthyism. The Plot Against America imagines an alternate reality where America flirts with fascism and Nazi Germany under President Charles Lindbergh. Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral is the story of a homegrown female terrorist. In The Human Stain, an aging professor battles with political correctness and professional persecution at the university as well as neo-Puritanism in the era of Clinton and Lewinsky. In The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman goes to Eastern Europe, where the secret police track his every move. And in many of his novels, Roth speaks of the horrors of a century of American militarism, from World War I and II to Vietnam and Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq. And according to a character in The Human Stain, human history consists of two types: “the ruthless and the defenseless.” Overall, the message seems to be that any mass political movement – on the left or on the right, radical or reactionary, secular or religious – poses grave danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A eulogy in The Human Stain celebrates “the American individualist,” suggesting that people are better off when they think for themselves. 6. Prejudice is alive and well. Along with his distrust of ideology, Roth’s fiction critiques the pervasive Anti-Semitism and racism in America. Roth’s protagonists are mostly secular or atheist or agnostic Jews, but they still identify as Jewish, and perhaps more important, others label them as Jews. Roth was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, a historical fact that lingers in his books. Sometimes it’s a major plot point, as in The Plot Against America, which includes forced resettlement of Jews, or in The Ghostwriter when Zuckerman meets a woman he believes is Anne Frank, or I Married A Communist, which links anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. Not that Roth spares Jews from his critical eye. The Zionist rabbi in The Counterlife and the rabbi in The Plot Against America who colludes with the Lindbergh regime are two of his most villainous and least sympathetic characters. And his narrators often vent their frustration with the strictures of Judaism. Zuckerman is often called a traitor for his fictional depictions of Jews. In Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator’s mother thinks he’s eating non-Kosher food in the bathroom, when in fact he’s masturbating. And there’s one aching moment in The Plot Against America where a young boy sees his mother on the bus through the world’s eyes: “It was then that I realized...that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes – my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn’t known.” In one of his finest books, The Human Stain, Roth adds the issue of racism through Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who “passes” as white and pretends to be Jewish to his family, friends, and colleagues. While overt anti-Semitism and racism may be less common in 2012 than it was in Roth’s youth – and an African-American is our president – Roth implies that we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on our tolerance. Given America’s history of racism and religious persecution and more recent treatment of Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constitutional claim that “all men are created equal” is more of a hope than a reality. 7. New Jersey is beautiful. There’s no deeper prejudice than the native New Yorker’s snobbery about New Jersey, a prejudice I share despite a dad from Hoboken, a girlfriend from East Brunswick, and a lot of time spent in the Garden State over the last two years. But let’s be honest. New Jersey deserves a lot of its bad rap: the traffic and toxic smells on the turnpike, the Guidos and Guidettes down the shore, the violence and poverty in Newark and Camden. Even the musical celebrities – Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi — are mercilessly cheesy. Yet in Roth’s eyes, New Jersey is beautiful, if not aesthetically, then emotionally. And as Roth points out in The Human Stain, New Jersey was originally called New Caesarea, a name surely suggestive of an empire. Not that Roth romanticizes Jersey: the squalor and decay of his once idyllic native Newark is recurrent, but he portrays it as a real place with complexities and contradictions, virtues and flaws. While his Jersey-born characters often escape to the culture of New York or the tranquility of the Berkshires, and Roth himself has lived in Connecticut and New York sine 1972, you can't take the Jersey out of the kid or the books. When he dies, I hope the state finds an appropriate way to honor him. No disrespect to Woodrow Wilson, Vince Lombardi, and Thomas Edison, but I hope it’s not the Philip M. Roth Rest Stop. Then again, it might be fitting. Like that quintessential Jersey car – the Ford Mustang — that first came out in 1964, back when Roth had only two books to his name — Roth is an American classic whose styles change, but is always recognizable as itself. 8. There’s a fine line between reality, fiction, and fantasy. Many writers blur the boundary between fiction and their own lives. Roth takes this to an extreme. His characters are writers, professors, and artists who might as well be writers, and even a recurring “character” named Philip Roth. (Fortunately, Roth has the good sense to focus more on their personal lives than their literary lives). His favorite settings include his native Newark, Chicago (where he went to graduate school), and the fictional Athena College, which reads like a small town New England fusion of the schools where Roth studied and taught (Bucknell, Chicago, and Princeton). Even his more outlandish premises (The Breast, The Plot Against America) are grounded in reality. While Roth may have some literary gas left in his tank, he’s clearly concerned with events of this world. There’s no danger of him writing Nathan Zuckerman: Vampire Hunter. 9. The Power of Three. Roth’s stories are filled with grace and grandeur, fast-paced plots, and high stakes drama. He writes both linear and non-linear narratives, often with seamlessly overlapping layers of memory and reflection. While he favors first person narration, he also experiments: deception is written entirely in dialogue, essentially a play without stage directions. And beyond his subject, there is the majesty of his prose, lush but never dense, intellectual but never pretentious. His sentences can be one word or contain 23 verbs, like a sentence in The Plot Against America. One paragraph in I Married A Communist uses the word betrayed or “betrayal” 23 times. And like a character in The Human Stain, his best friend seems to be the dictionary. Full analysis of Roth’s prose would take a dissertation, so I’ll look at one signature move. Open any page of Roth at random and you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one triplet. One word repeated three times in a single sentence. The same word in three consecutive sentences. A sentence with three nouns or three adjectives or three verbs. A sentence with three adverbs or three prepositions or three proper names. Three consecutive sentences that begin with the same word or phrase (anaphora). Three consecutive sentences that consist of a single word. Three consecutive sentences of dialogue. Three consecutive questions. And permutations and combinations of all the above. One of Roth’s favored techniques is to describe a character’s outfit in terms of three items of clothing. Even when he quotes other writers – such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Anton Chekhov — he uses passages that feature triplets. Roth mentions this technique in Exit Ghost, which confirmed my suspicion that he writes triplets on purpose. Yet despite its ubiquity the technique never gets stale, because Roth’s command of grammar, syntax, and punctuation – especially em dashes, colons, and semi-colons — gives him a seemingly limitless number of ways to write triplets. After I noticed the technique, I started marking triplets with a 123 in the margins – and then using triplets in my own prose (as you might have noticed). As Joan Didion once said: “Nothing is too heavy to lift.” 10. Know when to quit. Roth’s retirement announcement was not entirely surprising. Now a few months shy of his 80th birthday, he hadn’t published a book since Nemesis in 2010, and in Roth time, two years is an eternity. He also hinted at his literary exit in 2011, when he told The Financial Times: “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.” Then again Roth has read plenty of fiction, including all of his own, which is more than most people, myself included, can say. Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
While writing about the abiding appeal of one-word book titles here recently, I revisited an avatar of the breed, David Gates' Jernigan. This debut novel, which I'd discovered shortly after it was published in 1991, was even better the second time around – darker, sharper, funnier. The story is narrated by Peter Jernigan, a feckless, alcoholic New Yorker who takes his wife and their doomed marriage across the George Washington Bridge to the beckoning suburbs of northern New Jersey. There, surrounded by barbered lawns and the good life, they sink into a purgatory of booze and acrimony as their marriage and their lives unravel. While re-reading the book I stumbled on a 1995 New York Times article that argued, persuasively, that Jernigan spawned a new strain of American literature that once would have been a bad joke. This type of novel had been appearing sporadically for many years. but suddenly, after the appearance of Jernigan, it began to gather the force of a sizable wave. Since then the wave has become a tsunami. We'll call it The New Jersey Novel. Though it is one of the most densely populated and lavishly polluted states in the nation, New Jersey is not home to a single place that deserves to be called a city. Camden, anyone? Or how about Trenton, Newark, Elizabeth, Hoboken, Paterson or Piscataway? Or that chancre sore by the sea, Atlantic City? New Jersey also lacks the regional peculiarities that have nourished novelists in other parts of America – the urban thrum of the Eastern seaboard and the industrial Midwest, the magnolia murk and tortured history of the South, the soul-exposing vastness of the big-sky West, the sun-dazed sprawl of southern California. Instead, New Jersey has suburbs like the one Peter Jernigan retreated to, it has shopping malls, office parks, a seashore, some serious slums, and a thruway that slices through the world's juiciest petrochemical badlands. And, yes, the Garden State also has a few lovely bucolic pockets. But as David Gates and other novelists began realizing about two decades ago, these shortcomings are, paradoxically, the source of rich fictional possibilities. New Jersey's lack of defining character traits – its facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness – make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic – more soulless – by the day, a nation where regional signifiers have been sanded smooth by interstate highways, franchise restaurants, big box stores, shopping malls, subdivisions, all the strangling, interchangeable links of the corporate chains. In contemporary America, anomie is a moveable feast, and its template was exported from New Jersey. So what, beyond a New Jersey setting, makes a novel a New Jersey Novel? "The Jersey novel is all about a fruitless attempt at finding community," Michael Aaron Rockland told the Times. Rockland was identified as chairman of the American Studies department at Rutgers University and teacher of a class in something called "Jerseyana." "My whole notion of New Jersey is that we live in a never-never land, where we pretend we're living on a farm. The real centers of New Jersey are these office parks in the middle of nowhere. Life is not bad in New Jersey, not bad at all, but what every writer writes about is our trying to find a center in our lives." For the novelist Mark Leyner, who grew up in Maplewood, "New Jerseyness is a kind of vagueness. It's peculiarly indeterminate." For David Gates, New Jersey and New York City will be forever joined at the hip. From his home in upstate New York, Gates said by telephone, "The reason I set the novel in New Jersey is because I wanted Peter Jernigan to be in the place that's his worst snob's nightmare. Many New Yorkers sneer at the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. As part of his scheme for undoing himself, New Jersey would be the place with the least cachet." Aside from its lack of cachet, was there something else about New Jersey that spoke to Gates? "It's a state where I easily get lost," he said. "It's directionless. There's a kind of vagueness about it. And I was trying to stay away from Cheever's turf (in New York's Westchester County)." Which brings us to the question: Who wrote The Great New Jersey Novel? Here is my list of nominees – personal, random, and no doubt far from exhaustive: David Gates Peter Jernigan lives with his wife and their teenage son in a tract house with an aboveground pool on a quarter-acre of lawn in an unnamed New Jersey suburb. The place's lack of a name is, in itself, significant. They couldn't afford anything in Cheever country or farther upstate in New York, and the place they had to settle for is no palace. As Jernigan puts it: "This shitbox house of ours didn't have any back door – just a blank wall with a couple of small, high windows – so you had to walk all the way around the fucking garage to get into the kitchen through the breezeway. I couldn't imagine how the people who lived here before could have gone to the expense of putting in a pool – I hope you don't think we'd put it in – and then not bothered to put a lousy screen door on the back side of the breezeway so you could get out to it. Then again, we'd been here, what, ten years and hadn't bothered either." Like so many of his fellow Garden Staters, Jernigan must make the deadening train commute to a deadening job in New York every morning, then repeat the drill every evening. Here's Jernigan surveying his fellow home-bound commuters: "All the men looked like me. Human basset hounds in wrinkled suits. Except they were drunk, lucky bastards, from their after-work stop-off at Charley O's or something. Ties loosened, breathing through their mouths." In Jernigan's New Jersey the indignities can be as big as a split-level shitbox or as small as a trip to buy a gallon of gas for the lawnmower. Here's Jernigan watching the attendant do his job at a full-service gas station: "Here in the Garden State they actually don't allow you to be a man and pump your own; some union bullshit..." This atmosphere of vague disaffection sharpens when Jernigan's wife dies in a drunken car accident and his son starts dating a disturbed girl. A lot of the kids in Jernigan are disturbed; some are so disturbed they shoot themselves with needles or guns. When Jernigan starts sleeping with the disturbed girl's mother, a survivalist who breeds rabbits in her basement (for food), his descent hits full throttle. It bottoms out, at least for me, when he goes down to the bunny death chamber, presses the barrel of a pistol to the webbing between his left thumb and index finger, and squeezes the trigger. Why does Jernigan shoot himself? "To see what it would be like." What makes the novel great is that it's rooted in the vivid particulars of its place – the split-level, the pool, the commuter train, the rabbits, the gas station – and then it bursts out of its skin to say something universal about the harsh dignity of surviving, even if the survivor winds up, like Jernigan, in rehab, minus a thumb. Our peculiarly American hero, battered but unbowed, utters the novel's closing lines during a 12-step group therapy session: "But when it comes around to you, you have to give them something, if only name and spiritual disease. That's the rule here. So what I've figured out is this. I stand up and say: Jernigan." Jane Shapiro Jane Shapiro's debut novel, After Moondog, appeared a year after Jernigan. But beyond their age and settings, the two novels have little in common. Shapiro's narrator, Joanne, meets her future husband William on a New York street corner commandeered by a motor-mouthed homeless person in a silver Viking helmet named Moondog. Joanne and William marry, move to the New Jersey suburbs, and raise two children. The reason they did all this, according to Joanne, was to "deepen our sense of stability and own a small green lawn." Instead they get those durable staples of suburban life: extra-marital affairs and a divorce. We're a long way from Jernigan's split-level shitbox and his girlfriend with rabbits and a gun in the basement, but we're still very much in New Jersey. Junot Díaz Paterson, the inspiration for William Carlos Williams' masterpiece and the birthplace of Allen Ginsberg, will never be confused with the lush New Jersey suburbs. For this reason, among many others, it makes a fertile backdrop for Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Dominican diaspora, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which spins around the trials and strivings of a young Dominican nerd who reads Tom Swift and is drunk on comic books and science fiction. Díaz tells the story of his title character (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde) in a breezy, muscular vernacular. It's a story about the absorption of immigrants into the American middle class, and it's enriched by a vivid portrait of the monstrous dictator Rafael Trujillo these immigrants left behind in their homeland. It was wise of Díaz not to set his novel in New York City's better-known Dominican enclaves of Washington Heights or the Lower East Side. What could possibly be a grittier or more generic gateway to the American middle class than Paterson, New Jersey? Richard Ford Richard Ford's New Jersey Novel is actually a trilogy – The Sportswriter, Independence Day (the first novel to win both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and The Lay of the Land. All three revolve around what goes on inside the head of a New Jersey citizen named Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist who turns to sportswriting and eventually becomes a real-estate agent while weathering the storms of a young son's death, divorce, cancer, and the quiet dwindling of expectations. Frank Bascombe, like his home state, is a poster boy for the uncelebrated. "Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not to come at all," Franks says, in what has to be the most left-handed compliment any state ever received. Here's another of New Jersey's virtues: "Illusion will never be your adversary here." Ford, to paraphrase Emerson, seems to believe that literature consists of what a man is thinking about all day. The life that gets lived inside Frank Bascombe's head is, in the words of one reviewer, "unassuming, ordinary, sometimes dull." Perfect for New Jersey. Philip Roth There has been no shortage of artists mining New Jersey's marvels, heartaches, and horrors, from William Carlos Williams to Bruce Springsteen, the Feelies, the filmmakers Louis Malle (Atlantic City) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), and the writer John McPhee, who in 1968 published a non-fiction classic about the state's sandy midriff called The Pine Barrens. And let's not forget Tony Soprano or that adorable posse from Jersey Shore. But if the state has a home-grown laureate, it is surely Philip Roth. No writer has returned more frequently or fruitfully to his New Jersey roots, particularly to working-class Jewish Newark in the years before, during and after the Second World War. While it would be possible to argue that a handful of Roth's works qualify as The Great New Jersey Novel, I'm going to single out American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Roth's canvas is vast, ranging from Newark as a thriving industrial city to Newark as a wreck gutted by racism, greed, and fear. We see the bloody fruit of the disillusionment spawned by the Vietnam War, and we come to know the fictional hamlet of Old Rimrock, nestled in one of New Jersey's lovely bucolic pockets that looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War, the implausibly pretty place where the novel's hero, Swede Levov, is robbed of his perfect life. Rick Moody Rick Moody's first novel, Garden State, won a Pushcart Prize for its depiction of teenagers coming of age in the 1980s in a northern New Jersey hole called Haledon. They try to form a band, they do drugs, they light themselves on fire, they fall off roofs. It's all so New Jersey. The Feelies had a lot to do with the making of this dark novel. As Moody said in an interview (collected in The Pleasure of Influence): "I've always revered the Feelies and when I started writing Garden State I listened almost incessantly to this one record called The Good Earth. What I liked about it was it seemed like its ambition was to tell the truth about what it was like for someone in their twenties, sort of rattling around in the suburbs without particular ambitions to get any further than that. So it seemed to be true to me, sort of a true document. And that was what I aspired to do, in a way – add a sort of fictional analog to the record with Garden State." So the novel was written under the influence of the Feelies. That explains a lot. Richard Price Clockers, set in and around a thinly disguised Jersey City housing project, may be the most anthropological novel ever to come out of New Jersey. Its adversaries are Strike, the black leader of a crew of low-level cocaine dealers, and Rocco Klein, a burnt-out homicide cop looking for a little late-career redemption. Through them – through Price's dogged reporting – we learn an encyclopedia's worth of information about the warring tribes of street dealers and cops, their dress, language, working methods, scams, fears, hatreds, and occasional capacity for grace. Strike is a remarkable creation, a teenager who swills Yoo-Hoo to soothe an ulcer as he endures humiliations from every quarter – from his boss, his girlfriend, the cops, and the thing they're paid to serve and protect: white society. As one reviewer put it, "So much information is disseminated that by the end of the novel the reader feels more or less ready to investigate a homicide or start up a drug operation, or both." One thing the reader will not be ready to do is move into a Jersey City housing project. P.F. Kluge A New Jersey native, the prolific and under-appreciated novelist P.F. Kluge spent the summer of 1962 working as a newspaper reporter in Vineland. The time and place became the backdrop for his atmospheric novel about a band of early Jersey rockers, Eddie and the Cruisers, a paean to the glory days before the British Invasion, before Springsteen and Southside Johnny. The novel was made into a movie starring Tom Berenger and Ellen Barkin. Tom Perrotta In his first novel, The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta worked a minor miracle. His 31-year-old protagonist Dave Raymond is fitfully employed as a courier, still living at home with his parents in the New Jersey suburbs, still dating his high-school sweetheart, and moonlighting nights and weekends in a wedding band that gives the book its title. They cover hits from the '70s and '80s, including, yes, "Stairway to Heaven." Dave and his bandmates call each other "Buzzmaster" and "Daverino," and their lives are suffused with "the unmistakable odor of mediocrity." And yet – here's the miracle – Perrotta never condescends to these characters, or their New Jersey milieu, or their stubborn refusal to join the adult world. It's a remarkable achievement, drawing tenderness out of mediocrity. Few writers have the courage, the compassion or the skill to pull it off. Perrotta optioned his second novel to the movies before he could sell it to a publisher. Election, which became an Oscar-nominated movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, is set in suburban Winwood, New Jersey in 1992 and revolves around the election of a high school president. The election brings out the best in the people of Winwood: raw ambition, back-stabbing, lesbian sex, sex between students and teachers, and, of course, vote stealing. If more people had read the book or seen the movie, that stolen U.S. presidential election in 2000 might not have been quite so shocking. F. Scott Fitzgerald Princeton University doesn't belong in New Jersey any more than Richard Nixon did, but there it sits, midway between Philadelphia and New York, an eternal beacon to the sons of daughters of privilege. Nearly a century ago, a Princeton undergraduate set out to make his literary name and woo back a southern belle who had jilted him because he didn't have enough money. The result was This Side of Paradise (1920), the debut novel that made F. Scott Fitzgerald into an overnight literary star and helped win back Zelda Sayre. Not everyone appreciated Fitzgerald's knowing portrayal of Princeton's booze-marinated clubbiness. University president John Grier Hibben sniffed, "I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living four years in a country club and spending their lives wholly in a spirit of calculation and snobbishness." Geoffrey Wolff Another novel to come out of Princeton was Geoffrey Wolff's The Final Club, which has been called "Fitzgerald on fast-forward" because it updates the clubbiness of Paradise to the 1950s. The clubs in question are the university's so-called eating clubs, otherwise known as fraternities. Wolff's novel dissects the degrading rituals surrounding admission, while adding a bitter dash of anti-Semitism. The envelope, please And the winner is...David Gates. Those bunnies in the basement and the thumb lost to a self-inflicted gunshot wound – they tipped the scales for me. Of course you're free to disagree and choose someone else from the list. Or someone who's not on the list. Or someone most of us don't know about, but should. Image courtesy of Triborough/Flickr
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Esteemed Members of the Swedish Academy: Can we please stop the nonsense and give Philip Roth a Nobel Prize for Literature before he dies? For your consideration, I present to you the Library of America edition of The American Trilogy, out just this week. The coincidence, I grant you, is a touch unseemly. One can't help wondering if the board of the LOA chose this week to publish its handsome $40 omnibus edition of Roth’s three best-known late novels in the hope that you, the esteemed members of the Swedish Academy, would award him the Nobel Prize in Stockholm next week, allowing the LOA to bring in enough cash to float yet another edition of Henry James's Desk Doodles. But don’t let that sway you. Just consider the work. The opening of American Pastoral, the first book of the trilogy, with its effortless conjuring of the age of American innocence during the Second World War, is enough by itself to warrant at least a Nobel nomination. The book begins with an extended reverie about “steep-jawed…blue-eyed blond” Seymour Levov, star athlete of Newark’s tight-knit Jewish community, and a Jew who excels at all the things Jews of that era aren’t supposed to be good at: playing ball, being glamorous, loving themselves. By being “a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get,” Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede, offers his neighbors, only “a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto,” a home-grown avatar in the fight against Hitler’s fascists in Europe. Yet in the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Roth’s alter ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, the Swede is a plaster saint, a bland, blond cipher. The Swede goes on to inherit the family’s Newark glove-making factory; marry a shiksa goddess, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949; and buy an old stone house in an upper-crust Gentile suburb. But in a deliciously funny scene, Zuckerman finds the grownup version of his childhood hero impenetrably dull: I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he had instead of a being, I thought, is blandness – the guy’s radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him. But Zuckerman is wrong. The Swede, like Coleman Silk from The Human Stain, the third book in the trilogy, bears a wounding secret. In Silk’s case, his secret is that he is not Jewish, as he pretends to be, but a black man passing for white. The Swede, on the other hand, has remained irreducibly himself, the great American sports god married to the beauty queen, but his daughter, now three generations removed from the ghetto and raised during the Vietnam War, has turned against everything her parents represent and, in a senseless act of antiwar protest, set off a bomb that kills a man at the local post office. In The American Trilogy, Roth tackles the three great historical issues of his era – protest of the Vietnam War, the Communist blacklist, and racial discrimination – and in each case, he finds something profoundly original to say. In American Pastoral, Merry’s act of violence is not merely a treason against her nation, or even against her father, but an affront to the generations of Levovs who rose from poverty to respectability through hard work and pluck. In I Married a Communist, the second and weakest book in the trilogy, Roth nevertheless puts a face to devout Communist belief in the person of Iron Rinn, the six-foot-six actor who has made a name for himself playing Abraham Lincoln on the radio. But for all the brilliance of Roth’s historical analysis, the real subject of these books isn’t American history, but the essential unknowableness of the human heart. Each of the three books is narrated by Zuckerman, who like Roth has retreated to a monastic life in rural New England following a failed marriage. In each case, Zuckerman befriends the book’s hero, makes a judgment about who that man is at his core, then learns that his original judgment is wrong. Thus the books are, in essence, love stories, in which Roth’s alter ago, desexed by prostate surgery that has rendered him impotent, is cast in the curiously feminine role of a lover who falls for a man and then has to write an entire book to figure out just who this man really is behind the mask he has built for himself. In American Pastoral and The Human Stain, the unmasking carries special poignancy because we as readers, like Zuckerman, fall in love with the damaged, vulnerable man behind the mask. In American Pastoral, the Swede is a big, sweet American lunk who lacks the political and intellectual equipment to understand his daughter’s fury at the American war machine. Yet even after Merry’s bomb kills a man and she goes on the run, even after the Swede learns that she has joined the radical underground and built bombs that have killed more people, he still loves her. In a wrenching scene, he finds Merry living in a single rented room in the roughest part of post-riot Newark, literally starving herself as part of a crazed religious practice. What he saw sitting before him was not a daughter, a woman or a girl; what he saw, in a scarecrow’s clothes, stick-skinny as a scarecrow, was the scantiest farmyard emblem of life, a travestied mock-up of a human being, so meager a likeness to a Levov it could have fooled only a bird. The scene is made doubly painful by the fact that rich, capable Swede Levov can do nothing to help his daughter. He knows he should call the police, and some part of him knows this would probably save her, but he can’t do it. He is incapacitated by that most human of emotions: love. In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk is undone by an even more human emotion: love of self. Silk is drummed out of his university job for uttering an unintended racial slur against two black students, and is too caught up in the lie he has been living for most of his adult life to save himself by telling the truth, which is that he was born black. Roth’s handling of Silk’s transition from a light-skinned black teenager to a swarthy Jewish professor of classics is a thing of beauty, but for all the power of those scenes, the book is finally less about race and Silk’s self-destructive mendacity than about the relationship between Zuckerman and his shifting understanding of who Silk is. Silk actively romances Zuckerman – in one marvelous scene they dance together, these two impotent old men, Zuckerman with his surgical wounds, Silk who takes Viagra – but as Zuckerman begins to understand Silk’s secret, his love for him deepens. He admires Silk’s refusal to be held back by the accident of his skin color, but even more, Zuckerman loves Silk’s sheer human complexity, the fact that there is so much more to him than meets the eye. This, for Roth, is the true human stain, that we are so much more than what people think they know about us. “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is known,” he writes. “The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” The Human Stain is set in 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal nearly brought down Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Roth rails with great comic gusto at “the ecstasy of sanctimony” the scandal brought into public life that year. But Roth’s real beef with Clinton’s opponents is that they refused to let Clinton be a real man with human needs. “I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner,” he writes, “draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other, and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.” If I Married a Communist fails to match the other two books, it is because Iron Rinn, the being at whom Zuckerman directs his love, fails to be sufficiently complex to be fully human. I Married a Communist, which turns on a tell-all book by the hero’s actress ex-wife that ruins his life, came out shortly after Roth’s actress ex-wife, Claire Bloom, published her own tell-all book about Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House, and critics read I Married a Communist as Roth’s less-than-subtle response. Given the weaknesses of I Married a Communist, the critics may have a point. The novel is so consumed with its vitriolic attack upon Iron Rinn’s wife, Eve Frame, and her daughter, a professional musician named Sylphid (Bloom’s daughter, it is worth noting, is an opera singer) that it neglects to make Iron Rinn into the kind of multi-layered, vulnerable man worthy of Zuckerman’s love, much less that of his readers. Which brings us to the biggest knocks against Philip Roth, and perhaps the reason you, the members of the Swedish Academy, have not already awarded Roth the honor he so plainly deserves. The charges are, to put the case bluntly, that Roth’s oeuvre is uneven, and that, moreover, he’s a sexist pig. And you know what? There’s something to both these charges. Roth has written some truly dreadful books, and in much of his lesser work, including the often puerile David Kepesh novels, a primary quest of the central character is to find a hole, any hole, into which to insert his wayward penis. Even in Roth’s greatest work, if there is an act of villainy afoot, you can bet a woman is at the root of it. I revere Philip Roth, but if I were a woman I wouldn’t get within a hundred miles of the man. But you, my esteemed friends, must see past all that, not because Roth’s personal failings don’t affect the work, since they plainly do, or even because we must take the good with the bad, but because, in Roth’s case, the good is inseparable from the bad. A more reasonable man would have known better than to follow his actress ex-wife’s tell-all book with a bilious, score-settling novel about an actress who ruins her husband’s reputation with a tell-all book. But then a more reasonable writer, one who actually cared what we thought, would never have dared, as a white Jewish man, to write a novel about a black man who passes as a white Jewish man. A more reasonable writer never would have written, in 1969, a novel like Portnoy’s Complaint about a “cunt crazy” young Jewish guy who beats off into raw liver that his mother later serves for dinner. The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced. If Philip Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does. Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].
How to put this delicately? Philip Roth's fifteenth novel, Sabbath's Theater, is [email protected]#$ing filthy. Between its covers are dispensed volumes of bodily fluids that put your average Roger Corman flick to shame, and in its frankness about the attendant pneumatics - the ins and outs, the reservoirs and receptacles - the book makes Nicholson Baker's "manstarch" look like so much marzipan, and The Rosy Crucifixion look like Make Way for Ducklings. Even Roth's own earlier work starts to seem prim by comparison. Take, for example, the treatment of that Rothian hobbyhorse, onanism. In 1969, Alexander Portnoy's violation of a piece of raw liver may well have been shocking. But in Sabbath's Theater, published 26 years later, we watch the titular Mickey Sabbath visit a moonlit cemetery to jerk off onto his mistress' grave. Not impressed? Consider that Sabbath's efforts to commune with the late Drenka Balich are interrupted by a fellow mourner who has come to do the same (in all senses of the phrase). And that Sabbath sticks around to watch, and to snatch the bouquet on which his rival has climaxed. Imagine then if someone had happened upon him that night, in the woods a quarter mile down from the cemetery, licking from his fingers Lewis's sperm and, beneath the full moon, chanting aloud, "I am Drenka! I am Drenka!" This is on page 78. The novel is 451 pages long. Sabbath's assignations may often approach the "top this" rhythm of vaudeville, but the sex in Sabbath's Theater is also, as the mortuary setting here suggests, deadly serious. As in real life, lust is tangled up in a larger complex of forces encompassing morality, mortality, politics, history, and metaphysics...not to mention personal pathology. Mickey Sabbath is, at 64, a disgraced puppeteer and the last surviving member of his nuclear family. And in the wake of Drenka's death, "Something horrible is happening." He is rapidly approaching the end of his second marriage, and perhaps of his life more broadly. In the days that follow that overture in the graveyard, he will attend one friend's funeral, proposition another friend's wife, fight with his own wife, impersonate a homeless man, and contemplate suicide, all while maintaining a vigorous schedule of self-abuse. His trajectory, roughly, is King Lear's - a comparison Sabbath's Theater invites explicitly. But Sabbath, a triple-threat manipulator (i.e., by trade, inclination, and compulsion), can't quite decide if he wants to play the potentate or the court jester. His oscillations make the book excruciatingly funny, as real transgression often is. But they also license Sabbath - as madness licenses Lear and convention licenses his Fool - to voice painful truths, of the "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods" variety. Roth is monomaniacally committed to the perspective of his protagonist, and his free indirect narration (gravitating toward stream-of-consciousness) takes as its ground-note the proposition that, in the face of death, life is meaningless. But as Sabbath tests it, again and again, he somewhat bafflingly proves the opposite. In the love the novel lavishes on even the most sordid details, that is, and in the beautiful American idiom of its ire, Sabbath's Theater amounts to a kind of perverse hymn. This is not to say it's pitched in a key all readers will respond to. Roth "goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book," publisher Carmen Callil complained earlier this year, vis-a-vis her decision to resign in protest from the panel that had awarded him the Man Booker International Prize. "It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe." She was exactly right, of course; she just couldn't hear that she was describing Roth's ambitions, rather than his shortcomings. (In a just world, all future editions of Roth's novels would carry these sentences as a blurb.) In recent years, Sabbath's Theater has tended to get lost in the shadow cast by its more respectable successors. The late-innings Roth revival people love to talk about gets dated to 1997, when he brought forth the first volume of what the folks in marketing tell us we now have to refer to as The American Trilogy. Which, by the way: yuck. Yet if we ignore Roth's self-conscious, not to say obsessive-compulsive, curation of his own oeuvre ("Kepesh Books" ; "Roth Books" ; "Nemeses" (?)), the picture is more complicated. Zuckerman Bound (1979-83) is phenomenal; William H. Gass called The Counterlife, from 1986, "a triumph." According to Leaving a Doll's House, the tell-all memoir written by his ex-wife Claire Bloom (and published in the U.K., not coincidentally, by Carmen Callil), Roth himself felt his 1993's Operation Shylock to be his masterpiece. (It's at least partly his disappointment with Shylock's reception fueling Mickey Sabbath's eloquent outrage). If there was any lull in Roth's powers, it was the six-year period between The Counterlife and Shylock - no longer than the period separating Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint. And let us not forget that Sabbath's Theater won the 1995 National Book Award. It may be easier for, say, Michiko Kakutani to empathize with American Pastoral's Swede Levov than to embrace the rebarbative Mickey Sabbath. But it would have been just as useful to group these two together as to repackage another Zuckerman troika. Levov and Sabbath are obverse sides of the same coin - the same story, approached from different angles. Indeed, Sabbath's foil Norman Cowan - "that impressive American thing...a nice rich guy with some depth" - looks very much like a sketch for the Swede. Comedy and tragedy, rectitude and blasphemy, responsibility and freedom, love and rage, meaning and meaninglessness and all the extremes that threaten to rip apart American life..."on and on and on about the same subject," yes, but what a subject! And whereas its formulation in American Pastoral feels like a departure (which, on Carmen Callil's terms, is a good thing) the savage and profane Sabbath's Theater - this face-sitting, breath-taking brute - is Roth's most Roth-y book. Which is to say, his best. Bonus Link: Sex, Seriously: James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, P 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Double murderer Gary Lee Rock (center) after his capture, before his unsuccessful suicide attempt. 1. There are certain experiences so mystifying, so unsettling, so flat-out weird that we can hope to understand them only through books. I had a cluster of such experiences in the late 1970s that haunted me for more than thirty years – until just recently when I came to two very different books that finally helped me understand what I'd lived through and how my response to those events shaped me as a writer. The books are Wisconsin Death Trip, a genre-bending work of history by Michael Lesy, and American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth. It would be hard to imagine two more unalike books, and yet they spoke to my mystification with one voice. But before I tell you about these books, I should tell you about what happened back in the 1970s. 2. In November of 1976, on the Monday after Jimmy Carter was elected president, I reported for work as a cub reporter at Public Opinion, the daily newspaper in Chambersburg, Pa., a hamlet of 20,000 souls in the dead middle of the state just above the Mason-Dixon Line. I was spectacularly unqualified for the job. I had taken one creative writing course in college, had never studied journalism, and could offer as credentials just three short sketches I'd written for my college newspaper. But I was determined to become a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and like many before me I believed I needed to serve my apprenticeship in the whirlwind of a daily newspaper's city room. So after graduating from college I spent months knocking on newspaper doors up and down the Eastern seaboard, getting told again and again to come back when I had some experience. This was the post-Watergate season, it was a buyer's market, and I didn't have much to sell. But the editor at Public Opinion decided to take a chance on me. At $140 a week – with a strict Gannett corporate policy of no overtime pay – it wasn't much of a gamble. Naturally I jumped at the job. From the very first day I sensed that I had landed in a strange place. The paper's star reporter, Brad Bumsted, was working an ongoing story about a man named Robert Bear who'd been "shunned" by his conservative Reformed Mennonite congregation for disobeying doctrine. Church members were forbidden from doing business with Bear, and his wife and children were not allowed to talk to him, or even look at him. The poor man was coming unglued. Every day I received other reminders that I was deep in "Pennsylvania Dutch" country – bearded, straw-hatted men and their bonneted wives clopping along the rural roads in horse-drawn carriages; similarly attired men, known as "black-bumper Amish," driving black cars with blackened chrome; names like Slaybaugh and Klinefelter larding the phone book; and diners serving "Dutch" (that is, German) dishes I'd never heard of, including shoofly pie and a dubious breakfast meat called scrapple. While the Amish and Mennonites struck me as benign cults, there were other things going on that were far from benign. The first I experienced at close range was a local legend named Merle Unger, a charming rogue and petty criminal who had a history of breaking out of the county jail at night to visit his girlfriend, then breaking back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one of his breakouts Unger made the mistake of killing an off-duty cop during an armed robbery in Hagerstown, Md. The charm was off the rogue. The editor sent me to Easton, Md., to write sidebars while Brad Bumsted covered Unger's murder trial. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, One of Unger's lawyers got so drunk celebrating with the cops that he tipped over his chair and landed flat on his back, cackling like a hyena. The cops roared with glee. It was like an out-of-kilter drug trip: a petty criminal who breaks into jail and becomes a cop killer; a defense attorney who celebrates a guilty verdict. There were far darker local legends. Public Opinion had won a Pulitzer Prize 10 years before my arrival for its coverage of strange goings-on in Shade Gap, a tiny town tucked into the Allegheny Mountains, which begin their rise just west of Chambersburg. There, an ex-convict and ex-mental patient named William Diller Hollenbaugh – known locally as "The Mountain Man" and "Bicycle Pete" – terrorized the community before kidnapping a teenage girl and holding her captive in the wild mountain terrain for seven days while authorities mounted the largest manhunt in Pennsylvania history. Eventually they shot Hollenbaugh dead while rescuing the girl. It was like some Yankee version of Deliverance. Then there was the case of Debbie Sue Kline, a 19-year-old hospital employee in nearby Waynesboro who disappeared on her way home from work in the summer of 1976 and had not been seen since. In January of 1977, Public Opinion reported that Dorothy Allison, a well known psychic from Nutley, N.J., had come to town at the Kline family's request to help police with their stalled investigation. Allison traveled the route between the hospital and the Kline home, she visited the missing girl's bedroom, touched clothes, ran her hands over the bed sheets, slipped the girl's class ring on her finger and left it there. Allison told police they would find a skeleton on a dump or in a junkyard in a town with double letters in its name. Then she left for New York City to undergo hypnosis to help her pinpoint the exact location of the girl's remains. "Police said the woman promised to identify the car used in the alleged abduction, the license number of the vehicle, the names of the people involved, the route they took and the location of Debbie," Public Opinion reported. "Police credit Allison with 'a fantastic track record,' and said Allison revealed things concerning the investigation 'that you wouldn't believe.'" It's likely those newspaper reports made their way into the Franklin County Prison because there, on the following Wednesday morning, an inmate named Richard Lee Dodson offered to lead police to Kline's body. He took them to a landfill near the town of Fannettsburg and pointed to a frozen, nearly fleshless skeleton. Dodson said his accomplice in the kidnapping, rape and murder was Ronald Henninger, who was then serving a manslaughter sentence in an Illinois prison but had been free on parole the summer Debbie Sue Kline was killed. And finally, most spectacularly, there was the Fourth of July weekend in 1977. On that Saturday morning, Gary Lee Rock, an ex-Marine with an "expert" marksmanship rating, did something unimaginable. Unhappy in love, unhappy with his $3.50-an-hour clerk's job at the local Army depot – exactly what I was making at the newspaper – Rock awoke with a hangover in his rural home. For reasons he could not explain later, he dressed in fatigue pants, combat boots and his Marine dog tags, then flew into a rage, smashing plates and windows and furniture. He doused the interior of his home and a nearby shed with gasoline, lit them up, then crouched nearby in the woods with a 300 Savage rifle, a shotgun, a Marine Corps knife and boxes of ammunition. When a neighbor, alerted by an explosion, came running up Rock's driveway, Rock shot him once through the heart, dead. When the revered chief of the local volunteer fire department arrived in his car, Rock shot him in the head and right arm, also dead. Rock fired more shots through the windshield of the first fire engine on the scene, wounding two firefighters. Then he melted into the woods, where he was captured that evening after state troopers wounded him with a salvo of shotgun pellets. After coming out of surgery, Rock smashed an IV bottle and slashed his own wrist and neck, but failed to kill himself. Of course this lurid, nearly ludicrous spasm of violence made national news. All of this – the Mountain Man, the shunned Mennonite, the charming cop killer and his drunk lawyer, the psychic, the dead nurse, the burning house, the homicidal/suicidal ex-Marine, the dead fire chief – all of this was overwhelming to me. Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide – it added up to a collective nervous breakdown. And it all happened in a charming American town that looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. 3. Wisconsin Death Trip lives up to Walter Benjamin's famous dictum that all great works of literature must either dissolve a genre or invent one. The genre Michael Lesy invented with this astonishing book might be called Portrait of a Society in a State of Mental and Physical Collapse. Greil Marcus aptly described the book as "absolutely a thing in itself: its own construct, its own nightmare, its own scream." Through photographs, newspaper accounts and his own impressionistic essays, Lesy tells the story of what happened in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in the last decade of the 19th century, the so-called "Gay Nineties." It was a time of paranoia, disease, economic upheaval and harrowing violence. For those who couldn't take it, suicide came in many flavors: arenic, carbolic acid, strychnine, morphine, an insecticide called "paris green," plus hanging, jumping in front of a train, ingesting match heads, slitting your own throat, plunging your head in a barrel of water and of course, this being America, self-inflicted gunshot wound. If you didn't kill yourself you had a fair chance of getting murdered, or starving or freezing to death, or dying from a smorgasbord of diseases that included diphtheria, smallpox, cerebral meningitis, typhoid fever and croup. Fire was as common as rain. "In the early days," Lesy writes, "people set fires for business as well as pleasure. The courthouse got burned down before it was even built in 1857. In 1861 the town's entire business block, valued at $30,000, went up in smoke." People saw ghosts, they saw 40-foot-long reptiles in the river, they were routinely carted off to the insane asylum at Mendota. The photographs of these people, taken by town photographer Charles Van Shaick, paint a bifurcated portrait of life in a small Midwestern town: on one hand there are the predictable pictures of weddings, funerals, picnics, barber shops, musical ensembles, groups of sawmill workers, men with their hunting trophies, their drinking buddies, their tractors and animals; and then there are the pictures that look like Diane Arbus prototypes, portraits of dwarves, amputees, babies in coffins, nudists, snake handlers, madwomen. Lesy's method is to lay all this out with zero inflection, just a steady drumbeat of facts that indeed darken into a nightmare. It's as though the denizens of Winesburg, Ohio went on a decade-long amphetamine bender and killing spree. By the time I got to the end of the book I had begun to see my experiences in Chambersburg in a fresh light – not as implausible aberrations, but as modern manifestations of dark impulses that have always lurked beneath the surface of every American place. What's extraordinary, Lesy concludes, is that the things that happened in Black River Falls – and, by implication, in Chambersburg – are not at all extraordinary. In a nice bit of understatement, he quotes from an 1897 issue of the American Journal of Sociology: "It is a popular belief that large cities are the great centers of social corruption, and the special causes of social degeneration, while rural districts and country towns are quite free from unmoral influence.... Yet the country has its own social evils." Or, as a close friend never tires of reminding me, "The truly weird shit rarely happens in big cities; it almost always happens in small towns and suburbia and the boondocks." I have come to believe that while this is not an iron-clad fact – the Son of Sam was terrorizing New York City during the summer of 1977 – it does pick at the scab of something approaching an unpleasant truth. I'm thinking about Dick Hickock and Perry Smith slaughtering the Clutter family in their remote western Kansas farmhouse, a horror immortalized by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I'm thinking about Joan Didion's unforgettable piece of reportage, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which tells the story of how weather and dislocation and history (or lack of it) led a pregnant mother of three to douse her sleeping husband with gasoline and burn him to death inside the family Volkswagen on a desolate stretch of southern California desert. Twenty miles from where I'm writing these words, police have just discovered the remains of the tenth victim of a possible serial killer on a remote Long Island beach. A few weeks ago a woman in the small upstate town of Newburgh drove into the Hudson River with three of her children in the car, killing them all. Such acts have become emblematic of what Walker Percy called these "dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A." In American Pastoral, Philip Roth puts a name to these dark American impulses. The novel tells the story of a sensationally handsome and athletic Jewish boy from Newark named Seymour "Swede" Levov who marries a former Miss New Jersey, takes over his father's thriving glove factory, and moves with his wife and daughter into a stone farmhouse in Old Rimrock, out past the suburbs, out in the gorgeous green folds of an America that still looks much as it looked before the Revolutionary War. There in 1968, as a way of protesting the Vietnam War, the Swede's teenage daughter, a life-long stutterer, plants a bomb in the local post office that kills a respected doctor, forcing the girl to go underground and effectively demolishing the Swede's immaculate world. Roth writes that the Swede becomes the victim of something unthinkable: ...the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were a fugitive – initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede's castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk. And so, thanks to books, I finally came to terms with the mystifying things I'd witnessed and written about in Chambersburg more than thirty years ago. Books showed me that those mysteries were not extraordinary or even unprecedented, and they actually have a name, and that name is The Indigenous American Berserk. My first published drawing: Cop killer Merle Unger (left) with his defense attorneys during his murder trial. 4. After I finished reading those books I went back to Chambersburg to scroll through microfilm of Public Opinion from the 1970s. I wanted to see if I could recapture my response to the events I'd lived through and written about, and how that response had shaped me as a writer. Microfilm is a wonderful corrective for a faulty memory. It reminded me that Merle Unger's murder trial took place during my very first weeks on the job, and that it was a dream assignment. For one thing, my name was sure to be on the front page every day. Better yet, while Brad Bumsted covered the trial I was free to write from the margins of the main event. I wrote about the ankle irons Merle Unger wore to court every day – a badge of honor for such an accomplished escape artist. I wrote about the prosecutor persuading the two local newspapers to keep a lid on pre-trial publicity so a slam-dunk murder trial wouldn't get yanked from his jurisdiction – which had the added benefit of giving Bumsted and me a virtual exclusive on the story. I interviewed Unger's grim mother as we waited for the jury to deliver its guilty verdict. I even drew a sketch of Unger and his defense attorneys in the courtroom, my first published drawing. After the bloody Fourth of July weekend in 1977, on the other hand, Chambersburg became the setting for a media circus. Like everyone on the Public Opinion staff, I contributed to the saturation coverage of the shootings and their aftermath. And I hated it, hated jockeying with other reporters for scraps of news, hated the obviousness and falseness of covering a manufactured news event. Simply put, I hated being part of a pack. As I read more microfilm, I remembered that I was always much happier writing stories about people who existed outside the news, stories that I felt were somehow my own – about a struggling mystery novelist, a taxidermist, a night nurse, a man who built a futuristic solar house, a puppeteer, a peach farmer, a teenage Emergency Medical Technician who delivered a baby in the back of an ambulance as it screamed toward the hospital. On the day of the fire chief's funeral, I wrote a by-lined story about a schoolteacher announcing his quixotic plan to run against an entrenched Congressman. The story was not big news, but it happened outside the tent of the media circus, and it was mine. The fire chief was not yet in the ground and already I was distancing myself from the pack. I now realize that this attraction to people on the margins puts me in good company. While reviewing The Silent Season of a Hero, the new collection of sports writing by Gay Talese, I noted that he was drawn to people on the downslope of greatness and to those who worked in the shadows of the sporting world – boxing referees, timekeepers, horseshoe makers, agents, midget wrestlers. Then I read an article in the current issue of GQ magazine about David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King. In the article, John Jeremiah Sullivan recalls what happened when the magazine assigned Wallace to write a story about a presidential candidate's speech writers: "Early in 2008, GQ asked him to write about Obama's speeches or, more largely, about American political rhetoric. It was still a somewhat gassy idea as presented to him, but Wallace saw the possibilities, so we started making inquiries to the Obama campaign, and even made reservations for him to be in Denver during the convention. Our thought was to get him as close to the head speechwriters (and so as close to Obama) as possible. But Wallace said, very politely, that this wasn't what interested him. He wanted to be with a worker bee on the speechwriting team – to find out how the language was used by, as he put it, 'the ninth guy on the bench.' It also seemed like maybe a temperament thing, that he would be more comfortable reporting away from the glare." This made perfect sense to me, this idea of wanting to talk to the ninth guy on the bench, of being more comfortable reporting away from the glare. I'm sure it makes sense to Gay Talese, too. This has nothing to do with stage fright, or a fear of going after big game, or the reporter's eternal dread of getting scooped. It's something much deeper, and maybe much darker, than that. It's an understanding that it's so hard to get another human being to open up to you, and it's so scary to crawl inside them if they do open up to you, that you're wise to get rid of as many impediments as possible. And one of the most forbidding impediments is that glare Wallace and Talese instinctively avoided. Whenever there are bright lights, clusters of cameras and microphones, spin doctors and handlers, packs of hungry rivals with notebooks, the writer's chances of getting something genuine, or even merely unique, shrink monstrously. I experienced this so many times that it is one of the few things I absolutely know to be true. I began to understand this on the Fourth of July weekend in 1977, and it explains why I feel grateful that I've never had to cover a political convention or campaign, that I've had to attend very few press conferences, and that I've had to interview just one former president and one movie star. As I learned from reading that scratchy old microfilm, I've always preferred to write about interesting nobodies. Maybe it's a temperament thing. And as I learned from reading those books by Michael Lesy and Philip Roth, the dark beast that lurks beneath the glossy surface of American life can show itself anytime and anywhere, from the smallest town to the most bucolic countryside. Because it's everywhere and it has always been with us and it always will be. Those two books also taught me that, somehow, it's a strange comfort to be able to put a name to such a thing. Which is another way of saying they taught me the power of the written word. (Images courtesy the author.)
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 - the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn't come around again. This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita... A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I'm forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I'm sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction. Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray's Skippy Dies and Adam Levin's The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the 'tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there's likely more good stuff to come. Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe's more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds - Long Island - with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño's incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira's wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite. Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard's Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding - a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train - but don't be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time. Notwithstanding which, the best new novel I read this year was...what was that title again? Oh, right. Freedom. When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel's 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it - ruminative, learned, patient, just - embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician's Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics. Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov's Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov's story "The Duel" was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas. And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy's Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that's even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it's about as close to perfection as you'd want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035... by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2009/2010 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are two books climbing the ranks this year. With an impressive showing with the judges, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has become something of an instant classic, landing near the top of the list and in very good company. Meanwhile, the IMPAC shortlist nod puts Marilynn Robinson's Home side-by-side with her much praised Gilead from 2004. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
1. Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you. Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately. One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was "The Glaring Gap," a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño! My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies. 2. My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories. Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again): Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt 2666 by Roberto Bolano Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy The Essential Kierkegaard The Night Watch by Sarah Waters Eugene Onegin by Pushkin 3. Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like -- you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens: Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon) Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much) 4. It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say… Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit American Pastoral by Philip Roth The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce Twilight by Stephenie Meyer 5. The following category speaks for itself: Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren't many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction. 6. Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished. “Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list: Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End The Accidental by Ali Smith Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson Enduring Love by Ian McEwan The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro Run by Ann Patchett 7. This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame. In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods - how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle. Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf The Names by Don Delillo A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P 4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N 4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon - C, N 4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - B, I 4, 2007, Animal's People by Indra Sinha - B, I 4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N 4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I 4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I 4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C 4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W 4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C 4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C 4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I 4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I 4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P 4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W 4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N 4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P 4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W 4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I 4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W 4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P 4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I 4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W 4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I 4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I 4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W 4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W 4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N 4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I 4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
As we noted yesterday, Carolyn Kellogg has an interesting piece up at Papercuts about Bruce Springsteen and Walker Percy. Carolyn expresses some surprise at finding out that the Boss is an avid reader. To us die-hard fans, however, evidence of Bruce's bookish leanings is legible as far back as the late '70s. There's the song title nicked from Flannery O'Connor ("A Good Man is Hard to Find," from Tracks); the in-concert plug for Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life (on Live 1975-1985); the East of Eden-ish "Highway Patrolman" (from Nebraska); and the long quotation from The Grapes of Wrath in the title track of The Ghost of Tom Joad.For those interested in what else Bruce has been reading, a big photo spread of Springsteen's "writing room" in the current issue of Rolling Stone offers a tantalizing glimpse (Ed. - The photo they've posted is much smaller than the one in the magazine, frustrating attempts at further investigation online). I found myself distracted from the accompanying article, perusing the bookshelves instead, as I tend to do involuntarily when I'm invited into the house of an acquaintance for the first time. In addition to the prerequisites of any writing room - Roget's Thesaurus; The Holy Bible; Bob Dylan's Lyrics - the Springsteen shelves boast an eclectic mix of literary fiction and books on history and music. Here's what I could glean from the spines.Black Tickets, by Jayne Anne PhillipsWhite Noise, by Don DeLilloAmerican Pastoral, by Philip RothThe Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell Cold New World , by William FinneganCountry: The Music and the MusiciansAmerican Moderns, by Christine StansellReal Boys, by William PollackAt the Center of the Storm, by George TenetWhen We Were Good, by Robert S. CantwellJohn Wayne's America, by Garry WillsThe Elegant Universe, by Brian GreeneThe Search for God at Harvard, by Ari L. GoldmanFeel Like Going Home, by Peter GuralnickDark Witness, by Ralph WileyGo Cat Go, by Craig MorrisonNew Americans, by Al SantoliOrlando, by Virginia WoolfCurrently, Bruce appears to be reading Fallen Founder, a biography of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. And he is evidently something of a fan-boy himself; prominently displayed on his coffee table is a book called Greetings from E Street.
This guest post comes to us Sana Krasikov. Sana is the author of the short story collection One More Year.Recently, in response to the launch of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, the literary critic Germaine Greer posed the question of why women don't write more books about "Big Ideas." Reaching back in time to examine Big Idea books by women, Greer wondered if women had the "necessary audacity" required to sell a hypothesis. To be fair, Greer was referring mostly to non-fiction books, but her question could just as easily be asked of fiction. Could it be true that women authors were "more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for?" And does this keep them from garnering the kind of attention given to their more declarative and "audacious" male counterparts?Considering these questions, I thought about a book I had read recently - Sigrid Nunez's novel The Last of Her Kind - a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters. Set at the tail end of the sixties, it follows the lives of two Barnard roommates - Georgette, who is from a small town in upstate New York where people drink "to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb... a world of everyday brutality," and Ann, an earnest overachiever from Connecticut, whose family is so wealthy that her mother doesn't carry a wallet when she goes shopping, having expense accounts at the major department stores.Years after a bitter falling out, Georgette sees Ann's name in the newspaper under the headline "Cop Killer." She can hardly believe how a woman as idealistic and intelligent as Ann is capable of such violence. Though the press paints Ann as another Patty Hearst, a spoiled girl playing at Revolution, Georgette is convinced her ex-roommate's story has a more complicated side.Delivered in a warmly sardonic but unaffected voice, the prose doesn't draw attention to its own genius in the way of a Mailer, or to its vigor in the way of a Thomas Wolfe. For long stretches of the book, turning the pages feels less like reading and more like listening to the sane voice of an old friend. And yet as much as it's a story of two women, The Last of Her Kind is really an extended essay - a sober examination of the darker rhetoric of the sixties.Here is a scene: Many years after she is raped, Georgette is invited by a professor who is a friend to discuss the experience with a group of college girls in the professor's Women's Studies class. Too uncomfortable to turn down her friend's request, Georgette tells the young women that, looking back on life, she could point to many things that happened later which were worse than the rape, and which even made it seem like a minor event in her life. The students respond by telling her that she is "in denial" and "intellectualizing," and in need of "emotional work" to understand the extent of her repression. The present-day framework of "trauma and recovery" makes it impossible for girls who came of age in the nineties to comprehend how, in the highly-politicized sixties, rape might have been viewed as an "insurrectionary act," or how in some fringes of the sexual revolution, women might have thought it rude to sleep with only one man if there were two men in the room.Rather than recalling the late-sixties and early-seventies as a progressive or enlightened moment, Nunez paints an age that left many casualties in its wake: a time when someone like Charles Manson could be hailed as a hero, a time when college professors received death-threats from radical students, a time when sex could be "not just a casual, but a meaningless act." Describing her sister's boyfriend, Georgette observes, "Roach looked like what he was, a survivor of an era that had tipped over into madness."The Last of Her Kind has been compared to Roth's American Pastoral But a more apt comparison might be to Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Georgette's disappointment with the mythic sixties reminds one of Lessing's narrator's disillusionment with the "glorious adventure" of socialism and the British Communist Party in the 1950s. Both novels are nods to George Elliot's Middlemarch, which concerns itself not only with the souls of its characters but also with a larger, and more sweeping project of recording social history. All these books, written by women who explored politics and morality as two sides of one phenomenon, gain their effect not from proclamations, but from a kind of layering affect where ideas about class, altruism, and gender-relations are asserted, knocked down and revised at different stages of their character's lives.In the last pages of the book, a grown-up Georgette rants against that sacrosanct American novel, The Great Gatsby, which her teenage children are studying in school.I think it is significant that The Great Gatsby's reputation as the greatest masterpiece of the twentieth-century American literature did not blossom until the fifties, and that those most responsible for that reputation have been schoolteachers. It is such an easy book to teach. Short, clear, safe. What makes Gatsby "great"? How does Gatsby represent the American dream? What does the green light symbolize? What does the valley of ashes symbolize? What do the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg symbolize? Compare and contrast: East Egg/West Egg. Jay Gatsby/Tom Buchanan. New York/The Middle West.In many ways, The Last of Her Kind attempts to be precisely the kind of novel that is not Gatsby - a book with ideas that resists being summarized into one Big Idea - in other words a book for adults.
Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil's Territory, a collection of short stories. His recent work appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Surreal South, and Random House's Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers anthology.Five books that knocked the top of my head off in 2008:1. Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock - Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime's experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I've ever read. If you liked Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, Barry Hannah's Airships, or Mark Richard's Charity, Knockemstiff is the book for you.2. The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, by Erin McGraw - The elegance here is Flaubertian, the prose flawless, and the story (loosely based upon the true story of McGraw's disappeared-then-reappeared grandmother) is every bit as thrilling as anything Stephen King will serve up this year.3. Sabbath's Theater, by Philip Roth - The best comic novel from the best comic novelist in America.4. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth - The best serious novel from the best serious novelist in America.5. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott Berg - A biography of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who held the hands of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, as they made their way together from obscurity toward literary permanence. I can't imagine this book thrilled any reader in 1978, the year of its release, any more than it thrilled me thirty years later.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. They released their fourth record You & Me this fall. He lives in Manhattan.A few books that I really enjoyed this year were:Roger's Version by John Updike. The novel follows a weathered, sour divinity professor (Roger) who surprises even himself with some over-compensating good will toward two youngsters who energetically barge in on his life. He gets in pretty deep, and even stomachs an affair between the young squirt (Dale) and his own wife. Roger's monotonous social life (cocktail parties, fantasizing about neighbors' happiness) is funny the whole time. This was a fantastic book.The Transparent Man by Anthony Hecht. It's so hard to write about why I like these poems. It's just incredible how much he can cover in so little space, and how effortless it all seems when everything has such a formal structure. I would also recommend his Flight Among the Tombs and The Venetian Vespers.American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I was surprised at how much I didn't like Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, but I figured I should give him another shot so I picked up American Pastoral and enjoyed it. The main action centers around a guy named Swede - a high school sports superhero who eventually married Miss New Jersey and ran a very successful glove manufacturing business in Newark. The first half of the book paints them as an entirely boring family, but after Swede's daughter sets off a bomb in a nearby convenience store things take a nasty turn for the family. The narrator then dissects the family's history to uncover what may not have been such a boring story.The Comedians by Graham Greene. Three men meet aboard a ship to Haiti. They're all traveling for different reasons and you definitely begin to wonder immediately who's telling the truth about anything. After they arrive, they're all assaulted by Papa Doc's corrupt and violent regime, and each man's character and intentions reveal themselves. This was one hell of a story. I loved it.More from A Year in Reading 2008
A while back, I put together a post called "The Prizewinners," which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the "best" books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original "Prizewinners" post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the philosopher Walter Benjamin gives the old truism that all history is present history a characteristically gnomic twist. "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns," he writes, "threatens to disappear irretrievably." Perhaps it's a measure of our current concerns, then, that we're witnessing a revival of novelistic interest in the 1960s and 1970s. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, those tumultuous decades had come to seem almost quaint. Green Day headlined Woodstock '94, Have A Nice Day Cafes sprouted like daisies in "revitalized" downtowns, and That '70's Show reimagined the Jimmy Carter era as a fashion parade, all bellbottoms and shaggy hair. Absent the context of war and Watergate, retro dessicated into kitsch. It was possible to take part without inhaling.Philip Roth's 1996 novel American Pastoral seems, in retrospect, a turning point. Relating the saga of Swede Lvov and his bomb-wielding daughter, Merry, Roth bypassed (by and large) the aesthetic signifiers of the counterculture in favor of an investigation of its moral and ethical ambiguities. More recently, Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document, Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind, and Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke (review) have plumbed the mixed legacy of the Age of Aquarius. Even among such distinguished company, however, Christopher Sorrentino's Trance, nominated for the National Book Award in 2005, stands out for the breadth of its historical vision and for the fearlessness of its prose. While Sorrentino keeps his radical heroine slightly out-of-focus, the book's real protagonist - the post-Vietnam zeitgeist - comes to seem vividly present, in every sense of the word.Trance takes as its point of departure the real-life kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst by the violent screwballs of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Hearst took the nom de guerre Tania; Sorrentino keeps the pseudonym, but constructs behind it an alternative heroine, one Alice Galt. Like Hearst, Galt is the scion of a wealthy newspaper family. Also like Hearst, she ends up making common cause with her captors, assisting in a bank robbery, and subsequently finding herself both a fugitive from justice and the center of a media frenzy. Trance is largely the story of Tania's cross-country flight from the law and of her eventual apprehension. Along the way, Tania crosses paths with a series of eccentrics: de facto SLA leaders Teko and Yolanda (a.k.a. Drew and Diane Shepard); an opportunistic wheeler-dealer named Guy Mock (reminiscent of Lawrence Schiller in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song); and an ambivalent fellow traveler, Joan Shimada. An equally motley cavalcade of federal agents, journalists, and loved ones gets sucked along in her wake. Making liberal use of the free indirect style, Sorrentino offers us a variety of perspectives on Tania and the SLA: Joan's, Guy's, her parents'... Of course, this technique raises more questions than it answers: has Tania been brainwashed? Has she turned her back for good on bourgeois society? Or are the SLA's politics simply an excuse to indulge in cathartic mayhem? Sorrentino is too shrewd to resolve these tensions. Instead, he portrays Tania as an antecedent to today's culture of celebrity - the sum of the rumors she gives rise to. At his best, he manages to refract through her, as through a prism, the mingled paranoia and hope and fatuousness of an age. Here, for example, the narrative takes on the tints of Tania's subjectivity:She has become an expert at living in closets, has developed unambiguous preferences (e.g., length is more desirable than width), has slept in them and eaten in them and read books in them and been raped in them and recorded messages to the People in them. This, just generally, is not the life she was raised to live. Here is a seizure of a kind of exquisite loneliness, a sudden shuddering. She wants to pick up the phone. She wants to go out for drinks. She wants the free fresh wind in her hair.Present-tense narration can run the risk of falling into a cinematic rut, but Sorrentino's prose is marvelously alive to the various registers of American English, from propaganda to cant to advertising to poetry. The latter two become indistinguishable in that last phrase, "the free fresh wind in her hair" - Shelley meets Prell. Sorrentino is in love with the name brands and anagrams overtaking the landscape, and they creep into his sentences as well. Ritz, Kraft, Mr. Coffee...the resulting tension between nostalgia and irony, and even the cadences of certain paragraphs, recall the Eisenhower-era passages of Don DeLillo's Underworld.Trance shares weaknesses, too, with DeLillo. They are chiefly weaknesses of characterization. Joan Shimada and Guy Mock are wonderfully proportioned, and even supporting players like Tania's mother reveal hidden dimensions. Teko and Yolanda, however, seem to have infiltrated Trance from the pages of a less searching, more satirical novel. Each has one note - shrill - and, without any way to see the forces that flattened them into their present shapes, the reader finds it too easy to write them (and, in turn, the SLA) off: They are simply, in the parlance of the times, "on a power trip."The case of Tania is more complicated. It's clearly part of Sorrentino's design to keep Tania a mystery, and for long stretches of the novel, that mystery draws us hypnotically in. However, in the end, we long for her character to precipitate out of the stories told about her, rather than to disperse like the airwaves that carry them. When Teko assaults her in an abandoned barn, we glimpse, suddenly, the woman she's become, but her early days with the SLA - those weeks in a closet, her indoctrination, the rape alluded to above - remain frustratingly opaque. Perhaps this is Sorrentino's nod to the ultimate unknowability of Patty Hearst's motivations, even to herself.Still, in its capacious interiority, Trance recovers a time when it seemed possible, however briefly, that a new age was about to begin... and that individual actions could bring it into being. It recovers, more specifically, that time's violent conclusion. That these 1970s - full of bank robberies and kidnappings and assassination plots and wars real and imagined - can seem, from 2007, a more innocent time only speaks to the size of their legacy.
A cursory glance at my 2006 reading list and I'm one scream away from seeking therapy. I'm all over the map, really. I couldn't even begin to explain the path that led me from Jonathan Coe's epic comic/psycho-drama/mystery The Winshaw Legacy (aka What A Carve Up!) to Jonathan Lethem's hallucinatory sci-fi Amnesia Moon, to Kenneth J. Harvey's tough, stylistically ground-breaking Inside, told from the point of view of a just-released convict, freshly cleared on DNA evidence - not guilty (but far from innocent).Along the way, Philip Roth's American Pastoral made me rethink modern history, Graham Greene's The Power and The Glory introduced me to a whiskey priest in Mexico's past, and William Boyd's An Ice Cream War took me back further still, to World War I as it affected the lives of colonists in what are now Tanzania and Kenya.All great, but what lingers the most:Re-reading J.P. Donleavy's A Fairy Tale of New York which Andrew Saikali (that would be me) previously described as the story of "an educated rascal with an appetite for life, intertwined with social satire."And especially stumbling upon Gustave Flaubert's Flaubert In Egypt, his actual journey, at age 27, along the Nile, told through journal entries and letters home that are passionate and ribald, frustrated and clear-eyed. To quote, um, myself (in a previous post), "Flaubert In Egypt pulls together these various strands and stands at once as 19th century Egyptian travelogue, youthful memoir, geopolitical Middle Eastern history, and literary artifact - the nexus of Flaubert the youthful romantic and Flaubert the keen-eyed realist."
It creeps up on me in the middle of a Friday, like the gnawing sensation of possibly having left the oven on: I haven't been reading enough Lynne Tillman. Thus I don't know if there's a precedent for this charming, maddening, brilliant, painstaking, and utterly mesmeric book. Certainly, there are shades of Hemingway and Stein and Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance here, passages on textiles reminiscent of W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, Jamesian syntactical snarls. But the voice of Tillman's fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, strikes me as sui generis. And it is the voice, gradually and then suddenly, that gives this novel its form, its heft, its suspense, and its unique quality of beguilement.Along the way, American Genius offers an effulgent answer to the question Benjamin Kunkel posed in N+1's recent symposium on American writing: Whither the psychological novel? The opening pages throw us into the mind of an as-yet-unnamed narrator who muses on food, farts, Eames chairs, the Manson family, her own family, and skin, among other things. In fact, this woman's consciousness acts not like a brain but like a skin - "the body's largest organ," she points out. That is, her genius is not for solving problems, but for registering them. She is, as she puts it, "sensitive." Which is another way of saying clinically neurotic. She has trouble living in her own skin, and retreats to the life of the mind.Eavesdropping on her quotidian obsessions, we slowly gather that she is middle-aged, that she has studied and taught American history, and that she has endured the loss of many loved ones. And, importantly, we learn that she has checked in to an enigmatic New England retreat for scholars, all of whom seem to be in crisis somehow - Chataqua via The Magic Mountain. An eccentric cast of characters - a man who, like my college roommate, lives nocturnally; a woman longing to commune with Kafka's dead lover, a man who lugs his laptop to breakfast - seems to promise drama, or, like the title, comedy. The precise nature of this scholarly colony, and the narrator's precise reasons for being there, hover at the periphery of her consciousness, and thus at the periphery of the novel. But, in the absence of a traditional plot, our questions - Why did the narrator's brother run away from home? What is the nature of her crisis? Why this obsession with dermatology? - serve as hooks, drawing us deep into the fabric of the prose.And what prose it is. Unlike some other experimental novels, American Genius unfolds in sentences so clear as to be pellucid. Like a sensitive skin, Tillman's language registers every flicker of doubt, every shift in the book's emotional weather. Simple clauses, phrased perfectly and spliced with Kafkan commas, double back to bite their own tails, or to measure the tension between past and present, or to erupt, via figures of speech, into fullness of feeling. Here, for example, is the narrator - Helen, it turns out (surely not the Helen of Tillman's earlier novel Cast in Doubt?)- ruminating on therapeutic massage:When I'm in the place I call home, where I have a young wild cat and an old, frail mother who may or may not miss me, I see a Japanese therapeutic masseuse, whose attitude toward the body is vastly different from the Polish cosmetician's, who twice has massaged me with gentle strength and kneaded my body respectfully, though she may not respect it or me. The Japanese masseuse acts against my body, she forces it to comply, as if trouncing a truculent enemy, and I can see her wringing her hands and canvassing my legs before moving toward them, to exact revenge.And here is Helen remembering her father:I watched my father charcoal broil while sitting on the grass or on the poured concrete steps that led from the blue and gray slate patio to the storm door to the back of the house, where my mother pushed her arm through the glass, and he was happy broiling steak over a fire, which he composed of briquettes and newspaper but never doused with fuel, which would, he explain, ignite it quickly but ruin its taste.The cumulative effect of these quiet surfaces, punctured by the abrupt humor of the masseuse's imaginary adversary or the horror of the mother pushing her arm through the glass door, is at once soothing and hair-raising. The reader is charmed and made anxious, as Helen is. Her sentences, apparently evenhanded, turn out to be deeply subjective, and in the spaces between periods, much is repressed, withheld, or held for later. Ultimately, we come to know her not as we know characters in novels, but as we know others, or ourselves... which is to say deeply and incompletely, intimately and mysteriously.But American Genius does not merely aspire to the level of character study or prose experiment. By juxtaposing Helen's personal concerns with her scholarly ones - or, more aptly, razing the distinction between the two - Tillman is concerned to craft a national novel. "I wanted to go for it," she tells Geoffrey O'Brien in a Bomb Magazine interview, "[to] fully write about who and where we are - or, even, how to think about being an American now." There is a feminist daring in the way Tillman goes about her work, eschewing battle scenes or historical pastiche in favor of awkward encounters in the colony's dining hall, private memories of watching the Kennedys on TV. Still, as in Mary Gaitskill's Veronica - a book whose form and mission complement this one's - a vivid sense of the Zeitgeist emerges. Tillman reaches the apogee of her powers in bravura passages where world-historical events and painful memories and wry observational comedy are all braided together, shot through with Helen's obliquely sad sensibility. And when events in the residents conspire, as they must, to goad Helen out of her inertial rut, the smallest action feels charged with the weight of centuries.In case I haven't made this clear already: Lynne Tillman is a writer in full command of her effects. I am reminded of my recent and belated discovery of the short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg Twilight of the Superheroes, who also made me want to kick myself for having overlooked her work for so long. These writers' mastery is so evident (and so hard-won), that to critique either feels almost like arguing with her sensibility.Nonetheless, I'm contractually obligated to record my quibbles (that is, Max has me chained in the basement here at The Millions and is withholding my gruel). The first - really more of an open question - concerns the deployment of Helen's considerable erudition. Usually, her factual disquisitions seem to spring organically from her private fixations - that is, from her character. Nonetheless, I found some of the more undigested chunks of learning, particularly those explaining various medical conditions, to be slack places in the novel. At times, I felt the hand of the writer directing her narrator's consciousness to areas of thematic fertility. Is Tillman researching this? I thought. Or is Helen thinking it spontaneously? Given the generally seamless illusion of life created here, calling attention to its status as a composed artifact felt like a mistake, however interesting. These bumpy passages generally smoothed themselves out after page 100, and perhaps it's a case of the book teaching one how to read it. Nonetheless, in a novel as deserving of broad readership as this one is, the dips into the encyclopedic may present barriers to entry.Another initial hurdle arises from the setting. As a present-tense peg on which to hang the narrator's past, the constrained environment of the intellectual colony at first seems to limit the book's dramatic possibilities. As in a campus novel, there's a faint plumminess to the surroundings, and one wonders how Tillman will reconcile the ambitions of the title - American Genius - with a setting so socially attenuated... so uppercrust. That she does is a testament to her immense gifts. The novel took possession of me about a third of the way through, when Helen decided to explore beyond the confines of the colony. And it didn't let go until the end. Even afterward, at night, in bed, I've found myself missing the cadences of Helen's sentences, the surprising and bewildering turns of her mind.Unlike some other ambitious novels I can think of, American Genius doesn't require that the reader be a genius, too. It doesn't try to overwhelm its audience - at least not with shock and awe tactics. Nor does it condescend to us. What it does require is patience. Readers eager for plot, dialogue, characters delivered in a single stroke... the sturdy appurtenances of conventional fiction, will have to open themselves to American Genius, to surrender to its magic, to trust. But they will be richly rewarded. And perhaps even changed.Sidebar: Recent "American" Novels:American Purgatorio by John Haskell (2004)American Desert (2004) by Percival EverettAmerican Skin (2000) by Don De GraziaIn America (2000) by Susan SontagPurple America (1997) by Rick MoodyAmerican Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth
A new issue of Scott's excellent "Quarterly Conversation" is out. It contains a list of the "Books Since 1990," and I can vouch for Scott when he writes that he conceived the idea for the list well before the New York Times put out its similar list. In the introduction, Scott writes that he is making no claims that these books are the "best," which is so often the silly, attention-grabbing hook of such lists. Scott polled several literary types, and when he asked me to participate, he asked for the "best" books, but I think the point Scott is making is that throwing together a bunch of individuals' "best books" lists isn't how one determines which books are "The Best." Instead we learn which books are part of the shared consciousness of a group of readers, which I think is interesting as well. It's a tough line to toe, but I appreciate Scott's effort not to announce that the books in his list are "The Best."Which isn't to say that I agree entirely with the books named on his list, which I think in some cases skews obscure or difficult for the sake of obscurity and difficulty. At the same time, I do appreciate knowing which books people think it is important to highlight, and am glad of the opportunity to be newly introduced to such books.As one of the contributors, I thought I might present my selections for the list in case anyone is curious. A few initial caveats in addition to the points below. I fully admit that my picks are mainstream, but I tend to believe - with very rare and notable exceptions - that quality work tends to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace and thus becomes by some measure "popular," and second I have not read all the books I nominated (though I'd like to), but drew from conversations with fellow readers and from my perception of which books are most important to the serious readers I know. Third, it's very, very likely that as I read more from the contemporary era, this list will change (and it is important when looking at such lists to remember that they are fluid). And finally, I readily recognize that my selections exhibit a woeful lack of diversity; however, this is not to say that I only read books by white men, it's just to say that white men happened to write eight of the ten books that I selected for this exercise. On to my selections along with the number of votes each book got:2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones (I'm shocked that I'm the only person who nominated this book. Of all the books that I've read from this era, I think this one is hands down the best and will go on to be a classic.) (1)2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (I believe the hype. I think this book is an important chronicle of contemporary American life.) (2)1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo (5)2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2)2002, Atonement by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite books ever.) (4)1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1)2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (2)2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Proof that an entertaining read can and should be quality fiction.) (1)1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth (3)1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Of the three books by Boyle that stand out from the rest, Tortilla Curtain is the only one written after 1990. The other two books are World's End and Water Music.) (1)
The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one's yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year's National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of "big name" literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I'd love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)
Today I happened to walk by one of those thrift stores connected to a hospital, and, thinking they might have a couple of shelves of books, I decided to stop in. I'm glad I did. The books were way in the back in this weird garage-like annex, and the room smelled pretty bad. This made browsing unpleasant, but I had a theory that the odor might have kept prospective shoppers out - more books for me. The store was also right on with their pricing: 50 cents for paperbacks and a dollar for hardcovers, which, in my opinion, should be the standard pricing scheme if the customer has to sift through messy, disorganized shelves. The selection turned out to be pretty great, and I had to restrict myself to only the best books I could find - books that I was surprised enough to see on the shelves that I felt passing them up would be criminal, so I ended up leaving a lot of pretty good stuff behind. If I had bought everything I wanted, I would have had a hard time getting home on the el, and furthermore, empty bookshelf space is somewhat scarce in my apartment these days. So it was only the cream of the crop for me.I grabbed three hardcovers: The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez. I was working at the bookstore when the poker craze started getting pretty big, and this classic from 1983 was one of the books we recommended to people wanting to read up on the game. I also found a copy of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, which I've been told is one of his best. And I was delighted to spot baseball guru Bill James' out of print treatise on the Hall of Fame, Politics of Glory. I also snagged a pocket paperback edition of John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy. All in all, a pretty good haul.