Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has changed readers’ lives for generations, but for one man in particular, the epic novel saved his life. Over at NPR, we learn the story of Mohamed Barud, a man who was sentenced to life in prison in Somalia for complaining about the conditions at the local hospital. During the years of his imprisonment, he exchanged knocks on the wall with an inmate in the next cell, creating a code for each letter of the alphabet. And, in this way, Barud read the entirety of Anna Karenina to the prisoner next door. “”[Barud] says it didn’t matter how different their lives seemed. This 19th-century Russian noblewoman seemed to be suffering exactly as he was. An honest suffering drives her into a state that Mohamed most feared for himself. Anna throws herself under a train and regrets it at the last moment. ‘I really cried. I felt for her.'”
In Hilary Mantel’s award winning Tudor trilogy, she has a grand total of five characters named Thomas, three Catherines, three Marys, and two Annes. How does Mantel juggle the task of writing these characters without confusing the reader? For The Atlantic, Nina Martyris examines books that are rife with characters with similar-sounding names, including One Hundred Years of Solitude and Anna Karenina. “The overlapping of names is an all-too-common occurrence in life,” writes Martryis. “True, it can cause confusion (especially for the accounts department), but if fiction’s grand purpose is the mimesis of la condition humaine, shouldn’t writers be nudged to accommodate this inconvenient reality, rather than dodge it for fear of taxing the reader?”
“One of the Big Apple’s most celebrated sons,” the BBC once described Paul Auster. “A literary giant.” Auster, the screenwriter of four films (and director of three), hit a knockout with Smoke. The 1995 classic is a lovely, emotional look at Auggie Wren’s Brooklyn community smoke shop. The early icon of Brooklyn literary cool is a novelist and essayist, translator and poet, and much more.
Over the phone from his Park Slope home studio, Siri Hustvedt’s husband is a generous, avuncular interviewee, speaking musically in that distinctive voice chiselled by a lifetime of fine cigars. The author of five autobiographies brings the frankness his memoirs like The Invention of Solitude are known for. As in his best writing: Auster is cerebral and elegant, passionate and precise. Having inspired younger stars from Jonathan Lethem to Karl Ove Knausgård, he remains a varied, engaging storyteller. (The co-director of Blue in The Face — starring Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch — has film in a number of his novels, like The Book of Illusions.)
4321, his first novel in seven years, runs 866 pages, peppered with traumatic 20th-century American history, from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the Attica prison riots. It charts four alternative lives for protagonist Archie Ferguson, Newark-born in 1947.
Despite America’s grim political moment, Auster is persuasive about humanity’s capacity for imagination and transcendence, and the future of good books.
The Millions: Smoke begins with that beautiful, inviting shot of Brooklyn looking back to the twin towers.
Paul Auster: I know, I know [elegiacally].
TM: On 9/11 I was in St. Dizier, one of the worst dumps in France. Seeing you on TV, saying that you thought New York was going to be okay, was reassuring. Now, as your wife Siri Hustvedt put it in The Guardian: “When fascism comes to America, they will call it Americanism,” and “Reality didn’t matter.”
PA: Siri’s written some very powerful pieces during and after the campaign. We’re both galvanized, I must say, and we’re digging in our heels and we’re going to try to do as much as we can, and stay as vigilant as we can. Trump ran on division, hatefulness, and the desire to smash everything to bits, which is, I think, unprecedented in American history.
We think our institutions are very solid, but not necessarily, and you keep attacking them, then suddenly the foundations are going to collapse, and then we’re in for real trouble. I don’t want to go on and on about Trump and his cabinet appointments, but pretty much everyone he’s picked so far is someone who has made a career out of trying to dismantle the very agency he’s supposed to lead. So, we’re in for a very weird, weird time. The Environmental Protection Agency is there to protect the environment and if the person in charge of it doesn’t believe in it, then how can he be the head of it? This is the absurd impasse we’ve come to now, where somehow it seems legitimate to millions of people in the country to take apart everything we’ve tried to build up all these years. And for what?
TM: I like how 4321 is spiced with dramatic 20th-century American history: the Vietnam War, JFK’s assassination, the Attica prison riots, Rockefeller drug laws, ‘68 Columbia University protests. Referring to the Newark race riots in 1967, you said: “I did see that colonel from the Jersey State Police saying those terrible things about ‘wanting to kill every black bastard in the city’. It was horrifying.” Starting with grotesque Birtherism, Trump has unleashed this shocking old racism.
PA: It goes back to the very early days of America. The pity is that Obama’s election, I felt at the time, was maybe our finest hour as a country. What a man he is, Obama! Sadly his election created such a reaction among a big swamp of the white population in America: they demonized him from the instant he took office and opposed every single thing he tried to do, and insulted him, denigrated him and he stood up to all of that, for eight years, with remarkable dignity. I’m so impressed by it. The man is truly extraordinary. It’s not that I agree with all his policies, he’s much more moderate than I am, but the human qualities of this man are so admirable. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone of this stature and moral integrity as this president, Obama. So, I’m going to miss him terribly, I must say.
TM: Trumpism, like the traumatic times in 4321, reminds me of an enduring line from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
PA: Our country is built on these two primal sins: the sin of slavery and the sin of genocide, and I think we can’t really become a fully functioning, mature country unless we own up to how we started.
TM: You have a history — partly in your leadership role through PEN as an advocate for free speech — of challenging Trumpish authoritarians, like the Turkish dictator Erdoğan. That must have been a real accolade for you in 2012 when he slammed you as an “ignorant man,” after you protested his jailing of writers?
PA: A couple of years later, I met one of the journalists who had been in prison at the time, and he had come to New York because he was getting an award from the excellent Committee to Protect Journalists. He told me when my statement was published in the Turkish paper, he and all the other prisoners in the prison where he was incarcerated started cheering. So, it does matter to speak up. It really makes a difference. As part of my response to Trump, I decided recently to take on the presidency of American PEN in a year. I’m going to do as much as I can do: Speak out about all these things.
TM: Under Trumpism, some leftists are rediscovering the importance of free speech. You and Salman Rushdie, unlike some writers, stood in support of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.
PA: Yes, that was an issue that divided American PEN in ways that I would never have predicted and lifelong friendships were shattered in this dispute. I still don’t understand, I can’t get my mind around the people who oppose giving Charlie Hebdo the award. Seems like such a simple matter: martyrs for free speech deserve to be recognised, but these people had another point of view, which I didn’t agree with. Free speech is a black-and-white issue. There is no grey. Once you start making exceptions, then there is no more free speech. The people arguing against the award said that Charlie Hebdo engaged in what we would call hate speech, but I don’t agree with this. They were just obnoxiously making fun of everybody, and they were never singling out any one group for attack. They were opposed to everything and there’s something healthy about that, I think.
TM: “You want to burn up and destroy all your previous work; you want to reinvent yourself with every project…You have to challenge yourself,” you once told Jonathan Lethem. Does that still speak to your creative instinct?
PA: I’m happy to hear these words read right back to me. They’re very forceful, true. I still subscribe to them wholeheartedly. You dry up if you keep repeating yourself. It’s useless.
TM: Jonathan Lethem, for his part, is sharp on sex: “I couldn’t agree more that the dirty secret of the [American] contemporary mass culture self-image is that we flatter ourselves on being extremely jaded and sophisticated, but we’re awfully prim and censorious and Victorian about so many different things.” For example, a politician involved in a consensual sex scandal, everyone’s so disgusted they need to know every last detail.
PA: Siri and I were highly amused when the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky thing broke, how the press seemed to act as if no one has ever had sex before. The disdain that people showed for him engaging in whatever it was he did, really was the height of hypocrisy. As if no member of the press has ever had an affair outside of his or her marriage. It becomes ridiculous and America is a country of tremendous hypocrisy in these matters. More so I think than any other country in the West. I mean Mitterrand, the president of France, had two families and everyone left him alone about that. They knew but they didn’t care. It’s his private business. As long as he’s not sleeping with a, I don’t know, a Russian agent, he can do whatever he wants.
TM: Speaking of Siri, in her essay “A Plea for Eros,” she wrote that “American feminism has always had a puritanical streak, an imposed blindness to erotic truth.”
PA: She’s right. Siri is someone unafraid to talk about these things in her work, and more power to her.
TM: There’s quite a lot of sex in 4321. Any comment you’d make on the nexus between sex and creativity?
PA: Ooh, what a big question that is. Sex is, of course, fundamental to all of us. It’s probably the most interesting subject in the world. I’ve noticed, over the years, my ability to write about it more fully. In my early novels, not so much. People were having erotic encounters, but I’d never described it at much length. In some books, more recently, I’ve been able to do that. I’ve been fascinated by it, to tell you the truth. Nothing I’ve written could be said to be just about eroticism. But there are erotic components to most of my books.
I suppose the most erotically charged thing I’ve ever written is in the novel Invisible, when there’s this affair described between a brother and a sister. But whether it really happens or not is not clear in the narrative. But I remember feeling that I had to go into another zone altogether in my mind and just knock down all fear of squeamishness or prudery and go there, because if I didn’t then the passages would have been useless. I mean it’s not that they’re obscene, these passages. I’m not talking about pornography, but I’m talking about an accurate description, I hope, of erotic experience.
4321, yes there are sex scenes in the book. But all of them are crucial to the story, and because the book’s so complex, because I have a protagonist who’s not just one person but four, there are four of my Archie Fergusons, each one living his own parallel life, having different experiences from the other three. One of them, as a young person, has a bisexual life and I never went into any of that material before and certainly it’s not autobiographical.
Writing about violence, too. Things I’ve never done myself, but it’s not hard to imagine how someone can lose control of himself and do awful things, violent things to another person.
TM: When The Tortilla Curtain came out, some people attacked T.C. Boyle for appropriation, despite his sympathy and skill evoking the undocumented Mexican experience.
PA: Nobody owns the imagination. If we didn’t have the power to project ourselves into the minds and bodies of other people, people unlike us, I don’t think there would be such a thing as society. We wouldn’t be able to communicate. The whole idea of being a person is the fact that once you reach a certain level of mental and emotional maturity, you’re able to look at yourself from the outside. You’re able to see yourself as one person among many. Millions, in fact. Which then you take that one step further and you realize then you have to have the ability to project yourself onto others in order to try to understand them. Either sympathize with them, empathize with them, however you want to define it, but without that quality we wouldn’t be human beings. So, every time I hear someone get up and say: “You can only write novels about people exactly like yourself,” they’re saying that there is no such thing as the imagination. Which means people are not people [Laughs].
TM: “So then only men could write about men, only women could write about women. Only dogs could write about dogs. It becomes a kind of fascism in itself,” T.C. Boyle responds.
PA: That’s right. It’s truly absurd. Getting back to Tolstoy, then he wouldn’t have been allowed to write Anna Karenina. I mean these are absurd arguments and yet people actually do make these arguments, and I’ve always been appalled to hear them.
TM: What do you hope 4321 might accomplish?
PA: I wrote the book, now it doesn’t belong to me anymore. I mean, needless to say, every writer hopes that every human being on the face of the Earth will read his book, but that doesn’t happen.
TM: It’s heartening that good books and independent book stores seem to be doing well.
PA: Yes, absolutely. The novel has been pronounced dead, I guess, maybe 50 million times in the last 100 years, but it’s still thriving. The novel is one of the only places in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. We need storytelling in order to understand our own lives and I don’t think that this impulse to create fiction– and to read it — is ever going to go away. Paper books are better technology. It’s more pleasant to read a book and turn the pages than to push buttons on a screen. The novelty of this has died out now and sales of e-books have leveled off now for several years. Paper books are very much alive and will continue to be alive.
TM: Do you hope to write till your last day, like Wayne Barrett and George Orwell did?
PA: I hope so. Of course, George Orwell didn’t live very long. He died at 46, when I think I’m about to turn 70. It’s quite a difference. Yes, I want to keep going. I don’t see how artists can retire, really.
1. American Graffiti Abroad
My wife and I started watching Gilmore Girls in Helsinki when our first daughter was a toddler. My wife is Finnish, and the show has been with us through the childhoods of all four of our kids.
For better or worse, American high school is now an international experience, shared around the world. My three daughters and one son are all in Finnish grade school or preschool, but many of the rituals of teen America have already entered their imagination, just as they entered mine when I was a boy in Seattle and D.C. Helsinki mean girls operate differently from Hollywood’s Mean Girls, yet the movie helps frame the concept of teen cruelty here, just as Heathers and The Virgin Suicides help frame international views of why teens kill themselves. My own kids, from their distant Nordic nook, love Ferris Bueller and Willow Rosenberg, and they’re primed for American-flavored teen adventures they might never have.
Out of all the teenagers Hollywood has launched overseas, Rory Gilmore — the main character of Gilmore Girls — is the one I like best, at least in her high school years. It’s not just that she’s smart and fiercely dedicated to literature and learning. The teenage Rory has her weak points: her mistreatment of Dean, her self-absorption, her cluelessness about some of her impulses. In general, though, she maintains a core of common decency and fair play while facing off against a series of narcissistic little tyrants. The show’s central joke is the comedy of the bookish and reasonable Rory holding her own against people who bully everyone around them.
2. The Dorothy Parker Reader
Across the Internet you can find lists of all the books Rory read or talked about over the series’ seven seasons, which originally ran between 2000 and 2006. The lists conjure up not so much the millennial preferences of Rory’s generation as the Baby Boomer preferences of the series’ talented creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The novels are almost all safe, traditional choices, from Madame Bovary and Moby Dick to The Metamorphosis and Ulysses.
If Rory’s literary leanings tend to be old-fashioned, they reflect a larger retrograde bent in the series. As Rahawa Haile has deftly documented, the show reserves almost all its speaking roles for white actors, and compounds the problem by casting actors of color mainly as silent tokens. The town of Stars Hollow has less cultural variety than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and Rory’s classics-oriented reading choices can’t even make room for, say, The Tale of Genji or The Blind Owl. While Finland doesn’t have quite the same culture wars as the U.S., it faces similar problems with the rise of rightwing hate groups, and the overwhelming whiteness of Stars Hollow — like the whiteness of the casts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek — now looks more obtuse and offensive with each passing year. When I watch Gilmore Girls these days, Rory’s fixation on famous old novels by famous old authors feels less quaint and more ominous — more like a reinforcement of Europe’s new line of bigoted and belligerent reactionary nationalists.
Still, I’m wary of generalizing about the ways Europeans absorb U.S. films and TV shows, because America’s influence cuts in so many different and contradictory directions here. From a Nordic perspective, for instance, it’s obvious that Rory would join most Finns in opposing the EU’s current assortment of jingoist demagogues, and would fight back against the attempts of those demagogues to use her favorite authors for their narrow political purposes. Also, Gilmore Girls is popular in Finland in part because this is a nation of readers, and I know two young Helsinki journalists who — despite their anger at America for our military and economic activities — found Rory’s love for books an inspiration when they were growing up.
After all, how many other TV teenagers can convince you they’ve not only read Anna Karenina and Swann’s Way but have made their reading a part of their decisions and their personality? Rory’s books aren’t just fashion accessories, as they are with most TV characters. Her relationship with Jess turns on him filching her copy of Howl and then proving he can catch the Charles Dickens reference she makes (“Dodger”). At the same time, we see some of the limits of her connection with Dean when she tries to teach him how to read Leo Tolstoy.
More broadly, her devotion to the writing of Dorothy Parker sharpens Rory’s natural ear for snappy dialogue — and this isn’t simply an aesthetic preference but the key to her entire approach to life. She values good talk because she values the ability to connect with other people and to have them connect with her. The contrast between Rory’s sleepy-eyed manner and her Parker-like flair for keeping a conversation in play is a major part of the show’s appeal. Her closest friendships — with Lorelai, Lane and Paris — are built on quick, casual banter. The jokes aren’t laboriously set up for a punchline in the old sitcom style. They dart along, one after another, easy and light and always moving on. Trying a video game with Lane, Rory says: “So this is what teenage boys are doing instead of watching television? Seems like a lateral move.” When Rory reacts to a comment from Lane by saying, “Sarcasm does not become you,” Lane answers, “No, but it does sustain me,” and keeps talking. In season three, Lorelai tries to suss out the degree of Rory’s interest in Jess: “Okay, now let’s say he’s in the house and there’s a fire, and you can save either him or your shoes — which is it?” Rory hedges, saying: “That depends. Did he start the fire?” Rory and Lorelai can’t stand together at a checkout line without slipping into their usual patter:
Lorelai: I hate crossword puzzles. They make me feel stupid.
Rory: Then don’t do them.
Lorelai: But if you don’t do them, you’re not only stupid—you’re also a coward.
Rory: Or you’ve got better things to do with your time.
Lorelai: You think people buy that?
Rory: The people who line up on a daily basis and ask you if you do crossword puzzles and then when you say no, challenge you as to why? Yes, I think they will buy it.
Lorelai and Rory are, famously, best friends as well as mother and daughter. Their friendship has its problems, but at its heart is the pleasure of their conversations. They’re bound to each other by language, their feel for the rhythms of each other’s phrases. Gilmore Girls belongs to the tradition of the great screwball comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and Talk of the Town: the skill of the writing is largely in the lightness of the touch.
3. Early Rory
Lauren Graham plays Rory’s mother to perfection: she makes Lorelai wickedly charismatic. Driven and resourceful and a bit devilish, Lorelai typically sports a big knowing grin that’s up for all kinds of mischief. She takes command of the series 30 seconds into the first episode, when she looks at diner owner Luke Danes with the profound desire of someone who needs her next cup of coffee and will stop at nothing to get it. She’s a treat, and she brings a delirious energy both to her work as an innkeeper and to her love for Rory.
Yet she’s also a bit of a monster. She insists that Rory tell her everything, and places practical and emotional demands on her daughter that would break many children. Pregnant at 16, Lorelai ran away from her rich parents and rich boyfriend to raise Rory on her own. Lorelai envisions Rory’s future as a rebuke to the privileged Gilmore background — though another of the show’s nice comic touches is its recognition of how much this background defines Lorelai and Rory, and how heavily they still rely on it. Lorelai has encouraged Rory’s childhood dream of going to Harvard, and together they’ve built Rory’s life around reaching that dream.
It’s a potentially ugly situation for Rory, especially since Lorelai has a habit of bending others to her will. As Rory, Alexis Bledel lacks Lauren Graham’s I-can-do-anything-I-want-with-a-line acting chops, but her unnervingly serene demeanor brings something original to the mix. She’s quietly compelling when she spars with her mother, and usually acts like the adult in the relationship. Lorelai, with her playful eat-the-world smile, is like an insanely cheerful cartoon character turning the barrels of a Gatling gun, shooting out swirls of rapid-fire sentences and mowing down anyone in her path. Rory is less overwhelming, but she knows how to put forward her opinions. In her low-key fashion, she refuses to let her voice get lost in the onslaught of Lorelai’s presence. She’s much tougher than people assume, and this makes listening to her a constant pleasure.
Rory prefers to work things out, to understand the other person’s position and find a shared solution. Lorelai’s nature is simply to push and push until she gets what she wants, even if it often turns out she doesn’t want what she gets. During the first three seasons of the show, when Rory is a student at the pricey private school Chilton, Lorelai and she bring out the best in each other. If Lorelai is a great mother — one of the most complex and intriguing parents on television — she owes part of her success to Rory’s strength of character. Not every child would’ve prospered under the Lorelai Gilmore regime.
4. Occupying Paris
In high school, as Rory goes from bewildered outsider to top student, we see her at her best. Standing up to her mother has taught her how to stand up to the other megalomaniacs she meets: most notably, the immortal Paris Geller.
My kids are wild about Paris, and they’ve got a point. Paris is so mercurial—and Liza Weil inhabits the role with such virtuosity—that the character delivers comic bliss. Paris alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, between feeling superior to everyone and feeling crushed by her own inadequacy. She has a dazzlingly unhinged compulsion to scold people, and to control their every thought and deed.
As editor of the Chilton newspaper, Paris tries to sabotage Rory by giving her a lame assignment, a piece on repaving the school parking lot. Rory buckles down and does a good job on the article, and then confronts Paris directly. With calm force she explains that nothing Paris does will make her quit the paper. It’s the turning point in their relationship. Able to strike sensible compromises and work well in hostile circumstances, Rory also shows she can fight back when Paris is malicious or unreasonable. Bit by bit, Paris is impressed, and eventually becomes one of Rory’s best friends.
Rory’s success with Paris mirrors her success with the other little dictators in the series, like her charming but domineering grandparents Emily and Richard, and the pompous Stars Hollow autocrat Taylor Doose. (It’s easy for Europeans to imagine that if Taylor were French he’d be a Marine Le Pen supporter, and if he were Danish he’d vote DPP.) In situation after situation, Rory demonstrates the strength behind her decency, the ability to defend herself and assert her viewpoint while winning over those who at first want to control or hurt her. She lives out a fantasy of good faith—of a world where understanding beats aggression, and where intelligence and compassion defeat unfairness and cruelty.
5. The Corleone Connection
Gilmore Girls is full of references to The Godfather, and Lorelai and Rory quote from the film repeatedly. The first three seasons of the show set up the possibilities for Rory’s future so we can watch her, in seasons four through six, grow increasingly unbalanced and misguided. She’s the Stars Hollow version of Michael Corleone: she changes from a fresh and appealing college student to someone who has lost her way, becoming a dark and negative image of her former self. In season five she drops out of Yale, cuts off contact with Lorelai, and devotes her time to Emily’s social circles and a relationship with the rich and creepy Logan. The change is nightmarish to watch, because we can see our own bad decisions in her, and our own fears about what we might become. Even after she returns to Yale, she keeps dating Logan, and it’s clear she still hasn’t fully come out of the crisis that started when Logan’s father told her she doesn’t have what it takes to be a journalist.
Because of a contract dispute, Sherman-Palladino left the series before its seventh and final season, and she was never able to finish Rory’s story. Now, thanks to the show’s popularity on Netflix, Sherman-Palladino has had the chance to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a revival in four 90-minute parts. She’s gone back to her original conception, and to her old plans for Rory. The revival is ambitious, and compared to the series, it places the emphasis much more on drama than on comedy.
The Rory we now find, 10 years after we last saw her, is slowly disintegrating, and we follow her as she falls apart. Her journalism career has stalled, and she seems to have lost the ability to finish an article or even pitch an idea. Some reviewers have blasted Rory for her lack of professionalism, but we know from her years on the Yale Daily News that the mistakes she’s making aren’t due to ignorance or stupidity. She’s sabotaging herself, and part of her knows it while part of her denies it.
At the same time, she’s carrying on a degrading affair with Logan, who’s engaged to someone else. The revival takes pains to show that Rory’s view of Logan is a fantasy, a damaging illusion. The long party sequence with Logan and his friends is a dream: at the start, a sign magically changes from the word “Flowers” to the word “Tonight,” and the sequence closes with Rory caught in a burlesque of Dorothy’s farewells in The Wizard of Oz. This is the Logan she wants to believe in, a Gatsby/Kennedy hybrid who would care enough to give her a final night of Jazz Age entertainment. The real Logan is much colder: he lets Rory break things off with him over the phone and simply goes on with his life. Always polite, always superficially concerned, he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort with her.
The revival’s last four words, which Sherman-Palladino always planned to use for the final scene of the series, turn out to be chilling. Rory says she’s pregnant, and since the baby is probably Logan’s, the effect is grim. Rory’s transformation is complete. The girl who planned to leave Stars Hollow and become an overseas correspondent is gone, replaced by this eerie ghost-Rory who might never find her way forward again.
The ending isn’t hopeless. Rory has started writing a book about her relationship with her mother, Chilton has proposed a job for her as a teacher, and her connection with Lorelai is strong. You can picture a happy future for Rory, if you want. Still, the overall mood of the revival is bleak, and the darkness that always hovered behind the comedy of Gilmore Girls has now swallowed everything else.
This makes the revival very much a show for our time. We’ve all sensed it, of course, these past few years: the feeling of disaster in the air, of violence and anger and a rampant, all-devouring bad faith. This isn’t an era when people like Rory flourish. Instead, they tend to fall into self-doubt and self-destruction, and to become as narcissistic and manipulative as the culture around them. Rory has always carried her share of flaws. We all do. If we don’t like what we see in her these days, it’s because Sherman-Palladino has been pitiless about showing what can happen to us when we go bad. The Gilmore Girls revival is an odd, somber way to end a series that built its reputation on quick-witted comic brio. Sherman-Palladino has shifted us from the realm of Dorothy Parker to the scarier and more disorienting realm of Jean Rhys — and the revival makes Rory’s teen years now look heartbreaking in their wasted promise.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
Richard Vine has a day job, a very good one. He’s managing editor of Art in America magazine, where he has written hundreds of articles about Chinese ink art, the Chicago Imagists, photographers from Mali, Korean sculptures installed in the gardens at Versailles, and the way art subsidies work in Singapore. Now Vine has a new entry on his globe-spanning resume: noir novelist.
Vine’s debut novel, SoHo Sins, has just been published by the Hard Case Crime series, and it’s a terrific addition to the pulp tradition, which Charles Ardai, a co-founder of Hard Case, summed up this way: “There’s a body on page one. The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture.”
SoHo Sins checks all the boxes. The moody cover art is by Robert Maguire, a prolific illustrator who produced more than 600 pulp covers beginning in the mid-20th century. It shows a man in a fedora and trench coat in a darkened alley, looming over a seated blonde in a red dress, a fallen woman in obvious distress. There’s a dead body in the opening sentence: “I slept rather badly the first few nights after Amanda’s murder.” And the story that unspools from there, as narrated by the suavely decadent SoHo art dealer and real estate speculator Jackson Wyeth, is a wonderful blend of high art and low-down deeds, a whodunit with room for de Kooning paintings and child pornography, art biennials and back-room deals, millionaires and mistresses and murder. The novel spins around a question: did the mentally unstable art collector and tech millionaire Philip Oliver murder his socialite wife in their SoHo loft, as he claims, even though he was apparently in Los Angeles when the killer pulled the trigger?
The novel is set during the late 1980s or early1990s, when big money like Philip Oliver’s had begun to infect and distort the New York art scene. The money has gotten even more obscene in the ensuing quarter-century, partly because dealers like Jackson Wyeth have never been inclined to ask indelicate questions. “You can’t deal successfully in art if you dwell on where the money comes from and how it gets made,” the glib Wyeth says at one point. “I concern myself with my clients’ tastes and credit ratings, not their ethics.” The novel’s money-drunk art scene is described on the cover, in suitably breathless prose, as “a world of adultery and madness, of beautiful girls growing up too fast and men making fortunes and losing their minds. But even the worst the art world can imagine will seem tame when the final shattering secret is revealed…”
The worst the art world can imagine — those words are the key. Simply put, SoHo Sins succeeds because it was written by a man with a day job, a job that gives him intimate knowledge of how a subculture works – its personalities and preoccupations, its business practices, its styles, its silliness and occasional beauty and, above all, the ugly money that pumps through its rotten heart. You have to be inside such a world to plausibly imagine the worst it can imagine.
In America today it’s maddeningly difficult to make a living writing books, and it’s just about impossible to make a living writing fiction. That’s largely because the pool of writers is constantly growing while the pool of serious readers, especially readers of fiction, is constantly shrinking — never a good business model. As a result, all but a few writers of fiction have some sort of day job, which most of them view as a time-sucking, soul-crushing impediment to the making of their art.
But as Richard Vine has shown, a day job can be a counter-intuitive blessing to the writer of fiction. Since most people spend nearly half of their waking hours at work, the workplace would seem like natural and fertile ground for setting a novel. We already have more than enough novels, written in flawless, bloodless MFA prose, about a bunch of Oberlin grads struggling to find themselves in brownstone Brooklyn. As Jason Arthur pointed out on this site recently, we need more novels that draw on worlds where people do actual work — like the art dealers and pornographers and tycoons and cops in SoHo Sins, or the metal scrappers in Matt Bell’s Scrapper, the eco-saboteurs in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, the wheat-threshers in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the drug dealers in Richard Price’s Clockers, the admen in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, John le Carré’s spies, Elmore Leonard’s hard-working petty criminals, and the lonely department store clerks in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. These can be worlds the author knows first-hand, or they can be vividly imagined worlds of the past, such as the 17th-century Dutch commodity speculators in Davis Liss’s The Coffee Trader, or the Irish immigrant sandhogs who dug the New York City subway tunnels in Colum McCann’s This Side of Brightness.
The point is that a day job — as a commodities trader, say, or a construction worker or an art dealer — can be a way for a writer to admit readers to plausible, fully realized worlds that would otherwise be off-limits. Richard Vine grasps this. In a recent interview in Brooklyn Rail, Vine discussed how his day job informed his novel:
SoHo Sins, you might say, is a lament not for the art world that was, or is, but the art world that is rapidly emerging. By now, its corruption by unregulated wealth is almost complete; this book simply imaginatively extends present trends…My projection goes into the immediate past rather than the immediate future, but that reversal of vectors is just an amusing bit of game-play to help highlight the present.
An argument could be made that the art world today, ultimately dependent as it is on the buying decisions of a few super-rich individuals, is fatally tainted throughout. (Artnet.com reports a new financial scam almost every week.) Do some further digging, and the facts soon reveal that no one can become that rich, or maintain that level of inherited wealth, without being a moral criminal. Such disproportionate lucre is accumulated either through activities that are literally illegal or through the utterly unconscionable exploitation of employees, stockholders, taxpayers, and customers — an economic crime and a moral one.
A world that’s “fatally tainted throughout” — and populated with operators like Philip Oliver, who uses his tech company to both finance his art acquisitions and distribute child pornography around the world. Could there be a richer backdrop for a noir novel? And could there be a better person to write it than someone who has a day job on the inside, deep in the tainted shadows, where the dirty money does its work?
Hannah Gersen’s writing has appeared in North American Review, The Southern Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Granta, and The New York Times, and she joined The Millions as a staff writer in 2013. At that time she had recently given birth to her first child, and she was at work on her first novel. It’s being published this month by William Morrow, a major New York house. Which is to say that writerly dreams do come true.
Home Field is set in the fictional town of Willowboro in western Maryland, a stand-in for the town Gersen moved to at the age of 10, after spending her early years in Maine and New Hampshire. The novel opens with teenage Stephanie and her stepfather Dean, the revered coach of the Willowboro High School football team, riding horses in the woods near his father’s Pennsylvania farm. They hear the “mew” of distant sirens. When they get back to the farm, they learn that Stephanie’s mother has hanged herself in one of the barns.
So Home Field is the story of how a man, his stepdaughter and his two young sons deal — and fail to deal — with monstrous grief. The novel is also a knowing portrait of how it feels for a girl to come of age, how it feels to live in a suffocating small town, and how difficult it is to see that the love we need most is usually right in front of us, awaiting our embrace. It’s a remarkably assured and un-showy first novel, the work of a young writer with immense poise and immense promise. So go ahead and accuse me of logrolling, but I asked Hannah Gersen if she would be willing to talk about her book, first novelist jitters, and other subjects with a fellow staff writer for The Millions. She agreed, and on a scalding morning we met over iced coffees in the back courtyard of a café near her home in the harborside enclave of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
The Millions: The first thing I want to ask you is, how do you feel right now? Are you having kittens?
Hannah Gersen: I’m really nervous about what people will think. Also, I’ve never had a very big audience before. It’s a much bigger audience than I’ve ever had, so I just don’t know what that will be like.
TM: Are you going to do a book tour?
HG: I’m reading in a couple of places — in Winchester, Va., in a little bookstore in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I’m going to have a launch party down the street.
TM: Home Field is a family story. It’s about grief, it’s about a death in the family, how people cope with it or don’t cope with it. One of the things that really hit me was the fact that the writing is very un-fussy. I love that. So many first novelists do the “look-Ma-no-hands!” kind of writing. The writing here is very clear and clean. Did that just happen, or was it a conscious decision on your part to tone down the writing?
HG: Pretty conscious. I used to write a little fussier. I reread Anna Karenina probably 10 years ago — I had read it as a teenager and loved it – and I was surprised by how clear and calm the writing is, and there’s so much turmoil in that book. I thought, that’s how I want to write. I wanted that clarity and that calm because it made it easier to write about complicated things.
TM: Your novel is set in a small town in western Maryland. I lived for a time in a small town in Pennsylvania not far from there. You capture the sense of claustrophobia in a small town very beautifully. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when two teenagers are driving down the main street and they look into the video store and see one of their teachers going through the beaded curtain into the Adult section. That was so perfect! There are no secrets in a small town.
HG: You’re so anonymous here in New York, which is great. But I was remembering how different a small town was, how you really know people’s daily lives. As a kid, you see inside people’s houses. You’re babysitting, or you’re visiting your friends’ houses. You just have a much better sense of how other people live.
TM: Along those lines, there were sentences that were wonderful. Let me read a few to you: “Families were so strange. The trivial things you knew, the big things you didn’t. The two getting confused, one masquerading as the other.” That’s really the book, isn’t it?
HG: I was thinking about my own family — how I know little details about some of my relatives, but there are big holes in their life stories that I just don’t know. As a child you hear bits and pieces, and you put it together later as an adult. I’ve lost a lot of family members over the years, and there are questions I’ll never get to ask.
TM: You were born in Maine and moved to western Maryland as a young girl — so there is some autobiography in the novel. But it felt like a much bigger story than someone writing about herself. There’s an extended family and school and friends and in-laws, and a grandfather, who’s huge. Tell me about your decisions there.
HG: Moving to Maryland when I was 10 was a big deal. The culture was completely different from New England. Maryland is a mix of North and South, whereas New England is very northern. Northern manners, northern values. I remember the way people spoke to you on the phone in Maryland, it was completely different. In New England you get right to the point. In Maryland you’d have to chit-chat about the weather, how was your day? — and then you would say what you needed to say.
TM: It also takes half an hour to say goodbye.
HG: Exactly. Also, the emphasis on football was strange to me. My dad is a huge football fan, so it wasn’t completely foreign, but things were different — the weather, the plant life, the trees. We moved there in the year of the 17-year cicadas, these huge swarms of cicadas, and they’re so noisy — and I thought, where have I moved? It was almost tropical. But I loved it, too. I loved the wildlife. It was much more rural than where I’d lived.
TM: That was also where you took up long-distance running, which plays a big part in the novel. Did you get serious about it?
HG: Yeah, in middle school my gym teacher said I could be a good runner. Between middle school and high school I made an effort to learn how to run. It was hard and I was really bad the first year.
TM: Going back to small towns, you wrote a wonderful essay for The Millions a while back in defense of being pretentious. The list of things that you said were frowned upon when you were living in that small town in Maryland included “indie rock, foreign films, vegetarian diets, keeping your maiden name, bottled water, wearing black, drinking wine, drinking Starbucks coffee, reading The New York Times and doing yoga.” I laughed out loud when I read that. It sort of dates you because, as you said in the essay, those things are a lot more acceptable in small towns today. But that list tells about a time and a place. That was real, wasn’t it?
HG: Definitely. I remember this girl, she’d moved from a nice suburb in Maryland and she was carrying bottled water, and people thought it was so strange and pretentious. It’s so funny because now everyone carries bottled water everywhere.
TM: Speaking of indie rock, another thing I loved about the novel was the musical references. There’s a playlist at the back of the book where you talk about your reasons for including certain songs. Sometimes, in the novel, you just mention the artist and sometimes you mention specific song titles. Why did you include the music?
HG: Stephanie is a teenage character, and music is so important when you’re a teenager. Maybe I’m biased but I feel like music was really good in the early- to mid-’90s, in terms of rock music. Hip-hop was also interesting then, but that wasn’t really my thing.
TM: You were more into Tori Amos. She’s in the book.
HG: Yeah, and I knew it would be important to Stephanie and for other kids, too. I don’t know how kids listen to music now, but buying music, hanging out at stores, trading mix-tapes and CDs — it was a big way of making friends.
TM: You just wrote an essay for The Millions likening Bill Cunningham, the great street photographer for The New York Times, who just died — likening him to Proust. You wrote that Cunningham saw “the sublime in the everyday.” You’re a big Proust fan. Did you always think of Bill Cunningham as a Proust acolyte, or did that only come to you after he died?
HG: I’ve been reading Proust all year, and I’ve been noticing how good Proust was on clothing. I do think that Bill Cunningham’s sensibility about clothes was similar to Proust’s. He’s interested in how people wear clothes, and how it suits an individual, and how clothes express a time and place. He’s not about trends or celebrity. Proust wasn’t either. He viewed clothes as beautiful decoration — and expression.
TM: In your essay you mention Bill Cunningham talking about “summer fox,” that women in the 1920s wore fox collars in the summertime. Obviously he knew his history. That makes him a little Proust-like, doesn’t it?
HG: I think so. I was thinking he was probably familiar with some of the fashions that Proust wrote about.
TM: Tell me about how Home Field came to be. Did you work on it for 50 years, or did it come pretty quick?
HG: I started working on it when I was pregnant with my son. I didn’t have an easy pregnancy, so I didn’t make a lot of progress until after my son was born, in August of 2012. Then when my son was three or four months old I started writing again. Because I could only work on it when I had child care, I worked at a very steady pace, 15 hours a week pretty much. That actually worked pretty well because I had to step away from it.
TM: That’s not a bad thing, is it?
HG: No. I finished it around my son’s second birthday.
TM: So being the mother of a young child doesn’t have to kill your writing, does it?
HG: No. I’ve always had a day job, so right now being a mother is my day job — which is a much nicer day job.
TM: Tell me about the other day jobs.
HG: I worked as a secretary at a law firm for many years Very stressful. And I worked as a speechwriter for the Parks Department — a great job, I really liked that. I worked in a drug treatment center for a while, administering a grant at Samaritan Village in Queens. I worked at school for crafts in Maine for a few months because I had to get out of New York for a while. I worked in a hotel in Maine.
TM: You wrote another essay that was about what we’re talking about right here — that you have to fit the writing into the life, and you can accomplish a lot by doing a little bit of something every day.
HG: It’s true. I have much more faith than I used to that things will get done. I used to really worry about it a lot. But now, if I don’t finish something one day, then I’ll finish it the next day. That comes partly from being a parent, too. You see that your kid gradually acquires skills.
TM: So you’ve got to have the long view. That’s what novel-writing is, isn’t it?
TM: Are you working on another novel?
HG: Yeah. I haven’t had a lot of time to work on it lately, and I’m dying to work on it. It’s much lighter in tone that this one. It’s a comic novel, I’d say. [Laughs.] That’s all I want to say.
TM: You’re living the dream. You’ve got a major New York publisher for your first novel. What would you say to young people like yourself who are struggling to do it?
HG: One of my mentors told me that everything takes longer than you expect, even if you have what you think of as a realistic expectation. I never thought I was going to publish in my 20s, or even my early-30s, but it still did take longer than I thought. I would keep that in mind. Also, the culture’s really focused on making money. You have to ignore it and think of enjoying your life, enjoying learning how to write better, enjoying reading, enjoying meeting interesting people, enjoying movies, listening to music, whatever inspires you. In New York it was hard, especially in my early-30s. A lot of my friends were finishing graduate degrees and going on to professional careers — not necessarily in writing, but as doctors and lawyers, and they had a very specific role. And I really didn’t. It’s hard.
TM: And fiction is becoming almost a boutique operation.
HG: It is. I guess it depends on your personality. For me, I’m barely breaking even, so I’ve decided it’s not worth worrying about. Writing is gratifying on a daily basis. If I didn’t love doing it, I would have stopped a long time ago.
Chuck Klosterman is the king of pop culture. No other writer has evidently spent so much time having smart conversations about The White Stripes, “The Sims,” or U2. Books like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs helped elevate discussions about pop culture from who’s sleeping with whom or fanboy arguments over which Pixies record is better, as Klosterman found esoteric connections between AC/DC and ABBA, or Nirvana’s In Utero and the Branch Davidian disaster. It was Klosterman’s odd, poignant observations that made me pick up Killing Yourself to Live in 2005 (that and the premise of visiting sites where rock stars died — I was kind of morbid then), and I still thank Blender for publishing a short review of the book. Books like this, or Eating the Dinosaur or Chuck Klosterman IV, made obsessing over pop culture cool. He deconstructs episodes of Saved by the Bell, dissects the importance of Morrissey to the Mexican community, and convinces people that heavy metal matters. Even his banter about sports was tolerable for the sports illiterate. I no longer had to feel embarrassed about caring more about what was happening in music and movies than about NASA’s latest discovery. The way Klosterman includes anecdotes from his life shows we’re all a little obsessed with pop culture, and that it’s okay.
Six books later and he has me mulling over questions like what TV show will most represent life in the 21st century? Which musician will be the face of rock music? Will the multiverse theory sound more plausible? With But What if We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present as if it Were the Past, Klosterman takes a break from dishing on pop culture to consider the way we will be remembered in the future, by people who view our present day as the past. I was skeptical when I first heard the concept of the new book and suspected that it would be complex and hard to follow, like his last book, a treatise on villainy called I Wear the Black Hat. Klosterman didn’t quell these fears by opening with “This is not a collection of essays.” And he’s sort of right. The book is more like a college research paper: he presents his argument, provides examples, and cites from interviews he’s held with people like Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Byrne in hope of bringing readers around to his brand of thinking. But even as he’s presenting complex scenarios, like why we don’t know everything about gravity or whether it’s possible our life is just a simulation, he brings the humor and wit prevalent in his writings on pop culture. And Klosterman can’t help but turn to pop culture to help clarify his arguments.
Though most of his arguments are well thought out and complete, there are a few that aren’t so clear. In the chapter “The Case Against Freedom,” Klosterman talks about how some parts of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are outdated and how no efforts have been made to update them, bouncing from claims that Barack Obama is the greatest president to people having the right not to vote. These observations are interesting, but they feel like tangents distracting readers from the overall mission of the book. Meditations on the posthumous legacy of pro-wrestlers like Macho Man Randy Savage are witty and smart in Klosterman form, but difficult to relate back to his original argument. Even Klosterman seems concerned that we’ll lose the thread, and repeats the purpose of the book several times throughout.
Klosterman’s interviews with experts are a highlight of the book. He talks about how rock music will be remembered with Ryan Adams and asks Kathryn Schulz and Junot Díaz and George Saunders what kind of writers will be recognized in the future. His conversations with Neil deGrasse Tyson and string theorist Brian Greene prove to be fascinating, if creepy, measured discussions of whether life might be a simulation. The interviews balance out the book: it’s a testament to Klosterman’s credibility as an observer of modern life that he was able to loop in so many bright lights.
So what are his findings? For television, he throws readers for a loop, shunning “Golden Age of Television” shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards for, of all things, Roseanne. The musician that will ultimately represent rock music is Chuck Berry and the writer that will be most remembered is someone totally unknown. His choices may seem jarring, but they make more sense as they’re unpacked. Roseanne wasn’t picked for the great writing; rather Klosterman feels it most represents our reality. The show’s family members didn’t look like they stepped out of a modeling agency, their house was often messy, and they weren’t afraid of bickering. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll; “simple, direct, rhythm-based music. Even John Lennon once said “If you tried to give rock and roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry.” And the writer who’ll be remembered in the future? Both Klosterman and Shultz argue it’ll most likely either be someone totally unknown or currently unappreciated, based on retroactive views on Moby-Dick and Anna Karenina. These conclusions don’t come easy. He goes through various choices for each and spends time working why they would and wouldn’t be appropriate, as if trying to convince himself.
Klosterman’s conclusions hold up pretty well. He attacks the argument from various angles and provides different examples to convince both readers and his interviewees. Some of his arguments are more well thought than others; though the Roseanne conclusion makes sense, Klosterman spends more time arguing why certain shows don’t make the cut than explaining his pick. He doesn’t address those who don’t see themselves represented by Roseanne or point out that, in the end, the show was all inside Roseanne’s head (bringing it back to Neil DeGrass Tyson!). As he talks through his choice, even he seems unconvinced, and ends the chapter defeated, saying he doesn’t know if he’s right at all. Nonetheless, the chapter is one of the most engaging in the book.
Though he may convince readers, he doesn’t always convince his peers. Both Ryan Adams and Jonathan Lethem disagree with his findings on Chuck Berry, with Adams arguing it’s not the inventor that matters, but rather “the symptom of the thing that was set in motion,” e.g., Twitter rather than Twitter’s creator. Kathryn Schulz actually seems to change Klosterman’s opinion regarding writers. He originally argued the writer to be remembered will be someone totally unknown until Shultz said “The likelihood that the greatest writer will be known but not fully appreciated?…That would be more like fifty-fifty,” at which point he beings to argue from her point of view. Often times Klosterman will play devil’s advocate to challenge the expert opinion; sometimes they’ll change their opinions, sometimes not. Klosterman allows himself to be swayed, and allows himself to be wrong. The ebb and flow of opinions shows how difficult Klosterman’s project is, and how charming a writer he can be.
For most of her career, Cynthia Ozick has written challenging and brilliant fictions that examine the metaphysical aspects of Jewish culture, examining fabled belief systems, gender dynamics, and the walls culture might build with even-handedness and cautious interest. Novels and short stories like The Puttermesser Papers and “The Shawl” engage with cultural values and history in unique and dark ways, while several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, examine the value of criticism and the state of the literary novel today. Erudite, intellectually rigorous, and brimming with generous insight, Ozick’s work as a critic and thinker demands a kind of attention from the reader, requires the reader to think along for the promise of revelation.
We corresponded about the new book via email. What follows is a conversation with someone just as interested in and excited about literature as they were when they first put pen to paper.
The Millions: In a Paris Review chat you did in 1985, you talked about having your routine consist of rising in the late afternoon and working through the night. Has anything changed since then in terms of how you approach the work?
Cynthia Ozick: Much blood has gone under the bridge since then. In the last half-dozen years, I’ve turned into a Snatcher: I read in desperate snatches in the interstices of the Quotidian, and dream of finding three uninterrupted quiet hours to think, moon, mentally maunder, and, above all, write. I am pursued by an anti-Muse; her name is Life. Her homely multisyllabic surname is often left unenunciated, but to certain initiates it may be whispered: Exigency.
TM: What’s your reading life like? Are you reading for, say, an hour or so, and then drafting/editing for a while? Is there urgency to write every day?
CO: Unlike in earlier years, I nowadays consume public information voluminously. I read both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is the poison, the other the antidote, and make of that what you will!), and also many magazines, both the traditional kind and the digital. In terms of living wholly in one’s own allotted time, the world is not too much with us. Decades ago, though, it would have been inconceivable for me to acknowledge this. Whatever counted as “politics” was of no interest; nothing mattered but capital-L Literature and its inevitable sibling, History.
Still, writing, whether fiction or essays, is something apart from “information,” and rises out of the well of intuition: every human mind has its individuated “tone.” So when you ask about “the editing process,” and speak of “drafting/editing” — I find these reparative procedures foreign to me. I will not move on to the next sentence until the previous one is fully satisfactory. Perhaps there are two species of writers: those who complete an entire manuscript provisionally, with permission to go back to “polish the verbal surface,” as one such writer once described it, and those who endlessly and obstinately fiddle in place. (As for writing every day, see above.)
TM: You’re a writer who develops both formative essays and novels and short stories in nearly equal measure. Since part of drafting fiction involves investigating certain aspects of life, I wonder what you see as being the overlap between scrutiny in your essays and scrutiny in your plot lines, or if they’re completely separate.
CO: The difference is crucial: it’s between knowing and unknowing (rather than not knowing). If you are going to write an essay on, say, twilight in Sweden, or on Henry James, you know that much: you have your subject already in hand. But if you set out to write a story, whether long or short, you begin with less than a glimpse: a shred of idea that once moved you, or the wisp of memory of a mother and daughter you encountered for seconds as you passed them in a train, or simply an inchoate feeling. Plotting, though, can be intellectual or serendipitous, a deliberate plan or a revelation or an insight, and this can apply also to the “plot” of an essay; but overall an essay is an assessment, or rearrangement, of given materials, while a story must discover what it is made of in the very course of its own making.
TM: I’m interested in how this differentiates from writing an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction.
CO: In writing fiction, one creates a character, but very often it’s the character who influences the trajectory of events and ultimately creates the story. This wouldn’t necessarily apply to certain types of genre fiction, such as the detective novel, where the writer is in full control and follows the design of a prepared plot. But when the imagination is untethered and free, the writer may lose control of the character, and the character may stubbornly decide against the writer’s initial wish; or else the character reveals a motive that the writer never anticipated. This can hardly happen with what’s called “creative nonfiction,” despite the permissive adjective. The subject matter of non-fiction is fixed, chosen, unalterable. A nonfiction piece on the Civil War, say, can’t change the nature of the battles; both action and outcome remain today what they were then. The writer may play around a bit with the personalities of Grant or Lee, but the spine of the narrative is immovable. As for the “personal” essay, the writer, like a character in fiction, can assert whatever she desires; as in fiction, she is immune to the fact-checker.
TM: What do you think it might take in order for a writer to produce a “great American novel” in today’s literary landscape, or even one that has relevance and power beyond what it achieves in the insular writing community?
CO: How vast is the invisible infrastructure of this proposal! It puts in question an entire culture, and how a civilization expresses itself. Some say that the Great American Novel has already come into being, in The Great Gatsby, or in Moby-Dick, and a good case can be made for each of these. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie might be another candidate, or The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Augie March. Your query, though, speaks of the current literary landscape, confirming that “what it might take” still isn’t clear. One answer might be that the day is young — but can we see any inkling of a presumptive heir to Bellow or Updike or Nabokov, or to so many others of the previous generation (the list would be long and impressive) who have left a formative mark on American experience? One sign, or omen, would be the presence of a writer of formidable language power, willing to use all the sources and resources of American prose; instead, we swim in a welter of the slipshod easy vernacular. Also absent, so far, is some overriding feeling or idea, or, at the least, something larger than pipsqueak cynicism. Finally, given that the country is roiling and boiling toward some unknown new dispensation grounded in narrow competing triumphalist claims, where is the bold and necessary ironist who will write our Death of Ivan Ilyich?
Or else, and why not? Maybe what we are waiting for will be the Great American Comic Novel! And a final caveat: the lineaments of a sublime work of the imagination can’t, after all, be prescribed, and one is guilty (mea culpa!) of tendentious theorizing if one dares to do it.
TM: Is technology perhaps counterintuitive to to serious literary debate, analysis, and scholarship, or do you feel that it marks a sort of natural progression and provides a platform to showcase what writing has come to in the age of the iPhone?
CO: Last year I finally surrendered my pen. I could not conceive of writing seriously on a keyboard facing an illuminated rectangle, and used the computer mainly as a means of transcribing a completed work (as was the typewriter in the past). The keyboard and the monitor struck me as enemies of the freedom of language, since it seemed that the words could come only through the pressure of one’s fingers on the narrow neck of a pen. Or to say it otherwise, the ink flowed directly out of the hand; and what was ink if not language? Yet now, as you see, I’ve learned (to my amazement) that one can actually think on a computer!
TM: In a culture of writers that either embrace the concept of direct narrative or a fractured storytelling structure, would the middle ground between the two extremes be something new to emerge, and if so, where does it lie?
CO: Either-or has never been storytelling’s only available way; from early on, there has always been that “middle ground.” Mostly it has been a companionship between fiction and an interpolated essay, side by side in the same novel. We see this in George Eliot and in E.M. Forster, where we hear the author’s reflecting voice; it might be called the “intelligence” of the novel: intelligence in both senses, the writer spying on her characters, and the writer’s mind exposed. The “fractured” novel (Ulysses is the great modernist instance, but think also of Zadie Smith’s NW and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers) has so far not permitted amalgamation with any other form. Accretion, fragment by fragment, replaces logical chronology Yet despite its jagged unexpectedness, what fragmentation has in common with direct narrative is a paradoxical coherence: we know and feel what we are meant to know and feel. And if there is no middle ground between fragment and form, so be it: why should fiction, the ultimate territory of genuine freedom, eschew extremes? In life we are rightly persuaded to pursue the middle way. But in literature (three cheers for extremes!), what we want is what Kafka relentlessly demanded: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
TM: David Foster Wallace was an ardent fan of your work, citing The Puttermesser Papers as one of his favorite books. As a critic, writer, and cultural anthropologist, I wanted to know if you’ve considered the relevance of his work, and whether or not he shifted the direction of post-modern fiction yet again.
CO: It was an astonishment to be told not long ago that David Foster Wallace was even aware of my work, let alone had read any small part of it. It was even more startling to see a photo of the flyeaf of his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, on which appears a long list of words transcribed from the book, ostensibly because they were new to him. How could this be? If I hadn’t with my own eyes seen that list, I would have thought the rumor of his affinity was no more than a hoax. After all, Infinite Jest is a free-wheeling and exuberantly abundant novel with a fervently reverent and always growing readership, and not only is my own experience as a writer lightyears from his, but in subject matter and in literary temperament Wallace and I have nothing in common. His mind is encyclopedic and digressive; my scope is far more limited and my reach into the world definitively tamer. His novels are termed postmodern, and so they are, but in their appetite for overflowing tangential inclusiveness they also resemble the all-devouring 18th-century novel (Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). And finally: Wallace’s most original gesture is the art of the note — footnote and endnote, but especially footnote. Whether this alone (the seductive power of the asterisk) will “shift the direction of postmodern fiction” is doubtful. Once it has been done, and done so lavishly, it may seem superfluous to do it again.
TM: It seems that [The Puttermesser Papers] has a certain staying power, particularly among men. What do you think it is about the work that stands out, be it the brutality of the plot or the force of the prose?
CO: I’m afraid that I am unable to address this generous assessment of “staying power.” Time will, as they say, tell; and in some cases — though certainly not in mine — Time has already told. (See David Foster Wallace above.) Most writers and their books quickly fall into posthumous eclipse, and I don’t doubt that I will be among them.
TM: You said that fiction is the ultimate territory for genuine freedom, but is fiction not without rules? The novel can take many shapes, as can short stories, but there’s still something familiar within each mutation. Would you argue that genuine freedom works best with some sort of familiarity to constrain or guide its line of thinking?
CO: I agree that familiarity of form is most conducive to the reader’s comfort, and that feeling at home with its “rules” increases readerly enjoyment. Joyce’s Ulysses, which (after, say, Dickens and George Eliot and Trollope) seemed to have no rules at all, was hard going for its earliest readers, though certainly not nowadays, when stream of consciousness has become commonplace. Eliot’s The Waste Land was once dauntingly impenetrable; today its technique is ho-hum. The very concept of “rules” means familiarity, knowing what to expect; but even revolutions eventually evolve into the humdrum. As for constraining or guiding a line of thinking, isn’t that for sermons and tracts?
TM: A large part of your fiction writing has involved chronicling the Jewish-American experience…
CO: Here I hope you will allow me to demur. This is certainly true of other Jewish writers, at least those who are inclined to contemplate their heritage; call it, though without denigrating its art, sociological fiction. I am altogether without interest in the Jewish-American “experience,” if this term is intended, as you phrase it, to scrutinize and investigate the meaning of that identity, both how it plays out in conventional society and [the writers’] own personal heartbreak over legacy and fractured tradition. Again, all that is sociology, particularly the concern with identity and the deeper roots of the self. I am drawn elsewhere: to the Jewish metaphysic and its long and steadfast history. It is these grains of perception, I believe, that sustain my thinking and kindle imagination. (A recent story in this mode is “A Hebrew Sibyl,” which appeared in Granta.)
As for the sociological: Irving Howe, a stellar critic who was part of the group of literary luminaries who came to be known as The New York Intellectuals (all of them now nearly forgotten), once commented that after the generation of the immigrants, the American Jewish novel would die of lack of subject matter. And then — beware definitive declarations! — came the influx of those remarkable young writers who as children fled both the Soviet Union and Iran. For such embattled lives, having endured restriction and calumny in their earliest years, personal heartbreaks over legacy and fractured tradition may be vitally pertinent themes; or may not. But for American Jews, who for the first time in two millennia have the inconceivable good fortune of living freely and without overt fear, and who have rarely known an ounce of oppression or indignity, and who for the most part are now four or five generations distant from the immigrant period…for these, the identity question is simply another floating particle in the egalitarian multicultural movement. (Recall Irving Kristol’s quip: “They used to want to kill us, now they want to marry us.” And they have: 70 percent of American Jews are intermarried.) Those deeper roots of the self are more superficial than felt. When roots are genuinely deep, they are not scrutinized or investigated; they are as intrinsic and unremarked on as breathing. Self-knowledge in the Socratic sense is indifferent to roots, and Jewish self-knowledge can only mean knowledge, and what is knowledge in the absence of historical and textual and linguistic awareness? Which is why most novels by American Jewish writers are a branch of social studies. Nor would I quarrel with this: stories are free to be whatever they are.
TM: Writers who are conscious of coming from rich national and historical backgrounds tend to have their work characterized as being “haunted” by those important works of national or cultural identity that came before….Do you think it’s appropriate to draw those comparisons on the basis of legacy and cultural background, or do you think there should be a distinction between what a writer of a certain background is looking to achieve, and how a critic or academic might group them based on previous works of a certain genre?”
CO: Well, we know what Saul Bellow thought of how critics and academics grouped him! He retorted with his famous quip — Hart, Schaffner & Marx, mocking how he and Roth and Malamud were, in effect, regarded as a kind of Jewish-owned haberdashery. But your question is serious and important, and we’ve had two elegant answers from two significant Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Every writer needs to have an address.” Harold Bloom: “The anxiety of influence.” Both these succinct insights acknowledge that origins not only count, but continue to carry their force. (The term “haunted” confused and misled me because of its baleful resonances.) Criticism would be blind and deaf if it failed to recognize affinities and legacies, as it always has: in America, Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, naturalism, and so many other literary movements and groupings, whether conscious and voluntary or critically observed. But this doesn’t make writers into pawns! Or turn Hawthorne and Melville, with their similar Anglo heritage, into Siamese twins! Or Bellow, Roth, and Malamud into Jewish clothiers. It’s a sublime paradox, sublime because the seeming contradiction fortifies rather than diminishes: every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; and yet, contra Donne, every writer is at the same time an island entire of itself. The continent is humanity; but every continent contains someone’s own home address.
TM: At this point in your career…do you feel any differently about your work, either the work you’re developing or the work you’ve done? Do you feel that your role as a writer has taken on any sort of prominence?
CO: My diary with its innate depression contains the felt truth of any answer I might give. I have been driven to write — to be a writer — from a very early age, but have never been able to think of it as a “career,” a schemer’s word that suggests aggrandizing hot pursuit. And for a very long time I was unpublished, a failure in my own literary generation: a circumstance that has left its mark. I am always surprised to discover a reader, and when I do, it is usually in the context of “I never heard of her before.” As for what I feel about past work, I wish I had done more. And I begin to wonder whether reviewers who have found my novels unsympathetic may be right. I still hope to write a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Are you working on anything now that you’re hoping to release?
CO: Yes. On a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
CO: This brings us instantly back to Tolstoy, though I am thinking here not of a novel, but rather of a story: The Death of Ivan Ilych, wherein ultimate aloneness in the face of imminent dying leads to a kind of catharsis, and revelation overcomes dread. Or the haying scene in Anna Karenina, which envelops the reader in bodily joy and the intense companionship of laborious achievement. On second thought, an entire novel can’t be made purely of feeling, since such sublime moments are exactly that: moments. Pure feeling mostly occurs at the extremes of life: terror and joy.
With summer nearly upon us, thoughts naturally turn to the beach — and, of course, to beach books, the seasonal genre known for its breeziness and ease. And though I’m planning on visiting the beach this weekend, I can’t decide what I should read. (The Girls? The Wright Brothers? How the hell to choose?) What’s more, I find the beach a terrible place to read, as it’s teeming with distractions, annoyances, and lingering traumas. So I’m asking you, dear reader, to help me select my next beach book. I do have to warn you, though: I can be a little picky.
My beach read should help me forget the roaming packs of half-feral children who will no doubt be running within millimeters of my blanket, kicking sand in my eyes, and screeching like wounded monkeys. So I don’t want to read Lord of the Flies or Blood Meridian.
It should help me ignore the seagulls that always seem to hover above, waiting for the perfect moment to steal my sandwich, shit in my hair, or gouge out my eyes. So Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds is out.
I’d like to forget about the time I nearly drowned when I was eight — I tripped while playing paddleball and was dragged a terrifying 30 feet out to sea. For that reason — and, yes, I know it won a goddamn Pulitzer — the last thing I want to read is William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days.
If possible, I don’t want to be reminded that, at 37, I have the physique of a creepily hairy toddler — and that the shoreline will feature a parade of deep-tanned lunks built like young Schwarzeneggers. So if you’re thinking of recommending something Austrian — Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth — you can forget it. (Also, by extension, no Kafka on the Shore).
I don’t want to think about the fact that it will likely be broiling, a full 12 degrees above the day’s average temperature — or that the beach I’m lounging on was ravaged a few years back by a climate change-fed hurricane. So Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded and Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm probably won’t do.
On a trip to the shore when I was in high school, my friends and I managed to pick up some girls, and I was fortunate enough to later grapple with one of them on the moonlit beach. It was as romantic as it sounds, and as we pitched about in the sand, I was certain that I would a) see her again and b) marry her. We exchanged numbers, and I gave her my flannel shirt as a token of our love. But when I called her a few weeks later, she acted as if we’d never met, and the conversation devolved into me apologizing for my existence and stammering a goodbye. This is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t want any book that involves a person giving a shirt to another person — which I believe happens in both Anna Karenina and Clockers.
I definitely don’t want to be reminded of the fraught few months that I spent adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger as my sole companion. So nothing with tigers, please.
I’m going to the beach to forget the pendulum-ticking tedium of the job I’ll be forced to return to come Monday, so any workplace novels — Then We Came to the End, The Imperfectionists, et al. — are likely to bring on a low-level depression. And that’s the opposite of what a beach book should do.
You know what? Fuck all this. I appreciate your help, but this isn’t working out. Forget it. I think I’ll just stay home.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
It’s tough being a novelist of ideas these days. Just ask Scarlett Thomas. Her newest novel, The Seed Collectors, is laugh-out-loud funny for pages at a time. As British reviewers noted, it fits securely into the great tradition of the modern British comic novel represented by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, and Terry Pratchett, and offers considerable further satisfactions. The blurbs are from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. And yet it looked like the book would not even come out in North America until it was picked up by the venturesome but tiny Soft Skull Press. Far worse British novels have been published in the United States and Canada; far worse British novels have won the Booker Prize. So why did the best novel yet from the most ambitious novelist in the United Kingdom almost fail to get published in North America?
The Seed Collectors is the saga of an extended family the members of which are (un)happy in their own ways; Anna Karenina updated by both Amises. That saga starts with the death of Aunt Oleander. Oleander has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of her Gardener grandnephews and nieces — Clem(atis), an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker; Charlie, a botanist at Kew; and Bryony, a part-time real estate broker and graduate student — and to Fleur Meadows, her longtime factotum at Namaste House, her New Agey retreat. It seems that the seed pods, retrieved from a Pacific island by the vanished middle generation of Gardeners, confer enlightenment — but also death.
Fleur is the only major character to reach enlightenment; she consumes her seed pod and — shades of The Master and Margarita — finds herself capable of astral flight, able to see all things at once as if she’s become Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph. For the rest, sex will have to do. “There is quite a lot of sexing in it” — a comment on the journal of one of the vanished pod seekers — applies to the book as a whole. Little wonder that the family tree at the start of the book needs to be revised by the end.
The Seed Collectors is a departure for Thomas. Her three most recent novels, PopCo (2004), The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010), were first-person narratives about young, unattached women on knowledge quests, all told with humor and inventiveness, but broadly similar. In The Seed Collectors she widens her canvas to encompass at least seven major characters including a child and a bird, a gallery that showcases her mastery of “free indirect style.” Consider the Namaste House pet robin, Thomas’s tribute to Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina, who thinks — don’t all robins? — in a quasi-medieval dialect:
Through the bedroom window he can see that Fleur is nesting, Fleur often nests. But she never lays any eggs. That man in her nest has made it yblent. Did he make Fleur put out the firedangerfish? Did he eat the other macarons? Did he make her cry out in the night, as she so often does now?
But Thomas’s real comic masterpiece is Bryony. Thomas has never written a character remotely like her before. Surrounded by the ascetically inclined, Bryony is all id and no superego: fat, spendthrift, alcoholic, shopaholic, able to resist anything except temptation, and dedicated to ludicrously self-defeating schemes for self-improvement. She is all these things, and she is magnificent. Her 15-page rampage through Selfridge’s onto Oxford Street and the train home (starting with extreme shopping, escalating through way too much wine, eating the children’s candy, inappropriate flirting with hooligans, and ending with toilet masturbation — yes, there’s a lot of sexing in this book) is the novel’s tour de force; her progress from one appalling yet hilarious act to the next is a high-wire act on Thomas’s part, requiring a virtuosic command of tone and structure. If there is anyone in greater need of enlightenment yet less susceptible to it, they are not to be found in this book:
There are 165 calories in this glass of wine, but Bryony won’t log it in her food diary later because it isn’t very nice and she didn’t really mean to have it. When she gets home she’ll have 250mls of Chablis and she’ll log that instead…Fuck it. She just won’t fill in her food diary at all today. She’ll start afresh tomorrow. That means she can drink all the Chablis when she gets home.
More important, Bryony does monstrous things to her family out of self-absorption (pulling her daughter Holly from tennis camp out of pique, choosing wine over her husband, James, when he gives her a foolish ultimatum), No wonder Holly develops an eating disorder. No wonder James pours a kettle of boiling water over his head. But, but …We’ve all reached for that last glass of wine or Twinkie while saying to ourselves “I’ll start cutting down tomorrow.” Bryony is no different, except that she takes self-indulgence beyond comedy into the realm of menace to those closest to her. We may laugh at her or we may cringe, but she’s never uninteresting.
Why did it take this book almost a year to find a publisher? I believe that a combination of industry-specific reasons and more significant cultural attitudes are to blame. The state of American publishing is a problem for any writer without a preexisting mass following. Certainly with the death of the mid-list, an idiosyncratic British writer can expect trouble with American audiences (though Paul Murray’s similar The Mark and the Void at least got published in the United States—and reviewed, with an interview, in The Millions). And in a tweet on June 29, 2015, Thomas summarized some of the reasons publishers gave for rejecting the novel: “Too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much…” We can only take Thomas at her word here, but “too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much” could once have been part of a rave reader’s report on, say, Money, or (“British” apart) Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It’s impossible not to notice that these are books by male authors centered on powerful male voices. Would Thomas have had less trouble if she were male and her main character had been Bryan rather than Bryony? I’m inclined to think not in this particular case; Thomas doesn’t mention the issue, and her defiance of literary convention is extreme enough to make an American publisher nervous. (This issue deserves a full discussion, which might begin by noting that Bridget Jones is a less extreme version of Bryony in many ways, but her self-deprecating first-person voice and the Jane Austen–derived structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary, promising a happy ending, ensure that Bridget is reader friendly. Thus, a very different woman writer achieved worldwide success with a fairly similar female character; there are lessons here.)
In fact, Thomas’s unconventionality, perhaps her greatest literary virtue, has paradoxically diminished her appeal to some of the very readers who should love her. Readers seem to have particular trouble getting their heads around her notion of the “storyless story” (as a character in Our Tragic Universe calls it, “a vagina with teeth”). For example, in a piece ostensibly arguing for the publication of The Seed Collectors, Laura Miller opined that the book’s difficulty in finding a U.S. publisher was largely due to the failure of Our Tragic Universe to engage Miller and her friends as much as its predecessor, The End of Mr Y. (The friends’ opinion: “Nothing happened.”) Where Mr Y was a science-fiction thriller that featured a lengthy chase through a Victorian, computerless cyberspace, Our Tragic Universe deals with a young writer of sharecropped science fiction (think the Star Trek series) living her coincidence-inflected life on the Devonshire coast. It is, Miller complains, “a book about stories that tries mightily to avoid telling a story,” one that “deliberately avoids introducing the sort of mechanical crises, complications, and adventures that would make the proceedings more conventionally exciting.” A succinct statement of the idea of the storyless story; but it’s hard, Miller concludes, “to see why masses of people would want to read it.”
Although this is exactly the kind of book I want to read, Miller seems to align herself with Jonathan Franzen’s statement that “fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” But Franzen’s assumption is optional, and Thomas’s signature strength as a novelist is showing how. From her early novel Going Out — where the young protagonist Julie observes, “In real life nothing means anything. Stuff just happens and there is no structure…Not all events are stories.” — she has acknowledged that “stories give events meaning” (as Luke, the other protagonist of Going Out, responds) while battling the distortion of meaning that results from formula, cliché, and convention.
Meg in Our Tragic Universe is depressed that her own writing is the equivalent of “flat-pack furniture,” screwing pieces together according to a recipe “in exactly the way anyone would expect.” The storyless story is a protean concept in Thomas’s hands, but the reader will find Our Tragic Universe much more tractable if it is defined as the rejection of the flat pack: non-IKEA writing.
The Seed Collectors may appear less storyless — it has a beginning, middle, and end, and teems with stories the way a forest teems with trees — but look closer. Along with conventional stretches in “free indirect style,” the book contains voiceless elements such as lists and elements the voice of which comes from nowhere, such as a series of metaphysical puzzles for the reader akin to koans. At least one of the lists is Charlie’s and at least one of the puzzles is Fleur’s, but neither can be the narrator, because so much happens that they could not know. The Seed Collectors may not have an identifiable narrator, confirming Edward Champion’s insightful suggestion that “the novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along.” If so, the plot itself would mirror one of the book’s principal themes, the exuberant unstructured living mess that is nature, specifically the plant world. Whatever else it is, The Seed Collectors is not flat-pack writing, and is all the more exciting for it.
Somewhere James Wood claims that “broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from [Samuel] Richardson and the other from [Henry] Fielding.” Among many other inadequacies, this distinction ignores the current that flows from Laurence Sterne, the patron saint of non-IKEA writing. Tristram Shandy is more than the fount of postmodernism and metafiction. By using these techniques, Sterne reminds us that fictions are made out of words and therefore rejects a crude Richardsonian realism. Sterneans are above all playful; at the same time, they create characters readers can care about: Tristram Shandy, Leopold Bloom, Bryony Croft. As a Sternean, Thomas is more interested in rubbing words and ideas together and seeing what sparks they throw off than in telling stories that reinforce what we already think and end happily for likeable characters.
Not so long ago, a novel like The Seed Collectors would have been enthusiastically received in North America. What is a writer like Thomas to do in the Age of Franzen? Kudos to Soft Skull Press for the courage to bring out The Seed Collectors — but such a small press, however estimable, just doesn’t have the resources to ensure mainstream success. Thomas may have to resign herself to cult status on these shores.
But at least The Seed Collectors is finally available in the United States and Canada; you can judge for yourself. And if you don’t like sophisticated work that makes us laugh and think at the same time? There’s always Purity.
I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.
Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.
Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.
Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.
The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?
Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.
But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.
TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?
PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.
TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?
PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.
There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.
TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?
PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.
Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.
TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?
PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!
The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.
They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.
TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, A Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?
PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Angle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Desperate Characters, They Came Like Swallows, Jesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?
I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.
TM: What is a “big book?”
PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.
I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.
We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”
TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?
PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.
I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.
That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.
Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.
TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?
PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.
I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)
Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.
TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?
PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.
Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!
I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.
The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!
TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?
PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.
In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.
TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?
PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.
Despite my best intentions, 2015 went and happened before I even opened the copy of David Copperfield I’d purchased months earlier. I wanted to better acquaint myself with the genius of Charles Dickens — or so I had told myself. Thankfully, my friend Meaghan O’Connell, author of the forthcoming essay collection And Now We Have Everything, had told herself the same thing. And she’d been just as delinquent. So we decided to read the book at the same time, in a two-person book club, reveling in our shared ignorance and eventual education. What follows is part one of our email correspondence about the novel.
Edan Lepucki: I realized, before I began reading David Copperfield with you, that it’s been more than four years since I’ve read a ye olden classic. I spent a lot of my 20s tearing through famous books I’d failed to read as an English major in college: Wuthering Heights; Anna Karenina; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Middlemarch. But when I turned 30 and had a baby, I stopped. I’ve basically read nothing but contemporary fiction for the last four and a half years. Why? I primarily blame sleeplessness — when you haven’t slept, your brain doesn’t want unfamiliar syntax! Also, maybe because I never go out anymore, reading the latest greatest novel is my way of being social with people? (God that is dorky.) All I know is, on my book tour I went alone to a bar with a Henry James novel. I ordered a glass of sparkling wine. I took a sip. I opened the book. I took another sip of wine. Then I closed the book. The James remains on my bookshelf, unread.
But now that I’m 11 chapters into David Copperfield, I recall how wonderful it is to read lit-er-a-ture. For one, a 19th-century novel is dramatic and juicy. The book is appealing to the part of me that needs plot (what is going to happen to Davy next?!), as well as the part of me that needs to be moved. Leave it to Dickens to make me worry about a poor little British boy — who would’ve guessed? The language, too, has been inspiring me. For instance, the series of questions early on, regarding Copperfield’s mother:
Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocence and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night?
He goes on with this, “Can I say…” motif for another line or two and it kills me — the present narrator negotiating memory with present day objectivity and the demands of storytelling! What a feat!
Meaghan O’Connell: Right! Like, hey, who knew? Charles Dickens is a really great writer! The voice of the narrator — David Copperfield, looking back on his life — is so charming and funny and in my opinion effectively makes the case that people CAN speak in parentheses.
The fact that he was being paid by the word, that the book was published in monthly installments, is definitely laughably clear when you hold the 850-page book in your hands (D.F.W., what’s your excuse?), and clearer still when you read a few chapters a night and realize this was how it was meant to be read. Ideal reading experience: have a friend force you to read two chapters of this book every night in February.
And yes, I did need to be forced. Or, okay, cajoled. I knew that if I could just get into it, get over that initial hump, it would be such a great book, and not just in a “get it under my belt so I don’t have to vaguely nod and change the subject at parties” way. It’s not a difficult book at all; Dickens, when he wrote this, was a really famous, popular writer. It’s really, really entertaining. But my god, I opened the first page and my eyes crossed.
Is it just expectations, and the hugeness of the book? That we associate reading the classics with undergraduate reading assignments? The last time I read Dickens was eighth grade, Great Expectations. I’m sure it was some textbook abridged thing and I remember it feeling like a slog despite enjoying all sorts of jokes about Miss Havisham.
I think you’re right, a lot of what I read is in an effort to participate in something. I really do like reading a just-published book and enthusing about it publicly or shit-talking it privately. I like the conversation, and discovery, and following a thread of my own interest. Rarely do I read a book that leads me to Charles Dickens, especially considering I tend to read either autobiographical fiction or semi-experimental nonfiction written by women. So who is gonna fave my David Copperfield tweets, I guess is my point?!
Plus, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if literature generally has not improved as a whole, it has improved, if nothing else, at opening chapters. Novelists, now, know how to HOOK you. Charles Dickens is a master of many things but not a master of an opening chapter. Yes, fine, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” is, I’ll grant you, a great line. Though I do humbly submit that this line would be better felt as say, the last line of the first chapter? We don’t know our narrator yet! We aren’t invested! The line is lost! We only notice it because we’ve seen it posted on Tumblrs the world over.
(I am interested in what you think, as a novelist, about the challenges of writing a book that is literally like, chapter one, I was born, and goes from there — doesn’t that mean the most spotty recollections and boring things happen in the beginning?)
Edan: Honestly, I have been down on Dickens since the ninth grade, when my English teacher divided us into groups and assigned a different novel of his to each. Of course mine got the biggest book, Bleak House. I was the only person in the group to read it and I did all the work so that we didn’t collectively fail the class. Before now, Dickens has always — to no fault of his own — made me feel resentful, like I’m just a goody-goody the cool kids can take advantage of. Sort of like Copperfield himself, who is so tenderhearted that he will stay up late retelling Tom Jones to the popular boy at school, or give away his money to a waiter, and so on.
But I digress.
I too have been thinking about the paid-by-the-word aspect of Dickens and how he clearly planned these prolonged comic “bits” that in his day must’ve had people laughing uproariously and discussing with friends; it’s the 19th-century equivalent of sharing clips and .GIFS from our favorite shows. (Dickens = Dick in a Box!) Right now I’m interested in how many of these comedic parts are concerned with class. Dickens loves to parody various British accents, and I wonder how intriguing Davy was to his readers; he’s this boy who is able to (or is required to) skip from one social class to another, and thus belonged nowhere.
As for the opening, I actually really liked it! Once I figured out what the hell “who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs” meant, I was intrigued. I love a semi-omniscient first person narrator. It’s impossible and the conceit recognizes that, and moves ahead with it anyway. It reminds me of the Alice Munro story “My Mother’s Dream,” wherein the narrator talks about life and her mother’s life (and subconscious life!) when the narrator was but a wee infant. It’s such a magical device.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fictional autobiography as I read this, and what I’d do, were I to write a contemporary one. I think the drama actually lies in the spotty recollections and the double vision of retrospection. I like, too, how David’s narration becomes more mature as he gets older. Can you think of any modern day versions of this form?
Here’s another question: Are you reading this in public — and if so, has anyone approached you? I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet (gah, I know, I know) because I don’t want to read it in public and suffer feedback from Wallace superfans (gah again). This is such a silly reason not to read a book. And yet…
Meaghan:Ha! I haven’t read it in public but am embarrassed just at the thought of slamming it onto the table of some coffee shop. I’ve been reading it every night before bed and really enjoying breaking the spine and measuring how far along I am and whether I’m halfway yet. This is usually not a good sign for me, when I start counting pages and viewing reading as a sort of endurance challenge. You know, when you sort of see how many pages are left in a chapter and weigh how tired you are? “You can do it!!!” Which is to say, THIS BOOK HAS A HIT A SLUMP.
You texted me today asking if I had given up but I haven’t. I do cheat on it sometimes with other faster-paced contemporary novels (Novels By People I Follow on Twitter, a large-looming genre of my nightstand), and sort of feel like I’m betraying you. I think Dickens has timed his little slump well, though, because it slowed down a bit right when I started feeling so IN IT, so invested in old Davey/Daisy that there’s no way I’d give up and not find out what’s gonna happen. I mean, it’s fucking David Copperfield, I trust some good shit will go down. But right now he is like, deciding about whether to be a lawyer? And checking out apartments with his aunt? And yeah I feel I miss the subtlety of a lot of these bits, so when it drags it’s like, come on, man.
And I will say the inevitable: it reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard in this way. I have read so many damned My Struggle books, the next book could be themed like, Shits I Took in the ’80s and I would feel compelled read it. (Okay obviously that would be an amazing book, but you get what I mean.) I need to know what Karl Ove does! It’s like watching a TV show that gets bad the last few seasons but my god, you’ve sunk so much time into it already, why not see it through? Also it’s just familiar. I’m invested. I’m in, I’ll follow you anywhere.
D-Copp is this sweet little boy, still nine years old in my head though I think now he is a teen, and I need to know who he ends up with. I pray to god there is some sex in this book though I imagine it’s the coy kind. I’m already annoyed.
Edan: I doubt there will be sex, alas. I’ve been pretty bored by the book as well. But even through my boredom I have literally gasped aloud at the power and genius of Chapter XVIII “A Retrospect,” which introduces — in summary! — David as a sexual adolescent, compressing time through the lens of the crushes he gets. I loved it. I also love the writhing, disgusting Uriah Heep (again with the class issues!), the obviously duplicitous Steerforth, and the fact that David’s aunt mourns David’s nonexistent twin sister. My pretend dissertation will be about the unreal yet ever present and performed females in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Um, right, Daisy?
Will we finish the book? Will we be able to define Dickensian? Find out next time, in part two of our discussion!