Casebook, Mona Simpson’s sixth novel, is her first told through the eyes of a boy. Her protagonist is a 12-year-old boy, Miles, who has the makings of an amateur sleuth: He eavesdrops like crazy on his parents’ conversations and his mom’s phone calls and chats with friends, and snoops around drawers and emails. Along with his best/only friend, Hector, Miles learns the nasty realities of his parents’ divorce and begins to find out more about his mother’s new boyfriend. Miles and Hector unearth truths they can’t help but want to know: they discover receipts and weird love notes, and as they learn more about this stranger who claims to love Miles’s mom, the family’s situation changes irrevocably.
The topic of evolving familial dynamics is somewhat of a trend for Simpson. In her widely acclaimed first novel, Anywhere But Here (1986), Simpson wrote about the relationship between a mom and her daughter who move from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. Off Keck Road (2000) depicts the lives of three generations of Midwestern women. In My Hollywood (2011), Simpson explores the relationship between a composer and the nanny to her kids, an immigrant from the Philippines, and how their lives both overlap and are totally separate.
I spoke with Simpson over the phone about how she took on the perspective of her adolescent male protagonist, how she’s grown since writing Anywhere But Here, and how a surfer dude and her son helped her writing process.
The Millions: Did the plot of Casebook come to you all at once, or was it something that came slowly?
MS: That’s a good question. I think that the main thrust of the plot came all at once, but little parts of it, , details and dialogue, developed as I went along. I wanted to tell a love story, but I liked setting it within a family, a group of people for whom the romance would not be the primary interest. And I needed a way in. The narrow vantage of a son appealed to me. He has his own interests. He’s watching a love story emerge and he’s wondering, what does this mean for me?
TM: In My Hollywood and Anywhere But Here, your protagonists are female. Did you always know the character Miles would be a boy?
MS: I did always see Miles as a boy, although I recently wrote an essay about my life growing up with a single mother, and it occurred to me again that Miles’s essential stance, his protectiveness towards his mother and his suspicion of her boyfriend, was very much my own role in my family. I didn’t like how romantic my mother was; that seemed to me a liability for her job, which was supposed to be to take care of me. (I was so selfish.) I suppose I felt almost male: She was the romantic, I was the practical one. At the time, I refused any “femininity.” I wouldn’t learn how to put on makeup. I worked at jobs instead. I assessed the men she considered her romantic prospects in terms of whether they could help us financially. I understood that they could break her and that terrified me. I saw romance as bigger than I was and dangerous.
TM: So what are the challenges of assuming the perspective of an adolescent boy?
MS: Well, you inhabit these characters and there’s always a part of your own emotional complexion in it, and you just don’t want it to be inaccurate.
Those are the challenges. I gave it to a few L.A. native boys to read. And they picked up some little things, like I used the word “hearth,” and one of my students, who’s a surfer, said he didn’t think Miles would use the word “hearth,” so I took out “hearth.” He also gave me the term “rag-dolled” for the experience of being tossed around by a wave.
TM: Did you do any eavesdropping as research for this book?
MS: Well, I have children— I certainly listen to their lingo. And of course I teach as well, so I have a lot of teenagers in my life. That all seems a little more osmotic than research, but I did do other kinds of research. I talked to some private detectives.
TM: As fuel for the character of Ben O’Ryan [the private investigator Miles and Hector hire]? How did he come to be?
MS: Well, I started to write the detective, and then afterwards I talked to a few private eyes, several different kinds, to make sure I didn’t get the details wrong. My favorite was a guy here in Santa Monica. One of the things he said was that people don’t mythologize law enforcement or private eyes, or cops of any variety anymore. Then he said, “But everyone loves a fireman!” For me, that started the character. I love that character.
TM: That was such a great line.
MS: One of the P.I.s I interviewed does a lot of work on background checks for reality shows, and another did security work for celebrities, so I found some interesting stuff.
TM: Did you feel you could only set this book in California?
MS: Yes. I didn’t even consider setting it somewhere else.
TM: I loved the quote that gets repeated a lot — it’s Miles’s and Hector’s school’s philosophy: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Will it improve upon the silence?” When did you first come across that quote?
MS: It’s a quote used by the school my children go to. I’m a parental veteran of progressive education.
TM: What is most attractive to you about progressive education? Have you always been an advocate of it?
MS: I don’t know. As a parent, my initial instincts all led towards constraint; I liked it when my children were strapped into strollers, or settled in cribs with high walls. I favored playgrounds with fences.
I would have liked my children to attend school in uniforms. I’d have had them sitting in classrooms with wooden desks in rows, memorizing Latin poems. But it didn’t turn out that way. My kids went to progressive preschools, a progressive elementary school and a progressive highschool and I’ve ended up a believer. Their schools were strictest about how kids treated each other. They spent a lot of time talking about kindness, inclusion and respect.
TM: So did you feel any sympathy for Eli as you wrote him?
MS: I did…I felt for him because it felt like he really made a mess of things. Most of all for himself. I did have sympathy for him. Probably more than Miles had.
TM: So did you draw the cartoons that are in the novel?
MS: Oh, no! I tried. I actually really sort of tried to take up drawing while I was doing this book. And I did a lot of sketching and I have notebooks full and I managed to do a cat that we sort of liked, but overall I couldn’t…my people weren’t even close to good enough. So I actually got a kid, I hired a kid, who’s an artist, to do them.
TM: How interesting!
MS: He’s a 20 year-old I’d known for years. His name is Alexander Allaire.
TM: So you trusted him.
MS: I’d known he was a doodler. I hoped to do it myself, though, I really try to keep up with the sketching.
TM: It’s such a hard thing.
MS: I know, but it’s a very neat thing to do, too. I find I’m good at small objects and flowers.
TM: How do you think you’ve grown as a writer over the course of the six novels you’ve written?
MS: Oh, that’s a good question. I hope I’ve grown as a writer in the course of the novels. That’s probably not for me to decide, but…it’s always an interesting question for a writer, how to grow. Does one go for the huge leaps or slow incremental development. I’m not sure. Once I found that entry point of Miles’ voice, for this book — I thought of it as one little wedge of a door opening – this book flowed easily. It wasn’t an uphill slog. It wasn’t an enormous hurdle I set for myself, like, “This is going be the greatest whatever or this is going to be completely different than everything I’ve ever done before.” Casebook is my sixth novel. I’m a little more relaxed now. I’ve learned to trust the process. I read all the time and I write about what I care about most. I trust if I do that, the work will grow.
TM: It does. I would think that the first novel is the one that you feel most alienated from.
MS: Well, I don’t reread my early novels. Actually, I don’t read any of them, except the one I’m in. I read a book so many hundreds of times when I’m working on it, when I’m finished, I’m really done. I think it would be painful, because I’d want to make changes on every page.
But I think there’s a great temptation to sort of resist what it is you do naturally. Because we all want to grow. But at the same time, there’s a lot of joy and surprise in writing intuitively, not pushing yourself with a nagging mind.
TM: It’s a matter of combining both dreaming ahead and staying present, for sure. Do you feel similar to Miles in some ways?
MS: That’s a good question. Miles is suspicious. I don’t think I’m as suspicious as he is, but I’m compulsive. And I think we have a similar stance to romance. We’re both skeptical observers, but that skepticism hides a shy, protected hope. As I mentioned, I grew up watching a parent’s romantic life.
TM: Right. You were a witness to that.
MS: And I wanted different things from it than she did. I would have been happy for it to go away.
TM: What books are you most excited to read next?
MS: I’m reading Elena Ferrante, who I just love. And I’m reading the third installment of the Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. And then just yesterday, for a short story of mine I read, I re-read — I mean I’ve read it a bunch of times, it’s just a great story — Chekhov’s novella, Three Years. Just amazingly good. It was written in 1895, and yet it’s almost an anti-love story. The woman marries a guy quite clearly who she doesn’t like and she’s quite aware of it but she thinks it’s probably the best decision for her. And he knows that she’s doing it to sort of get away from her father and her small town. And yet it’s not an arranged marriage; they do each have a choice. It’s such a fantastic story.
Editor’s Note: We’ve had this piece on the schedule to run today for a while, but in an odd coincidence, it turns out that Mona Simpson is the biological sister of Steve Jobs. Read about it here.
One of my favorite books/presents to give to the coming-of-agers in my life has long been Anywhere but Here, by Mona Simpson. Set in the 1960s and 70s, the book follows the 12-year-old Ann August as she and her twice-divorced mother, Adele, move from Bay City, Wis., to Beverly Hills, Calif., with little more than a new car and vague aspirations of having Ann get television work in Hollywood. It’s a book that I think provides a nice picture of my own past — not in literal ways, but emotional, or perhaps even generational — as well as one that might give some insight into what the future might hold for those on the cusp of figuring out what life has to offer.
I first read it in college, a few years after it was published in 1986. As a 20-year-old, I remember being excited by Simpson’s prose, which seemed almost miraculously informal and lyrical, particularly in comparison to some of the stilted so-called classics I slogged through in my classes. To spend time with Ann in particular (other chapters are narrated by her mother, aunt, and grandmother) felt like hanging out with a cool older sister or cousin, or maybe even one of the effortlessly precocious girls around whom I always seemed to orbit during that phase of my life. In one second she would describe a character as “laughing, but not really,” or admit to feeling “I don’t know, kind of proud,” and then in the next offer some startlingly beautiful image: “The weeds moved under the water like swollen hair. I pulled the cattail hard with my hand and the silver seeds blew off into the tall grass like scattered wishes.”
I recently read the book again and in addition to laughing nostalgically at 1970s references like “prime tanning hours” and Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream, was struck by how Ann seems to be almost an archetype for a certain kind teenager we see a lot today, a girl who is understandably very skeptical about the adult world, even as she acknowledges the desire or need to navigate her way into it, and with the desire to turn out better or, more bluntly, at least not quite as fucked up as her parents. It’s a very muted form of Gen-X optimism/insecurity that evokes memories of a lot of inward (and sometimes, regrettably, outward) eye-rolling and cringing. I’m thinking specifically about characters like Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, or Daria from the eponymous animated show — or maybe even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if you want to look at the entire ensemble as they more or less evolve from high-school kids into adults, confronting monsters all the way.
In keeping with this theme, the 12-year-old Ann often seems more adult than her mother. In the opening pages of the book, for example, when Ann and Adele are en route to Los Angeles, Ann questions whether they can afford to stay at a nice hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. She says that “I worried about money. And I knew that it was a bigger system than I understood. I tried to pick the cheaper thing, like a superstition.” At the same time, though, Ann (like her mother), is not exactly consistent, and capable of tween petulance, like when a few pages later, after arriving at the Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills, she angrily orders a steak off the menu, reasoning that “if we could afford to stay here then we could afford to eat, and I was going to eat.”
Later in the book, as Ann struggles to fit in with her, generally speaking, much wealthier Beverly Hills classmates, she starts telling lies, exactly like her mother has always done. Unlike her mother, however, who in the moment of lying actually seems to believe what she’s saying, Ann is more self-aware, and clearly understands what she’s doing, even if she’s not quite interested in stopping. Adele, who lies about everything from gifts she claims she sent to her relatives that must have been lost in the mail to the level of interest a man holds for her (when in fact she is basically stalking him), is pretty much certifiable, whereas Ann manages to remind us that she’s the teenager, acting in ways that are perhaps typical, or at least not unexpected, for someone who doesn’t fit in anywhere and knows exactly why. What’s great about Ann is that she doesn’t indulge in the kind of overly dramatic rebellion we often associate with adolescence, but exudes a slyer, more introspective type of dissonance that allows us to keep rooting for her, perhaps because it’s a feeling that we know will never quite go away.
If teenage Ann is the moral center of the book, her mother, Adele, is the star, a woman who walks thin lines between charisma and cruelty — at times monstrous cruelty, even — intelligence and insanity, or perhaps more accurately veers into all of these areas, sometimes all at once. Now is probably as good a time as any to admit that I haven’t seen the movie version of Anywhere But Here, mostly because as much as I love Susan Sarandon, I didn’t want the film to wreck my image of Adele; some characters are really too perfect — too complicated, too charming, too demented — for the movies.
Adele is nothing if not demented and charming, someone you do in fact want to meet and watch, but only from a distance or for a short time, the kind of person who is great fun at a party but can destroy your life if you make the mistake of getting involved. The best example from the book is probably how Adele, until Ann is 12 and “old enough to get in trouble,” makes a habit of abandoning her daughter by the side of whatever road or highway they happen to be driving on, making her get out of the car and leaving her there until “she drove back…nodding, grateful-looking, as if we had another chance, as if something had been washed out of her.” Later in the book (but earlier in Ann’s life), Adele takes her daughter to an orphanage, where she tells Ann that “‘I brought you here because I’m telling you, Honey, you can’t act the way you’ve been doing. I’m warning you.’”
At other times, Adele’s cruelty is almost campy, such as when she confronts her 10-year-old daughter in the basement of their Wisconsin house and, after noting her displeasure at the way she fidgets on the couch as she watches television, demands to know who has “fucked” Ann, “because they really ruined you.” Or how Adele constantly harps on her daughter’s appearance, telling her she needs to take off about 10 pounds because she “just gobble[s] down the milkshakes” or how after a couple of neighborhood kids attacked Ann and cut off her hair on Halloween: “‘You talk about going to California and auditions for television, well, let me tell you, other kids are cuter. Your hair was what you had going for you. Without it, I just don’t think you’ll stand out.”
Still, for all of these Mommie Dearest moments, Adele is never one-dimensional. It’s hard not to develop compassion for her — and this is clearly Simpson’s genius — to identify with her longing to escape the tedious confines of her Wisconsin existence and create opportunities for her daughter that she never had, or at least squandered, and later — once she’s in L.A. — the terrifying prospect of establishing herself with very few connections as a single mother in an expensive, socially foreign city where she will do pretty much anything to “catch a man.”
Despite the occasional breakdown and the many, many lies she tells (some sad, many funny), Adele is a woman who scrapes by, bouncing more than a few checks along the way, but is always willing to splurge on something “smashing” (like a suede jacket or a great hat) for her daughter or to take them out for ice cream, which is a constant ritual throughout the book. Also constant is Adele’s desire to instill “class” into her daughter, whether it involves getting rid of her Midwestern twang — Adele has a master’s degree in speech therapy, which she uses to get a job in Los Angeles — or more hilariously by encouraging Ann to impress her new Beverly Hills classmates by alluding to a “bunnyfur” jacket like the one she used to wear in Wisconsin.
In the end, I ended up liking — maybe even loving — Adele in spite of myself. Despite her cruelty, the many lapses into selfishness or irresponsibility, the failures to provide much in the way of furniture or even food (except for ice cream) for her daughter, it’s easy to understand why Ann ultimately forgives her mother, which of course is the adult thing to do.
When I give Anywhere But Here as a present, it’s my way of telling someone I love that I understand what it feels like not to fit in, which it turns out is a feeling that doesn’t exactly fade away with the years (so be prepared, in other words). But as much as the book is about the pain our families can bring us, it’s about relinquishing and sometimes laughing at it. It’s about the need to honor our parents, our crazy mothers and absent/distant fathers, who instilled this discomfort with the larger world into us, along with the yearning to escape. I would never say this explicitly, but I think to myself, here you go, dear niece or nephew: I understand how exasperating or sometimes insane your parents (my siblings) can seem, but try to remember that they would do anything for you, that they have lived for you. Which in my mind is a message that sounds better coming from me, an uncle, than it would from an actual parent, because I’m more impartial, someone who wants everyone involved to forgive the worst tendencies in each other as much as they appreciate the best.
2010 has already been a strong year for fiction lovers, with new novels by the likes of Joshua Ferris, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, and David Mitchell. Meanwhile, publishing houses offered up posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Robert Walser, and Henry Roth, and the font of Roberto Bolaño fiction continued to flow.
The second half of 2010 will bring much anticipated work by Gary Shteyngart, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and especially Jonathan Franzen. So that readers may set their literary calendars anew, we’ve selected a few dozen books we’re looking forward to. (The writer of each preview is noted in parenthesis.)
July (or already available)
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman: I first took note of Allegra Goodman’s off-kilter prose thanks to a New Yorker short story five years ago. As it turns out, that story, gently poking fun at the exuberance of the late 1990s, but also quietly weighty, touching on pain, religion and the whole idea of being “centered,” was a piece of Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector. The book focuses on a pair of sisters at the turn of the millennium toiling on either end of the technology continuum, one the founder of a dot-com startup, the other an antiquarian book dealer. PW loves the book, calling it “Goodman’s most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet.” (Max)
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now…er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody’s short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth)
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr: Doerr came to the attention of many readers with his debut collection of stories The Shell Collector. Now, after a novel and a travel memoir, he’s back with another collection that includes two novellas and four short stories. As with The Shell Collector, Doerr’s scope in Memory Wall is global. A recent profile with Boise Weekly — Doerr is wrapping up his tenure as Idaho’s writer in residence — places the action in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and, of course, Idaho. (Max)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The author of the critically acclaimed and deliriously off-kilter novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan returns with a third novel set in an apocalyptic near-future. Books are all but extinct and America is functionally illiterate, there are riots in Central Park and National Guard tanks on every Manhattan street corner, and the narrator is, as the Random House publicity department puts it, “the proud owner of what may well be the world’s last diary.” It’s difficult to resist the book’s opening lines: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.” (Emily M.)
Faithful Place by Tana French: Faithful Place is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of July. (This is a big deal—it means that independent booksellers across the United States have picked French’s new novel as their favorite out of all the books being published in the US in July 2010.) This alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice,
but the plotline is particularly beguiling: when Frank Mackey was nineteen, he made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to leave the poverty and dysfunction of their lives in Dublin’s inner city and flee to London. But Rosie never appeared on the night they were supposed to meet, and Frank, assuming that she’d changed her mind, went on to England without her. Twenty-two years later, a suitcase is found behind a fireplace in a run-down building on the street where Frank grew up; when it becomes clear that the suitcase belonged to Rosie, Frank returns home to try and unravel the mystery of what happened to her. French is also the author
of two previous critically-acclaimed novels: In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and The Likeness. (Emily M.)
The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: Adam Langer, who is the author of the well-received Crossing California and two other books, will publish The Thieves of Manhattan this month. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “an über-hip caper that pays homage to and skewers the state of publishing and flash-in-the-pan authors… Part Bright Lights, Big City, part The Grifters, this delicious satire of the literary world is peppered with slang so trendy a glossary is included.” (Edan)
The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) — more stories, plus two essays — was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there’s more “new” Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max)
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: Simpson, author of Anywhere but Here and Off Keck Road, among others, took ten years to write this new novel about Claire, who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young son, and Lola, their Filipina nanny. In Publishers Weekly, Simpson said, “There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what’s important.” (Edan)
Hollywood by Larry McMurtry: Although Texas epicist Larry McMurtry has written dozens of novels, he’s best known for the films that have come from them: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud, and the CBS colossus “Lonesome Dove.” Over the last five decades, he’s turned others’ work into triumph (Brokeback Mountain), seen his own ground into pabulum (Texasville), and written a screenplay for The Cougar (John Mellencamp’s Falling From Grace). In short, he’s a veteran of the L.A. movie wars, and in Hollywood—his third memoir in as many years—he’ll share the stories behind them. Or, at least, he should: in a harsh review of his second memoir, 2009’s Literary Life, The New York Times wrote, “Too often… Mr. McMurtry will sidle up to an interesting anecdote and then tell the reader to wait for his third and concluding memoir, Hollywood… He’ll explain then.” (Jacob)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max)
Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya)
You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin: In this debut novel by the co-founder of one of The Millions’ favorite sites, The Morning News, Alzheimer’s researcher Victor Aaron discovers his late wife’s notes about the state of their marriage. Her version of their relationship differs greatly from his own, and Victor is forced to reexamine their life together. Wells Tower says the novel “is a work of lucid literary art, roisterous wit, and close, wry knowledge of the vexed circuits of the human mind and heart.” (Edan)
Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt: This anthology will collect stories from an impressive roster of writers — Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others — with the devil being the common thread. This being a reprint anthology, fans of the individual authors included may find nothing new, though they may appreciate the clever theme and may encounter work by writers they don’t regularly read. (Max)
The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: While many readers might associate Guilfoile with McSweeney’s, where he’s a frequent contributor, or The Morning News, where with John Warner he provides essential commentary for the Tournament of Books, his fiction occupies a space that some readers might not associate with these latter-day literary tastemakers. Case in point, the titular Thousand are “a clandestine group of powerful individuals safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras.” That may sound like Dan Brown fodder, but you’ll be getting something much, much smarter. (Max)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nearly a decade, is a love story – albeit one surrounded by more ideas and insights and plot-lines than many novelists manage in a career. As he anatomizes the marriage of Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund, Franzen also looks at environmentalism, politics, sex, gentrification, and the pains and pleasures of growing up. And though a youthful anger animates his writing on the Bush years, his patience with Patty, in particular, suggests a writer who has done some growing himself. Franzen’s longest book is also, for great swaths of pages, his best. (Garth)
Bound by Antonya Nelson: If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level. (Anne)
Zero History by William Gibson: Zero History will round out a trilogy that also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson recently laid out how the three books fit into our 21st century milieu: “If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event.” (Max)
Ape House by Sara Gruen: Following her surprise hit with Water for Elephants, Gruen earned a $5 million advance for Ape House and whatever she writes next. Whether or not Gruen earns back that hefty advance, the new book sounds like madness: super smart apes — bonobos, specifically — escape a lab in an explosion and not long after, a mega-hit reality TV show appears featuring the missing apes. This reminds me of that movie Project X. (Max)
C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne)
True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd: The Official Preppy Handbook had that rare spark of wit that makes a good joke many things to many people. Actual preppy people were chuffed to find themselves the subject of a well-drawn lampoon (or earnestly concerned with inaccuracies), the great unwashed found an arsenal or an atlas, depending on their aspirations, and people somewhere in the middle could feel a sheepish pride in being kind of sort of related to a tribe important enough to have its own book. People with real problems, of course, didn’t care either way. Now, True Prep is upon us, and if it fulfills the 1.3 million-print run promise of its precursor, Knopf Doubleday and authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd (original collaborator Jonathan Roberts did not participate, fearing the project wasn’t true to the subversive intention of the Handbook) stand to rake it in. But the popularity of the original book, the shifting sands of American society and wealth, and the proliferation of lifestyle blogs by people with no sense of humor or irony have created a monster simulacrum of “prepdom,” one without easily defined parameters. Will the sequel be able to paint such a sharp and comic portrait as the first Handbook, or will it be yet another non-book littering the aisles of Borders? (Lydia)
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, who is the author of one other novel, Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger, is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps the Workshop inspired her new book, which is about poets at a renowned writing school. At just over 200 pages, this slim novel examines the age-old question, “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” (Edan)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Cunningham’s last novel Specimen Days didn’t quite replicate the critical and commercial success of The Hours. This new novel was initially called Olympia, and a long excerpt of it was published in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature. Discussing the novel, Cunningham told Entertainment Weekly, “Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife.” (Max)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez: In early 2009 in these pages, Sana Krasikov considered the contention the women aren’t known for writing novels of ideas. Her rejoinder to this was Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, “a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters.” This new novel exploring a dystopia — it’s set in the near future after a flu pandemic has ravaged the world and a sheltered, but cultish community has survived the carnage — seems likely to extend Krasikov’s thesis. (Max)
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago: From the late Nobel laureate, this novel “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria.” (Max)
Nemesis by Philip Roth: This latest novel from Roth should prove to be more accessible than his last, The Humbling. The book is set during a war-time polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. At the center of the book is a 23-year-old playground director who sees polio ravage the children he looks after. The book has been in the works since at least early 2009, when it was first described by Roth. (Max)
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier: If, like me, you were wowed when you read in The New Yorker Ian Frazier’s expansive, two-part travelogue of a trip across Siberia at the turn of the millennium, then you’ll be thrilled to find out that this massive piece was likely just a small fraction of Frazier’s forthcoming 544-page book. Frazier’s entertaining guides Sergei and Volodya (they are a pair of lovable, though sometimes frightening, curmudgeons), his insistence on traveling by car (which lent Frazier’s NYer piece many comic moments but also an unimpeachable authenticity), and the moment in history when his trip takes place (he arrives at the Pacific on September 11th, 2001), seem likely to make this book a classic. (Max)
Listen to This by Alex Ross: If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s second book Listen to This lives up to its title essay, then we’re in for a treat. I remember being floored and invigorated by that essay in 2004; Ross’s depth of knowledge, passion, and youth – just 36 then – converted me to his cause in a blink. “I hate ‘classical music,’” he wrote, “not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past… Yes, the music can be great and serious… It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values.” In other words, no music, classical or otherwise, is categorically superior nor the moribund realm of rich ladies; all great music is by definition “something worth loving.” In Listen to This, Ross reaches beyond “classical” (his award-winning first book The Rest is Noise explored 20th century classical composers) into a more eclectic canvass — in Ross’s words, a “panoramic view” – of music worth loving, including Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Chinese classical music, Kiki and Herb, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Bob Dylan. (Sonya)
Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry: For the visually patient—those who inspect collage, squint into details, and willingly sift through doodles—Lynda Barry’s work is a unique gift. The cartoonist/novelist/lecturer’s Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book will continue the thread begun with 2008’s What It Is, her bust-out graphic memoir-cum-instructional. As What It Is encouraged the act of writing, Picture This will push the reader to draw and remind us of the happiness it once could bring. Remember when you filled your looseleaf margins with rough Darth Vaders and ridiculous monsters? If anyone can get us to put down our phones, pick up our pencils, and get back to that pleasure, it’s Barry—whose boundless, cramming technique is evidence of both the work and reward of creation. (Jacob)
The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul: V.S. Naipaul, hoping to reach “the beginning of things,” traveled to six sub-Saharan African countries and examined the belief structures found therein for The Masque of Africa, a travelogue and treatise on the role of religion in culture. Apparently Naipaul learned much from this project, which complicated his sense of an old-new dichotomy and his notion that religious practices varied greatly between nations. Naipaul’s detractors have accused him of being a colonial apologist, so it will be interesting to see how this work of non-fiction will engage with complex ideas of faith and progress, neither of which can be separated from Africa’s colonial past, nor, as Naipaul concedes, from the present-day politics of the nations he explores. (Lydia)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): Pevear and Volokhonsky’s vigorous translations have turned new editions of the Russian greats into publishing events, and we’ve watched as their translations of classics like War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories climbed our otherwise contemporary-leaning top-ten lists. Last year, we interviewed the husband and wife team and got a sense of their unique process. In an interview around the same time with the Wall Street Journal, the couple called Zhivago the toughest of the 16 books they’ve translated: “The issue is the prose. It’s not that rich or ornate, but it’s extremely difficult to translate. His language is very studied. Even when it looks simple, it’s not. The sentences aren’t long or complex, but it’s the quality of the words. It’s never what you expect.” (Max)
The Great House by Nicole Krauss: Bestselling author of The History of Love, Nicole Krauss returns with The Great House, a novel about a desk that, according to the publisher’s description, “contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through… a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away.” Krauss was one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers, and “The Young Painters,” published in the magazine’s June 28, 2010 issue, is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. You can read a Q&A with her here. (Edan)
X’ed Out by Charles Burns: I once saw a comics panel discussion in which Charles Burns complained, fairly wryly, about the amount of effort he forces into his work: in one issue of Black Hole, he said, he spent hours applying his sharp black inks to an endpaper image of twigs—a picture that each reader would spend “maybe three seconds on,” then move along. Such frustration is understandable, but I don’t know that he was actually right. Each page, each panel, of Burns’ work claws you in; each line is unsettling in its perfection. He cannot be read casually. His newest, X’ed Out, will touch on typically Burnisan themes: quiet distress, eerie isolation, a heavy apocalyptic oddness. But, as always, the look of the book is the thing: we’ll be gripped by its feel as much as by its story—and, yes, take our time with its potent renderings of splintered boards, broken walls, and specimens shut in jars. (Jacob)
False Friends by Myla Goldberg: We included Goldberg on our own “20 under 40” list and suggested that “literary mandarins” put off by her smash-hit debut Bee Season take a look. Another opportunity to do so will arrive in October with Goldberg’s third novel. (Max)
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki: In October, Millions contributor Edan Lepucki will publish her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me under Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint. The title will initially be available for limited edition presale under Flatmancrooked’s LAUNCH program, designed for emerging authors. (Max)
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: In the wake of the fatwa and accompanying media frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, apparently at the prodding of his then nine-year-old son, shifted gears to focus on something much less contentious, a children’s book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now, twenty years later, Rushdie is returning with a sequel to the book he wrote for his son. Fatherhood has once again inspired Rushdie, who, according to bookseller.com, decided to write this new book for his “youngest son, Milan, who was born in 1999.” (Max)
Autobiography of Mark Twain: On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died of a heart attack. His death brought to a close maybe the greatest literary life America has ever known, and it started the countdown to the publication of Twain’s autobiography, which Twain instructed was not to be released until he had been good and gone for 100 years. Well, the waiting is finally over, and from early reports it appears as though it might have taken an entire century to wrestle the mass of writing Twain left behind into publishable form. This November, the University of California Press will release the first volume in a trilogy that Twain wrote according to the rambling dictate, “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment.” (Kevin)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher’s description of this one lays out its unique premise: “In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives.” It’s another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max)
Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer: FSG will collect the “best” short fiction from the South African Nobel laureate in this hefty volume. (Max)
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Readers mourned the death of punk poet Jim Carroll last year. As Garth wrote in these pages, “Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.” For Carroll fans, this posthumously published novel that takes the late-1980s art scene as its inspiration, will at the very least be another opportunity to experience his work and at best may be another one of those “very good books.” (Max)
Selected Stories by William Trevor: This volume will collect nearly 600 pages worth of short stories from this verable master of the form. (Max)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick: This forthcoming novel from Ozick is framed as a nifty literary trick. It’s a retelling of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, but, according to the publisher’s description, “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.” (Max)
Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy: It’s actually been seven years since the last Tom Clancy book came out, the longest gap of his career. This fact plus the usual excitement from Jack Ryan fans could make this more of a publishing event than expected. (Max)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard’s focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: “Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Karen Russell was just 23 when she had a story in The New Yorker’s 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, she has published an acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and been named to The New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 list. With the accolades already piled sky high, this will be one of the more anticipated debut novels in recent years. The publishers’ description suggests we should expect big, ambitious things: “think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades.” (Max)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III Dubus, already much feted for his short stories and novels, will be trying his hand at the memoir. In this case, the trajectory is from hard-bitten youth to redemption in writing. Fans can expect perhaps to gain some insights into the genesis of Dubus’ fiction. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard: You Think That’s Bad will be Shepard’s fourth collection of short stories, and from the Knopf catalogue description, it sounds like it won’t disappoint; there’s a story about a farm boy who “becomes the manservant of a French nobleman who’s as proud of having served with Joan of Arc as he’s aroused by slaughtering children”–need we say more? Shepard’s previous collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was nominated for the National Book Award. (Edan)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Obreht secured a special place in the literary pantheon not just by being on The New Yorker’s recent 20 under 40 list, but by being, at 25, the youngest one on it. With her debut novel, readers will get a larger sense of what the praise for Obreht is all about (an excerpt of the novel, in the form of a peculiar story of the same title, appeared in the magazine last year). (Max)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When he died in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left behind more than 1,000 pages of notes and drafts of an unfinished novel that he had given the preliminary title The Pale King. The book had been in progress for more than a decade and one of the last things Wallace did before taking his own life was to tidy what he written so that it would be easier to sort after he was gone. Since then the manuscript has been in the hands of Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, and it is expected that a version of the book running about 400 pages will be published late this year or early next. Four confirmed excerpts from The Pale King have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s. They suggest a story centered around IRS agents at a Midwestern processing office struggling to deal with the “intense tediousness” of their work. (Kevin)
There are many other exciting books coming out in the coming months not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in the comments section below.