Earlier this year, I read several great books on migration, borders, and identity-making in the United States: Valeria Luiselli’s powerful and riveting Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, which follows Central American refugee children as their cases are heard in federal immigration court in New York; Francisco Cantú’s quiet and disturbing The Line Becomes A River, a memoir of the four years he spent as a Border Patrol agent in the Southwest; and Gloria Anzaldúa’s classic Borderlands/La Frontera, which brilliantly blends memoir, poetry, and critical analysis and offers an original view of hybrid culture at the border. These books deepened my understanding of the border experience—an experience I share with millions of others—and gave me valuable context for interpreting the current administration’s disastrous immigration policies.
Much of my energy in the spring was consumed with line edits for my new novel. I’ve always found this to be a very delicate time, when I’m finally finished with the writing, yet not quite ready to let go of the book yet. So whenever I needed a break, I picked up trusty old favorites like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Toni Morrison’s Jazz or Thornton Wilder’s A Bridge of San Luis Rey and read a few pages at a time.
Later in the year, I read and greatly admired Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which explores how war is lived and remembered—or misremembered—by Vietnamese and American people. I read Terese Marie Mailhot’s gut-wrenching memoir Heart Berries in one sitting and thought about it for days afterward. I also loved Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a deeply affecting book that I wanted to read again immediately after I finished it.
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“I’ve been working on the translation nonstop—it’s like I’m in a trance,” Magdalena Edwards told me in early March 2017, while preparing a gin and tonic at her house in Santa Monica. I walked there from my place—we live very close to one another. I had just returned from visiting my family in Italy. Outside I saw her three kids, two boys and a little girl, on their bikes. “You have to absolutely see what I made at school!” “Are you going to have dinner with us?” “Are you babysitting us?”—they all yell at me from the other side of the street and keep biking. I try to answer but they are already far, so I enter the house.
“How’s the book?” I ask as the kids come in. “Don’t run and take off your shoes,” Magdalena says, “We’re going to have dinner soon.” The kids are always with us. “The book is intense, but it’s Clarice, you know.” She has studied Lispector’s works for more than 15 years and we are both sure that she’s ready for this—she knows Clarice. I had never read Clarice Lispector before and all I knew was that she was a Brazilian writer, born in Ukraine. The older boy Théo, nine-years-old, wants to show me a magic trick with the poker cards that I have to pretend I don’t know. “My love, we’re talking about work,” she says. “Yes but just a second!” I understand immediately the situation: “If you need time alone, I can babysit the kids anytime,” I say.
This is the first image I have when I think about last year, when my friend Magdalena was deep in the process of translating The Chandelier, the book I’ve just finished reading. She’s out of town with her husband, Vlad, so I text her. “It’s disturbing,” I say, and she immediately replies, “Remember how crazy I was?”
The book is a traumatic experience even for a reader. How could she translate it, I wonder. And with the kids always around! The Chandelier narrates the story of Virgínia and her never-ending relationship with her childhood, especially with her brother Daniel with whom she creates the Society of Shadows, a sort of secret pact with “strange and undefined objectives” based on two mottos: Solitude and Truth. “Everything that frightens us because it leaves us alone is what we must seek,” Daniel tells her. Virgínia never forgets it. She can’t forget it as a young girl at Quiet Farm, where she spends her days playing alone in the forest or exploring the dark corners of the shadowy mansion, a house that belongs to her grandmother who is still alive but bedridden. And Virgínia can’t forget it when she moves to the city to try to become an adult, a journey of the self interrupted when she is called to return home to pay her respects to her grandmother.
“Better than Borges,” Elizabeth Bishop said about Clarice Lispector’s writing. How about darker than William Faulkner? And I can’t help but connect The Chandelier to As I Lay Dying and also Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The three books open with the dynamic of a family and are set in the countryside, but whereas in Faulkner all the family leave the house for the specific reason of the mother’s funeral, in Duras and Lispector, the protagonists of the stories move to the city to emancipate themselves. In Lispector, it is through Virgínia’s eyes and feelings that the reader is shuttled between the events, even though there’s the sensation that really nothing happens, in what she calls “her girlhood without events,” in a life that “had gone on as if she hadn’t met anyone.” That nothing much happens in the novel (until it does) is neither a surprise nor a problem, despite the protestations of readers eager for the steady drum of narrative beats, especially given the opening sentence: “She’d be flowing all her life.” And then we get the opening scene: Virgínia and her brother Daniel in the forest watching the flowing water of the river, seeing something they’re not supposed to have seen, a secret they cannot tell anyone, the secret that “illuminated her against the world” and gave her “intimate power.”
Virgínia is always in the past, indissolubly linked to her life at Quiet Farm with the family. The family is her primary social nucleus, what trains her for her future life out in the world, first in the anticipation of school, and then in society; and yet it’s at school that “Virgínia would understand, disappointed, that everything had been seen years before” like an “unfurling of an oft-rehearsed scene.” The family is also the place, the ecosystem, where its members discover how to be together but alone, where they feel, like in Faulkner, that their aloneness “had never been violated” (Lispector writes that Virgínia’s intimacy “even if violated didn’t seem to be possessed”), or in Duras, where to rebel means to create a destiny: “I’m still part of the family, it’s there I live, to the exclusion of everywhere else. It’s in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I’m most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I’ll be a writer.” Even Virgínia feels like she acts “according to a destiny,” but she can’t understand what it is, the only thing she can really do is explore the connection between her things, the things she loses when she moves to the city, trying to grow up and take on an adult life, things like the chandelier at Quiet Farm.
Presiding over all is her love for the brother Daniel, who has always rejected her: “Virgínia, every day when you see milk and coffee you like milk and coffee. When you see Papa you respect Papa. When you scrape your leg you feel pain in your leg, do you get what I’m saying? You are common and stupid.” She decides that Daniel is right, that she doesn’t want to be stupid anymore, she wants him to love her, she’s ready to do everything for him, hurting her parents or dreaming of pushing a dog into the river while watching him dying: “her goodness wasn’t preventing her badness.” But it’s never enough for Daniel, so that for Virgínia “Alone was the way she could wear herself out.”
Last year Magdalena wrote a one-woman play, I Wanna Be Robert De Niro, which she performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. In the play a translator named Madalena is fighting with Clarice: why is she treating Virgínia like that? She’s a young girl, she doesn’t deserve it, she needs protection. No answer from Lispector. Then the telephone rings. It’s the husband, there’s a problem with the kids. Can’t he figure it out all by himself for once? She’s working! That’s what she says. Madalena, almost despairing, then turns to De Niro, born in 1943, the same year Lispector started writing The Chandelier, for help in saving Virgínia from Lispector’s tragic narrative. The translator breaking ranks, a woman behaving badly in the name of another woman. But in Magdalena’s play this vision of the translator, Madalena, interceding is foreclosed by Virgínia herself. Who dares tell another creature filled with her own being-hood what to do? Who dares rewrite, overwrite, another person’s script?
Virgínia is alone in The Chandelier, but with a new force and a project: to free herself from the others. “To free herself from maternity, from love, from intimate life and in the face of other people’s expectations to refuse, to land hard and closed like a rock, a violent rock, who cares about the rest,” Lispector writes, only to retract everything 10 lines later: “But against what? Her fake power was waning with disappointment and slowly a troubled sadness was overtaking her, she wanted to rejoin right now the movement shared by everyone, being happy with them, accusing-offended very quickly with humility, without any power so that nobody could refuse her now, quickly, after she in a thoughtless gesture had sought, crazy, to free herself.” The eternal fight between subject and society, what to do?
Virgínia constantly suffers from nausea; Lispector says that “in secret she felt pity for everything…people were so ridiculous!, she felt like crying from joy and embarrassment at being alive. That was her impression.” She tries to love them, the others, but she feels that only when she’s alone she can understand things and that “nothing essential had been reached with her love.” And it’s especially with her friends that Virgínia experiences the highest point of her alienation, as here at a dinner party with friends:
The thin, confident women were chatting–they seemed easy for the men and hard for the women; and why didn’t they have kids? my God, how disconcerting that was. And if they did they treated them like friends, yes, like friends.
It’s a Sunday morning in 2017, spring is near and the temperature is rising. As Magdalena drives I’m at her side while the kids sit in the back. “Don’t fight! Stay quiet or I’ll bring you back home,” she says. “You’re too strict, mom,” her clever five-year-old girl, Viva, replies. “Oh well, in a few years you’ll thank me! Wait and see.” “Wait and see,” her seven-year-old son Max repeats to his sister with a wise nod and a wry smile that I catch as I glance behind. When we arrive at the Farmers’ Market the kids choose pain au chocolat and donuts from Allan at the bakery stand and run away to visit with Luis, who sells berries. They are authorized to take off because it’s a safe place and everyone knows them. Magdalena and I are drinking lemonade when she looks at me and says: “Above all, I don’t want the kids to see Vlad and me as friends! Am I wrong?”
Virgínia is always somewhere else. Sometimes they tell her something and she distractedly asks, what? She’s not only alienated from her friends at the dinner party, but even from that living room, the stage for the evening’s events, from its surfaces; she feels herself to be “a prisoner of luxury.” And most of all she doesn’t understand the city, she keeps dreaming about Quiet Farm, the black countryside, the forest, the river, all the landscape of her past. She hates the present to the point that she wants to turn it immediately into the future and for this reason goes to bed earlier every day. “Somehow whatever she would live was being added to her childhood and not to the present, never maturing her.”
Therefore she comes back home, but everything is changed. Even Daniel, the great rebel, had ended up married to a common girl with whom he shares nothing but a bourgeois life (the kind he had always despised before) and now he is accusing her, his sister, of having let him make the mistake. Virgínia realizes that “the place where one was happy is not the place where one can live.”
Lispector tells her story in a very personal stream of consciousness, which is too easy to reconnect to James Joyce because in Lispector the style is always memory and feelings; it’s not epic, it’s terribly familiar without being sentimental–thus there’s no space for self-pity, indulgence, or hope. She doesn’t even organize the points of view in chapters, but when you can’t foresee it, she just jumps from Virgínia to Vincente or Daniel or Esmeralda. Sometimes she writes down a cold sentence: “I hold myself back in order not to be loved by everyone.” But she goes forward, she takes the same line and, like in a poem, puts it inside another sentence, modulating words and sound in a way that forces the reader to read it twice and three times: “Who would have thought that that insignificant creature had just felt like someone who had to hold herself back in order not to be loved by everyone?” For sure, after reading Lispector, we know much more of how “horrible, pure, irrevocable” it is to live.
It’s the end of summer. Magdalena, Vlad, and I sit in their garden, in the dark. There’s only a light in the living room, which reaches us from the glass wall. The kids already sleep. We have cooked with them homemade gnocchi and now the kitchen is full of flour. “When you translate something like that—I mean, it’s hard because it’s like living in the mind of someone else. So you have to question yourself and realize that you’re a woman, you have a family, you live in society, so what you read and translate it’s also about you. But at the same time you have to be yourself and raise the kids—I don’t know. I like that they spend time with us, but I know that they need rules too. Ways to learn to shape their future lives,” Magdalena says.
“I think it’s great that we cook with them and they can understand that what they eat everyday is not free, that that takes time, and it’s the same thing with life,” Vlad adds. I go on: “Life is like literature: it wants the work as Scott [Fitzgerald] says.” We fall into silence. I try to imagine the kids’ point of view, making things with adults while they discuss literature, listening to them call writers by their first names as if they could be friends. And what about us? Trying to teach the kids to make practical, simple things to prevent them from becoming exploitative human beings. Will they be able to free themselves or will they conform to society? Will they find a balance between these two attitudes? Will they heap upon themselves “lies, false love, ambitions and pleasures” or will they choose to do the work, every single day, and fight for the life they really want? The three of us remain in silence. If I close my eyes I can see Tuscany. I see the countryside of my childhood and I am there.
The dead chase the living in Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s new novel about the legacy of trauma. In Ward’s last novel, Salvage the Bones, the main character is preoccupied with the mythological tale of Medea, a woman left heartbroken. Here, Ward traces an American highway odyssey, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Parchman Farm, the notorious state penitentiary. Bouncing between the past and present, between ghosts and breathing bodies, between drug-induced fantasy and raw, heartbreaking reality, Sing, Unburied, Sing follows a family that seems to descend from earlier novels like Beloved and As I Lay Dying, uniting past and present suffering. Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy.
All of Ward’s characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing live with trauma. Pop, the patriarch of the family, grandfather to Jojo and Kayla, remembers his time in Parchman Farm penitentiary and his friend Richie, a young boy who died there. Mam, his wife, is dying from cancer. Their grandson, Jojo, takes care of his younger sister, Kayla, while their neglectful mother, Leonie, deals and consumes drugs. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, who was shot and killed as a teenager; he appears when she is high, often looking disapproving. When Michael, Leonie’s lover, and Jojo and Kayla’s white father, is set to be released from Parchman, Leonie takes her two children on a journey across Mississippi to bring him back. Along the way, the dead are revived, and they fight to return from the prison with them.
Ward allows the reader to imagine the persistence of ghosts in every facet of this family’s life. Ghosts exist in Pop’s stories, they arrive in a drug-induced haze, they sit like birds on the trees around their home and sing. These ghosts are physical manifestations of the family members’ psyches and symbolic of collective trauma endured by previous generations. They bring with them a restlessness, anger, and desperation—depicted with visceral emotion in the figure of Beloved, decades ago. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, too, was a marker of the pain her mother had endured. But unlike the haunted house in the first few pages of Beloved, where even the sideboard would react to a house’s inhabitants, the ghosts of Sing, Unburied, Sing float, existing as part of the history of a given space without making a direct impact on the space itself. The ghost of Given appears only to Leonie at first, his arrivals and departures indicative of Leonie’s own guilt at her inability to be a good mother and daughter.
While ghosts of the past trouble the present, magic and ancestral mythology eludes Leonie, a loss that stings deeply. Mam, bedridden for most of the novel, is Leonie’s connection to her spirituality, her conduit to her faith. Mam comes to Leonie in her dreams “calling on our Lady of Regla. On the Star of the Sea […] she was holding me like the goddess, her arms all the life-giving waters of the world.” The Lady of Regla, a syncretic Catholic-Yoruba figure, brings mythological stakes to their journey to Parchman, the “Star of the Sea” meant to guide voyagers home. But, unlike The Odyssey, in which the gods and the supernatural often intervene to help the hero along his journey, Leonie and her children face their journey alone. Leonie’s ability to see her brother’s ghost is not a gift, it is a burden weighing down on her through the journey, a source of guilt and remonstrance. Ghosts and supernatural creatures are restricted to imagination and memory in this novel, they cannot intervene. The characters are left to their own devices without hope of supernatural intervention.
The narrative has a persistent tone of hopelessness, much like the mood of the doomed and destructive families of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s families were living in a collapsing post-Civil War world where their legacies were in decline. “The reason for living is to get ready to stay dead,” Addie Bundren said, emotions repeated in Sing, Unburied, Sing where the living are engrossed by stories of the dead, and Mam waits for death with resignation.
The ghost story fits into a realistic framework, because Ward places limits around ghostly intervention. These limits allow the reader to question the position of ghosts in relation to the characters. Are they truly present? Or are they in the characters’ minds? Does it even matter when the deeper, larger grief is prevalent in both the living and the dead?
As Baby Suggs says in Beloved: “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with a dead Negro’s grief.” Ward’s work is full of stories of the dead, specifically of young black men. In her memoir Men We Reaped, published in 2013, she wrote about the tragic and violent deaths of men in her life, including her own brother.
In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Parchman Farm represents collective grief and trauma, as a space where slavery is still alive and well. Like Faulkner resetting time in The Sound and the Fury, Ward blurs time, inserting memories into the present. “[How] could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once?” says one character. The past in Parchman Farm is the main catalyst for the story. Pop relates his experiences there to Jojo in the beginning of the novel, and Jojo is fascinated by this history. For Jojo, Pop’s dark past marks an entrance into manhood, where he aspires to arrive at one day. But for Pop, a man bearing the burden of imprisonment, saving his grandchildren from similar fates is a primary concern. Jojo ultimately faces Pop’s past when he arrives at Parchman Farm. For the older and younger men in Ward’s novels, history lives on in their bodies, and the stories they transmit through them. So Jojo finds Pop’s world not just through his second-hand version of events, but by arriving at the space that imprisoned and traumatized their family.
By invoking Morrison and Faulkner for new readers, Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present. Often the book relies too much on old symbols. Pop’s memories of Richie and the actions causing the young boy’s death draw almost too heavily upon the inspiration of Beloved.
Suffering is a continuous process of engagement with trauma, facing, fighting, and sometimes succumbing to it. In the foreword to Beloved, Toni Morrison described writing about slavery in a way that kept memory alive: “the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead.” The dead in Sing, Unburied, Sing are needy because they have no choice. Trauma demands attention, yet that attention brings chaos into the characters’ lives. The act of writing and reading such stories also demands that oppressor and oppressed address their positions in an unjust society. Literature and history occupy the same role, as record-keepers of injustice, and of experiences. These records allow us to understand why past and present trauma are ultimately spokes in the same wheel.
“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters.
Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal.
Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren.
If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books.
Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth.
What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”
I can’t stand him.
This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut.
Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin.
Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth.
Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others.
Who would be your literary torturers in Hell?
Image Credit: Pixabay.
There is a long-standing debate about a critical aspect of the novel-writing process. Currently and colloquially in some annexes of the writing community it’s been playfully termed the “pantsing vs. plotting/outlining/planning” debate. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants: they write and see where it takes them. Planners, well, plan before they write.
Precedent and vehement feeling may be marshaled in favor of both approaches.
Virginia Woolf took copious notes before she wrote her novels, as did Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov (his notes on index cards). William Faulkner scribbled his outline for A Fable on a wall which his wife tried to paint over. Joseph Heller created an extensive spreadsheet for the correspondences between various plots in Catch-22.
James Joyce, though, thought “a book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.” Mark Twain too, insisted that a book “write itself” and that “the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations…I put it away…The reason was very simple — my tank had run dry; it was empty…the story could not go on without materials; it could not be wrought out of nothing.” Ernest Hemingway said much the same, and believed in simply pouring out what was within, stopping each day before he was completely empty, and resuming the next.
And of course there are many other points along the continuum. Italo Calvino started from an image and then expanded it. “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it,” says Katherine Anne Porter. And writers’ processes may be regarded differently by themselves than by others. George Eliot may have been prompted by the serial format of Middlemarch to unify her novel more than it otherwise would have been, but she nevertheless considered her work more as “experiments in life” than “moralized fables, the last word of a philosophy endeavoring to teach by example,” as Henry James remarked of her work.
The divide exists with equal prominence in more mass market or “genre” schools. There the archetypal planner might be someone like J.K. Rowling, who extensively outlined the Harry Potter series, or John Grisham, who reportedly outlines each of his books prior to writing them. Stephen King, on the other hand, thinks it’s “dishonest” to pre-determine a plot, and William Gibson dislikes planned writing, which he considers to smack of “homework.” Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem likened his writing process to “dipping a thread in a liquid solution of sugar; after a while crystals of sugar begin to settle on the thread, and it grows thicker and thicker, it puts on flesh, so to speak,” and this is reminiscent of what fantasy author Neil Gaiman says of his novels: that they “accrete.” Lem’s description is reminiscent of what Stendhal says in his deliciously acute Love of the idealization involved in passionate love. When a twig is left in the salt mines, Stendhal writes, it eventually emerges utterly sheathed in delicate, interlacing crystals. In the same way, a person in love encloses their beloved in a seamless vestment of imagined perfections (never, however, with less ground in reality than the shape of the crystals have in the topography of the underlying twig). Perhaps writers like Lem need to idealize their work before writing it.
Authors like Raymond Chandler and George R.R. Martin claim that if they planned, they would lose all motivation to write. The latter makes a distinction between “architects” and “gardeners.” Architects plan rigorously and then construct; gardeners plant seeds and water them, and that creates the novel over time.
These divisions are not to deny the facts that writing itself constitutes a kind of planning, if only in retrospect, and that the lines between glimmering visions, developed thoughts, preparatory notes, preliminary sketches, and first drafts blur. Planners certainly do not and cannot plan everything, and even the incorrigibly spontaneous no doubt fall into certain involuntary spasms of planning.
One distinction by which the controversy might be clarified is the mental state involved in the writing process. Many pantsers view the ideal state of writing as akin to a waking dream. Stephen King claims to pass into reverie when he writes, and Ray Bradbury said much the same, cautioning writers to be driven by emotion and not intellect if they wish to experience that state (“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”), which he associates with intense joy.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, love, lunacy and poetry are all related, and so of course Delphic prophecy of old is practically the picture of divine inspiration. The idea of divine madness possessing poets and prophets (and I include novelists under these grand rubrics) is an old one. Kalidasa, the Indian poet, is said to have had the sigil of inspiration painted on his tongue by the goddess, after which the waters of creativity simply poured forth. Madness and divine inspiration here are opposed to calm, clear, intellectual rationality and planning.
There seems to be a separation, then, between the novel whose genesis arises from its creator’s excitement, which, channeled into a dream-like state, throws off what comes to mind in an almost automatic process, and the novel which has its development in a more intentional, cerebral decision, one in which feeling and thought are more nearly equal partners, and which conceives what it wants before it deliberately strives to fulfill that conception.
Planning in a sense takes place in both models. In the case of the planners, it’s a more explicit, thinking kind of planning, whereas in the case of the pantsers it’s an unthinking planning that takes place by way of that first draft.
And that distinction may well mean different parts of the brain or mind function to conceptualize the basic structure of the novel. In everyday social interaction, we understand what another person means by their actions and words by putting ourselves in their place and simulating what we would do in their place. This is not usually a conscious process. There is evidence that when readers read stories, they identify with the characters and do much the same thing.
It may be the case that pantsers engage in this kind of imaginative and empathic recreation when they tell stories, which is precisely why they cannot plan. They have to tell the story in order to know its contours and structure. They have to place themselves in the minds of the characters and then simulate what the characters do. This may be why Hilary Mantel calls writing her fiction an activity akin to acting.
These writers work by faith that their emotions channel into words a latent object which will later prove to possess a structure. The act by which one constructs characters, subjects them to some shock or hinders their desire by some obstacle, and then simply follows them in one’s imagination as they respond, is the empathic creative process.
This empathic process relates, too, to the possibility of characters which somehow take control and even surprise their creator.
That this could even happen is a matter of controversy. Jorge Luis Borges, admittedly not a novelist, is skeptical that such a thing is not merely authorial self-deception. He found preposterous the idea that characters could truly buck their author.
Yet Leo Tolstoy claimed surprise at what his characters did, in particular expressing shock at one of Anna Karenina’s most infamous acts.
Indeed, a reverie-writer like Stephen King considers it dishonest when a writer pre-determines a plot instead of simply giving the characters the situation and following what they do. J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that he had long ago learned not to determine by fiat what characters would do, and to let them determine their own actions instead, and Bradbury says that the plot is simply the footprints of the characters sprinting toward their desires.
And yet here too there are strong crossovers.
The planner William Faulkner said, after all, that this is precisely what he did with As I Lay Dying: “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress.” And it was a book for which he claimed to know practically every word prior to writing anything down. More broadly he claimed of each of his books that “there is always a point…where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job — say somewhere about page 275.”
And Henry James thought through a situation and then expanded in his mind the ramifications of that situation. It started for him with a little “seed” or “virus” which then he then expanded into its inevitable implications, structured into a novel, and then wrote. He took distinct pleasure in rendering visible the intricate organism into which the situational seed blossomed — an empathic approach, yet filtered through a powerful planning intellect.
Planning is often connected to a desire to use fiction to explicate an idea. That makes sense, since such a desire requires intellectual foresight and control.
Dostoevsky wrote his extensive notes no doubt because his works had to illustrate complex philosophical ideas like the “positive idea of beauty” in The Idiot, or the possibility of acting beyond morality in Crime and Punishment.
Marcel Proust famously wrote that he was overjoyed when one of his readers realized that his work was in fact a “dogmatic work and a construction,” that is — that it had been fashioned according to a plan to demonstrate certain principles. Proust was not, contrary to popular opinion, merely trying to recreate old memories. He was trying to demonstrate certain philosophical, psychological, and literary ideas, and these manifested in his work. He admired the idea of Gothic cathedrals and thought of his work architecturally, or with the unity of painting or a great symphony, and drew his characters and situations from memory accordingly. He claims, indeed, to have possessed no imagination at all, though this remark likely ought to be taken about as seriously as Montaigne’s claims to a poor memory and and dull storytelling ability.
And yet even here there are complications. Ray Bradbury mentions that when he writes, a second self arises and does all the writing; his muse does all the work. In strange analogy with that view is Proust’s strongly-held position that the real life of the writer cannot tell us anything important about the authorial self, which be known only in the artistic creation. Yet this in itself does not tell us much about the planning debate, because that second self, that other self, may be precisely the self of reflection rather than the automatic, unconscious self which manifests when the intellect suspends itself in a reverie. On the other hand, Proust himself firmly holds that for an artist, “instinct” is king, and that intellect, by its own lights, bows in acknowledgement of this fact. Unfortunately, he never defines just what instinct is or how it is to be accessed in the writing process, excusing himself with an idea that Faulkner independently and no less staunchly adumbrates: that finally, there are no rules to writing.
Perhaps, as Henry James put it, “the general considerations fail or mislead, and…even the fondest of artists need ask no wider range than the logic of the particular case.”
Since he officially announced his presidential candidacy, Donald Trump has not only enjoyed a precipitous rise to the top of the Republican field but — more shockingly for many of us following the campaign — he has maintained his support even while steadily ramping up his misogynist, xenophobic rhetoric. Regardless of how this election cycle ultimately plays out, Trump has already made it inescapably clear that the political energies he encapsulates will not disappear anytime soon. As such, it’s beholden upon those of us witnessing Trump’s rise to look seriously at the forces that have contributed to it. As someone who studies American literature for a living, I’ve found a vivid explication of Trumpism’s roots in what might seem an unusual place: William Faulkner’s modernist tour de force The Sound and the Fury, first published in 1929.
Anyone who has read The Sound and the Fury will likely remember it as a challenging experience. With this novel, Faulkner pioneers the “stream of consciousness” style that made him famous, using this technique to capture the tumultuous inner workings of his protagonists’ minds. Set mainly in Mississippi in 1928, the novel chronicles the decline of the fictional Compson family by giving voice to the distinctive interior monologues of three brothers. The novel’s first chapter represents the non-normative cognitive functioning of the mute Benjy (the putative “idiot” to which the novel’s Shakespearean title alludes); the second, set in Massachusetts 18 years earlier, depicts the anxious, obsessive Quentin in the run-up to his suicide. But it is the novel’s third chapter, the so-called “Jason” section, that primarily concerns me here. (The fourth and final chapter, often called the “Dilsey” section, focuses on one of the Compsons’ black servants, but it returns to a more traditional narrative perspective, which pulls back from probing the depths of Dilsey’s inner life.)
Faulkner casts Jason as deeply resentful of his waning economic power. A salaried employee in a local hardware store, Jason thinks with pride of his family’s slave owning past, and he understands the economy’s modernization as his own dispossession. Polls have shown that Trump’s support is strongest among working class white men without a college degree; Jason, who fits into each of these demographic categories, resents his father for selling family pasture land to send older brother Quentin to Harvard. Since Quentin has drowned himself before completing his degree, Jason sees the tuition money as a wasted investment; he doesn’t think much of an Ivy League institution where “they teach you how to go for a swim at night without knowing how to swim.” Along with the repurposed pasture land (now a golf course), Jason’s wage labor job indexes broader economic shifts, which affect the financial prospects of families like his. In the antebellum South’s plantation economy, slavery led directly to white wealth, and even after the Civil War, white landowners continued to profit off exploitatively cheap black labor. However, by the 1920s, the economic underpinnings of this system were in disarray: cotton prices were down, many African-Americans were heading north as part of the Great Migration, and overproduction had ravaged much of Mississippi’s once fertile land. Jason, then, detests the daily grind of working for wages because he understands it as a manifestation of lost wealth — wealth he feels his family fully deserves.
Unsatisfied with punching a clock, Jason turns to investing in cotton futures. His section of narration chronicles his building frustration, as a day of high market volatility leaves him with less money than when he began. When he receives a telegram at the end of the day, informing him that his investment account has closed due to insufficient funds, Jason unleashes a tirade of bitterness:
I dont see how a city no bigger than New York can hold enough people to take the money away from us country suckers. Work like hell all day every day, send them your money and get a little piece of paper back, Your account closed at 20.62. […] And if that wasn’t enough, paying ten dollars a month to somebody to tell you how to lose it fast, that either dont know anything about it or is in cahoots with the telegraph company. Well, I’m done with them. They’ve sucked me in for the last time. Any fool except a fellow that hasn’t got any more sense than to take a jew’s word for anything could tell the market was going up all the time[…]. I dont want a killing; only these small town gamblers are out for that, I just want my money back that these damn jews have gotten with all their guaranteed inside dope.
In this passage, Jason’s perceived enemies proliferate and blend seamlessly together: he feels misled by the financial advisory company he has hired, which has told him to sell short on a day when the market rose. This grievance expands to include the people of New York City more broadly, distant Northerners who gang up to defraud “country suckers” like him. Jason is quick to imagine these faceless financiers as “damn jews;” his anti-elitism works together with his xenophobia to heighten his sense of powerlessness in the face of a changing modern world. After a traveling salesman proclaims, “I’m an American,” Jason responds, “So am I […]. Not many of us left.” Clearly, Jason wants to “make America great again” — buying into the white nationalist rhetoric encoded in such a slogan.
Trump has earned comparisons to fascist dictators of decades past (and not only because of his inclination to re-tweet Benito Mussolini), but a more specifically American precedent for his rise might be James Vardaman, Mississippi’s governor from 1904 to 1908 (and later one of its senators). Before Vardaman’s rise, as the historian Don Doyle discusses in his book Faulkner’s County, Mississippi politics were controlled by a small group of wealthy political insiders, who selected nominees during closed-door conventions. Vardaman led a grassroots populist movement by railing against this system. Speaking in front of massive crowds, he castigated political elites, presented himself as a champion of the working man, and openly encouraged racial hostility. Sound familiar? (Plus, there’s Vardaman’s hairstyle.) Though originally from a wealthier family himself, Jason certainly sympathizes with the sense of white grievance that Vardaman and later populist politicians like Theodore Bilbo stoked. In As I Lay Dying, the novel he published the year after The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner names one of his poor white characters Vardaman, as if to suggest the former governor’s ongoing influence. The consequences of Vardaman’s positions were real and devastating, particularly for Mississippi’s black population: Vardaman argued that educating African-Americans would only make them more threatening, and he enthusiastically supported lynchings. As Doyle recounts, Vardaman once commented that, if he were a private citizen and a “negro fiend” (an alleged rapist) had been identified, he would “head the mob to string the brute up.”
Trump supporters, confronted with a more contemporary set of political frustrations and economic anxieties, have exhibited a troublingly familiar response. Whereas the dissolution of the plantation system leads to increased economic uncertainty for Southern white families like the Compsons, here in the 21st century we are dealing with the consequences of an increasingly globalized economy, wherein manufacturing jobs do not lead to the secure careers and regular paychecks they once did. Even as the rise of the digital economy creates new employment opportunities in the U.S., these jobs tend to be restricted to those who have attained a certain level of education and acquired a particular set of specialized skills. While Faulkner’s fiction focuses primarily on the economic climate of Mississippi, by 2016 white concerns about dispossession have become an undeniably national phenomenon — hence, Trump won 47 percent of the Republican primary vote in Mississippi, but he also won 60 percent in New York. Faulkner’s novel precisely captures the distorted logic of a character who believes in his own victimization above all else: Jason is right to sense that his financial prospects are bleak, but he is absolutely unwilling to reflect on the history of racial oppression and violence that made his family wealthy in the first place. Similarly, in our current political moment, wealth inequality and the gutting of factory jobs are serious issues with far-reaching consequences for a variety of demographic groups. With his comments about building walls and banning Muslims, Trump offers false solutions to real problems; he capitalizes on legitimate economic anxieties by scapegoating racial minorities, and his own vote tallies rise in direct proportion to the sense of irrational fear he cultivates in his supporters.
In political moments like this one, it makes sense to turn (and return) to literary works, records of our shared history and repositories of long-standing cultural attitudes. With its intensive representation of Jason Compson’s psychology, The Sound and the Fury helps us to understand the historical forces that shape such an individual. Faulkner’s text illustrates the hypocrisy and selective memory according to which Jason processes his experience, but it also forces us as readers to confront the depth of his sadness and confusion. Claudia Rankine’s poem “Sound & Fury,” recently published in The New Yorker, accomplishes a similar function. Rankine writes of how
…[h]ands, which assembled, and packaged,
and built, harden into a fury that cannot call
power to account though it’s not untrue jobs were
outsourced and it’s not untrue an economic base
was cut out from under. It’s not untrue.
While Rankine’s poem does not specifically name any red-haired real estate developers, the political context for her work is clear. Like Faulkner before her, Rankine vividly illuminates the experience of those who struggle to reconcile their own personal difficulties with their deeply ingrained commitment to the shibboleth of white supremacy. Like Faulkner’s depiction of Jason, Rankine poem’s suggests that we can vehemently disagree with an ideology and still acknowledge the suffering of those caught in its thrall. Even as Trump puts forth a frighteningly distorted view of the world, the pain of those enticed by this worldview remains real.
Image Credit: Flickr/Jamelle Bouie.
In one scene from Americana, Don DeLillo’s 1971 debut novel, narrator David Bell turns off a light and turns on a radio:
Sound filled the room, huge noise, bass and drums booming out of the speaker, beating and scratching, then the sting of a fierce needling trumpet. In the darkness that trumpet had a deeper beauty, filling space, leaving time behind, a difficult sound departing and returning, and I did not feel I was in a room with four walls. A note hung at eye level, dim speck on the railroad horizon, then vanished into a long silence shaded by the revving bass.
It is not surprising that a writer so in love with the sounds of language — someone who titled a novel White Noise — would embrace the power of radio as narrative. Yet, like other talented novelists, DeLillo manages to surprise us with the familiar. Elsewhere in the novel, Bell describes a “three-antenna marine-band hi-fi portable radio” belonging to another character. The radio transmitted a “never-ending squall of disc jockey babytalk, commercials for death, upstate bluegrass Jesus, and as we drove through the cloverleaf bedlams and past the morbid gray towns I perceived that all was in harmony, the stunned land feeding the convulsive radio, every acre of the night bursting with a kinetic unity, the logic beyond delirium.”
It is sometimes refreshing to ditch the convenience of playlists and clarity of satellite stations and embrace the surprise of terrestrial radio. The shifting genres of FM. The droning emptiness of AM. I am reminded of “Route 7 Outside Nacogdoches, Texas” by Joe Wilkins, about a long drive down the road, and the narrator’s “good pain inside distance.” There, “the night gone liquor black, / radio catching miles / of static, there was only / the ache of cicadas and wind / and leaves in the wind, / and I did not know I was driving / to you. I was driving.”
Radio is elegiac. Radio is the theater of the mind: our eyes are free to look elsewhere, but the sound bounces in our brains. Two mediums that elicit imagination and subjective experience, radios and literature go well together. As another theater of the mind, literature requires more active listener participation than visual entertainment. Often the synthesis of the two makes narrative magic.
Mucho Mass, the husband of Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49 is a disc jockey for KCUF, a California radio station. The novel is suffused with sound. Mucho was previously a used car salesman, but unlike other hucksters, did not use pencil shavings “for hushing sick transmissions.” Oedipa is haunted by disembodied voices: late-night prank phone calls from her billionaire ex-boyfriend, who disguises his voice as The Shadow, a radio character from the 1930s. Lapsed Catholic he is, Thomas Pynchon makes the radio sacramental: Oedipa imagines Mucho “looking through the soundproof glass at one of his colleagues with a headset clamped on and cueing the next record with movements stylized as the handling of chrism, censer, chalice, might be for a holy man, yet really tuned in to the voice, voices, the music, its message, surrounded by it, digging it, as were all the faithful it went out to.”
We want to be surrounded by sound: speakers in front, above, and behind. Literature puts the speakers inside of us. Julian Murphet has considered William Faulkner’s experimentation with levels and layers of “voice” in his novels. Murphet is correct to note that “Faulkner’s career as a novelist is coeval with the rise of one of the most astonishing cultural events in any nation’s history: the present-tense linking up of American cities from coast to coast, thanks to syndication and electromagnetic propagation, through voices speaking into living rooms and office spaces ‘out of the air’ and directly into the resonant chambers of the soul.” Murphet quotes Theodor Adorno’s Current of Music to supplement the point: “The absence of visible persons makes the ‘radio voice’ appear more objective and infallible than a live voice; and the mystery of a machine which can speak may be felt in atavistic layers of our psychical life.” In Faulkner’s work, Murphet sees “how the art of the novel is adapted, in a state of emergency, to absorb these new, disembodied voices of radio and gramophone, not as alien impositions on the living speech and dialogic richness of an expanding nation but precisely as the transfiguration through mechanical mediation” of our selves and souls.
As I Lay Dying — perhaps Faulkner’s finest and most sonorous work — ends with a chapter narrated by Cash, the apostolic carpenter son. The chapter’s first sentence: “So when we stopped there to borrow the shovels we heard the graphophone playing in the house.” As the chapter goes on, Cash notes when the music plays, and when it stops: “So we set in the wagon, but the music wasn’t playing now. I reckon it’s a good thing we aint got ere a one of them. I reckon I wouldn’t never get no work done a-tall for listening to it. I dont know if a little music aint about the nicest thing a fellow can have.”
The family is about to meet the new Ms. Bundren. She is holding a graphophone. As the novel ends, Cash thinks how “everytime a new record would come from the mail order and us setting in the house in the winter, listening to it, I would think what a shame Darl couldn’t be to enjoy it too.” Faulkner chose to have Cash articulate his emotional and spiritual distance from his brother through their inability to share sound.
In John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” Jim and Irene Westcott share sound, until “One Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a Schubert quartet, the music faded away altogether.” Broken, the radio was replaced with a “large gumwood cabinet” that occupied their apartment “like an aggressive intruder.” A clear and pure tone is later replaced with crackling and rustling, as the radio begins transmitting the surrounding world. Private and intimate conversations whisper from the radio. Also: “a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running comments on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank.” Soon the “hideous cabinet,” the ugly God of a machine tunes into the Westcott’s own sins and fears.
We learn how to live through radios. Within Eduardo Corral’s poem “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” the father “learned English / by listening to the radio. The first four words / he memorized: In God We Trust.” Radio delivers us news, both public and personal. In “Easter, 1960” by Sharon Olds, a hospital uses an “ancient boarding-school radio” to announce that the speaker’s boyfriend was one of two men brought to the emergency room after a car crash: “one of them / critical, one of them dead.”
Back to DeLillo’s Americana, where the “radio was announcing a sale on ground round steak and then some old-time rock came on, lush and mystical, cockney voices wailing through a prayer wheel of electric sitars.” Radio is like literature, like our thoughts: moving, shifting, often clouded in static, and yet sometimes out of the maddening noise comes clarity.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
“I had invented a writing table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where a dynamo ran. It made a deep, constant humming noise. There was no more work to do until about 4 a.m., when we would have to clean the fires and get up steam again.” The University of Mississippi power plant where William Faulkner wrote his self-styled “tour-de-force” As I Lay Dying is slated to be demolished. Here’s a nice, complementary piece on slowing down to read Faulkner.
Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn’t and couldn’t go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence.
In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn’t seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother’s absence.
One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander’s book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.
Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn’t think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set.
I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I’d go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I’d be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions.
While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty’s On Writing. I’d also carried around Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women’s bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness.
This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden.
While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky’s Revolver I’d stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O’Keeffe country. I’m still working through O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year.
I’ve opened up Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden’s astonishing exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life.” Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites!
A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I’ve been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We’re great company for each other.
Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I’d been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too. Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka’s SOS: 1961 – 2013, and somehow eventually I’m holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams.
When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly.
Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I’m a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I’ve read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We’re all better for it!
So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage:
Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Jack Gilbert, Collected
Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval
Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine
Nick Flynn, My Feelings
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn
Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
Chris Abani, Song for Night
Rick Barot, Chord
Major Jackson, Roll Deep
Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box
Randall Horton, Hook
Parneshia Jones, Vessel
Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks
Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl
Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin
Patti Smith, M Train
Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It
Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
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Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike present the second installment of Back 2 School, in which they read books they never got around to reading in high school. This time, Janet slogs through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Mike has a much better time with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
Discussed in this episode: pet names, dark humor, the Coen Brothers, unembalmed corpses, Weekend at Bernie’s (dir. Ted Kotcheff), Dune by Frank Herbert, boring-ass love affairs, pale trembling men, sex scenes, Hester Prynne, pastors, The Martian by Andy Weir, Colin Dickey.
Discussed in this episode but cut for time: Mike making fun of Colin Dickey for 47 straight minutes. Don’t worry. It’ll be an extra on the DVD.
It’s a single line of dialog in Ernest Hemingway’s classic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that one line, 11 words, has had an outsized influence on the course of literary titling. It’s spoken by the female character, Jig, as she waits for a train in Zaragosa with her unnamed American man. In the train station they begin drinking, first cervezas then anisette, and soon conduct a suppressed dispute about whether or not to end a pregnancy. Tensions mount, differences are exposed, and with that, Jig utters the legendary line. It’s a breaking point that is as much textual as emotional: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
Hemingway couldn’t have known the legacy that line would have — or maybe he did, he famously sought “a prose that had never been written.” When the story was published in 1927, the line broke open a new way characters talked on the page. Exactly four decades later, that groundbreaking colloquy resurfaced as a stylistic approach to the contemporary American literary title. Raymond Carver’s story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” published in 1967 (the titular collection appeared in 1976), echoed Hemingway’s line, and in turn spawned a subgenre of titling in the vernacular style.
What I’ve come to think of as the colloquial title rejects literary tone for the purely voice-driven. Colloquial titles can be wordy, even prolix, and often make use of a purposefully curious yet catchy syntax. The colloquial title is based in common parlance, but also draws on aphorism, the stock phrase, and familiar expressions. For a more elevated voice-driven title, look to the literary/biblical allusion, the colloquial title’s highborn cousin. With exemplars like As I Lay Dying and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the allusion-based title has undisputed gravitas, and frankly, when it comes to authoritative tone, is hard to beat. Think of The Violent Bear It Away and A River Runs Through It.
And yet, ordinary language is equally capable of authority. Like any compelling title, those based in the vernacular can deftly portray a sense of foreboding, loss, or lack. Plus, when ordinary language is placed in a literary context, meaning can shift and complicate, taking shades of tone it might not otherwise. It might even be said that, unlike the conventional variety, the colloquial title is captivating even when its message is trouble-free.
There is a certain power in hearing phrases we know and may have used ourselves. When a title speaks to us in everyday language, it’s not so different from any voice aiming to get our attention. I read a colloquial title and hear a speaker with an urgent message. Maybe like Jig’s, its phrasing is odd, idiosyncratic. Or, where one speaker might as easily equivocate, another may cut in, or confess. Or be presumptuous and opinionated. Whatever the persona, the colloquial title leans in close and says I’m talking to you, and I listen, eager to know what lies beyond that strangely familiar voice.
Here then is a sampling of colloquial titles, culled from eight decades of classic and contemporary literature.
1. Classics of the Form
An early example of the colloquial impulse is Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1935). The title of this Depression-era portrait adopts ironic tone to reference the period’s human desolation and the suffering of its characters.
William Gass’s collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) uses the power of repetition to suggest a journey to the deeper realms of character and place. The recursive device proved influential, as demonstrated by more than a few of the examples that follow here.
Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) is an exemplar of the colloquial approach. The title seamlessly integrates the prose style of the collection and its mood of uncertainty and pathos.
Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986). Bukowski’s style pays a debt to the Hemingway prose style, to the confessional tone of the Beat Poets, and, to this reader’s ear, the personalized truth-telling of the ’60s.
David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). The distinct SoCal syntax and wry tone make this title a classic of the colloquial style.
2. The Aphoristic Vein
Common phrases and well-worn adages make ideal colloquial titles. Somehow, in a title, platitudes and cliché never feel stale, but spark irony and double-meaning.
Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955). The title is drawn from a popular idiom of its day, and the homespun tone runs against the grain of the titular story’s mystical, violent drama.
William Maxwell’s novella So Long See You Tomorrow (1979) and Elizabeth McCracken’s collection Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993). Both operate on the familiarity of common parlance (and what might be called the gravity of goodbye), not to mention direct address: we read “you” and feel at once a stand-in for the addressee.
Jean Thompson’s collection Who Do You Love (1999). While a good number of colloquial titles take the form of a question, Thompson’s intentionally drops its question mark. The lyric from the Bo Diddley song is used without its original punctuation, shifting the phrase to an assertion, a stark refrain that echoes throughout the collection.
Amy Bloom’s collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000). Here, aphorism meets avowal and reflects the fierce attachments that occupy Bloom’s stories of youth, aging, loss, and hope.
Adam Haslett’s collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002). Another appropriation of dialog. Here, the outsider tone is a salutation that is both welcoming and sorrowful, and likewise defines the collection.
3. Matters of Opinion
This colloquial vein might be called the idiosyncratic declarative, a variety of title distinguished by off-kilter observation, unconventional syntax, and the frequent use of personal pronouns:
In this category, Raymond Carver alone spawns a near-genre of declarative titling. The story collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and the poetry collection Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985), are seminal in their approach. Crucial to the effect is the nonliterary usage, as is repetition. Notable too is the tone of candor, rather than irony.
Lorrie Moore’s story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America (1998) reframes the declarative title as an ironic aside. Likewise, Moore’s formative “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” takes the conversational into a uniquely personal lexicon.
William Gay’s I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002), is defined by a plaintive tone and suggestion of intimate disclosure.
Robin Black’s collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (2010) is a prime example of a declarative with an artfully placed hanging pronoun.
Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank With You (2014). In the latest installment of the Frank Bascombe saga, an old adage takes the form of wordplay.
Finally, not to be overlooked in this category, Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (2013), a riff on Carver’s iconic title.
4. Be Forewarned
Everyday language can spawn titles of a more unusual sort, whether instructional, cautionary, or sometimes surreal. The style often has a portentous tone, and interestingly, makes frequent use of the first person plural.
Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007). This pronouncement marks many endings within the novel — of a century, a booming economy, a job, a relationship.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us (2012). Here, the title is foreboding, an augur that taps into the novel’s speculative, catastrophic history.
Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (2013). Colloquy here takes on a solemn and surreal turn, setting the tone for a tale of tragic disappearances.
Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (2014). The title is a literary allusion (from King Lear), referencing the novel’s characters who, as Thomas has said, “by dint of circumstances are not allowed to be themselves.” Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), contains a voice-driven prologue that begins, “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child.” It’s a perfect opening to a novel with a colloquial title that, in typical style, doesn’t hold back.
In high school I had to read a lot of William Faulkner. An ambitious literature teacher fresh from Davidson College introduced us to The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August in a single semester. Of course it was torture, subjecting the linear teenage mind to such non-linear narration, but something about Faulkner stuck, and one day on winter break, as a storm dropped a thin blanket of snow on Atlanta, I picked up The Reivers.
Suddenly Faulkner changed. So accessible. So clear. So page-turning. I would later read critics who breezily called the Pulitzer Prize-winning book lighthearted, narratively simple, and, for these reasons, atypical Faulkner (“affectingly wistful,” Jonathan Yardley wrote). It was, as they say today, a fun read, maybe (it was implied) too much so for a heavyweight such as the bard from Oxford.
But later in life I returned to Faulkner much in the way you return to the music of your youth. And on closer inspection it struck me that nothing about The Reivers was simple. In fact, the book, a thematic wolf in sheep’s clothing, was (and remains) one of the weightiest road-trip novels ever written. The Reivers, in essence, gets very meta about movement.
The Odyssey, On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — these books capture long-duration mobility as a backdrop to drama. But in The Reivers, movement itself is the drama, not to mention the quickening pulse of Yoknapatawpha, a place where, the closer you look, the more the characters materialize by gathering moss.
The book opens with a mobility upgrade. Boon Hoggenbeck steals (reives — it’s a Scottish term) Lucius Priest’s grandfather’s car so he can drive from Jefferson to Memphis to visit a prostitute named Miss Corrie. Before Boon departs, Lucius, aged 11, convinces him to bring him along for the ride. En route, they discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who tends to Lucius’s grandfather’s horses, is hiding in the back seat. As the car fills with characters, The Reivers indeed becomes affectingly wistful, with Huck Finnish coming-of-age excitement leavening the trip.
Matters become a little heavier in Memphis. Boon drops Lucius at Miss Reba’s brothel and goes searching for his “girlfriend.” Ned, in the plot’s pivotal scene, secretly barters the stolen car — the first car in Yoknawpatapha County (where it’s 1905) — for a horse — “Coppermine” — he plans to train up and race hard at a local track (under the new nom de guerre “Lightening”). With the proceeds, Ned vows to buy back the vehicle and allow the dividends to speak to his considerable equine expertise.
Critics have long characterized The Reviers as a soft critique of modernization. It’s certainly that. Horses and mules haul so many themes around Faulkner’s novels that it seems appropriate for him to grant the beasts an 11-hour paean (this was his last novel), which he does by favorably juxtaposing the car’s defects with the horse’s reliability.
One example stands out. Midway to Memphis, Priest’s hijacked car gets stuck in a mud hole. The men struggle to wedge it out with iron bars and a plank of wood, but the vehicle — “so huge and so immobile” — proves to be “too fixed and foundational.” Defeated, Boon pays the mud hole’s owners a few bucks to have the car dislodged by a couple of mules, animals he later describes as “already obsolete before they were born.”
What follows is as arresting as anything Faulkner ever wrote. In an instant, the car morphs from an icon of progress into a “mechanical toy rated in power and strength by the dozens of horses.” It’s no longer a shiny symbol of a modernizing South, but an instant fossil, something you’d discover in layers of bedrock, an object that’s “helpless and impotent in the almost infantile clutch of a few inches of the temporary confederation of two mild and specific elements — earth and water.” The horse, an animal Faulkner deeply understood, triumphs over the car.
But Faulkner is hunting more substantial game here. He’s after the very morality of movement itself. In Western thought, the link between movement and morality is by no means self-evident or routinely explored. But to migrate, by definition, is to go astray. And to go astray is to err — to be errant — and, in turn, to be flawed, or at least radically open to its possibilities. The Reivers honors this definition, allowing movement to constitute error — personal, historical, collective error — as well as make possible its upshot: redemption.
But error comes first. After the travelers are disengaged from the mud hole, they eat fried chicken and ham and assess the near future. “When we crossed Hell Creek,” Boon explains, “we crossed Rubicon” and “set the bridge on fire.” They feel the frisson of liberation: “the very land itself seemed to have changed…the air was very urban.” Only automotive power — such a novelty in 1905 — allows them to barter the past for a future characterized by “the mechanized, the mobilized, the inescapable destiny of America.”
But such liberation comes at a cost. When the trio eventually finds the main road to Memphis — “running string straight into distance” — the world they once knew blurs into confusion. The geography outside the gunmetal doors — “the Sabbath afternoon, workless, the cotton and corn growing unvexed now, the mules themselves sabbatical and idle in the pastures” — becomes lost to Lucius, who recalls, “I couldn’t look at it…I was too busy, too concentrated.” Hurdling through space in metallic containment quietly erodes a sense of place and the integrity such a feeling nurtures. “It was Virtue who had given up, relinquished us to Non-virtue,” Lucius remembers thinking as the car kicked up dust. “The country itself was gone.”
And then they stop at Miss Reba’s. “You’ll like it,” Boon tells Lucius.
Lucius doesn’t like it. Lucius is horrified. His experiences at the brothel culminate in a coming-of-age sequence that includes a badly cut hand, copious tears, and the tectonic realization that “I knew too much, had seen too much; I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me.”
But what never leaves Lucius is the potential for redemption. Redemption in The Reivers is embodied in the noble form of the horse. The relationship that Lucius and Ned develop with Lightening — the bartered horse that Lucius eventually rides in two mile-long circles — restores “the country itself” to a non-automotive pace and routine. It’s on the sweaty back of Lightening — a horse maintained with mechanical precision by Ned — that Lucius transcends his fate and recovers his virtue.
The Reivers ends with this moving restoration. On the way to the race, Ned and Lucius must load Lightening onto a train car. Once in the container, the “horse’s hot ammoniac reek…and the steady murmur of Ned’s voice” blend into something “concentrated” and ineffable. Lucius, a nervous wreck about the race, says he “actually realized not only how Lightening’s and my fate were now one, but that the two of us together carried that of the rest of us, too, certainly Boon’s and Ned’s, since on us depended under what conditions they could go back home.”
Lucius and Lightening, when the first ride begins, careen down the track “as though bolted together.” With that unification, all characters return home the wiser, knowing, as Grandpa Priest would soon tell Lucius, “nothing is forgotten.”
Today, more than 50 years after The Reivers was published, a cottage industry exists to teach us to slow down and simplify the hectic pace of contemporary life. Think Shop Class as Soul Craft, You are Not a Gadget, or Last Child in the Woods. It’s easy to dismiss this genre of literature as a wistful — that word—blend of nostalgia and self-help. Reading The Reivers though, saps the impulse to mock. Although Boon is quick to note to that “if all the human race ever stops moving at the same instant, the surface of the earth will seize,” he also learns that slowing life down enough to watching mules on sabbatical can save your soul from the perils of speed.
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording?
Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp.
I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work.
I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.”
I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: “What’s usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books.
These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom.
In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication — the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words — yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard.
I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days.
Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Happy New Year, everybody, and welcome back to The Book Report presented by The Millions! We hope that all of you had a great 2014. But we know you didn’t, because 2014 was a stupid garbage year, and nothing good happened, except the founding of The Book Report presented by The Millions, which ruled, but otherwise, let’s just all agree never to discuss 2014 ever again. Moving on!
Discussed in this episode: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Bob Marley, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, profanity, destination weddings, violence, Cool Runnings (dir. Jon Turteltaub), Roberto Bolaño, William T. Vollmann.
Not discussed in this episode: For the first time in this show’s history, there is actually nothing not discussed in this episode. Somehow, we actually talk about literally everything. And it’s only, like, five minutes! Honestly, we’re just as surprised as you are.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr
“If we had the same dream every night,” Nietzsche wrote in 1873, “we would be as preoccupied with it as by the things we see every day.” The premise is simple: reality, at least what we perceive it to be, is a matter of continuity. But say you devote yourself to a single work of fiction, a single imagining, day after day for the majority of your life. What becomes of the real? When are you inside, and when are you out?
Earlier this summer, Richard Linklater’s nostalgia project Boyhood premiered after 12 years in production. For a few days every year since 2002, Linklater assembled the same cast, centered on a young boy Mason Junior, and shot what Linklater has called a “document of time.” The marvel of Boyhood is that the plain spectacle of the aging cast allows Linklater to subvert the dramatic impulses of traditional cinema. The film repeatedly upsets the conventional setup-payoff paradigm of narrative filmmaking to achieve a nuanced, meandering, and quiet chronicle of the boy’s coming-of-age. Boyhood challenges viewers’ recourse to narrative by honing in on the unsorted miscellanea of growing up: doing the dishes, finding a dead animal in the yard, Mom and Dad arguing mutedly on the other side of a windowpane, irritant siblings redeeming themselves in small ways when it counts. As Linklater explains, “You see how life just accumulates.”
Linklater’s 12-year shoot was motivated by an aesthetic persuasion about what time could afford. The magic of film editing or makeup or 12 lookalike Mason Juniors would have been inadequate to the purposes of Linklater’s sprawling yet understated film epic. Part of the production’s interest was accommodating and incorporating the real-life maturation of its cast: how adolescent postures endure into adulthood, how intonations and vocabularies evolve, how a body transforms slowly, and then all at once. All these personal transformations were then framed within the cultural narrative of the early 2000’s. Consider the film’s soundtrack: a year-by-year survey of American pop culture since 2002, beginning with Britney Spears. A document of time, then, is always also a curation of culture. What Boyhood proves is that sometimes “putting off” work is really a conviction about the opportunities and insights that come with taking one’s time. Call it an investment.
Now, an artist’s apologia can get very slippery, very quickly. Artists are savvy at masking their excuses. Plenty are just plain lazy or too indecisive or too timid to dig in and confront the Beast. So what is the difference, or what is the threshold, between an artist who procrastinates for years and a prudent auteur, such as Linklater, who has a plan? These ambitious, bloated, and sometimes staggering ventures raise important questions about how a work’s scope determines its mode of production. How much time should be spent on a single work of art? Or inversely, how will the amount of time spent on a work ultimately shape what that work will become and what it will mean to the creator? What it will mean to us? I see Ahab on the quarterdeck lamenting to Starbuck: “For forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful lands, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep…what a forty years’ fool — fool — old fool, has old Ahab been!” Maybe the more urgent question is at what point has a work grown too much for its own good, taken on too much meaning? Why do our creative ambitions swell up and run out on us? Why, as Ahab poses, “Why this strife of the chase?”
In 1956, shortly after publishing The Recognitions, William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself outlining the premise of his second novel: “a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune.” The purpose of Gaddis’s letter was to safeguard his idea from copyright infringement, a fitting launch for a book “projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in American today.” One provisional title was JR.
JR consumed Gaddis for the next two decades until its publication in 1975, devouring almost everybody close to him: two marriages, two children, and a swarm of agents and publishers in between. In a 1974 letter to American novelist and film producer Warren Kiefer, Gaddis described day-to-day work on the novel “like living with an invalid,” a sentiment articulated in the text of JR itself when writer and physics teacher Jack Gibbs laments his own project of 16 years, a novel that shares its title with Gaddis’s last published work, Agapē Agape: “Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him…God damned friends asking how he’s coming along all expect him out any day don’t want bad news no news rather hear lies, big smile out any day now.”
Gibbs’s authorial melancholy and much of Gaddis’s own strife in completing JR were first figured in a character named Stanley from The Recognitions. Stanley, the novel’s holy fool, is an organ composer struggling to finish a requiem dedicated to his mother. At one point, he explains his dilemma: “It’s as though this one thing must contain it all, all in one piece of work, because, well it’s as though finishing it strikes it dead, do you understand?” Stanley’s qualm is a reiteration of Wyatt Gwyon’s insight earlier in The Recognitions: “There’s something about a…an unfinished piece of work, a…thing like this where…do you see? Where perfection is still possible?”
Literary critic Morris Dickstein has identified this totalizing, perfecting ambition of American authors as the Moby-Dick or One Big Book syndrome. The syndrome stems from an effort to culminate and consolidate “the whole meaning of the national experience” — hence the systems or encyclopedic novel. But a designation more appropriate to Gaddis’s JR and to a distinct set of experimental postwar American texts would be the mega-novel, a form elaborated by critic Frederick Karl in his essay “American Fictions: The Mega-Novel” as robust, multifarious fiction that strives to expropriate and counteract the cultural value attached to “mega.” Think MegaBucks or Mega Rich. The mega-novel subverts the dominative logic of late capitalism by turning capitalism’s multiplicities, apparatuses, and vocabularies back on themselves. Thus, in Gaddis’s words, “by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests,” 11-year-old JR Vansant ruptures those very procedures of the financial infrastructure. Recognizing this inside-out ploy of the mega-novel, what is really a type of deconstruction, is critical to understanding the scope of JR and other oceanic postwar efforts.
Unlike The Recognitions, JR has no chapter breaks, no epigraphs. It is composed almost entirely of unmarked dialogue. The text reels — a continuous discord of voices and noise: money rustling, traffic, people up and down the street, in and out of office buildings, radio broadcasts, telephone calls, trash disposal, septic cacophony, “somewhere a urinal flushed,” the incessant moan and drone and oversaturation of metropolis. The novel documents the runaway qualities of cybernetic capitalism — a barrage of unfiltered data and meaning, a cultural logic bent on the endless reproduction and circulation of signs — and a child’s ability to exploit and undermine that system.
Franzen famously denounced the novel as a haywire, nonsensical literature of emergency. And then a cast of forefront experimental authors denounced Franzen as a populist pundit. That is not the concern here. The question here is why JR took so long to write.
In the 20-year span that Gaddis was working on JR, the U.S. experienced radical economic, technological, and cultural shifts. The maturation of war bonds and the confluence of corporate power brought about a postwar prosperity and consolidation of capital that completely altered the country’s economic landscape, not to mention hugely symbolic fiscal gestures under the Nixon administration such as the suspension of the gold standard in 1971. Telecommunication, information, and banking technologies boomed: the first operating system, videotapes, integrated circuits, magnetic stripe cards, satellites, cordless phones, personal computers, email, electronic payment networks, the first ATMs. Academia was recruited and incorporated by an immense military-industrial complex that was infiltrating universities in Cambridge and northern California. A war waged halfway around the world in Indochina. Color televisions flooded the market. Family sitcoms were replaced by soap operas, newscasts, variety shows, and daytime game shows. Capital was no longer anchored to anything real and culture was reproducing itself at a mile a minute, all while radars painted the coasts, sweeping for backscatter off something huge and unknowable. People were left to carve lives out of the maelstrom of signs: swipe, go, click, take, look, laugh, lock, switch, cut, ring, watch, wait, are you ready —
And then all of it came crashing down in 1973.
Gaddis, meanwhile, was “being dragged by the heels into the 20th century:” fighting against the nerve-wracking hum of electric typewriters; failing to revert the copyright for The Recognitions, which was being printed unedited in paperback editions without his knowledge; freelancing for media companies; teaching; vying for reviews; calls to Western Union ringing on the phone in the next room — “it’s almost always for Western Union whose number is 1 digit off ours;” and constantly strapped for cash — “Will this tight rope walking ever end?”
Was Gaddis continuously working on his novel day and night for 20 years? No. He was sidetracked by freelance writing projects and teaching positions to make ends meet, gigs that seemed to support his writing in paradoxical ways: “My work on [JR] this spring will be sporadically interrupted by a part-time teaching invitation which I had accepted in order to continue work on the book.” And even when he was able to work on the novel fulltime, Gaddis’s daily reports capture the writer’s infinite means of procrastination:
2:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter
2:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed
Gaddis recorded about 12 hours of these minute-by-minute escapes. He too was suffering from the onslaught of postwar noise, a ceaseless stream of information designed, it seemed, to prevent anyone from working on a long novel that could expose such a system.
The problem, ultimately, was distraction — distraction from the Task — a danger later elucidated by William Kohler, the narrator and monomaniacal digger of the ne plus ultra of long haul mega-novels, The Tunnel, William Gass’s 1995 doorstop that was 30 years in the making. “The secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on,” Kohler asserts. “The enemy of life is distraction.” If Gaddis’s novel was conditioned by the blur of postwar meanings, then The Tunnel’s resolve was a revamped Protestant work ethic: persistent and monastic focus meant to mitigate the barrage of cultural noise and offer some sort of coherence in the “day-to-day wake-to-work regimen.”
William Kohler appears diametrically opposite from Gaddis’s romping 11-year-old JR. Kohler is a ruminative midwestern history professor (with Nietzschean indigestion no less) struggling to write the introduction to his academic magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Holed up in his basement, his wife upstairs, Kohler begins tunneling out behind the furnace and interposes into his masterpiece his staggered attempts at the introduction: “I slide these sheets between the sheets of G&I and wonder when I’ll run out of history to hide in.” Gass, notorious for overwhelming publishers with ideals about formal experimentation, initially wanted The Tunnel to be published unbound. “I knew I would never get my way,” he ultimately admitted. What becomes clear though is that The Tunnel, in its very conception, was a failed loose-leaf attempt, the detritus of a supposedly greater, more focused work.
The conviction of Gass’s tome, however, is that the detritus of life is what ends up becoming central to our understanding and recollection of it. Shards of thought, flashes of memory, fragments of creation — these are the leftovers and miscellanea that amount to a life, just as in Boyhood, except in The Tunnel, these things for William Kohler do not culminate in the Right Life, not the one he imagined for himself.
Whereas Gaddis’s concerns in JR were the technologies of capital and information, Gass’s interest in The Tunnel was historical process, specifically, the inside of history. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Gass elaborated the dark interior of objective histories: “The things that get left out of history are the very things that tend to undermine it, among other things, the first thing, is the historian himself, his nature.” Just as JR folded the procedures of capital markets back on themselves, The Tunnel breaks down the crystalline structure of historical process and deconstructs the inside-outside binaries we often use to describe historical formations. Thus Kohler anguishes, “Why must one bring the world into the tunnel, when the tunnel is supposed to be the way out?”
Kohler finds himself depositing the dug-up dirt in empty desk drawers. He becomes surrounded by debris, digging his way out and his way in all at once, collapsing the distinction between escape and extraction. As Gass has explained, “Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels…you dig for ore, you dig for gold.” Gass’s clarification offers a profound analogue for the author’s process. The work always takes you closer and further away at the same time, in the same stroke. Every sentence, every shovel-full becomes as self-dissociating as it is self-constituting, and by the same turns. Rather than digging out or digging in, you may just be digging for the sake of digging itself. Ahab coined an expression for this: madness maddened. The metaphor of the tunnel seems perfectly prefigured by Kafka’s unfinished short story, “The Burrow,” in which a nameless narrator manically digs a complex network of tunnels and eventually realizes, “[He] and the burrow belong so indissolubly together.” The stakes are clear: the work consumes you.
Recognizing this wager, the sheer exhaustiveness of the Task, Gass once explained that, for him, The Tunnel “functioned as an avoidance book. Its unpleasant presence made [him] write other books in order to avoid writing it.” The scope of large works becomes overwhelming, unmanageable. Subject matter is demanding, then intimidating, and finally unapproachable. But these tomes are also slowed by more mundane matters of process. The ambitious scales are often counterpointed by the almost logistic labor of line-by-line editing, which, of course, is what any author bargains for. “One thing that takes so much time with JR,” Gaddis once explained, “seems to be that since it’s almost all in dialogue I’m constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen.” In the same vein, Gass’s prose in The Tunnel was haunted by an absolute drive toward meter, rhythm, and precision. He admitted, somewhat resigned, “Who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation?” But Gass was nostalgic for a prose style written for the ear, and in a 1976 interview with The Paris Review, in the midst of working on The Tunnel, he waxed, “One used to read Henry James aloud. It’s the only way to read him.”
Are these works, then, merely the outsized products of minute compulsions?
One can’t really talk about obsession, the long haul, and moving dirt without mentioning Michael Heizer, a renegade artist who turned his back on the New York City art scene in the 1960’s for the American desert. In 1972, Heizer began his magnum opus of earthworks, “City,” an immense, stadium sized, minimalist land art installation in the middle of Nevada that is still under construction. Heizer pursues the same type of cultural investigation as Gaddis and Gass. “Part of my art,” Heizer explained in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, “is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era.” And in the same way that JR charted the rise of American corporate capitalism and The Tunnel observed the entire narrative of the Cold War, the development of Heizer’s bunker-like environment has not only been contemporaneous with, but geographically adjacent to the postwar saga of the National Academy of Science’s struggle to dispose of nuclear waste underneath Yucca Mountain.
As the U.S. Department of Energy attempts to project the radioactive decay of depleted plutonium and uranium in the waste repository, Michael Heizer and his construction crews sculpt, grain by grain, a massive installation intended to last hundreds, if not thousands of years. Heizer challenges the techniques of military and industrial technology by way of a postmodern acropolis designed to endure alongside and even outlast U.S. materiel waste and the facilities it’s housed in. Better yet, Heizer is monitoring the government’s encroachment on “City,” ready, if the Department of Energy proceeds with a nuclear waste rail line within view of his sculpture, to blow his work sky high. In a state that is 83 percent owned by the federal government, a man and his city resist.
“City,” when it is eventually open to the public, will be monumental. Rather than an installation within an environment, “City” will be an environment unto itself, one that raises questions about bleak military structures and vast urban developments in the middle of nowhere.
Heizer’s project carries the same meticulousness of a compulsive prose stylist. “Mike wanted everything within a sixteenth of an inch,” one construction worker commented, “even on a concrete slab that was 78 feet by 240 feet.” The worker couldn’t quite articulate the concept behind “City,” but he was able to appreciate its scope, which might very well be its meaning: “At the beginning I was lost…was this a stadium?…But gradually I got the idea. I can’t say exactly what it means now, but I know it has to do with history and with making something that will last.”
It has to do with history. A sprawling work inevitably encapsulates its own history, the process of its own creation and the cultural narratives that run alongside it. This was Linklater’s prudence with Boyhood, and this is what happened with Gaddis’s JR. The novel contains and performs its own making, just as The Tunnel embodies the arc of its own development and “City” simulates the gradual rise of a desert metropolis. In composing The Tunnel, Gass recognized that, more than anything else, his primary working material was time: “The narrator moves steadily into the past as the novel proceeds, and there is an increasing sensitivity to what he remembers.” Time folds back on itself: “The past becomes more complete, is more real than the present.” What was true for Kohler was true for Gass:
My mother was an alcoholic and my father was crippled by arthritis and his own character. I just fled. It was a cowardly thing to do, but I simply would not have survived…What is perhaps psychologically hopeful is that in The Tunnel I am turning back to inspect directly that situation, and that means I haven’t entirely rejected it.
The long haul offers a regimen that skirts more stagnate, immediate vocabularies, those kneejerk interpretations that would reject or reduce the past. A novel, while remaining an ongoing task, repeatedly returns writers to the material of the past — old pages, old iterations, the rituals of memory — and the text becomes an experiment in deconstructing the linearity of time, in resisting the organizing powers of historical process. Writing sidesteps the obliterating force of the present, the barrage of the Now. The 30-year creation of The Tunnel took to heart a maxim articulated by Kohler near the end of the novel: “Writing is hiding from history.”
This November will mark the 13th annual National Novel Writing Month, an internet movement launched to discipline writers and spur them into production. NaNoWriMo will bring to mind the many great works that were completed in a sprint, such as On the Road, which Kerouac penned in only three weeks, or Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury drafted in a basement library typing room in just nine days. It could be argued that rather than evading history, these feverish texts confronted it. Bradbury’s blaze may have been prompted by a fear of the midcentury book burnings in Nazi Germany. Or take Faulkner, who, the day after the stock market panic in 1929, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and scrawled a title in the right-hand corner — As I Lay Dying. He would complete the manuscript in a mere six weeks during his graveyard shifts at a power plant: “I had invented a table out of a wheelbarrow in the coal bunker, just beyond a wall from where the dynamo ran.”
But Kerouac was accumulating writing on the road for years before stitching together his final manuscript. And Fahrenheit 451 was the culmination of five short stories that Bradbury had been working on for three years. Faulkner’s chronicle of Addie Bundren and her coffin was an extension of Yoknapatawpha County, an apocryphal world Faulkner had shaped previously in Sartoris and The Sound and the Fury. As I Lay Dying was not only a title that Faulkner had tried twice before for earlier works, but the story itself was arguably an outgrowth of an unfinished manuscript, Father Abraham, that Faulkner abandoned in 1927. Fast-forward to 1996, and you’ll see that in his introduction to Infinite Jest, Dave Eggers asserted that Wallace wrote his masterpiece in only three years. Wallace did have an inspired spurt in Boston in the early ’90s, but the truth about Infinite Jest was that DFW had been reworking fragments from way back in 1986.
You see what I’m getting at.
It’s difficult to say where a work of art comes from, to mark precisely when a novel is conceived or to chart the time during which it is made. But juxtaposing works that were supposedly produced in a panic with some of the long haul endeavors exposes the complex circumstances that surround all artistic creations and the ways that process, be it short or long, can be romanticized and mythologized. Artists procrastinate. They also persist. What is certain is that we carry ideas around for longer than we know, and part of the artistic venture is unearthing the source. “It’s almost hard to remember the impulses at the beginning,” DFW admitted. “It’s something you live with for years and years rather than something you just have an idea or a feeling and you just do.” Or as Gass explained of The Tunnel, “To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden.” The problem, always, is finding one’s way back out again.
During the difficult stretches, Gaddis may have considered his manuscript the invalid in the next room. But in his correspondence, it is evident that when Gaddis was able to fully engage his writing, he experienced complete affinity with the novel. As the book was finally verging on publication, Gaddis consoled his son Matthew: “I guess the house will gradually drain of strange (I mean unfamiliar not fully looking) faces,” speaking of young JR Vansant and the novel’s cast. After finishing the novel, Gaddis mused, “Maybe I can learn to talk like an intelligent adult again.” Gaddis had not spent the prior 20 years with an old man, nor had he turned into one. He had spent them with an 11-year-old boy, which is precisely why his novel was able to challenge the stultified adult vocabularies about money markets, educational bureaucracies, and publishing monopolies. It is a sentiment captured perfectly in an interview some years later when Gaddis explained that of all his work thus far, he cared most for his novel JR, because he was “awfully fond of the boy himself.”
Does the long haul pay off? Maybe. Probably not. Part of the pursuit is learning to reexamine and shrug off these vocabularies — ideas about investing, spending, and wasting one’s time, figuring out if it’s worth it, measuring output and productivity, taking stock of oneself, reevaluating oneself, earning respect — vocabularies deployed to commodify and valuate our efforts, all in the interest of reducing us to that most basic currency: human capital. Maybe there is no real redemption, but redemption is an old gospel that has been repurposed by slot machines and a culturally constructed nostalgia telling you to Redeem your cash-voucher…Redeem your past. It has to be about something else now.
The operative claim in The Tunnel, which appears early on in the novel, is that, “It is the dream of all men to re-create Time.” That dream, Gass proved, is fulfilled in the exhaustive process of creating a work of art that reformulates and overcomes the technologies of time in modern culture, technologies that would rather have us distracted, defeated, and subject to the slot machine “sleep-to-dream routine” of an over-simulated, over-stimulating network world. It takes figuring out what Time can mean in the first place, before it is dispensed to us, defined for us.
When I write fiction, where am I? More importantly, when am I?
Joshua Cohen, who completed his own mega-novel Witz a few years ago, once explained to me that, “The page has access to all of time.” Gass, it seems, and his ilk — Linklater, Gaddis, Heizer, all of them — discovered for themselves an interstice where every next day they could venture deeper into their own pasts, the underworlds of their own histories. They found that place where time does not flow in one direction, where memories and imaginings fold on to one another, where past, present, and future all become equally accessible.
Illustration: Austen Claire Clements
Literary travel has been around for ages, but it needs serious updating. Reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while wandering around London or Robert Bowles while exploring Fez may be perfectly enjoyable for your grandfather–but you are not your grandfather. You’re young, you’re free, and let’s face it: going abroad could seriously impede the routine you have developed. You’ve got a commitment to the bike co-op, several dateable co-workers, plus a full Netflix queue. Reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in Venice is not a top priority. And so that’s why I’m providing you with literary travel recommendations to fascinating locales well within the boundaries of my four hundred square foot apartment. Prepare yourself accordingly for an adventure encompassing the holy trinity of time, space, and fiction, on a substantially more modern (and moderate) scale. If you can get used to my roommate, I promise it will be an incredible experience.
Pairing #1: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian with the Bedroom
You will find the first pairing of the Bedroom with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian appealing if you have ever desired to delve deeper into the violent history of the American West. Not unlike that vast lawless frontier, this Bedroom first existed in pioneer minds as a seemingly blank slate. For them, it was simply territory for the taking, albeit mostly for above-garage storage. Over the years it was explored and divided. Settlers claimed portions of land through their strategic placement of Bob Marley posters, black lights, and dirty clothes piles. As you read Blood Meridian in the gap between my well-organized desk, lofted bed, and crisp, clean sheets, and my roommate’s half-inflated air mattress covered in zines, Doritos, and half-empty Kombucha bottles, you will explore the dark realm where civilization breaks down and gives way to total, bloodsoaked anarchy. Reading McCarthy’s masterwork in this No Man’s Land of the shared Bedroom will push you to search for meaning in a world of ceaseless chaos. Why is humanity so irredeemable? Why can’t he ever wash his hideous flannel sheets?
Pairing #2: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with the Living Room
In the Living Room, most specifically near the window where you can see the Discovery Zone in the strip mall across the street, you will find Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to be a most fitting read. Like the beacon and symbol in Woolf’s novel, let the bright red and yellow “DZ” shine forth to represent all of your unfulfilled hopes and aspirations, reminding you, even after an enjoyable night with friends, that you are still stuck living where you are. Curl up on the couch and read to the accompaniment of my roommate watching reality TV. While you try to focus on the novel, allow yourself to be enveloped by the din of Kardashian conflict while my roommate’s nasally voice rambles on about how great it would be to go to the Discovery Zone drunk tomorrow. Try to ignore him as he describes in great detail what it would be like to romp in the ball pit and clamber through those endless plastic tubes. Look up briefly to watch as I say, “There will be no going to the Discovery Zone tomorrow.” Notice the desolation in his eyes.
Pairing #3: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the Bathroom
This third pairing of Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the poorly lit Bathroom will allow you to throw yourself into an incarceral atmosphere strikingly true to the author’s own exile in Siberia. Fitting with the novel, the Bathroom is cramped quarters and lacks any windows or access to sunlight. While you struggle to read comfortably on the bathmat, my roommate will enhance the general uninhabitability of the “cell” by leaving beard trimmings on the counter, splattering toothpaste over the sink and mirror, and leaving wet towels and various other injustices strewn across the floor. This will all be capped off by a consistent, if not downright malicious, failure to replace any empty toilet paper rolls. For reasons of decency I shall only allude to the room’s poor ventilation. Just let it be said that there will be peak hours after my roommate’s morning cup of coffee when you will suffer along with Dostoyevsky, wondering what you ever did to deserve such harsh treatment?
Pairing #4: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the Kitchen
This final novel fits well with the Kitchen, which happens to be the southernmost room in the apartment. Here I recommend that you sit on the counter beside the increasingly filthy microwave that I’ve finally given up on cleaning to enjoy Faulkner’s renowned As I Lay Dying. You can bask in our only available direct sunlight and explore the varying perspectives of Addie Bundren’s death and burial. If you get too warm, there is a fitting coffin-like quality to the pantry. The fact that it has one of the only functioning doors in the entire apartment offers the chance to escape, however briefly, the presence of my roommate and to feel most in-tune with buried Addie herself. Furthermore, by reading this novel now, you won’t risk having your imagination contaminated by the James Franco movie adaptation which my roommate so earnestly claims will be a product of “pure Franco genius.”
Final Note and Offer!
If you are using an e-reader, I encourage you to download these novels before you arrive since a certain someone doesn’t think it’s necessary to pitch in for internet when our neighbor’s spotty wifi is available. But even more importantly, I want to let you know that if you find these pairings enticing, yet feel you won’t be able to get through them all in one weekend visit, there is the option of subletting the apartment or simply trading apartments with me. Just think how much fun you could have with a new roommate and so many books to read! But seriously. Think about it. I can’t take this much longer.
Image via evan p. cordes/Flickr
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
This week, two of our staff writers here at The Millions are publishing novels. California, Edan Lepucki’s debut, is set in the near-future in northern California, where a young couple scratches out an existence after a series of environmental and economic calamities. Thanks to Sherman Alexie and Stephen Colbert, the book has generated a typhoon of buzz, leading to brisk pre-sales. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the novel “ambitious, powerful, frightening.”
Motor City Burning, Bill Morris’s third novel, is set during the 1968 baseball season in Detroit, where a white homicide cop is pursuing a black suspect, a disillusioned former civil rights activist, in the last unsolved killing from the previous summer’s apocalyptic riot. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, writing that the novel displays “acute insight into the era’s fraught climate.” And Kirkus Reviews has called the story “an intense cat-and-mouse game.”
Edan, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and fellow Millions staff writer Bill, who lives in New York City, recently had a conversation via email about the joys and perils of writing novels and shepherding them to publication. Here is that conversation:
Edan Lepucki: I really enjoyed Motor City Burning! It’s such a deftly drawn character study that also doesn’t scrimp on plot and big themes, like justice, purity of aims, and loyalty. The novel both invokes Detroit in the 1960s and also traffics in some classic crime novel tropes – but without succumbing to those tropes altogether. Do you see this is as a historical novel, a crime novel, or neither, or both? Or, really: how does its historical element affect its plot elements?
Bill Morris: I’m glad you think I didn’t succumb to the old tropes. That was something I was definitely trying to avoid. I guess I see this as a “historical crime novel,” if such a genre exists, because my starting point was the events of the 1960s – the civil rights movement, the pop music, and, especially, the summers of 1967 and 1968 in Detroit – and using that history to tell the story of a crime that actually happened, the last of the 43 killings during the ’67 riot.
I want to get the smoke-blowing out of the way up front. So I’ll just say it flat-out: California is a novel about a dystopian future, somewhere in the middle of the 21st century, when violent weather and economic collapse have divided America into the haves, who live in gated communities, and the have-nots, like the young couple Cal and Frida who live in the wilderness, scratching out an existence. I never would have guessed this is a first novel – because the withholding and revealing of information is done so deftly. Also, at the level of the sentence, there is great assurance. I’m guessing a lot of rewriting went into making such a polished final draft. Am I guessing right?
EL: Thanks, Bill! Reading yours, I could definitely tell you were not new to the novel dance: you write with such control and grace. It inspired me.
Most of the rewriting – and, make no mistake, there was a lot of rewriting! – had to do with plot and world building. I tend to write very clean first drafts, and what I have to work on later is the story. Thankfully, my characters were well in place, so editing was all about clarifying what had happened to L.A.; what the origins of Frida’s brother’s terrorist group were; and what happened to this enclosed outpost before Frida and Cal sought it out. My editor Allie Sommer had me write a timeline to make it easier to see the story more wholly. That helped; I usually write so intuitively, crafting pretty sentences and focusing on characters, that the story, the plot, gets neglected.
What about you? Did you know this novel’s architecture from the outset, or did it come to you as you wrote? How did you decide whose point of view to favor? Were black civil rights activist Willie Bledsoe and white detective Frank Doyle always the major players? What did it take to flesh them out into the complicated characters they are now?
BM: Your question about point of view brings back some painful history. This novel has been in the works, off and on, for 17 years. It has been through four titles, four agents, at least a dozen drafts, and more rejections than I care to count. In one draft, I tried to tell the story through alternating first-person voices, à la As I Lay Dying. This failure confirmed something I had long suspected: I’m no William Faulkner. Once I settled into a third-person omniscient voice – and worked to make myself invisible – things started to fall into place.
As for architecture, I knew my central story was going to be the hunt for the person responsible for the last unsolved killing from the 1967 Detroit riot; but I wanted to frame that story around the Detroit Tigers’ championship season of 1968. The story got a jump-start when I learned that Opening Day of the ’68 season was postponed by two days in deference to Martin Luther King’s funeral. So right away, the civil rights movement and baseball were winding together. I also knew I wanted a young black man from the South as the protagonist, someone who had been in the trenches with the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but got disillusioned with the movement’s leaders. Again, King’s funeral was the ideal way to introduce this character and his dilemma. Sometimes, when doing historical research, you get little gifts for your fiction. And as for fleshing out Willie Bledsoe, the burnt-out activist, and Frank Doyle, the white cop who’s after him, my main goal was to make both men imperfect, confused, and complicated. Detroit’s racial divide is one of the most complicated things in America, and I didn’t want there to be anything simplistic about it in this book.
Speaking of complicated, one of my favorite things about California is how Micah, the leader of the outpost you mentioned, got involved with a terrorist group that conducted suicide bombings Terrorists – especially eco-terrorists and guys like this “econo-terrorist” – make for fascinating fictional characters. I’m thinking of Kelly Reichardt’s new movie, Night Moves, and books like Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Are those characters interesting because of their moral ambivalence, their willingness to do wrong in order to do right? Or do you think it’s something else?
EL: Wow, the journey of your book is astounding and is a good advertisement for tenacity and revision. And speaking of baseball, I loved the evocative descriptions of Tiger Stadium. I read them aloud to my husband, who is obsessed with the sport.
I love your interpretation of Micah. He was the most difficult character to write because I wanted to give him a humanity that persisted despite his evils, or perhaps was in danger of fading away because of said evils. Some readers have described him as a psychopath, but I don’t totally agree: Micah did at least begin with commendable ideals…and he also started out with something dark and damaged at his core. He is dangerous precisely because he is human: capable of being hurt and of wanting attention; driven by a desire to change the world but also a servant to an unquenchable ego. I wanted him to be a villain, but also a little brother. Frida can and can’t see his flaws because he is family.
Let’s talk about how your book got published after its long road. Who bought it, and how has the path to your pub date been?
BM: The book was bought by Jessica Case, an editor at Pegasus Books, a small independent publisher in New York City. The manuscript had been sleeping in a drawer for several years when I got a magazine assignment from Popular Mechanics in early 2012 – they wanted me to go back home to Detroit, talk to people, look around, and try to imagine what the city will be like a dozen years from now. I was very anxious that the assignment was going to be a bust, but when I got back to Detroit I was astonished by the energy, the enthusiasm, the sprouts amid the rubble. With Detroit so much in the news – and this was before the bankruptcy – I thought the time was right to try to give that old manuscript a pulse.
I revised the manuscript one more time and found a new agent, a human volcano named Alice Martell, who I’d met at the National Book Awards ceremony, where I’d gone to interview a client of hers who was a finalist. She agreed to look at my manuscript, she got it, and she sold it. The people at Pegasus have been amazing – not only Jessica’s editing, but the copyediting, the proofreading, and now the publicity push. Which reminds me, you did a couple of nice interviews for The Millions with your editor and copyeditor. Amid all the grim news about the publishing industry, I think we’ve both had pretty salutary experiences. Wouldn’t you agree?
EL: Yes, I too have had extremely positive experiences with my agent and editor and publicists at Little, Brown. I feel like they’ve put so much time and energy into making my book better, and getting it into readers’ hands. This book in many ways feels like a collaborative effort. I could not have gotten it out there on my own.
What was the editing experience with Jessica like? Allie, my editor, took me through a couple major revisions and she had very high standards. I learned a ton about revision from her. Was your editing experience similar to your previous ones, with your two other books?
BM: Jessica went over every word of the manuscript and made many small suggestions and several major ones – always stressing that they were suggestions, there for me to take or leave. I took almost every one because she’s smart and unbelievably thorough, and they made the book much better. Then the copyeditor, Deb Anderson, found new ways to improve the manuscript. And the proofreader, Phil Gaskill, caught inaccuracies and inconsistencies that never would have occurred to me. My first novel got a similarly thorough editing at Knopf, while my second got virtually none at Avon. Overall, this experience has renewed my faith in the publishing industry. People say nobody edits books anymore. Don’t believe them.
I just got finished reading today’s New York Times, and I was stunned to see a major feature article about you and California and how Stephen Colbert has taken up your cause as part of his ongoing campaign against Amazon on behalf of Hachette writers, including you. You mention in the article that the attention has alternated between being “icky” and “a fantasy.” Which side is winning out?
EL: Stunned is the right word – that’s how I feel! Mostly, the “fantasy” side is winning out; I feel enormously grateful and thrilled to have so much attention on my book. It’s so hard to get press for a novel, and this is just…just…crazy! I still feel badly that my good fortune is a product of this messy dispute between Amazon and Hachette. I wish I wasn’t the only author enjoying this bump; even though my fellow authors have been supportive and excited for me, I know there are many books that are getting a raw deal because of this dispute, and that does feel icky. But, yes, it’s really a spectacular turn of events. It just brings home for me how random it all is: there are tons of good books that don’t get much press. Why certain books take off like wildfire while others don’t is an enduring mystery to me. Right now I am just, again, stunned that California was plucked from the mountain of books. Also: wow, TV is still really powerful!
Now that your faith in writing fiction and publishing has been renewed, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
BM: I’m back at work on one of the novels I couldn’t sell during that 17-year dry spell. Like California, it’s set in the near future, but in New York City. I don’t want to say much more, but the working title is Garbage: A Love Story. How about you? Are you working on something new, or is selling California taking up all of your time and energy?
EL: I recently returned to Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming where I started California. There, I continued working on a novel I began almost a year ago, but which I only work on in fits and starts (between revisions and publicity and motherhood, I guess). I have about 150 pages. All I’ll say is that it’s contemporary, and there are women in it. I haven’t written much at all for the past month, sadly, but I look forward to diving back in once this publication hullabaloo dies down.
BM: Well, this publication hullaballoo is a necessary evil. I just hope California continues to sell like Krispy Kremes, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
EL: Same to you, Bill!
Summer is notorious for its beaches and barbecues and fireworks and picnics and poolside gatherings but to me it stands out most for being crosshatched with roads: meandering country roads but also interstates and tail lights and traffic jams and deserted highways, conduits for moving quickly across vast distances, between cities, passing church and house and field and factory at high velocity. Summers too are for reading, for harvesting shelves to fill long days and sweaty nights, in a hammock, a bed, a backseat, a fuselage, crossing rivers, oceans, continents. Countless pages bridge summer’s sprawl, fill its seemingly infinite unfurling, the illusion of which diminishes only as summer somehow has the gall to move on. I never can quite fathom summer’s end at its start, and so my reading lists stretch on endlessly, too, crammed with long novels too unwieldy for the demands of other seasons (for now: Musil, Stein, and Cărtărescu) and punctuated with shorter sprightlier works. I know now I’ll be lucky to make it halfway through. Even better if the books contain a kind of magic within—delights, supersaturated images, somehow dreamlike, intense. As if the vernal publishing gods anticipated this, they’ve delivered a slew of new books befitting such lists just in time for solstice. Here are a few that I’d recommend adding to yours:
Do judge Lisa Jarnot’s A Princess Magic Presto Spell by its cover, by its charming title written in pink, by its picture-book trappings—slim white hardcover adorned with a watercolor by Emilie Clark. This mythopoeic urban-pastoral mash-up incites the same vein of delight as Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” did when I was a child. Not that this book is concerned with childish things. Well, it is, but it isn’t. The poem dredges up all sort of dreck and muck alongside picnics and strawberries and fairies: rabid beavers and bodegas and boa constrictors and threat of economic collapse. Death “smells like the painting of a flower” and sadness is sandwiched between chickens and raspberry jam. Of writing, Jarnot says, “I like tripping so rainbows come out of mouth / I’m pregnant with guinea pigs and hamsters and trees.” It’s as if she, the poetic enchantress, spins words into magical worlds of cosmic glitter-dust matter.
Shane Jones’s fabulist novel, The Crystal Eaters, is splattered with Technicolor crystal vomit and eye goo, with bodies leaking red, yellow, and blue; the sun wants to swallow the earth; and the indestructible city encroaches on the country like kudzu. Lives are measured in crystals, and each living entity enters the world containing a number that inevitably dwindles to zero, i.e., death. For comparison: humans contain 100, cats 39, ants 3, a flower 1. At its center is Remy, a young girl whose family lives near the crystal mines and whose mother is dying. She’s like Vardaman Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in that she’s grappling with her mother’s low crystal count, impending death, but hoping to stop it too. Narration jumps between characters, and we see Remy’s childlike imagination dealing with the unbelievable inevitable, “Mom can’t die because Mom is Mom, Mom can’t die because mom is a god, … , Mom can’t die because Mom is a dog, Mom can’t die because Mom is a god…” This crystal mining country is Jones’s own Yoknapatawpha County, a town with its own peculiar inhabitants and notions and schemes (such as a prison break in reverse). These fantastical trappings give way to deeper questions—about death, the nature of life, of what it takes to be remembered after you die.
Bodies are anything but lucky in Kyle Coma-Thompson’s The Lucky Body. Bodies are punished, fooled, desired, and shamed, too. Atrocities are committed against them. The absurdist reduction in “A Thing About Mouths” depicts a world where mouths can be detached and hocked for money. Some stories are avant-garde reductions: “The Lost Dances” contains lost choreographies for Fluxus dances; the pithy gems in “Stories on the Half Shell” go down quickly, served in a half dozen plus one for good measure. Despite their avant-garde leanings, Coma-Thompson’s stories grapple with the artifice and ambition inherent to art, noting the fragility and failure of being caged within a body as well as its passing joys. In “A Town,” the town’s inhabitants and visitors become trapped within a small town, the inhabitants have nothing better to do than spend their time betting on who will enter. The story grows darker when the town’s perimeter shrinks, collapsing in on itself and its inhabitants too: “The sizzle of flesh and bone, parts of people to the front and back of you, an arm here, a foot there, a nose right down to the sinuses? Will the weeping and hot press of people against each other and the surprised shouts and pleas for help from the people outside the town quiet, as the limits shrink to hold only one or two or three people…” These stories drift through the night-shade like melancholic whispers, their darkness on par with Goya’s Black Paintings, their elegiac madness and dreamlike terror.
Who am I? What do I want to become? Questions of identity plague Ruth, London-based “green girl,” perfume-counter sales girl selling Desire at Horrid’s, in Kate Zambreno’s recently rereleased Green Girl. Ruth is lost, an American among Londoners, another face among the masses riding the Tube. When she’s singled out she’s merely surface, a beautiful girl playing out her doll-like role in a culture whose currency, especially for women, is all image and appearance. No one can see beyond her surface; and Ruth doesn’t know how to resist or negotiate her sense of self, or the source of this inner turmoil. Even Ruth’s creator—the narrator who plays auteur to the film of Ruth’s life—views her with a mix of admiration and disdain: “The green girl is often inarticulate. Speech littered with likes. She cannot translate the depths. (Are there depths? I am still unsure of her interiority. If I prick her will thoughts rush out or just a heavy mess of confusion?)” This culture of eyes and cameras and images, of marketing allure, of selling Desire, it’s all part of this grand machinery of consumption. Transcendence comes not from sex and self-obliteration but from digging deeper, from being seen beyond the surface. But how to not self-destruct when all she can see is her reflection? And what if there really is nothing there? Zambreno’s novel unfolds with a filmic quality, of scenes playing out with lyric intensity. Interspersed quotes divide scenes and provide refractions of Ruth’s dilemma as they’ve played out in literary and film history. The fragments form a more complete, kaleidoscopic view, such as this, from Clarice Lispector: “To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.”
Clarice Lispector and Mary Ruefle are the two visionary, nearly shamanic literary talents whose work is the focus of Music & Literature No. 4, edited by Taylor Davis-Van Atta and Daniel Medin (also featured in this volume are the musical collaborations of Maya Homburger and Barry Guy). As author Rachel Kushner remarks in her essay, “Lipstick Traces: Clarice Lispector’s Radiant Nothingness,” there is no substitute for experiencing Lispector’s writing firsthand—the void she writes into, her philosophical inquiry, the way she explores our human implication in this “marvelous scandal” of life. But this volume comes close. Kushner writes of how Lispector’s fiction explores consciousness, “the alienating strangeness of what it is to be alive.” But this is just one facet. Lispector’s strengths are also what some may consider flaws: her lack of plot, that she “want[ed] every sentence of this book to be a climax,” (as she wrote in Agua Viva), and also her refusal to “fill the pages of a book with ‘facts.’” Mary Ruefle has an essay on Lispector in this issue, too. Ruefle writes, “To be nearer to the absent–the presence of the absence–these words don’t have much life in them but Clarice Lispector gives life to the idea when she writes, ‘What am I doing writing to you? I am trying to photograph perfume.’” The attempt to capture traces of the ineffable with language, to convey a particular experience of being in the world, this guides Ruefle’s work as well. Ruefle’s section includes poems, images of her erasure poems, essays about her work, and an interview. Her words of wisdom include: “everyone needs to waste time, it’s essential to Being, but most people let culture at large waste their time; as an artist I want to waste my time in my own way, in the kinds of ways that, for me, lead to making something.” Now that’s a fine excuse for summertime laze.
Image via Lnk.Si/Flickr
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: LPW
In a recent Bookforum essay, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that we should stop teaching novels to teenagers because she hated reading novels as a teenager. Her first example is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It took her a decade to understand Jake Barnes’s condition because she, “like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.” She found Jake and company boring. She was a “hungry” teenager “starving for stimuli,” so “trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.” Hemingway wasn’t the only snore. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the “damnable Brontë sisters [who] were shoved down my throat.” She traded Bless Me, Ultima for mediums that were more “vital and urgent,” like “movies, musicals, and plays.” Those visual narratives “gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them.”
The real villains were not stodgy novels, but her public school teachers. “Brutally inept teaching of The Pearl” almost soured her on Steinbeck. Most of her teachers “were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handout out the first day we started Dickens.” Those teachers were “largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.” In the hands of these insipid instructors, novels weren’t “the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.” Her proposed solution: students should read non-fiction.
Her potential reading list includes memoirs, creative non-fiction essays, meditations on language, and journalism. It’s a good list, but the problem is that Vargas-Cooper thinks she’s discovered the groundbreaking secret “to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner.” Non-educators who write about education often make breathless suggestions that have already been used in the classroom for decades. Many of the writers and works who appear on Vargas-Cooper’s list are commonly taught in high school classrooms, and are suggested as independent reading selections for summer work: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Orwell, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others. Here’s a small sample of non-fiction from my own classroom: Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” “The Essay Vanishes” by Ander Monson, “Listening for Silence” by Mark Slouka, “How to Make Collard Greens” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, excerpts from The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and essays from Brevity.
Like many sweeping proclamations about high school education by those who have never done the actual work of guiding and caring for a classroom of students, Vargas-Cooper’s essay doesn’t pass scrutiny at the line-level. She wants the same supposedly banal educators she attacks earlier in the essay to now teach Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. She then follows with a confounding sentence tandem: “Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!” I assume this means that teachers should give students non-fiction, but this transfer and experience must not happen within a classroom. Even parodic prose needs clarity.
Although I remain befuddled by her unawareness of high school reading lists, I am not surprised that Vargas-Cooper chose to begin her complaint with Hemingway, a writer often reduced to his myths. The Sun Also Rises is particularly well suited to misreading because of its unreliable, love-drunk narrator, Jake Barnes. Many of my own students have enjoyed Hemingway’s novel. I don’t say all, because no one other than a first-day teacher — or writers of thin commentaries on education — expects all students to enjoy every assignment, or even to read every book. But if Vargas-Cooper is looking for a “thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly,” Hemingway delivers. I’m fairly certain that a novel about a man in love with a woman who would rather just be friends might connect with a teenage audience.
Students also enjoy The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a literary thriller suffused with theological complexities. An unnamed “whiskey priest” is on the run in 1930s Mexico after a regime based on the real-life governance of Tomás Garrido Canabal has outlawed Catholicism. Priests can either forsake their religion, or die. The whiskey priest chooses faith, but that faith is tempered by pride. He is no exemplary priest; in fact, he is a terrible man. He has abandoned the daughter he fathered out of wedlock. Anyone in his presence is in danger of arrest or execution. Another unnamed character, the lieutenant, considers the whiskey priest a symbol of all that is evil within the Church: gluttony and hypocrisy. The lieutenant wants to eradicate all vestiges of Catholicism, and he will use all means necessary.
I teach at a public school, not a parochial school. Most of my students have a vague cultural knowledge of Catholicism, but they are a world away from the Mexican province of Tabasco. Some students miss the double meaning of “father.” Others don’t understand why the villagers would risk death to receive the sacrament of confession. And others still will not read the book at all, either because of disinterest, or because they are overwhelmed with other classes and commitments. But I do not want to live or teach in a country that asks students to only engage experiences similar to their own. I look to create comfortable dissonance in the classroom. I want my students to recognize that they are geographically and culturally different than the characters in Greene’s novel, and then to consider their shared humanity with these fictional characters. I ask them to do the same with the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or with Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. They spend a season with the brilliant, maniacal football team at Logos College in Don DeLillo’s End Zone. And I pray that they will never know pain equal to the men and women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they benefit from seeing the world through such scarred eyes.
We should continue to teach novels in the high school classroom. Fiction has a home there. But we should stop writing fiction about high school teachers within essays about education. Vargas-Cooper’s ribbing is playful compared to the stereotypes cast by politicians who hope to siphon funding from education. Teachers don’t enter this profession to relax. Teachers are women and men who work themselves exhausted.
Let me be clear: we public school teachers are not martyrs. We get paid for what we do. Whether that pay is acceptable or not is for another discussion. In America, teachers are either seen as angelic or caustic, saviors or sycophants. These stereotypes enable politicians to convince the public to support the latest education fad or slash needed budgets. The reality is we teach because we love to help kids, and we think literature is a way to examine and understand our complex lives. We do our best to help students inhabit the world of novels. The worlds of those texts might be imagined, but the emotions are palpable and authentic. We do real work in public schools. That, I can assure you, is not fiction.
Image via Thomas Favre-Bulle/Flickr
Like many noted Hungarian writers, László Krasznahorkai has the distinction of being a literary giant in the German-speaking world and an exotic literary curiosity, subject to the fascination of cultists, in the Anglophone world. Americans first encountered at least a hint of his work via the director Béla Tarr, with whom Krasznahorkai has forged a three-decade-long collaboration, beginning with the 1988 film Damnation. Tarr’s meditative epic, the seven-and-a-half hour Satantango (1994), a long-take heavy depiction of a dying collectivist town, was an adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel of the same name. After 27 years, Satantango the novel has finally been translated into English.
Krasznahorkai is a difficult, demanding novelist, whose work is made up of long, seemingly interminable sentences, each of them prose poems in themselves, that push to the very edge of madness. Colm Tóibín writes, “For [Krasznahorkai] the sentence is an act of pure performance — a tense high-wire act, a piece of grave and ambitious vaudeville performed with energy both comic and ironic. But there is also a compacted edge to his prose; he is not interested in language merely for its own sake. Prose for him is a complex vehicle moving through a world both real and surreal with considerable precision and sharpness.” The universe of Satantango is vicious and grim, a buried cackle seems to permeate its air. And yet hints of optimism, of small possibilities of human connection seep into the story. His humanity is Faulknerian.
On the occasion of Satantango’s first appearance in English, Krasznahorkai agreed to answer some questions by email. He wrote his answers in Hungarian. The poet George Szirtes, who translated Satantango as well as two other Krasznahorkai novels, The Melancholy of Resistance (which Tarr adapted in the 2000 film The Werkmeister Harmonies) and War and War, translated his answers.
The Millions: Satantango first appeared in 1985, during the slow-motion collapse of the collectivist system in Hungary. It is now making its first appearance in English translation in 2012, a few months after Hungary officially adopted a new constitution that, among other things, consolidated state power over the media, and declared the country, in terms that would be popular with our own religious right, officially Christian. As tempting as it is for an American reader, would it be a mistake to see premonitions of Hungary’s current political situation in the pages of your novel?
László Krasznahorkai: You will never go wrong anticipating doom in my books, anymore than you’ll go wrong in anticipating doom in ordinary life. But when I wrote this book, that is to say in the early ’80s, I had no idea it would be open to a political reading or even echoed anything in the political world. The idea of a political message in Satantango was as far from my mind as the Soviet empire itself. I was only concerned to explore why everyone around me seemed as sad as the rain falling on Hungary and why I myself was sad, surrounded as I was by such people, in the rain. It may sound odd to say so, but our situation hasn’t really changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and the political independence resulting from it gave Hungarians a chance of building a new country — but it was immediately clear to me, among other things, that the real question was how we could build the new with the same old people? So the sadness continued to hang around. Maybe we have a little less rain than before, but that’s all.
TM: The third chapter of Satantango opens with a quotation from a geological book describing Hungary’s ancient underwater past during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. The doctor is reading this passage and when he looks up he is surrounded by the simple objects of his own dirty house. Two of your novels that have now appeared in English, The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango, have moments in which characters try to conceive of their positions within enormous conceptions of space and time. But after thinking of their place in the cosmos, a trick of the brain or a change in their external circumstances reminds them of their place in small Hungarian backwaters. Could either of these novels be transported to other small towns in other cultures?
LK: No, I don’t think so. We could perhaps draw a few parallels but they would be forced: the fact is that each culture produces its own sensitive, fragile, unrepeatable conditions; smells, colors, tastes, objects and moods that seem insignificant but have a character that is all but intangible, though you are probably right, for art, and that includes the novel, has its own powers of evocation so that if I read about an inexpressible air of gloom descending on a filthy bar somewhere in Northern Portugal it conjures in me the kind of melancholy I felt the last time I drained a glass of pálinka in a bar in the south of Hungary. In this way you may arrive at some broad overarching sense of commonality between the inhabitants of Northern Portugal and the south of Hungary even though the common light switch is slightly different in the two countries, and that difference is extremely important and highly significant — but having stressed the difference we must acknowledge that the movement with which the last man in the bar switches the light off is precisely the same in both cases.
TM: Your contemporary Péter Esterházy writes, “The nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigor of a Satzbau (German sentence construction). Such sentences totter along, uncertain even of themselves, stammer a little; in short are extremely lovable.” Does Esterházy’s description fit your own conception of your long ecstatic sentences?
LK: No, I don’t think that means anything to me. Esterházy is probably thinking of certain 19th-century Hungarian writers, or of a particular kind of writer, I can’t tell, but what he says certainly doesn’t apply to Hungarian literature as a whole and not at all to the Hungarian language in general: it is particularly untrue of my own way with sentences. It seems to me that this definition reflects his own literary practice and that the generalization that follows from it is only natural. If I go on to consider my “ecstatically long sentences,” at first nothing particular comes to mind. Then, on reconsideration, I suspect that these long ecstatic sentences have no relation to theory or to any idea I might have about the Hungarian language, or indeed any language, but are the direct products of the “ecstatic” heroes of my books, that they proceed directly from them. It is not me but they who serve as narrators behind the book. I myself am silent, utterly silent in fact. And since that is the case I can hear what these heroic figures are saying, my task then being simply to transcribe them. So the sentences in question are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working, the desire being that those to whom they address their sentences should understand them correctly and unconditionally. That desire lends their speeches a mad urgency. The urgency is the style. And one more thing: the speeches these heroes are so desperate to rattle off are not the book, not in the least! The book is a medium, a vehicle for their speeches. They are so convinced of the overwhelming importance of what they have to say, that their language is intended to produce a magical effect without necessarily carrying a concrete meaning: it is an embodiment of the ecstasy of persuasion by magic, the momentum of the desire for understanding.
TM: Your work first gained an audience in the English-speaking world filtered through your longtime collaborator Béla Tarr, whose 450-minute version of Satantango became a semi-fixture on the festival circuit in the 1990s. If you push and stretch the sentence to absolute extremes, Tarr does the same with the long take. The observation is so obvious, I’m sure thousands of others have already made it, but do you yourself see a connection between this aspect of Tarr’s methods and yours? Have your novels transformed in any direct way as a result of your collaboration with Tarr? Do you visualize them in your head in anyway filtered through Tarr’s style?
LK: My feeling is that those who love Tarr’s films don’t see it quite like that. A writer doesn’t need anything to write a book, he is completely alone and it’s good that it should be so. A director on the other hand can’t make a film without others. How does this work with Tarr? Because no one has really spoken about this, and it’s unlikely that anyone will, let me do so now and say that Tarr’s cinema changed from the time he met me and we started working together to make our first film. The cause of this radical change was the effect of reading my work, in particular of reading Satantango, getting to understand my vision, my way of thinking, my style. In all the big stories, and in every serious collaboration, someone has to be the initiator, the source from which work flows and in this case it was me, I was the source; in other words it was my vision that decided what kind of films we would make together. The films Tarr made before me were “honest,” that was their strength, it was what characterized them — it was why I, for example, liked them so much. I liked the fact that in these early films of his the single task of the central character was not to lie, that they would not lie — it was the solitary basis for the aesthetic of the films which were a particular form of documentary. Tarr employed amateur actors, or the kind of actor he could torture on camera until he or she spoke the truth. When we met in 1985, Tarr suddenly discovered what he had been desperately seeking and which he very much needed: the only literary material he could possibly work with, the only possible style, the only visual world and dramaturgy, the only appropriate visual rhythm, in other words an artistic vision, spirit and corpus. From this point on everything was suddenly simple. I gave him everything, all I knew, body and soul, really everything, and despite all this he created an absolutely original cinema, something utterly authentic, a form of art quite different from mine. I willingly gave my heart to helping him and now, looking back at these works, these collaborations between myself and Tarr — Tarr’s work — I must say that I almost like the results, that Tarr’s cinema is the only cinema I can really tolerate. There was never any question in these collaborations as to who would make the film. We called them Tarr’s films — it is Tarr who went to the movie festivals and still does, and will as long as he lives: it is right that Tarr should wear the crown, the rest of us who worked with him, and particularly me, we are anonymous in this happy set of events and that is as it should be. Only one thing matters, Tarr’s cinema itself — the others, the sources of the inspiration, the cast, are all unimportant. Making films isn’t a matter of fairness. And that too is as it should be.
TM: The doctor in Satantango fears the loss of memory of any detail that passes his perception as a sign of mortality. “To ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” There follows a humorous passage in which he lists the things he must remember. But to remember so much of either the important or the insignificant leads to paralysis and a different kind of death. Does the structure of your novel — the tango that constantly goes back and forth in time — mirror the problems of not being able to forget?
LK: What I can’t forget is the world we have created. Everything is of equal interest in the world except man himself. When I stand on the top of a mountain and look down on the valley, seeing the trees in the distance, the deer, the horses and the stream below, then look up at the sky, the clouds and the birds, it is all perfect and magical right up to the moment that, suddenly and brutally, a human being walks into view. The spectacle I was enjoying from the mountain top is simply ruined. As concerns the structure of my novels I am less certain since I never really think about it. But since you are interested all I can say is that the structure isn’t something I decide but what is generated by the madness and intensity of my characters. Or rather that it is as if someone were speaking behind them, but I myself don’t know who it is. What is certain is that I am afraid of him. But it is he that speaks, and his speeches are perfectly mad. Under the circumstances it is self evident that I have no control over anything. Structure? Controlling the structure? It is he who controls everything, it is the furious speed of his madness that decides it all. And given this fury and madness it is not only impossible to remember anything or even think — the only recourse is forgetting.
TM: At first, I imagined you were making Esti into an archetype of the wise noble idiot. That was until, a few pages later, she commits a particularly savage act. Were you deliberately rewriting this archetype and playing with reader’s moral expectations? Oddly enough, I still found her the most sympathetic and tragic figure in the book.
LK: Estike (her name derives from the original word “este” meaning “evening” but in translation it is Esti) is a very important figure. There is a point at which this consequence can easily turn to cruelty. And that is the case here. Please don’t think that the tenderness of this wise, noble idiot is so easy to bear. Spending time with Estike is like spending time with a being of infinite purity. Purity is dangerous. The construction of purity has very important consequences. Estike’s purity stems from the fact that she is a victim. And a victim is always desperately rational in victimhood. It is very dangerous being with a victim. I love her so much I feel physical pain whenever I think of her.
TM: The dance that forms the structure of Satantango and the Werckmeister Harmonies that form the focal point of The Melancholy of Resistance suggest a desire for rhythmic order. I thought I could hear an echo of this rhythm in Szirtes’ translation. This may be an odd question, but do you write with music in the background? And if so, what music?
LK: No, I write my texts, my sentences, in my head — outside there is a terrible, almost unbearable noise, inside there is a terrible, almost unbearable, pounding silence.
TM: Finally, American readers will surely make comparisons between Satantango and Faulkner’s novels. There are the long, rhythmic sentences. There is the small dying town cursed by a past and the constant jarring shifts in time. Did Faulkner’s novels, either in English or Hungarian translation, or any of our other writers inform your work?
LK: Yes, they had an extraordinary effect on me and I am glad I have the opportunity of admitting this to you now. The influence of Faulkner — particularly of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury — struck an incredibly deep echo in me: his passion, his pathos, his whole character, significance, the rhythmical structure of his novels, all carried me away. I must have been about 16-18, I suppose, at one’s most impressionable years. What else? I was an enthusiastic reader of magnificent Dostoevsky, of the mysterious Ezra Pound, of Thoreau’s Walden, and of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts — the list could be infinitely extended. I couldn’t have existed without great writers and for me these writers constituted greatness. The fact is I can’t exist without great writing even now, and that is why it is so important, as I am slowly realizing, that I inhabit the same planet as, thank God, Thomas Pynchon…
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
Aside from being a fellow contributor to The Millions, Sonya Chung is the author of the debut novel, Long for this World, a beautiful book that focuses on the small but complicated negotiations of a family, and larger, global questions of identity, art, and happiness. Sonya and I met for the first time last fall, and I was excited but nervous to read her novel. What if I didn’t like it? To my relief–and joy–I loved it. It’s so gracefully told, and rich–not to mention riveting. Of the book, author Kate Walbert says, “An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise.” I concur. In this interview, Sonya and I discuss her book, the publication process, and what’s it’s really like to go from human to author.
The Millions: I was impressed with how effortlessly you moved from one character’s perspective to another in this book. The choice to give war photographer Jane, the Korean-American daughter of Han Hyun-kyu, her own first-person perspective seemed almost intuitive. Was it? The jacket copy calls your novel a “pointillist triumph”, and that’s accurate: these differences in voice ultimately make up a whole, united story. How did these shifting perspectives come about, and why is Jane the only one who speaks in the “I”?
Sonya Chung: Thanks for your kind words, Edan. And, you are correct: I knew early on that the story would span multiple cultures and settings, and I knew that sections would pivot among points of view. I tend to write without a detailed outline, but I have these intuitive (good word, your word) backdrops that guide and propel me. Polyphony was one of these backdrops. It’s a word/idea that I first grasped as a literary structure (as opposed to a strictly musical term) via Milan Kundera, who was an influence in graduate school; and saw the form modeled in novels like As I Lay Dying, Julia Glass’s Three Junes, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, DeLillo’sUnderworld, Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us, and many others.
Even with its global canvas, Long for This World is ultimately a family novel; and to me, all families are deeply, radically polyphonic. Jane is a Western character, American born, and of the younger generation; she is also individualistic, relative to her native-Korean counterparts, so it “sounded” right in my ear that she would narrate in a first-person voice (I write very much in an aural way). Conversely, I heard the more traditional Korean characters in third-person, and with a bit of narrative distance (it was almost as if I, the author, was paying these older characters their narrative-distance respect). Ultimately, the collage form provided a way for this multi-layered story to be told compactly, with the shifts in voices/perspectives becoming a part of the story-telling itself.
[Note: see my comparative review essay for The Millions about multi-voiced novels; apparently, this form has been on my mind a lot!]
TM: Although the book only has a few snippets of foreign language, the dialogue often reflects, in English, that the characters are speaking Korean; this is managed by imbuing the speech with a distinct formality. At one point, Han Jae-kyu notes that his brother Han Hyun-kyu–whose been living in America for so long, “seems to have lost, during his years in America, an intuitive sense for the humbled “I”: juh, instead of nah; the manners of apology, overstated in good measure, and self-effacement.” I wonder, did these “manners of apology” influence the actions and destinies of your Korean characters, versus those who have been Americanized? How has moving away from Korea changed Han Hyun-kyu and his wife, Lee Woo-in? As you were writing, did you focus centrally on questions of culture–those behaviors and rituals that are either inherited, learned or discarded?
SC: This question has a bit of the “nature vs nurture” debate in the subtext, I think. My perspective on that is very much both/and, i.e. these characters are at once shaped by culture/circumstance, and also by something essential in each of them. I never conceived of any character as exclusively a metaphor for his cultural experience, but at the same time each character’s backstory does exert a pressure on the present.
For example, the semi-romantic collision between Han Hyun-kyu (who emigrated to the US as a young man) and his sister-in-law Han Jung-joo occurs mostly because the cultural alchemy is just right: they are the same but not the same, Han Hyun-kyu being both native Korean from a small town, and also shaped by Western romanticism. On the other hand, in a scene between Jane and her brother Henry, Jane is trying to better understand their mother— a character who has caused the family grief — by painting her own version of her mother’s childhood, and Henry’s response is, “Shit goes down. People survive. You overdo it with Mom sometimes.” Later, when Jane tries to trace her own struggles back to something in her childhood, the Korean artist Chae Min-suk basically responds with, “That’s too bad.”
I’m fascinated by the fact that individuals raised in basically the same circumstances can evolve so differently; in Long for This World, this is very much the case, and one of the novel’s central concerns is how to manage/understand this randomness, this mysterious sense that some people are strong, some are weak, some people survive, some don’t. Is it culture, family, individual spirit, God, chance, all of the above?
TM: It took me almost two years to write a first draft of my novel, but I feel like I was floundering for the first nine months. I always find it helpful to hear from other young writers how the process was for them. How long did it take you to write your book?
SC: About three and a half years, from when I started to when an agent took me on.
TM: Can you describe for readers how you found your agent? My own search–though it now, thank goodness, has a happy ending–was harrowing.
SC: Finding an agent was tough — a wilderness time, not for the faint of heart. But I basically “followed directions,” did what teachers and writers advised: I made a list of contemporary writers I most admired, flipped to the Acknowledgments pages of their books, and found out who their agents were. I wrote succinct query letters. I followed submissions guidelines. Over a period of several months, I received both form-letter rejections and some very thoughtful, thorough ones. I came very close with three different agents; after the third turned me down, I wallowed and fretted for a few months. Then, miraculously, two friends whom I’d asked to read the manuscript came back with comments — both honest and encouraging. “You’re much closer than you think you are” were the magic words, the refueling I needed to dig in to a final, significant revision. With a new manuscript, I found a champion in Amy Williams — who’s been wonderful, as both agent and friend. In retrospect (that darned 20/20 hindsight), I probably sent the manuscript out too early; in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t ready. But I was impatient and hungry for affirmation, so I flung it out there. I don’t recommend that.
TM: What was it like, once you found your agent, getting published?
SC: Finding a publisher was weirdly fast, given the long road of writing, revising, finding an agent. I met with Amy on a Tuesday, she sent the manuscript out to editors that Thursday, we had an offer on Monday. It took a week for it to sink in, and even then, I don’t think I quite understood just how lucky I was.
TM: Has anything surprised you about the publication process?
SC: Pretty much everything has surprised me. I knew almost nothing about publishing a book, and it’s funny — well, sometimes not so funny — how people in the biz expect that you would. In other words, there’s no Orientation Day for New Writers. I would get these emails referencing “second pass pages” and have no idea what that was; or I’d get a manuscript in the mail with a deadline but wouldn’t know what I was expected to do with it exactly. I was surprised by how long some things took and how quickly other things moved. It became pretty predictable that what I feared would happen didn’t, and what I never saw coming did – maybe kind of like life? I’m glad to have the first book under my belt; next time (assuming there’s a next time), I’ll know a little better.
I was a little surprised by how gut-struck I was when the hardcovers came in. For a first-time author, there is nothing like the hardcover.
TM: How about touring and promoting your book? Do you find that an easy or fulfilling aspect of being a published author?
SC: The social networking aspect of publicity – what most authors are now expected to do – is a mixed bag. It’s wonderful and energizing to connect with other writers and enthusiastic readers in this direct, boundary-less way; but it’s also time-consuming and creates a weird sort of self-consciousness that I’m not sure is conducive to the writing process (Kazuo Ishiguro talked about this in a great interview several years back).
These days, the writer perhaps feels both more control and more responsibility, with regard to how much attention her book gets: if you want to go gangbusters on blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, scheduling your own book tour events, you can do that, and to good effect, but the amount of time/energy you can devote is also endless. If you happen to be a natural networker, it definitely works to your advantage; if, like many writers, you prefer the writing cave, it can be burdensome. There are some days when I realize I could spend 12 hours just exchanging emails and Facebook messages with people who might “open doors” for publicity and events. It’s definitely a choice, and you want to make sure that you’re continuing to choose to write in the midst of all that networking.
With the book tour these days, authors are encouraged to be “lean and mean” and strategic about it. No more 20-city book tours! As for the experience, maybe I’ll start by saying what, for me, it’s not: it’s not exactly “exciting” or “fun.” Those seem to be the two expectations – “Are you excited? Are you having fun?” Primarily, it’s work, which is not a bad thing at all – it’s just distinct from the romanticized notion that it’s glamorous or the pinnacle of dream-fulfillment. I don’t mean to be down on it. It’s absolutely gratifying to meet readers and to hear their good questions or that they’ve been moved by your book; booksellers are a special group of people, and it’s a privilege to connect with them in person; your friends and family roll out endless generosity, support, and hospitality. But book touring is also a lot of scheduling and shuttling and talking talking talking, and also, in a way, performing. After returning from an intense book-events trip a few weeks ago, I sat down to my blog, which I had not updated in several days, and found myself writing, essentially: “Hi everyone. I have nothing to say. I am all talked out.”
TM: I think for debut writers, it’s both exhilarating and slightly scary to have people reading something you worked on for so long. It would be for me. Have the people close to you read your book, and if so, what’s been the reaction?
SC: It’s very strange when your friends and family read your book. After the release date, I started getting emails and Facebook notes – “I’m reading your book!” I thought, “You are?” Promotions had taken up so much space in my head, I forgot that people would actually be reading the thing. Most of my friends and family are not writers, and some aren’t even avid readers; so it’s been gratifying to hear that people like the book, that it seems to have an “all things to all people” quality to it, which surprised me, frankly. I worried that the book might not be that accessible, because it’s complex in structure and perhaps more densely populated than some other novels. A number of people have said they “couldn’t put it down,” that it was a “page-turner.” I love that, because the narrative is fragmented, and I know that agents and editors sometimes shy away from that because of the readability factor.
Of course, not everyone will connect with your work; my expectations were pretty low about this, I know all too well that you can love a person but not love her books (and vice versa). So overall I was pleasantly surprised.
TM: It’s interesting to me that you weren’t considering the readability of your novel, because it is such a page-turner. When I’m writing, I’m (perhaps unhealthily) obsessed with the question of readability, perhaps because I find it’s such a pleasing quality in other people’s books. As you were writing Long for This World, did you imagine for yourself a reader? How did you perceive of their reading experience?
SC: That’s interesting that you think about the reader. Maybe somewhere between you and me is a good, healthy place to land? I did not, and do not, consider the reader when I’m writing. The work is a contained world for me, unto itself, it has its own internal energy and design; and when I sit down to work I’m like the astronaut landing on Planet Novel. I’m worried that this is going to sound pathologically narcissistic, but “the reader” – during early drafts – is me. Going with the astronaut analogy, it’s me who needs to be able to find good air and solid footing and navigate the place while I’m in there.
This does raise challenges later on. For example, I named the characters from inside the astronaut suit. During the editorial process, it became clear that the Korean names were going to be tough for native English-speakers (siblings in a Korean family typically have similar names, e.g. Han Hyun-kyu and Han Jae-kyu). But by then, their names were their names, they weren’t going to change, so we decided to put a character list in front to help readers navigate (I’m also now considering an audio pronunciation guide for my website). I suppose I’ll incorporate that experience as I go forward, but generally speaking I find that, for me, cracking open that door to self-consciousness lets in all kinds of monsters.
TM: It certainly can! I suppose my imagined reader is me–and also not me. I certainly write what I would like to read, but my writing is also for some imaginary person, someone who lives across town, perhaps, and reads in the tub, and in line at the post office, and during breakfast. She has impeccable taste, of course. This lady, she absolutely loved your book!
Whether scholars, creative writers, or citizen book lovers, most readers agree on a canon of certain legendarily difficult books—books that are hard to read for their length, or their syntax and style, or their structural and generic strangeness, or their odd experimental techniques, or their abstraction. This post inaugurates a new Millions series devoted to identifying and describing these most difficult books: ones we’ve read/wrangled with ourselves, ones we’ve known students to struggle with time and again, ones that, more simply, “everyone knows” are hard to read—those works whose mere titles glisten with an aura of rarefied impenetrability.
There will, doubtless, be those readers who look scornfully on our choices (“Psh. These aren’t that hard, you’re just not smart enough to read them”). Indeed, for myself, that is probably true. And to those so brilliant that not a one of these tomes challenged or vexed them more than a People magazine, we tip our hats. This list is for the mere mortals among us—who have found themselves reading and rereading the same paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses to no avail, who have been reduced to tears by Faulkner’s one-line chapter, “My mother is a fish,” in As I Lay Dying, who may have spitefully broken the brittle spine of her first used copy of Tristram Shandy, who use a volume of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a doorstop and eye it with a wary distrust when she walks past it (for it is fond of stubbing toes).
But this is also a list for those who, after breaking the spine, picked up the wounded volume, taped it back together, and finished that infuriating chapter, and another, and another… until, triumph!, it was finished at last. And, perhaps, now that we think on it again, having finished, could it be that it was worth the struggle? Could it be that in the pain of it was a tinge of pleasure, of value (not to mention pride)?
The hope is that our series will eventually be exhaustive, and because this is a series and so on-going, we welcome your suggestions. Where we can, we also offer our advice to aspiring readers of a particular difficult work. Our descriptions aim to be modest primers for those about to embark on the reading of a difficult book, as well as small, memorial essays on these (by many measures) great books. Titles will come from many eras and genres—the Renaissance, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the high Modernism of the early twentieth century, and finally our own time, and we include fiction, poetry, philosophy, and critical theory. Titles will be primarily those written in English, but in some cases we include translations. Future posts will cover works by Immanuel Kant, G.W. F. Hegel, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, William Vollmann, Thomas Pynchon, Jacques Derrida, David Foster Wallace, Joseph McElroy, Donna Harraway, William H. Gass, William Gaddis, and others.
1621: The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
1667: Paradise Lost by John Milton
1704: A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
1747-8: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
1759-67: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
1851: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
1922-62: The Cantos by Ezra Pound
1927: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
1964: The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan
1969: The Dream Songs by John Berryman
1969: Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
1974: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.
It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.
We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.
He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.
Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.
Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.
More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.
For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.
Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.
He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.
I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.
He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.
I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my goodreads.com to-read list.
I think: what the hell am I doing?
He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)
I think: what the hell am I doing?
The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.
You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.
Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.
I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.
He asks me if I am on Facebook.
I write yes.
Let’s be Facebook friends.
Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)
I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.
If you are a popular and prolific enough author, an interesting thing happens to your books, they all begin to look the same. This is the primary outward manifestation of an author as a brand. As a large oeuvre gets rounded out to perhaps a dozen or two titles, the publisher picks a certain design and rereleases all the titles to have that design. This makes a lot of sense. If you are a fan of Prolific Author A and are working your way through his body of work, you’ll soon be on the lookout for the distinctive style his publisher has chosen for his paperbacks. The problem is that all too often, these uniform designs are ugly. My prescription, however, is to scale back on the shared elements and to try to present each book more uniquely so that it feels like as much effort has gone into packaging each individual book as went into to writing it.From my days in the bookstore, I know how important, often subconsciously so, book cover design can be. With that in the mind, there are some very well-known authors whose uniformly designed books are doing them a disservice and deserve an overhaul:The Vintage paperback editions of William Faulkner’s novels have it all: terrible fonts, jarring colors, and strange, bland art. The covers betray none of the complexity of Faulkner’s work and instead promise soft-focus confusion. They feel dated and badly in need of a refresh. Better versions: Check out the prior paperback covers of As I Lay Dying from Penguin and Vintage.Maybe it’s the frames around the Ballantine John Irving paperback covers, but they remind me of hotel art. Irving’s masterful narratives have been reduced to representative but inanimate objects – a nurse’s uniform, a motorcycle – that occupy the safe middle ground that Irving’s books eschew. Better versions: There is a certain dignity to the text-only designs that once graced Irving’s covers.
For a writer as inventive and unique as Kurt Vonnegut, it sure seems like a shame to just slap a big “V” on all his covers and call it a day. Better versions: They may not offer a uniform look, bit I prefer the energy of the old pocket paperback versions of Vonnegut’s novels.
Far better are the Vintage Murakami paperbacks, which evoke some of the most jarring and surreal qualities of Murakami’s fiction. They also maintain a consistent aesthetic and yet they still vary from title to title. Even better versions: The Chip Kidd-designed British hardcover of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures the vivid imagery while hinting at the underlying complexity.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the first volume of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. This 2006 novel was a National Book Award winner and a New York Times Bestseller. However, the literary-industrial complex hasn’t given Anderson the attention accorded to similarly ambitious writers – perhaps because his putative audience consists of “young adults.” With Volume II (The Kingdom of the Waves) now out in hardcover, we decided to give Volume I (The Pox Party) the adult consideration we both thought it deserved. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, which we’ll share with you this week in three installments: Form and Style; Historical and Geographical Setting; and Audience, Character, and Conclusion. In the event that it engages you as it did us, perhaps we’ll follow up with conversations about Volume II, and about other titles. As always, we invite you to join the conversation via the Comments box.Part 1: Form and StyleEmily: I was worshipfully impressed with this book. The most striking aspect of M.T. Anderson’s novel, to me, was its formal evocation of the eighteenth century, the period in which it is set and is supposed to have been written. Octavian evokes for me the feeling of being in the archives – reading eighteenth-century English and early American newspapers and magazines, private journals, reports from the first generation of scientific societies like London’s Royal Society that rose and flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The form that dominates is the diary or journal. It is propelled mainly by Octavian’s diary-like first-person recollections of his life in the fictional Boston scientific society, The Novanglian College of Lucidity.Garth: I’m going to jump in at this point like Smokey Robinson and second your emotion, Emily. Octavian Nothing is one of the best-written – and most challenging – young adult books I’ve ever read. The pastiche of 18th-Century style reminds me more of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon than of, say, J.K. Rowling (Anderson’s direct competitor). I’m tempted to say that it goes beyond pastiche: that it becomes beautiful in its own right. Look at the opening sentences, for example:I was raised in a gaunt house, with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered-out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight.There are a number of things going on here: lyricism, archaism, and a sophisticated “defamiliarization”; after all, what are these “orbs?”Emily: Anderson is also extremely adept at manipulating shades of tone. He manages again and again to reproduce the cadences of period writing, but he does not (as one easily might) get bogged down in the (sometimes) tortuous syntax of the age. Look at this, for example:The two of them dancing could not have presented a more charming scene, turning as they did upon the greensward, with the blue gloaming seeping through the pines behind them and the empty sky above, lit by the frisking fireflies against the black trunks; they could not have performed their steps more elegantly, or spun more sweetly, even when the music sped off to a furious pace, skittering wildly, so that it could not have offered a reasonable beat to any but a raging Corybante dancing horde, drugged and frenzied before rending the flesh of fleeing men.Here Anderson mimics the complicated grammatical structures so common in the prose of the day, but it is also, as the first sentence was, beautiful. And I admire this not just for its linguistic athleticism and acrobatic capabilities, but because such sentences evoke the style and syntax of Latin and so give a sense of Octavian’s immersion in that lost world, as his own world is lost to us.Garth: It’s a lost world in which the study of Latin rhetoric, with its ritualized devices (in this case, hyperbole) would have been second nature. Especially to Octavian, who, in the conceit of the book, is the beneficiary of the world’s finest education. Perhaps I should also insert, by way of summary, that when the book opens, young Octavian and his mother are resident in the College. The early going is devoted to Octavian’s intuition that there’s some mysterious difference between himself and the College’s other residents. His gradual discovery of the nature of that difference, and of how he came to be where he is, will precipitate his further adventures. Much of this is done in a first-person voice, which is why the defamiliarization I mentioned earlier is so effective: we see as Octavian sees, and discover as he discovers.Emily: But the form of the book soon grows more complex.Garth: Spoiler alert?Emily: Spoiler alert. Into his diaristic narrative, Anderson begins to patch-work clippings from newspapers (adverts for slave sales and reward notices for run-away slaves) and letters from a variety of characters. While Octavian is called a novel, it is in the strictest sense of the word, a miscellany, one of the defining literary forms of the age in which it is set. Miscellany is the Renaissance and Eighteenth-Century’s period-specific version of pastiche.Garth: Like that book Schott’s Miscellany from a few years back?Emily: Right. A miscellany is a collection of literary productions of various kinds (poems, letters, essays, illustrations) gathered in a single volume, often united thematically rather than formally. Octavian’s mentor in this first volume, Bono, keeps a miscellany filled with newspaper pictures of shackles, razor collars, and iron masks used to silence and punish slaves. And Anderson is making his own sort of miscellany. The different voices and perspectives on Octavian give a richer sense of his character and demeanor, and the many shades of public opinion about slave-holding that jostled against each other in revolutionary America. There are also psalms, maps, diagrams and scientific reports written about Octavian and his mother by members of the Novanglian Society.Garth: Here again, Anderson is so committed to his invention – so immersed in it – that it seems to move beyond pastiche. When I got to the psalm (a beautiful lament that I didn’t remember from church), I actually had to look it up to make sure it wasn’t fabricated. In general, Octavian is so well-researched that its factual trappings often fade into the background. Throughout the book, in the diaristic sections and the scientific reports and so on, Anderson inhabits the multifarious 18th Century mind: positivist yet deistically religious; egalitarian yet slave-owning. The contradictions in the language become the animating tensions of the book.Emily: The scientific reports are particularly chilling and – though I did find myself wondering how many of the readers of Octavian are really young adults – serve as a sort of Dialectic of Enlightenment for those not quite ready for Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Enlightenment deification of rationality and empiricism. Though, is anyone, ever?Garth: I was, once upon a time. Like you, I thought of The Dialectic of Enlightenment while reading Octavian – surely a first for a young adult book. Though I should throw in here that a similar philosophical bent and ventriloquistic brilliance animates Anderson’s earlier book, the science fiction novel Feed. (Opening line from the young narrator: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”) Part of what’s amazing about Octavian is that the Adorno/Horkheimer argument, this gnarly Germanic thing that practically makes people bleed from the ears in graduate school, becomes pellucidly clear when dramatized like this. This is not to say that Anderson’s consciously rewriting Adorno. Perhaps the idea that the Enlightenment pushed rationality to the point of irrationality is inherent in the material?Emily: I think so. “The Advancement of Learning” that began in the seventeenth century in Europe had many victims. I have read horrific Royal Society proceedings that recount “experiments” such as pouring corrosive acids on dogs and lambs to see what happens. They are more horrific for their dryly objective prose. Octavian, more horrifically still, brings this dark side of the Age of Reason to life. If you’ll allow me a final note on Anderson’s interesting and evocative approach to literary form – Garth: – And I will – Emily: – I wanted to point out that Anderson’s approach is powerful even if you are not familiar with the forms and foibles of 18th-Century literature – if you’re more familiar with the fractured forms of high Modernism, like Eliot’s The Waste Land, or miscellany’s post-modern cousin (to repeat the term you’ve been using, Garth), pastiche. In the novel’s most jarring formal sequence, Octavian’s first-person voice disappears and is replaced by a succession of letters from a variety of individuals, some barely literate, some fluent in the formal niceties and flattering flourishes of the age. All of a sudden our vision of Octavian is fractured – we’re seeing him and his plight as a runaway slave from myriad, radically different perspectives at once. I was reminded of As I Lay Dying – of a cognitive dissonance, a deliberately broken, heteroglossic approach to narrative that is much more often associated with modern authors like Joyce and Dos Passos but works remarkably well here. I was also reminded of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), another work of historical fiction that uses the fractured effect of miscellany to give a more expansive account of a moment of upheaval. It’s as if some traumas are so profoundly collective that they require a narrator, or a form, that can get beyond the limited view of the first person singular.Garth: “Heteroglossic.” I am definitely stealing that for future use. And if I can add my own summary note on the form and style of Octavian Nothing: I was basically really taken with – and jealous of – Anderson’s writing. I think he might be some kind of genius. In our next installment, maybe we can talk a bit more about that trauma – about the novel’s historical and geographical setting.
Edan and her beau have decided that they want read one of America’s greatest writers, but they don’t know where to start:Neither my boyfriend nor I have ever read any William Faulkner. We thought it might be fun to read one of his novels at the same time, so we could talk about it together, while sipping some bourbon on the porch. Do you, or any of your readers, have any suggestions? Most people recommend Light in August as the best novel to begin with…what do you think?I’m no expert on Faulkner. In college, inspired by my discovery that Faulkner had once taught at my alma mater, I wandered into the local used bookstore and chose The Sound and the Fury at random from the shelf. I muddled my way through it, deciding then that I would need to approach Faulkner with a bit more rigor should I attempt to read his work again. As such, I am hardly qualified to answer this question. Luckily, when I turned to one of the world’s foremost Faulkner experts, he was happy to answer the question for us. Dr. John B. Padgett is a graduate instructor at the University of Mississippi who has been studying Faulkner for years. In conjunction with his studies, he is the “sole owner and proprietor” of Faulkner on the Web. Here’s what he had to say:A good place to start reading Faulkner is The Unvanquished, I think, in part because it’s fairly easy compared to some of Faulkner’s more difficult work. The novel consists of six previously published Civil War stories which he reworked into a novel (he also added a final chapter that was not previously published). Faulkner himself recommended it as a good starting point.Another good place to start, I think, is As I Lay Dying or Sanctuary.I don’t usually recommend beginning Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! because of their difficulty; however, for those who are prepared for the challenges posed by these novels, they are well worth the effort.Thanks Edan and John!