I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere. I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover. This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history. The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired -- slewed, purl, wale, rictus -- words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript. The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.” John Adams by David McCullough A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course Stamboul Train by Graham Greene: Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s -- and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night. Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us. A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford A small card reminding me that I have a haircut on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 at 6 p.m. on Waverly Street. A decade later I still get my hair cut at the same place, though I now prefer Thursdays. Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son -- our second child -- was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years -- before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company -- but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go. Love Always by Anne Beattie; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin; Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre; and many more. For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day -- an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction. The Stranger by Albert Camus A greeting card and a blank envelope. The card has a cartoon king on the cover and inside it says, “You rule!” There is nothing else written anywhere. City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on. During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books. A Separate Peace by John Knowles Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us. The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee A full-color 3x2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service. The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true. Atonement by Ian McEwan A tiny, white, blank, one-inch-by-a-half-inch Post-It note. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember -- just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son -- although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove. After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next -- perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.
1. A few months ago, like the dull thuds of a heart beginning to beat, I heard the first stirrings of Ian McEwan’s new novel as publicists and publishers began preparing its delivery into the world. Interviews appeared, an atmospheric trailer that revealed absolutely nothing was released on McEwan’s Facebook page, a blurb was posted on his publisher’s website. By then we had a short description, and we knew that there was something a little special about this one: the novel would be narrated by a fetus. The novel’s first line sets the tone: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” Now that’s what I call first-person limited. As for plot, it’s straightforward enough, “the classic tale of murder and deceit” we were promised in the blurb: pregnant Trudy has taken on a lover, Claude. Together, they plan to murder Trudy’s husband, John, who is also Claude’s brother. The motive? Money, of course, in the form of the marital home, a “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Terrace” whose “six thousand aching square feet will buy you seven million pounds,” even in its dilapidated state. Our unborn narrator, privy to these murderous musings, begins by discussing the abstractions he has to dwell on since he has yet to see anything, although it’s soon clear that he’s awfully well informed about things like the U.S. constitution, climate change, and contemporary world politics for someone who hasn’t taken his first breath yet. He (and we know from the “shrimp-like protuberance” between his legs that he is a he) soon explains that he’s learned most of these things by listening to the podcasts his mother plays at night when she can’t sleep. Our narrator has pretentious tastes: an audiobook of James Joyce’s Ulysses “thrills” him, but sends his mother to sleep. He also knows a lot about wine, which he is apparently able to taste even though it is “decanted through a healthy placenta.” McEwan enjoys peppering his novels with mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink (I often dream of the seafood stew in Saturday), and he hasn’t found a reason not to do so, quite elaborately, even from this undeveloped perspective. A Pouilly-Fumé taken in a moment of high emotional intensity is “too thin, too piercing,” while an earlier Pinot Noir is “a mother’s soothing hand” whose “hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.” This unborn baby knows his grapes, and a lot more besides. 2. Much of McEwan’s work can be understood as a knotted tension between realism and -- what, exactly? Let’s call it falsehood. Atonement and Sweet Tooth both pulled the narrative rug from beneath the reader’s feet, tipping the story into meta-fiction. Personally, I was delighted by McEwan’s bravura -- by the clean, clever way the narrative coiled back upon itself -- but I know readers who are unimpressed by such tricks. Solar and Amsterdam, while not entirely unpleasant, offered little depth in their leap towards satire. The Children Act bored me with its clunky symbolism and Dickensian social commentary. As Tessa Hadley put it in her review of that novel, “[r]ealism seems beside the point after a while: it's more like being inside the workings of an allegory or a parable.” But at a sentence-level, McEwan’s work remains that of an old-fashioned realist. In a lecture he gave at Harvard University in 2012, he stated that one of the novel’s supreme virtues was “the air of reality, the solidicity [sic].” In the same lecture, McEwan stated: “I have refused to give my character wings.” Now, with Nutshell, McEwan has nudged his hallowed realism onto unsteady ground. Although the story itself is realistic enough, and steeped in McEwan’s usual attention to detail, the voice that tells it to us is, in a way, complete fantasy. The novel might as well be told from within the consciousness of a dog, a ghost, or a piece of furniture. The wine tasting, which I described above, is part of the problem, but so are the metaphors. Our narrator feels the sound of a cork drawn from a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre “like the caress of a summer breeze,” “innocent toes” are imagined lined up “like children in a family photo,” his first headache is “a gaudy bandana,” a moment of silence is “creamily thick” while at another moment something “hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog.” Some of these comparisons are quite good, although most are barren of the thematic resonance that would make them great. Sometimes the writing strains and groans with the pressure of its own self-conscious preciosity, as when the narrator pictures his mother “youngly slumped” on a table and then tells us he “insist[s] on the adverb,” which means that McEwan does. You can almost see him penciling that in for his editor. More importantly, the metaphors don’t make sense because our narrator has never experienced or seen any of the vehicles he uses, just as he’s never seen a table or knows what it is to slump. And I refuse to believe he picked all that up from podcasts. Any realism in this novel is undermined by the simple fact that a fetus can’t know what this fetus knows. An unborn baby can’t differentiate between an Échézeaux Grand Cru and a Romanée-Conti from the snugness of the womb, an unborn baby can’t “picture a hayloft, off which a hundred-kilo sacks of grain is tossed to the granary floor” and compare that image to the sound of his mother’s beating heart. It is not improbable, like some plot points of other McEwan novels; it is impossible. 3. I’m doing what I shouldn’t do, which is to dissect the basic realism of the novel’s conceit. In Sweet Tooth McEwan gave us a constructed narrator, a fiction, who is a voracious reader of realist fiction -- Serena Frome likes novels that mention real events, real people, and real places. Like McEwan himself, who was thrilled in his youth to find a reference in a novel he was reading to a real illustration from Punch that he was able to look up, Frome reads to see fact collapse within fiction. The in-utero narrator of Nutshell is, by comparison, a dreamer. At one point in the story, drunk on the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc his mother has imbibed on her own (or, as it were, in his company), he spreads his imaginative wings and visualizes for us the conversation occurring at that moment between his father and his uncle. Upon returning to the womb, he writes, “One could make a living devising such excursions,” which is of course exactly what McEwan has done as a novelist. So perhaps we have here an indication that the author has given up on his obsession with the real, that he has come to terms with the fact that he writes about characters and events that are not factual. He has dealt with the question: if none of this is real, then why go to such lengths to make sure that it appears to be? The moment of fiction doesn’t last, though. In the next line, the narrator thinks, “But the actual, the circumscribed real, is absorbing too and I’m impatient for Claude to return and us what really happened.” Old habits are hard to kill. Still, it looks like McEwan, this once at least, has decided to shuffle off the mortal coil of realism in favor of an impossible point of view. I applaud his new purpose because the payoffs are worth it. For all its un-believability, Nutshell's narrator offers us interesting moments, and gives McEwan the chance to show off some fresh writing. Particularly good are scenes of high emotion described from within Trudy’s anatomy. McEwan replaces the smiles, blushes, glances, and head movements that are the fiction writer’s traditional arsenal of “telling” descriptors with even more telling organ movements. A moment of hesitation in a conversation is rich with unspoken feeling: “my mother’s heart begins a steady acceleration. Not just faster, but louder, like the hollow knocking sound of faulty plumbing. Something is also happening in her gut. Her bowels are loosening, with a squeaky stretching sound, and higher up, somewhere above my feet, juices race down winding tubes to unknown destinations.” The body doesn’t lie. Likewise, sex between the murderous lovers becomes a particularly disturbing turbulence when described from within. The pressure of a penis penetrating near our narrator’s skull, swallowed sperm being converted into nutrients, these are small horrors that seem at times more criminal than the murder at hand. 4. Another interesting aspect of the book is the narrator’s unequivocal love for his mother, a love that remains troubled but true over the course of the novel, despite her desire to kill the father who has all the fetus’s sympathy. Here McEwan is using William Shakespeare as his touchstone. The book’s epigraph is from Hamlet, and the novel recycles some of the Danish play’s basic story elements, with our narrator as an unborn Hamlet. As in Hamlet, there is poison, although not administered in the ear, and while the cuckolded father is plain John, his brother and rival lover has the unusual name of Claude, too close to Claudius not to be a wink. Another allusion: once their dark deed is done, McEwan has Claude and Trudy order Danish take-away (“open sandwiches, pickled herring, baked meats,” maybe from Snaps & Rye in nearby Notting Hill?). And in the role of Gertrude, we have Trudy. The Queen of Denmark fascinates because it’s hard to know how duplicitous she is. Hamlet’s attitude towards her shifts between pity, hatred, resentment, and affection. While Nutshell's narrator disapproves of his mother’s actions, his blame and anger are always directed at his uncle, and in his fantasies he saves her from him. Like Gertrude, Trudy never comes off as the villain, and our young hero seeks revenge on his uncle alone. For all her motherly defects Trudy remains something of an enigma in the book, a half-realized character. John is the poet -- hopeful, naïve, generous -- and Claude the over-eager younger brother, slimy almost to the point of caricature. But what about Trudy? An early story about a dead cat and a late reference to her mother do little to give us a better of understanding of who she is. She’s beautiful, we know that. And smarter than Claude. And unlike him she feels uncertainty, remorse, and regret. But what does she like? What does she want? She has no friends, no family. No job and no interests, other than drinking -- and even there she seems less knowing than Claude and her unborn child. She doesn’t leave the house for the duration of the novel. Maybe that’s the point. To our narrator she is the mother, and he doesn’t want her to be anything more or less. The house she doesn’t leave is akin to the womb her unborn son can’t leave, until he can. Near the end of Nutshell, when the narrator has grown almost too big for the womb, he says, “I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap.” It’s no longer she who bears him, but he who wears her. 5. My questions about McEwan’s devotion to realism seek to prod the aesthetic motivations behind his new novel. Realist or not, though, McEwan’s abilities as a fiction writer are undeniable. In Nutshell especially he demonstrates his skill with pacing. He ends each chapter with a satisfying morsel that moves things along. The murder plot remains taut throughout and, thanks to a certain owl poet who probably isn’t what she seems, not altogether as straightforward as the reader might first assume. The climax delivers the right amount of action and the dénouement settles things in a satisfying way thanks to the agency of our narrator. There remains only to see if McEwan will follow this new path and continue to explore the chaos of invention, or if he will return to the comforting order of fact.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M -- a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?” Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling. I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything -- a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic. Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.” This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled? The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here. 1. Outfits that don’t sound real Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me. One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good -- it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague. 2. Outfits that make too much of a point Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her. Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine ... put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look...She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots ... She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans. Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing. There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive -- just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right. Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
1. I am a jealous person -- jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered -- but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.” Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first -- The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there. I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies. When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.” He’s wrong, though. I do. My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first. As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One's Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests? The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.” Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it. Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? “From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer? 2. In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.” But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri? When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners. So how to deal with our unthinkable jealousies? What to do with my frustration that I’ll never be able to claim The Empathy Exams or Bad Feminist or Bluets as my own? Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?” Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.” For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something...I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.” It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one. Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
We recently linked to a new interview with Ian McEwan, whose latest novel The Children Act comes out next week. The LA Times has a full review of the new book, and the piece pairs well with Charles-Adam Foster-Simard's review of McEwan's Sweet Tooth. And of course there's Atonement, which comes up in a variety of Millions articles, from Michael David Lukas's essay on the polyphonic novel to Seth Sawyer's recent piece on food and reading.
1. I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five,but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs. When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something. If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine. 2. Hemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged. And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he -- effortlessly, in my head -- catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good. The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there. Atonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon. Stop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food. Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that. Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true. Angela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket. Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some. 3. There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. 2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year? I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W >6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - P, C 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres. In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre -- let’s call it the polyphonic novel -- uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century. Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices. Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.” Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators -- an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few -- McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself. But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.” Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator. It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.” Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin). While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape. With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
In Ian McEwan’s thirteenth novel, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) is an assistant officer in MI5 who is part of a special project to fund writers who are critical of the communist utopia in 1970s — this is the soft cold war. The author she is running, T. H. Haley, who also becomes her lover, thinks that he is receiving the generous stipend from a private foundation, because he’s an up-and-coming writer with a lot of potential. In reality, it’s because he’s written some newspaper articles against communism. At one point, Serena reads one of Haley’s stories, which is “narrated by a talking ape prone to anxious reflections about his lover, a writer struggling with her second novel.” On the last page of the story, Serena learns that the narrator of the story is, in fact, the female writer in question. “The ape doesn’t exist, it’s a spectre, the creature of her fretful imagination.” Serena is revolted; she distrusts “this kind of fictional trick.” Without this kind of trick, Sweet Tooth, the large novel in which T. H. Haley’s own fictions are nestled like mirrors reflecting back upon reality, would fall apart completely. The tension between truth and duplicity lies at the heart of Sweet Tooth, which turns out to be a carefully constructed trick, as spectral, perhaps, as the ape in Haley’s story. Fabrication is a well-explored topic in McEwan’s fiction. Briony Tallis’s manipulation of real events into fiction lies at the heart of Atonement, while a very big lie forms the principal device in Solar’s elaborate climate change plot. Similarly, double duplicity is what drives Amsterdam to its tragicomic finale. In these novels, however, the fabrications become so elaborate that they begin to sound hollow. In order to raise the stakes and make the fiction more compelling, McEwan has been known to stretch his plots to the point of tearing. In Sweet Tooth, the stakes — a budding relationship, government money, one or two people’s jobs — are high enough to be interesting, but low enough for the novel to remain manipulative in a merely pleasant way. For the trick to pay off at the end, McEwan does require a certain amount of patience from the reader. If, like me, you expect the lush, thickly internalized prose of Saturday, the sparkling dialogues and quirky characters of On Chesil Beach, or even the atmospheric sense of dread of McEwan’s other spy novel, The Innocent, you will be disappointed. The principal reason for this lack is that, for Sweet Tooth to work, it needs to be told in the first person. While Serena Frome — a beautiful, blonde, romantic young woman who obtains a third in math at Cambridge and uses her photographic memory to devour novels — makes for an interesting character, she does not have a particularly compelling narrative voice. Her landscape is a little flat, her story is strictly chronological, her tone is chatty but cold. More importantly, she — or, I began to wonder as the novel progressed, perhaps McEwan himself — is obsessed with realism. The novel’s backdrop is the social and political crises in England in the 1970s: the IRA, the coal miners’ strike, the return of the Labor government in 1974. For a better part of the book, the narrator reminds us what decade we’re in regularly, defending herself if she’s acting against the norm, and explaining how the 70s were different from today when she isn’t. Being constantly hit on the head with historical facts can get a little frustrating; if you’ve read Atonement, you’ll know that McEwan can make history come to life without overstating it. Serena herself may offer an explanation for this narrative tic when she describes her own reading habits: I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them. This passage suggests that Serena’s obsession with historical accuracy as a narrator is a result of her own literary taste for hyperrealism, fiction that borders on fact. At least she practices what she preaches. Still, my resistance to this forced historicity raises an interesting caveat: how far should a writer stray away from what he does well, and what pleases the reader, in order to create a narrative voice that is consistent with the character? The answer, of course, depends entirely on the book. When dealing with a writer as experienced as McEwan, however, one must be ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m glad I did. A few months into Serena’s work at MI5, she receives a warning from a superior and one-time love interest (the word in the agency is that she’s more trouble than she’s worth): In this work the line between what people imagine and what’s actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big grey space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things — and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real. Intelligence work sounds a little bit like writing novels, and McEwan proves that he’s sufficiently deft at the latter to navigate the grey space between fact and fiction without getting lost in it. In the end, Sweet Tooth is successful enough as a work of well constructed, brilliantly rendered fiction for Serena’s voice to work within the larger whole. The author remains so removed from his fiction that, once you understand what he’s up to, you have to strain to see him pulling the strings of the narrative. Sweet Tooth purports by its content and its opening lines to be a spy novel, but it isn’t really. In a traditional spy/thriller/whodunit, the end reveal is never as interesting as the tension-filled pages of clues and red herrings that got you there. On the contrary, Sweet Tooth is a much finer novel in retrospect, once the final chapter and its revelations have been absorbed. Only then can the reader understand why the early elements in the book, characters shown for only a few pages and then quickly carried offstage, were there at all. These characters are carefully mentioned again throughout the book like touchstones for the plot’s unraveling, and are finally given their full purpose in the story. The novel’s ending, and its final question, turns the fiction back upon itself. Therein lies McEwan’s genius when he’s at the top of his form; he writes a novel like a jeweler cuts a diamond, by following the natural tensions in the raw material to create an object of admirable sharpness, perfection, and complexity. Like a diamond, the novel may not be to everyone’s taste, but its objective qualities are undeniable, nonetheless.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Patrick Flanery was born in California, raised in Nebraska, and in recent years has spent significant time in South Africa. His first novel, Absolution, is set there. It focuses on Clare Wald, a reclusive writer, opening up about her past to her biographer, Sam Leroux. So far, so familiar. But Flanery’s trick is to tell his tale from four varying perspectives that ultimately converge and contradict, leading us to question the reliability of the characters and the validity of their confessions. To what extent is a writer engaged in “professional lying?” How are we all complicit in the problems of the countries we live in? Can we ever fully obliterate, or atone for, our past crimes? Flanery’s debut is a fascinatingly multi-faceted novel which impresses the more it perplexes. I wanted to learn more about writer and book and so interviewed him. He was in South Africa, I in Berlin, and so the following was done by email. The Millions: First of all I have to apologize. Sam Leroux mentions his “carefully formulated questions I’ve spent months preparing.” I have only taken an hour to compile mine. Presumably before Absolution was even conceived you completed a doctorate in English Literature at Oxford University. What area did you specialize in and did it have any bearing on the novel? Patrick Flanery: I went to Oxford thinking I was going to write a doctoral thesis on male friendships in the works of D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh. When the powers that be decided the topic was not adequately “new” (in other words, they thought the work had already been done), I decided to focus exclusively on Waugh, shifting from a literary critical project to a largely book-historical one, which examined the publishing history and various media adaptations of three of his novels: Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, and Brideshead Revisited. My work on Waugh unquestionably had an effect on Absolution, although quite a complex one. For one thing, as a relief from my total immersion in Waugh, I began side projects on J.M. Coetzee’s publishing history, which led me to broader investigations of South African literature and culture. In contrast to Waugh, I was craving a more ethically engaged, and more resolutely secular territory to explore, and Coetzee’s work provided just such a space. Waugh’s own minor experience of censorship also led me to wider theoretical reading about institutions of censorship, and thus to Coetzee’s brilliant and essential collection of essays, Giving Offense. That provided the spur to thinking about the writer-censor relationship in creative terms, and I began, while still finishing my doctorate, writing a series of dialogues between a writer and her biographer that explored this territory. My concentration on Waugh’s fiction, and the letters and diaries of a writer who cultivated a vividly difficult personality -- one notoriously resistant to interviewers -- helped inform my character Clare Wald. TM: In an interview with the Independent, it was noted that you talk more about literature than you do yourself. It is a rather facile question but an important one for a debut novelist: who are your literary idols and influences? PF: It is among the most difficult questions to answer, simply because the influences are legion, whether positive or negative models (I like this, I don’t like this). For a novelist, though, talking about literature is perhaps one of the most revealing ways of talking about oneself. I’ll limit myself here to the influences I was most conscious of tapping while writing Absolution. These I can divide into four territories: South African, North American, Latin American, and broadly European (including British and Irish). The most obvious South African influence is Coetzee, whose work has always astonished me for the rigor of its control: I never have any doubt that Coetzee knows precisely the kind of work that each word does in the text. Several other South African writers were also important, including Marlene van Niekerk, Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislaviċ (all three are too little known and read outside of South Africa), and the late K. Sello Duiker; Nadine Gordimer I admire greatly, although I suspect her influence functioned at a quite subconscious level. Of North American writers, DeLillo, Roth, and Didion (her essays) were important touchstones, along with Atwood (I taught Surfacing for several years and regard it as an important intertext for Absolution), as well as Mavis Gallant and the poet Anne Carson. From Latin America, Jorge Luis Borges was an early and not necessarily productive influence, but nonetheless a very potent one: an uncle who leads one astray and doesn’t pick up the bill at the end of a surprisingly expensive meal. Roberto Bolaño has been a more recent discovery: complex, complicated, and often, for me, a maddening writer, he is also a model for writing a novel (2666) that manages to be gripping at both intellectual and visceral levels. European influences are predictable: Joyce, Forster, Woolf, Conrad, T.S. Eliot (if one can call him European) and, perhaps inevitably (and as much as I might wish to disavow his influence), Waugh as well. From the continent, Proust, Mann, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov formed a rather dour, sometimes wry chorus of support. TM: Reviewers have already placed you in illustrious company, comparing you with the likes of Graham Greene and Coetzee. The former, I feel, is always lazy short-hand for any novel with tension and conflict in an exotic locale. The latter was almost inevitable -- both you and Coetzee deal with professors and academics, crime and violence, and refuse to offer neat solutions to your complex themes. Summertime even features a biographer trying to unlock a writer’s life. I do see Coetzee having had some impact on you (Dusklands even gets a mention in the novel, secretly stashed away from the authorities among books by Clare Wald) but also see Absolution as a kind of second cousin to a similar-titled novel, Ian McEwan’s Atonement: the fractured narrative, the varying viewpoints, the re-imagined and alternative histories. Am I miles off? PF: When Summertime appeared I already had the foundations for Absolution; I knew it was going to be about a novelist and her biographer, and I knew it was going to have a fractured, fragmented form. I also knew that if my own novel were ever published, people would inevitably see a line of descent. I won’t deny Coetzee’s influence, but as I suggest above, he is one of a great many writers with whom I like to think my own work might be in conversation. McEwan is an intriguing comparison. I admire Atonement, and perhaps it, like Gordimer, was lurking in my subconscious: in a way, Absolution takes the next logical step in form where Atonement leaves off. I started with large, discrete sections, as in McEwan’s novel, but felt, for my own purposes, that the story I was trying to tell needed a form, a shape, and a rhythm that was more dynamic, shifting, and urgent. Some reviews, I know, have described the novel as a kind of “literary thriller,” and it would not be inaccurate to say that I was conscious of wanting to endow the events of the novel with a certain quality of pace and suspense more usually found in genre fiction. TM: Early on in your novel, Sam poses a question about fiction being necessary to political opposition. Clare laughs at him and replies with “You have a very strange idea of what fiction is meant to do.” What is fiction meant to do? PF: The temptation is to answer your question as Clare would, to tell you that fiction, even under conditions of oppression, has a different role to play, that it need not only be social realism reporting on the conditions of the oppressed, involving itself in a struggle for liberation, but that it can perhaps play a part in such battles even while its role, its position, and its effects are not necessarily legible, or may only be legible in retrospect, when the field has cleared and the dead have been buried, the treaties agreed, and history lurched into its next cycle. But that is what Clare would say. My own feeling is that fiction in a broadly social realist form has a place in the larger body of any given national -- or indeed transnational -- literature. Absolution is certainly not social realism, although it does attempt to engage certain aspects of the current and highly varied social realities at play in South Africa. Such moments of social realism are, however, contained in a text that might more accurately be described as subjective or critical realism, with layers of the surreal, the nightmarish, the apocalyptic, the confessional, and the biographical. Fiction that aspires to be something more than an entertainment commodity must, I think, ultimately be concerned with its own longevity, with the conversation it holds between itself and whatever has preceded it. TM: As you suggest, the novel began as a series of exchanges between characters on the issue of censorship. Only later did South Africa present itself as a setting. How did this come about? PF: While writing the initial censorship dialogues between Clare and Sam in 2005, I was also writing the first draft of the narrative of Clare’s “house invasion,” as she insists on calling it, alongside a post-apocalyptic narrative of a woman looking after a young boy. I did not, initially, know how this third narrative related to the other two, but I sensed that they all belonged together. For a time I thought I might set the book in a near-future California, but the more I wrote of the three primary sections, the more I was just conscious of a landscape that recalled what I already knew of South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape Provinces from visits with my South African partner to family and friends. Unsure what to do with this odd triptych of texts, or how to make them advance, I put the book aside. Years passed, I finished my doctorate, I returned for further visits to South Africa, and continued to think of Clare, knowing that I did not want to abandon her. I began thinking again about the setting, dismissing America as the wrong location for the story I was trying to tell, and thinking instead of an unnamed, semi-allegorical African or South American country, before finally concluding that the book needed a highly specific temporal and geographic context to make the story both more resonant, as well as to provide the kind of narrative the characters needed to move forward from their quite static positions. Once I settled on South Africa as the setting, the various problems of character, narrative, and form all began to fall into place. Unraveling the three novellas, I started weaving them together, while adding a fourth strand -- those sections which bear dates in the novel -- that seemed to bind together the first three. Journalists have asked me what kind of challenge the decision to set the book in South Africa represented. It was significant, and one I did not take lightly. My experience of South African domestic space (through visits with my extended family and friends in the country), and the reality of living every day of my life over the last decade with a South African partner, meant that I had a certain kind of access to a quite particular strand of South African cultural life -- largely white, English-speaking, and middle-class. So the daily details, the language, and the cadences of speech were not the most difficult aspects to negotiate; rather, it was making sure that the complexity of certain relationships and lines of inheritance made sense in a way that was at once possible to fit into a plausible strand of South African history, while also being conscious that history (however one might wish to define it) need not necessarily function as the benchmark against which the events of the book might be measured. TM: You write about contemporary South Africa and adopt a fairly non-judgmental stance. Only once does Sam lose his cool with a person begging. Clare is traumatized by that break-in but doesn’t call for tougher laws and stricter punishments. Was it a conscious decision to be the aloof outsider looking in? Is it a writer’s ‘duty’ only to reflect and never comment on a country’s social or political situation? PF: At no point did I think that I was writing a critique of the country, although I would argue that there is a considerable amount of commentary about the unresolved legacies of apartheid. I was always trying to tell a story that, as I suggest above, started from large, perhaps “universal” themes, and worked backwards in its composition, from the broad to the specific, from the universal to the local. Equally, while I was conscious of the particular challenges I set myself in writing about a country not my own -- a country whose literature has long been informed by a sense in some quarters that South Africans should tell their own stories -- I did not think of myself as an outsider looking in. In his review of the book in the Mail & Guardian, the South African critic Michael Titlestad refers to me as an “insider outsider:” it is an apt and flattering description, I think, and one I am happy to embrace. I tried to write from a place as thoroughly within the country as I could manage. To “reflect” a country’s social or political situation suggests that there is one coherent narrative of what that situation might be, and also that it is the job of fiction to be “reflective.” Absolution tries to destabilize such ideas, to argue that there are many simultaneous, competing narratives, not only about traumatic events of the past, but also about the way in which the everyday life of a country unfolds. Sam’s account of his encounters with people begging would not, inevitably, match their own versions of the same interactions; had I chosen to give such characters voice beyond the limited dialogue Sam reports, they would have narrated the story in a markedly different way. Rather than “reflective,” I think of my own fiction as “discursive:” in a dialogue not only with literary tradition, but also with the world it seeks to describe. TM: You have said that South Africa is “the most and least like America” of any country you have visited. Please explain! PF: Before I first visited South Africa in 2003, I imagined it in terms of apartheid, its European colonial past, and those circuits of cultural affiliation, and, in a shamefully under-nuanced way, as an “African” country. The first visit immediately complicated all of those assumptions. Visiting Cape Town and its surrounding communities, one cannot but be aware of Dutch and French (Huguenot) influences, both in terms of architecture and place names, while in a town like Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape (where I sit as I respond to your questions, in the Victorian house of a friend), the influence of 19th-century English settlers is inescapable. Nonetheless, “modern” South Africa -- meaning both the modernist buildings and infrastructure built in the second half of the 20th century under apartheid, and the largely post-modern buildings of democratic South Africa -- often looks startlingly American. Many buildings and neighborhoods would seem at home in America in a way they would never fit in Britain or the Netherlands. Stylistically, spatially, and in terms of scale, South Africa feels more North American in its register than it feels European, except, perhaps, in places like Stellenbosch or the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet, where the Cape Dutch architecture predominates; even in those towns, however, it is always possible for me to imagine myself into Southern California (in the case of Stellenbosch; I see similarities with Spanish mission architecture), or parts of the Midwest and Southwest (in the case of Graaff-Reinet). There is an expansive sense of space and possibility in the urban as well as rural landscapes of the country that feels utterly familiar to someone who grew up in Omaha with family ties to Oklahoma and California. So on the level of the built environment, as well as some aspects of the landscape (although not the vegetation), the country feels familiar to me. The differences, however, are as numerous as the similarities, and not just because of the obvious reason that this is an African country. It is culturally, linguistically, and socially complex in ways that America is not. However unfinished the process of reconciliation and truth telling may be, South Africa has engaged in a dialogue about the past that America has failed to do in the same way. Imagining an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate racial atrocities, the legacies of slavery, and the much longer and profoundly unexamined treatment of American Indians, is all but impossible because those invested in maintaining the status quo, in not unearthing the truth of America’s past, are, I fear, far too powerful. TM: At one point Clare announces to Sam in a letter: “You see how unreliable I am.” Sam is also an unreliable narrator -- in one scene he realizes the life-story he is presenting to his wife, Sarah, is based on events and experiences from Clare’s books. Even maps are described as “a tracery of lies.” Was it your intention to disorient your readers and have us constantly uncertain of which characters to trust? PF: The point was not to disorient readers, although I acknowledge that the initial reading experience may sometimes be one of disorientation, at least in part. Rather, the characters’ so-called unreliability (perhaps it would be better to speak of the mutability of truth in the novel), functions as a formal manifestation of the ways in which trauma produces multiple narratives, or multiple truths. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to provide a forum for different forms of truth (“factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or ‘dialogue’ truth...and healing and restorative truth”), acknowledging the ways in which such ostensibly competing truths may coexist. I hope that, to some extent, Absolution suggests the ways in which there can be, particularly in the case of a traumatic event, a multiplicity of possible truths. One of the signal traumatic events from Sam’s past is the death of his uncle, and Sam’s negotiation of that memory produces more than one version: the memory is fractured, fragmented, shifting, entirely unstable, as if viewed through a prism. In the case of Clare, her manipulation of the narrative of her own life, and those she loved, serves a different purpose: it represents a struggle to negotiate the boundary between her public and private selves, to protect and defend those territories she regards as beyond the reach of public interest. Her intention, certainly, is to disorient Sam, the man she has, ironically, appointed to write her life, to keep him on shifting ground, as much as his mode of questioning her has a similar intent. TM: Absolution is immensely intricate and must have required the tightest plotting -- so much so that you can’t possibly be a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go-along writer. How much of it all did you plan in advance? PF: I planned almost nothing at first, and that is, perhaps, why it took me six years to finish. As I approached the final drafts of the book, I did begin to have a clearer sense of where it was going, but I did not know how it would end until I wrote the final sentence. For my second novel, however, I have worked from an outline. While it provided a loose structure that I ultimately revised, reworked, and then abandoned, having that map helped to focus the work, allowing me to write a complete draft in 10 months. It was certainly a much more efficient and less frustrating way to work. TM: How and when do you write? Do you set yourself a daily word-count target? And how difficult is the creative process? PF: After years believing that writing was about waiting for inspiration to strike, I realized I would never finish a book on such terms. Now I try to be at work by nine each weekday morning, work until noon, take an hour’s walk, eat lunch, return to work for the afternoon. It is, in this sense, a 9-5 job that sometimes intrudes into the evening and weekends. I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words each day, although with the second novel that rose to 2,500. The initial writing is rarely difficult: the tap flows freely. The challenge is regulating the temperature, the force, and finding ways of containing and shaping what emerges. TM: Clare states that biography is “cannibalism and vampirism.” Many a debut novel draws heavily on the author’s life to date. How much of yourself did you cannibalize for the novel? PF: Everything and nothing. TM: You have one great novel under your belt. What are you working on now? PF: I’m in the midst of revisions on the second novel, which will be finished in the next few months. Although set in contemporary suburban America, it shares some preoccupations with Absolution. Themes of dispossession, of inheritance, and of the vulnerability of domestic space are again present, although explored in quite different terms. It is very much a novel of and about the uncanny, the unhomely home, surveillance, and the complications, costs, and elusiveness of the American dream.
1. One problem with modern American romance is that very little can prevent two Americans who love each other from getting married. (So long as they don’t share a combination of sex chromosomes, and it’s fair to say the tide is turning on that one.) This freedom -- relatively unheard of in human history -- is perhaps why we have more romantic comedies these days than romantic epics. It’s a limitation dictated by the times. Any story where two heterosexual Americans face any serious obstacle on the path to marriage is going to strain credulity or just plain bug people. While I’ve seen neither Valentine’s Day nor New Year’s Eve — and at the risk of being factually incorrect -- I simply can’t imagine those kinds of movies trade in a currency of love problems whose snags aren’t pretty easily untangled. Such stories, as a classical matter, deal, rather, in misunderstandings, missed signals, crossed signals, and bunglings of translation from one heart to another. They’re nice and all, but does anyone out there get hit where it really hurts when they see or read a romantic comedy? There’s something better, obviously, a more heightened version of the old Boy Meets Girl, Loses Girl formula. I’m talking about the previously mentioned romantic epic, and I’m talking about this because I’ve had a running conversation with my dear wife over the last few years about just what makes a romantic epic epic. This conversation hit a high point recently, as we’re finishing Gone with the Wind, a book I’ve been reading to her since last June. Somewhere out there, you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a Gone with the Wind fanatic!” Look -- I don’t want to insult you, but if you’re a harder-core fan of Gone with the Wind than my wife, I’ll wear a red dress and dance the Macarena on the courthouse lawn. They just don’t make Gonezos (©) any bigger than my spouse. You cannot physically restrain her from paroxysms of joy when the damn thing’s on. She quotes from the film’s dialogue the way 2003-04 circa college guys spat lines from Old School. We’ve never been to the “Road to Tara Museum,” but it is strictly a matter of time. She’s not alone, obviously. Gone with the Wind inspires mad devotion, in part, I think, because it works as both a romantic epic, and a tale of female empowerment. One reason for the story’s universal appeal, in fact, might lie in how neatly it nails a tricky middle ground between the Left and Right on issues of feminism. Scarlett is a thousand percent devoted to women’s rights -- except really in any plural or political sense: Scarlett wants freedom for herself; she’s only truly interested in economic freedom; and could frankly give a damn about the rights of other women, or political liberty, voting, etc. She understands — with a clearsightedness that would be cynical if it weren’t so simply observant — that having money means you don’t really need to vote. For instance, late in the novel, she and Rhett entertain Georgia’s Scallywag Republican Governor at their tacky new McMansion, and even though Scarlett bears a real grudge against the Gov and all his Yankee ilk, she butters them up nonetheless, the better to use them for her own purposes. In this sense, Scarlett is both a proto-feminist hero, and an almost Ayn Rand-y paragon of self-advancement. Not only does she tickle the imaginations of liberals and libertarians, but her canny progress from marriage to marriage takes place entirely within the boundaries of so-called “traditional” womanhood -- something I’d bet more than a few Schlafly-types have found validating. Even Scarlett’s devoted anti-intellectualism works to her advantage. You will not find a character in American fiction more rigorous in her disdain for abstract or philosophical topics (except as they give pasty old Ashley Wilkes something to be amazing at). Scarlett is interested in nice things, food, money, property, and getting what she wants -- nothing else. The key feature of her character is therefore a sort of materialistic pragmatism -- and since every branch of American politics considers itself “the practical one,” Scarlett occupies prime real estate to be adored by all sides. All that being said, and just as ludicrously fantastic a character as Scarlett O’Hara is (the highest compliment you can pay a fictional character is Odyssean, and boy oh boy, is Scarlett Odyssean), none of this would register if Scarlett weren’t given an appropriately larger than life backdrop against which her labors could unfold. The Civil War? Check. Gone with the Wind also wouldn’t work, though, unless there were real problems for the story’s centerpiece romance. Something has to impair the parties’ full consummation in order for the love story to qualify as epic. The more grand the obstacle, the more epic the romance. A quick survey of romantic epics bears this out. War, of course, is about the grandest and most epic obstacle a love affair could ever trip over. (See The English Patient). Class distinctions also place high on the list. (Likewise Atonement). Tragic events (cue flute from “My Heart Will Go On”) are obviously another. In my opinion, the most epic American romance of the past ten years was a little flick called Brokeback Mountain (based on the short story from Annie Proulx’s “Close Range,” whose lingering after-effects are a version of the same gut-gnawing pity induced by the movie). Brokeback Mountain is a romantic epic for the same reason only same-sex couples are really good candidates to have epically problematic love stories, at least in modern America: the problem for that story’s couple is pretty damn intractable, given their time. In fact, Brokeback Mountain has a harder edge than other classic romances, because the characters aren’t simply kept apart by grand circumstance, but by a threat of doom. Some band of redneck vigilantes would definitely have murdered Jack and Ennis if they’d ever tried to live together happily. The fact that death was a strong possible outcome -- because of their love, and not incidental to it -- puts that story on a high plane, stakes-wise. Of course, Scarlett and Rhett face nothing like that. In fact, the inductions drawn from this drive-by survey point to a troubling conclusion for Gone with the Wind’s “epic” status. Scarlett and Rhett aren’t really kept apart by the Civil War. Rhett’s such a dastard that he sits most of the conflict out, right there in Atlanta, with Scarlett and the other ladies, speculating in foodstuffs and running off to England every now and then. Scarlett is in mourning, of course (her first husband died almost immediately after the War broke out), so preemptive norms of seemliness might interrupt the pair’s march to happiness -- but Scarlett didn’t even like Rhett at that point, and all Rhett was interested in (I don’t think this scandalous wrinkle is mentioned in the movie) is having Scarlett be his mistress, his (goddammit, but it fits) “no strings attached,” “friend with benefits.” Rhett does eventually run off to fight, in the last days of the Confederacy, and by the time he and Scarlett cross paths again, Scarlett’s desperate for cash to save Tara, and throws herself into Rhett’s arms, an offering of virtue given in sacrifice for the survival of Tara. Rhett sees right through this (with help from Scarlett’s grubby little turnip paws, of course), and flat, dropkick rejects her, sending her right into the arms of old Frank Kennedy. Once Frank dies, Rhett swoops in and proposes marriage, knowing he can’t wait forever to catch Scarlett between husbands. They marry, seem fond of each other, until Rhett figures out Scarlett is never going to get over that God damned Ashley Wilkes, and it’s “Adios amiga.” Microphone drop. I don’t give no damn. But take a closer look: What does this story lack that other romantic epics have? Are Rhett and Scarlett kept apart by war? Class distinction? Tragedy? Disease? Threat of destruction? Nope. They get together because they can, and they break up because one gets pissed at the other. A less grand set of circumstances could not be found. This is not epic -- this is mundane. 2. At this point I’m in deep trouble. If the takeaway from this essay is that Gone with the Wind lacks the status of an epic romance -- that it is, in fact, nothing but a love story with two rather bratty protagonists -- my wife is not going to be happy with me. Fortunately, the genuine size of Gone with the Wind, the sheer land area it occupies in the American imagination, offers enough glitz and orchestra to rocket even the flimsiest of romances up to orbital heights. Whether we’re talking about the novel or the movie, this story is celebrated. The film is such a gigantic deal that it’s easy to forget how enormous a deal the novel was: It won the Pulitzer Prize, captivated the nation, is apparently (if you believe Pat Conroy’s introduction to my copy) given a Biblical place of honor on many a Southern coffee table, and had its movie rights sold off for the unheard of at the time sum of $50,000. At any serious gathering of top shelf American cinema, Gone with the Wind would be at the Kane, Casablanca, Godfather table. Even as non-pop-culture-obsessed a writer as Flannery O’Connor has a story (one of her weirder ones (and that’s saying something)) that involves the famous Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which in classic Flannerian style makes us feel both sorry for and annoyed by a cranky genteel Southern White who thinks too highly of himself, in this case because they gussied him up for the movie premiere in a Confederate military costume, which now that he’s way older thinks is actually his original battle uniform and so insists on wearing to special occasions. Think about that. Gone with the Wind is such a huge deal, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story that hinged on its status in the texture of Southern life. Flannery O’Connor. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. Which is all to say, something is epic about this story. Can it be an epic because it makes us feel epic? A horror story scares us, a comedy makes us laugh, a tragedy makes us cry -- I suppose a romance makes us feel, uh, twitterpated -- is that, then, the real mark of genre? Not some academic’s induction based on a leisurely survey of the available material, but the specific kind of blast the story delivers, the special effects it drives into the hearts and guts of readers? If that’s the case, then I think I’m sitting pretty with my wife. Because Gone with the Wind has got the chops in spite of the fact that the love problem at its center is not only mundane, but teenagerly so. Rhett really does love Scarlett, but has to act like he doesn’t, to protect his feelings, because he knows Scarlett never got over Ashley being the one man she couldn’t have. Drop that love triangle right into a CW plotline and nobody’s going to raise an eyebrow. In other words, Gone with the Wind surpasses the un-epicness of its romance, and makes us feel romantically epic all the same. This is a serious accomplishment. I wish I could explain how it’s done. Of course, part of it is the historical backdrop, but I think a more important factor is just the expansiveness of the couple, particularly Scarlett (though Rhett’s a pretty insanely intriguing character, too -- I’ve heard rumors he was based on Sam Houston -- go read about that crazy bastard some time). But maybe it’s epic because it’s just so successful as a story. I think we need to feel that a story is about everything in order to let it in, let it move us. That’s the mark, I think, of the true masterpiece, and if anything could coherently separate “literature” from “fiction,” that’d be it. It’s a pretty simple standard, actually — all any story has to do is just show us the meaning of life. Gone with the Wind qualifies. Something in Scarlett’s practicality, something in her determination, something in her hunger (I don’t mean the turnip-eschewing kind, I mean the way Scarlett from the very first scene is driven by this crazy, all-consuming, no-boundaries-recognizing hunger for everything, the way she just wants it all) -- there’s something brutal and fine to that. In her strange optimism, too, the way she pushes everything unpleasant from her thoughts, so that faced with the collapse of her third marriage, she is almost transported, idiotic, almost insensate, in her belief that she can fix it all, have it all, that she can get Rhett back -- which of course wouldn’t mean that she’d have to give up on Ashley, too — and, most impressively, in her faith that tomorrow holds all the space you’ll ever need to get what you want, and keep it. This is one of the strange centers of the world, a vein of pure human talent, unearthed and irrefutable, mysterious, friendly, beckoning, and fully beyond us.
In August, I went to my local bookstore and asked one of the owners, Land Arnold, to recommend a book. I said I was traveling for the next two weeks and needed something to sustain me. He pulled down Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the 25th anniversary edition from Simon & Schuster. “It’s got everything,” Land said. “It’s a love story. It’s a Western. It’s an adventure. You’ll love it.” Off the bat I liked the cover. I often buy books based on covers. It didn’t even mention winning the Pulitzer Prize. The edition was a large paperback, 858 pages. On the front was a prairie under a sunset of reddish pumpernickel, with stars embedded in the cover, little dots of embossed reflective silver. On the back was a picture of Larry McMurtry looking like Carl Sagan, Texas Ranger. I thought, Now that is an author. You know how wine critics say a certain bottle has good mouth feel -- literally causes pleasure the way it rolls on the tongue and coats your cheeks? Well, Larry McMurtry felt good on the back cover of that book. It felt good in my hand. Hefty. The paper stock was uncoated, pebbly like an expensive handbag; it suggested it would improve with age and use. In the business, I believe this is called feltweave. I bought the book, broke the spine at the register, and smelled it -- nothing in the world smells like that. Makes you want to say with sincerity, Golly. Reminds you that the pleasures of reading are bigger than reading. There’s smell and touch. Note-taking and page-tearing. Most importantly, what the book does to your insides. Let’s just say it: Reading a novel should not be an accomplishment unless you’re illiterate. But we all have other options these days for entertainment. Reading for many -- most, I bet -- is something more often felt by its absence than presence in daily life. In any case, I didn’t take to Lonesome Dove straight away. It put me to bed: I started it on a flight from RDU to Philadelphia International and fell asleep. But I could fall asleep to fireworks; it doesn’t say much. And I don’t mind a novel that’s slow to start -- though I hate them when they die in the middle. I chuck them into the garbage -- and that feels great. Maybe I take books too personally, but isn’t that the point? When your intimate trust is betrayed, isn’t that the moment when we’ve all agreed it’s OK to throw things? Anyway, my Philly connection to New Hampshire went to hell, so for the next 11 hours I ran back and forth to the ticket counter, trying to get on a flight. It was not ideal reading time. Though I did manage to squeeze in a George R. R. Martin book -- good dwarf scenes is about all I remember -- two meals and five Bud Lights, until finally I got a seat on the one plane that departed that day for Manchester, opened Lonesome Dove, and fell asleep. That quickly changed. For the next two weeks, I only allowed myself an hour a day with Lonesome Dove, to prolong the satisfaction of reading it. The novel is excellent, sustained with constant style, and its dramatic excellence increases, withholding and rewarding, as the cowboys move their cattle north. Even the ending fits together. One night I slept with it under my pillow. I scratched up the margins and read bits aloud. It’s not incredibly deep. But it’s deep enough. And I couldn’t remember the last time I was similarly floored by a long, dramatic, entertaining literary novel. It had been a while . The ones that come to mind from the past decade are Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay; Ian McEwan’s Atonement; Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai...and that’s about it. Most days I prefer novels that are compact, smart, and acidic -- Falconer; House of Meetings; One D.O.A., One on the Way -- all the children of Bovary. But no entertainment for me is more rewarding than a great big book. Just imagine if Penelope Fitzgerald had written a 900-pager. Earlier this year, a book publicist confessed to me while giggling behind her hand, “You know what, I do all of my book shopping on Amazon, isn’t that terrible?” At the time, I didn’t say anything, but, Yes. It is terrible. Amazon’s perks are many, its prices hard to beat, and the Kindle is a great way to sample the latest Michael Connelly. But no human being is going to materialize through your laptop and hand you a book that’s been thoughtfully selected to rock your boat. I loved Lonesome Dove. I look forward to reading it again. Thank you, Land.  For big hoary beasts of recent social realism, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson were all great in my book, but they weren’t exactly Great Expectations-level entertainment. 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Were I to claim that Jean-Philippe Toussaint shared a certain amount of common ground with Ian McEwan, I might be in danger of coming off as flippant or, worse, willfully obtuse. Toussaint, after all, is a Belgian avant-garde novelist known for his radically plotless books that seem intent on revealing as little as possible about their protagonists. McEwan is a purveyor of skillfully propulsive novels about upper-middle class English people, who has -- fairly or unfairly -- become synonymous with upper-middlebrow literary fiction. Toussaint is an exemplar to those of us who want to see the novel being taken to places it has not yet been. Ian McEwan is a writer whose books David Cameron has used for PR purposes (he once arranged to have himself photographed on a suspiciously empty tube between Epping and Charing Cross, cross-legged and suavely engrossed in On Chesil Beach). It’s the kind of comparison that could easily be mistaken for an attention-grabbing stunt. But I’m going to make it anyway -- in good faith, I assure you -- because it’s one that kept occurring to me as I read Toussaint’s brilliant and compelling The Truth About Marie, the latest of his novels to be translated into English. I don’t mean to imply that Toussaint is really an upper-middlebrow novelist masquerading as an avant-gardist (he’s definitely not), or that he shares a sensibility or a set of artistic objectives with McEwan. They present the reader with very different kinds of experience, and demand very different intensities of reading. But they are each in possession of a rare and remarkable gift for creating stunning standalone scenes that involve the steep deceleration of narrative time. McEwan’s long and absorbing set-pieces -- Enduring Love's hot air balloon disaster, the battle scene in Atonement, the disappearance of the child in the opening pages of The Child in Time -- are, famously, the best thing about his books. The truth about The Truth About Marie is that it is essentially one set-piece after another. It’s divided into three distinct parts. The first details the events of a single night, during which Jean Christophe de G., the wealthy lover of Marie (the ex-girlfriend of the unnamed narrator) suffers a massive heart attack in her apartment and dies on the spot. In her state of panic, she phones the narrator, who leaves his flat just half a mile away (where he has been making love to another woman, also named Marie) and walks through a Parisian downpour to be with her in the apartment they used to share. The second part jolts us back to the beginning of Marie and Jean-Christophe’s affair. It’s this section that really showcases Toussaint’s spooky powers of chronological manipulation, his idly urgent exploration of the vast spaces of a single moment. In a sequence that accounts for almost half the length of this short novel, the narrator (who offers us no plausible assurance of the reliability of his testimony) comprehensively details an occurrence at which he himself was not present: the transportation via cargo plane of a racehorse, owned by Jean-Christophe, from Tokyo to Paris. In the third part, Marie invites the narrator to come and stay with her in Elba at the home of her recently deceased father, and a forest fire breaks out that threatens to consume them. The novel, in other words, is three show-stopping climaxes specifically not in search of a plot. It’s as though the best, most audacious bits of McEwan’s books had been extracted from the stories of which they serve as centerpieces, in order to be fastened loosely together into some wholly strange and original (nouveau) nouveau romanesque construction. The Truth About Marie reveals its author’s perennial obsession with the tensions between motion and stasis, which is, as always, nested within a larger concern with the inescapable progression of all bodies towards immobility, and all lives towards death. (Even in the earlier, more whimsically comic works like The Bathroom and Camera with which Toussaint made his name in the 1980s, there is always this slow, quietly horrified circling of the abyss of mortality.) When the paramedics arrive and attempt to resuscitate Jean-Christophe de G. with a defibrillator -- to reverse, as it were, his body’s progression from movement to stillness -- Marie observes the failure of this attempt, and her lover’s lifeless body is suddenly revealed to her, laid bare in the fullest sense of the term: Falling back onto the floor, the body lay motionless, and Marie understood then that Jean-Christophe de G.’s heart had stopped beating. Marie approached the paramedics and looked down at the stripped body, its face hidden by the oxygen mask, its white inanimate flesh dotted with electrodes, skin like a fish, cod or flounder, and Marie couldn’t help thinking that it was this same motionless body that she’d held in this room less than an hour earlier in that very spot, this body stripped naked and dispossessed, objectified by a whole array of medical apparatuses, shaved, hooked to an IV and ventilator -- this body reduced to its bare substance, bearing no sign of Jean-Christophe de G.’s personality. She realized then that up until this moment she hadn’t really looked at his body, not once throughout the whole night, not even while making love had she taken an interest in his body, she’d hardly even touched it, hadn’t paid it the least attention, being concerned as she always was with her own body alone, caring only for her own pleasure. The word that keeps impressing itself upon the reader here is “body.” It appears eight times in three sentences. The passage is a kind of narrative still life, in which the facticity of death, the pallid truth of what we are, is stared down. Marie is apprehending this man as though for the first time here, really seeing the condition of his existence at the precise moment at which that existence has ceased. What she is looking at, in other words, is a thing -- a thing that, without her ever beginning to appreciate it, has always been a thing -- a body revealed and “objectified” by the epiphenomena and appurtenances of sudden death. Here and elsewhere, Toussaint’s beautifully ruthless descriptions reveal the seemingly paradoxical way in which a death at once conceals and lays bare what a person, every person, actually is. As the narrator reaches Marie’s apartment, he passes the paramedics as they carry Jean-Christophe’s body to the ambulance, and he does not know who or what he is seeing on the stretcher. All he knows is that he has been summoned by a panicked Marie, and that now he is seeing a body being removed from her building -- a body which, for all he knows, could well be hers. He then observes some visual details that reveal the form as that of a man. “I gleaned nothing,” he tells us, “but isolated details, focused, removed from their context, caught only in passing, his socks, dark, imposing, as if this man would henceforth be reduced to these, his wrist, horrid, to which the IV was attached, a livid wrist, yellow-hued, cadaverous, his face pale, on which I focused closely, scrutinizing its features to see who this was, but in vain, his face, completely covered by the oxygen mask, was perfectly invisible.” Jean-Christophe de G. is depersonalized in death, “reduced” to an anonymous aggregation of parts. Most novelists would use this as a starting point for an attempt at reintegration, for a narrative that might endeavor to give this man back the identity taken from him by death. But Toussaint’s narrator makes no such effort, and Jean-Christophe remains a more or less wholly concealed figure (as does the narrator himself, and as does Marie). In fact, he casually informs us at the very beginning of Part II that Jean-Christophe de G.’s real name was actually “Jean-Baptise de Ganay” -- a fact gleaned from his obituary in Le Monde -- and then reverts anyway, for the remainder of the novel, to calling him Jean-Christophe. There’s something savagely vindictive about this insistence on ignoring the facts of the man’s life. He is denying Jean-Baptiste his real name, using the privileges of narratorship to punish him for his affair with Marie. There’s a lesson in this that might be too awful for us to want to learn, which is that death takes from us not just our lives, but also our right to insist upon a particular version of those lives. What we think of as “our” truths, in other words, are just as provisional and corruptible as what we think of as “our” bodies. There’s a suspect and slightly creepy moment not much later when the narrator admits that he may have been wrong in many of his assumptions about Jean-Christophe -- or “Jean-Christophe” -- but insists that he is on much surer ground when it comes to Marie. “I knew Marie’s every move,” he assures us, “I knew how she would have reacted in every circumstance, I knew her instinctively, my knowledge of her was innate, natural, I possessed absolute intelligence regarding the details of her life: I knew the truth about Marie.” As is so often the case with such excessive insistences, this draws attention to precisely the kind of uncertainty it attempts to conceal. The narrator does not, cannot, know “the truth” about Marie. Either there is a truth, and he doesn’t know it -- because he wasn’t there -- or (more likely) there is nothing like a truth to “know” about a person in the first place, let alone a person who isn’t oneself. So the substance of the novel is, necessarily, an indulgence of the narrator’s imagination, as he creates a vivid version of what happened before and after Jean-Christophe’s death. The Japanese section, about the transportation of the racehorse, is by far the most impressive of these. (It takes place, incidentally, just after the events described in Toussaint’s earlier novel Making Love, in which Marie, who is a successful fashion designer, brings the narrator with her on a business trip to Tokyo so that they can take some time out to concentrate on breaking up properly). It focuses much more intently on the horse than on the two human characters. There’s a long, nightmarish sequence in which Marie and Jean-Christophe remain in the hold of the cargo plane with the petrified animal, trapped in a metal container inside a winged metal tube hurtling through a turbulent night sky. The fact that the horse’s name is Zahir is a clue to the position he occupies in the narrator’s mind (Borges’s story “The Zahir,” which is about an object that completely and exclusively occupies the waking and sleeping consciousness of anyone who beholds it, is referenced as the source of his name). This animal, whose raison d’etre is speed, is being kept completely immobile inside a machine that is moving at incomprehensible speed toward a destination that is, to him, likewise incomprehensible. The scene, which seems to illuminate and magnify our powerlessness to escape the trajectory of time and the destination of death, produces in the reader a kind of base animal unease. At one point, the narrator happens across Marie and Jean-Christophe at a racecourse in Tokyo, and he observes them without their noticing him. It is not long after he himself has broken up with Marie. “I looked at Marie,” he says, “and it was clear to me then that I was no longer there, that I wasn’t the one with her anymore, this man’s presence revealed nothing if not the reality of my absence. I had before my eyes the striking revelation of my own absence.” This, in fact, is one of the few moments up to that point at which the narrator is actually present for the scene he describes. It becomes a sort of premonitory glimpse at the reality of his own death, and it illuminates the paradoxical way in which his absence has all along been the most overbearing presence in the novel. This is the way Toussaint’s writing achieves its revelations: at first slowly and imperceptibly, and then suddenly and blindingly. It’s a beautiful moment in a strange and unsettling novel that upholds its author’s status as one of the most exciting figures in contemporary fiction. Bonus Link: Darts and Philosophy, Bowling and Metaphysics: A Primer on the Novels of Jean-Philippe Toussaint
I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history -- it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous -- even pointless -- if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time. Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four -- the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell -- and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite. But The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me -- or, at least, someone with my proclivities -- with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction -- in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?) The book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”) The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic. The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive -- and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age -- come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day. At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking: She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she'd read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art -- she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent's Park, rain in the streets outside -- a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years. A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past. A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”? We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, P 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Interview with Tom McCarthy, author and General Secretary, INS Conducted by: Anne K. Yoder Venue: [redacted] Date: 16/09/10 Present: Anne K. Yoder, Tom McCarthy When I first received news that INS General Secretary Tom McCarthy would visit the City of New York during a promotional book tour this September, I inquired via the Secretary’s secretary whether he would be available for interviews. The response was delayed, and inconclusive. The return email landed in my spam box where it sat unnoticed for days. The message indicated only that McCarthy would appear alongside Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley in Brooklyn and respond to a panel of New York intellectuals’ inquiries about the recent activities of the International Necronautical Society, specifically the recent publication of the General Secretary’s third novel, C. Two days before McCarthy’s arrival I received a text message indicating my request had been accepted. I was told to go to the coordinates 40° 77' N , 73° 98' W, which I deduced to be the southwest corner of Central Park. I would be met at 23:00 GMT on the day following the hearing. The sole stipulations were to not use any electronic recording devices and to wear une jarretière, please. The first request seemed finicky, the second slightly inappropriate. I thought perhaps this was a prank, and wondered whether my email had been intercepted, if someone on the other end had mistaken my number for a high-end call girl. There was no mention of names, although when I called the sender’s number I heard a raspy recording announcing I had reached the voicemail of the offices of the INS. The weather was stormy that Thursday evening. An unlikely tornado ripped through Brooklyn immediately before my departure, forcing me to dodge cascades of fallen tree limbs in my heels. This arboreal carnage seemed fitting, however, prior to a meeting with a man who teaches a class on Catastrophe, and who founded the International Necronautical Society, whose mission is to “map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” the space of death. The sky began to clear by the time I entered the park. Shortly after I sat down on a bench, a man wearing tinted glasses and suit with a piece in his ear tapped me on the shoulder. “Follow me” he requested. He led me to a building and we ascended the express elevator 70-odd floors to a tower suite. “Make yourself comfortable,” he directed, then poured me a glass of champagne and closed the door as he exited. McCarthy entered the room from the shadows of a dark hall, wearing a black shirt and pinstriped jacket, which he removed and laid across the settee. He greeted me, poured a drink for himself. Our conversation commenced. McCarthy permitted my request to jot down thoughts and fragments of our exchanges by typing while we spoke. What follows is a live blog of our exchange, but with a delayed transmission, at the bequest of the authorities at the INS. McCarthy and I sit before a window with a southeastern view. Central Park looks the size of a soccer field, and the buildings below form a Legoland of urban sprawl. I ask McCarthy if he witnessed the afternoon storm approaching from above, as he has written that he often storm watches from his residence on the 12th floor of a central London flat. The height in conjunction with technology allows him to forecast the weather’s effects on events below: When storm clouds groan and rumble people scour the sky for aeroplanes flying too low. I track them from my windows, waiting for the day when one of them will hurtle like a meteor into the Telecom Tower, painting the sky a new blood-orange. McCarthy says no, that he was harried doing publicity in the world below. I say the advanced warning would be useful, and mention that in addition to storms sounding like low-flying airplanes, the sound of a tornado is often likened to the rumble of a passing train. This height from above makes me think of Serge Carrefax, aerial observer in the First World War and protagonist of McCarthy’s novel C. I think of Serge’s aerial perspective on his missions, how he fires his gun in rhythms and cadences, six short bursts followed by eight longer ones to which he repeats the phrase “of the purpose that your thought / Might also to the seas be known…” The fallen landscape prints itself on Serge’s mind by dint of his repeated passage over it: its flattened progression of greens, browns and yellows, patches of light and shade; the layout of the town and of the marsh beyond it… He likes to move these things around from his nacelle, take them apart and reassemble them like pieces of a jigsaw. I inquire about the INS’s aerial reconnaissance missions in Berlin, where “target sites were identified according to the INS’s central concerns: marking and erasure, transit and transmission, cryptography and death.” I ask if a similar mission will be carried out in New York. McCarthy replies that no such project has been planned, the no-fly zone would make this task prohibitively difficult. I suggest attempting aerial photography from the roofs of buildings, such as the one we’re in. From aerial photography, we segue to maps. McCarthy directs me to a conversation recorded in Bookforum in which he discussed cartography and mapping physical boundaries, transforming the material into the abstract. I am intrigued. McCarthy summarizes: “What most resists dominant mappings is not alternative mapping but rather the territory itself, its sheer materiality.” McCarthy refers me also to the writings of French poet Francis Ponge, whose writings struggle with depicting the material with language. A low electric hum begins and grows louder. The vibration permeates the walls, the windows, our bodies. We see a helicopter pass by not far in the distance and watch as it descends to a helipad below. McCarthy quotes F. T. Marinetti, father of Futurism: Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming central electric station that holds the hydraulic pressure of a mountain chain and the electric power of a vast horizon, synthesised in marble distribution panels bristling with dials, keyboards and shining communicators. I bring up a lecture McCarthy gave last year at the Tate entitled, “These panels are the only models for our composition of poetry, or, How Marinetti taught me how to write.” In the lecture, McCarthy refers to an electric form of writing presaged by Marinetti, though only realized fifty years later in the books of Ballard, Pynchon, and Robbe-Grillet. McCarthy said: Electricity, the medium of circuits, grids, and loops. It’s a conception of writing, a brilliant one, that’s only possible when it goes hand in hand with a conviction that the self too is relayed, switched, stored, and converted, distributed along the circuitry and grids of networks that both generate it and exceed it. I say that this reminds me of the ever-elusive V., the transforming, chameleon-like coquette of Pynchon’s novel of the same name, sought after by one Herbert Stencil. It’s no coincidence, then, that McCarthy’s novel is named C? C stands for any and all of the following: carbon, cysteine, cyanide, cocaine, chute, call, caul (present on Serge’s head at birth), crash, Cairo, Carrefax, and Carter and Carnarvon--discoverers of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb. C depicts an awe and awfulness that mirrors our own technological age. The book issues a noetic hum, akin to that of electric transmissions, the roar of airplane engines, the crackle of gunfire. I tell McCarthy of riding a crowded train nights before, where I noticed the people pushing arms and knees into me were plugged into technological devices. I ask about Serge’s drug-addled car crash, if that was meant to allude to Marinetti’s "Futurist Manifesto": O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black beast of my Sudanese nurse... When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart! McCarthy merely nods, as if this allusion is so obvious it need not be stated. C’s idyllic beginning cedes to chemicals, gunfire, speed. My cell phone vibrates three times. Again, a message from the INS number: “Inauthenticity is the core to the self ... the self has no core, but is an experience of division, of splitting.” I ask McCarthy what this means. He denies any knowledge--misdialed maybe? I ask about the influence of J. G. Ballard’s Crash? To quote McCarthy: Crash is awash with semen: dried on leather car-seats, glistening on instrument panels. Vaughan’s semen, for Ballard, seems to bathe the entire landscape, "powering those thousands of engines, electric circuits and private destinies, irrigating the smallest gesture of our lives"... He mentions the passage where Serge is working as an aerial observer and first snorts cocaine, the exhilaration he experiences, the hours that pass seemingly in minutes, and how he can barely contain himself after landing as he ejaculates over the plane’s tale. The erotic and destructive forces intermingle. There are the ravaging effects of gravity, force, and speed on the youthful bodies, “Their faces turn to leather--thick, nickwax-smeared leather each of whose pores stands out like a pothole in a rock surface--and grow deep furrows. Eyelids twitch; lips tremble and convulse in nervous spasms.” They stumble from landed planes with “sucked-in cheeks and swollen tongues.” McCarthy says it may be more appropriate, and comfortable, to discuss such things while sitting on the bed. He refills our glasses and we kick off our shoes. My leg twitches inadvertently, like a cat's. He brings up Bataille, the connection between eros and death, and quotes, “Man achieves his inner experience at the instant when bursting out of the chrysalis he feels that he is tearing himself, not tearing something outside that resists him.” I mention Rilke, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure.” Another series of vibrations. I look at my phone: “We exist because we are awash in a sea of transmission, with language and technology washing through us.” I begin to wonder if this is part of an elaborate set-up. I mention how the connection parallels something else McCarthy said during his Tate lecture: "Literature begins where identity and knowledge are ruptured, multiplied and transmitted along chains of language,” and transformed into something else. Isn’t that like sex with Tania, Serge’s masseuse?-- “the tearing sound as though fabric were being ripped,” the hazy veil removed from his vision. What of Serge’s preoccupation with animal sounds, and getting it on from behind?” McCarthy looks at me with rabid eyes and speaks of Bataille, the death of self in copulation, how a sensible woman in the throes of passion would appear to an unknowing bystander like a mad dog, like a bitch in heat. Of course there is Freud's famous case of Sergei Pankajev, the Wolf Man, who witnessed his parents having sex doggy-style. Serge is an animal as all humans are, and his transgressions erotic. McCarthy asks if I’ve read Story of The Eye. I say I tried once with a boyfriend to reenact the scene of Simone breaking eggs. I unfortunately contracted salmonella vaginally. McCarthy runs his hand up my leg, admiring my stockings. McCarthy’s phone buzzes. He says we’re running low on time. I ask about Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review, which compared his book to Ian McEwan’s Atonement : But C neither addresses larger questions about love and innocence and evil, nor unfolds into a searching examination of the consequences of art. Worse, C fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text. McCarthy smiles. He speaks of society's expectations that literature act as a mirror to liberal culture, where the self is never in question. He has “no qualms about deploying a type of realism as one of the frames in C” because “Everything is a code.” He speaks against sentimentality of characters, fleshed out rather than, what Serge has been called--flat. I ask, Franzen? What are his thoughts then on Freedom? McCarthy graciously declines to comment. I tell him I heard a rumor he called Atonement kitsch at the INS hearing last night. He says, “Oh that Lorentzen!” Accuses him of putting words in his mouth. Well, then, one last question: what of your popularity? McCarthy purged multiple members of the INS for caving to demands of mainstream publishing, i.e., becoming “complicit with a publishing industry whereby the 'writer' becomes merely the executor of a brief dictated by corporate market research, reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics ('issues' of 'contemporary culture', 'post-colonial identity' etc.) under the guise of genuine creative speculation.” Should McCarthy considering expelling himself, now that he’s been nominated for the Booker Prize? Those members were expelled because “they had written what they had been told to write,” he explains, suggesting that he himself has transgressed. He holds little faith in the juries of the large prizes. Though the money--no one will argue--is rather nice. He seems slightly agitated with this mention, gets up off the bed and puts on his jacket. I take this as my cue to put away my laptop and put on my shoes. I leave the suite, gazing out at the vast topography of the city. While waiting for the elevator, my phone hums again, delivering what I interpret as a parting message: “We are all necronauts, always, already.” Addendum: I submitted the above transcript for INS for approval, as requested, the day after the interview. Some quotes of texts and interviews have have been inserted and modified. I quickly received an email response from the Secretary’s secretary, stating that McCarthy had not conducted interviews of this type on the day of the tornado, and at 23:00 GMT, he had given a public reading at a bookstore in SoHo. The request to authenticate the document was denied, and the interview filed as apocrypha.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2009/2010 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are two books climbing the ranks this year. With an impressive showing with the judges, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has become something of an instant classic, landing near the top of the list and in very good company. Meanwhile, the IMPAC shortlist nod puts Marilynn Robinson's Home side-by-side with her much praised Gilead from 2004. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out. The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week. Links in our reader list go to Amazon): Panel Readers 1 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 1 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 2 The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 3 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 3 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 4 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 4 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 5 Pastoralia by George Saunders 5 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 Atonement by Ian McEwan 7 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 7 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon 8 Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson 8 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 9 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro 9 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 10 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 10 White Teeth by Zadie Smith 11 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 11 Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 12 Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg 12 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 13 Mortals by Norman Rush 13 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 14 Atonement by Ian McEwan 14 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 15 Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis 15 Empire Falls by Richard Russo 16 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 16 Runaway by Alice Munro 17 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem 17 The Master by Colm Tóibín 18 Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link 18 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 19 American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman 19 Unaccustomed Earth ** by Jhumpa Lahiri 20 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 20 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade. Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn't a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth). But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows. With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer's novels, David Foster Wallace's Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson's much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today? Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I've been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that's always had a lot of support in the online literary community. Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner. Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed. We'll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.
Months before Ian McEwan's Atonement was published in the U.S., the galley was being passed from bookseller to bookseller at Book Soup, where I worked at the time. My usually jaded coworkers were effusive, and by the time they had passed the book on to me, my interest was piqued. Atonement introduced me to McEwan, one of the leading literary lights of the last 25 years, a prolific and sometimes controversial novelist. It proved to be quite an introduction. Atonement is told in three parts, nestling the mannered charms of an English country house up against an arresting tale of Britain at war, and it has an ending that turns an admittedly accomplished but conventional novel into a gut-punch of a book that toys with the idea of the reliable narrator and gets one thinking about the ethics of story-telling and the power that a writer has to bend history to his will. McEwan was a Booker winner in 1998 for Amsterdam, but it was Atonement that cemented him as that rare thing, the literary superstar. Read an Excerpt from Atonement. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P 4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N 4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon - C, N 4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - B, I 4, 2007, Animal's People by Indra Sinha - B, I 4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N 4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I 4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I 4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C 4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W 4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C 4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C 4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I 4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I 4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P 4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W 4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N 4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P 4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W 4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I 4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W 4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P 4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I 4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W 4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I 4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I 4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W 4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W 4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N 4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I 4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
I'm in the early stages of War and Peace and last night read a battle scene in which the Russian troops are retreating from the advancing French army. The chapter follows Nicholas Rostov, as he and his company try to cross the Danube in time to destroy the bridge behind them. The scene is written with a sort of detached, tableau quality that reminded me a lot of the evacuation of Dunkirk section in Atonement. I went back to McEwan's book to look for passages that compared directly with Tolstoy's writing and found a couple:The crush of men.From War and PeaceThe soldiers, crowded together shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets interlocking, moved over the bridge in a dense mass. Looking down over the rails Prince Nesvitski saw the rapid, noisy little waves of the Enns, which rippling and eddying around the piles of the bridge chased each other along. Looking on the bridge he saw equally uniform living waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and, under the shakos, faces with broad cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and listless tired expressions and feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge.From AtonementThe crowds were bunching up again. In front of the canal bridge was a junction and from the Dunkirk direction, on the road that ran along the canal, came a convoy of three-ton lorries which the military police were trying to direct into a field beyond where the horses were. But troops swarming across the road forced the convoy to a halt. The drivers leaned on their horns and shouted insults. The crowd pressed on. Men tired of waiting scrambled off the backs of the lorries. There was a shout of 'Take cover!'Observing nature in the thick of the retreat.From AtonementAs they came out of the copse they heard bombers, so they went back in and smoked while they waited under the trees. From where they were they could not see the planes, but the view was fine. These were hardly hills that spread so expansively before them. They were ripples in the landscape, faint echoes of vast upheavals elsewhere. Each successive ridge was paler than the one before. He saw a receding wash of gray and blue fading in a haze towards the setting sun.From War and PeaceNicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in mists to their summits.
Last week, The New Yorker ran a profile (subscription required) of Ian McEwan that was scarcely shorter than McEwan's most recent novel, On Chesil Beach. For all its expansiveness, however, the article failed to offer readers the supreme pleasure of McEwan's best fiction: a kind of psychological X-ray. And where writer Daniel Zalewski did manage to see inside McEwan the man, he seemed to discover there - perhaps unwittingly - a certain metaphysico-aesthetic complacency. For example, of John Banville's quite valid complaint about Saturday's "rosy" view of marriage (the wealthy and brilliant protagonist starts his day with wake-up sex), McEwan remarked, "The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife's teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book."A measure of pride may be in order - Atonement sold 2 million copies! Still, self-satisfaction represents one of writing's occupational hazards, in both senses of the phrase. Doubt is for the novelist what faith is for the priest.Anyway, I'm pleased to report that my worries about McEwan were short-lived. His meditation on John Updike in the New York Review of Books shows us an empiricist still capable of wonderment. Better yet, unlike the New Yorker piece, the NYRB essay is free to all online. If time constraints force you to choose between reading Ian McEwan and reading about Ian McEwan... well, you know what to do.
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I've hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year's syllabus. We currently read Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, and Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace ("E Unibus Pluram") to Chuck Klosterman ("The Real World"). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more "critical" eye.So. I'm trying to replace Fortress for this year's class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year's students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven't read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I'm currently considering Bock's Beautiful Children, Ferris' Then We Came To The End, Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers' Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I've tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven't. Of the four you're considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It's told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they're written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It's equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage's DeNiro's Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys - where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage's debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn't say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen's All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus - not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages - oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) - not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into - particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book ("Fame - fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.").Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition - almost zeugma perhaps? - in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political - the sublime and the ridiculous - are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith's desire to sleep with the vice president's daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that "refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order" and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it's an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I'd had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction - Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis' The Thin Place; Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno - may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn't care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two "21st Century" books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders' Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty's The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It's interesting that the students didn't like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven't read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones's two collections - Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children - Jones's stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones's The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying "reveal" at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven't already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
A while back, I put together a post called "The Prizewinners," which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the "best" books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original "Prizewinners" post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
The big news is that Ian McEwen's On Chesil Beach stays alive. I've heard pretty good things about the book, but I'd guess it's not winning. He's already won one for Amsterdam, and Atonement, considered by most to be his best, didn't win in 2001 (True History of the Kelly Gang took it home that year). For the slight On Chesil Beach to win the prize would seem odd. Clearly, I'm not alone in this thinking, as the bookies, who favored McEwen when the longlist was announced, now favor Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts less than a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we'll offer the same with the shortlist below.Darkmans by Nicola BarkerThe Gathering by Anne Enright (excerpt)The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (excerpt)Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (excerpt)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (excerpt)Animal's People by Indra Sinha (excerpt)
I've written in the past about World War II fiction. I especially appreciate how the genre can illuminate elements of the conflict that history books cannot, for want of specificity and seriousness. I had a child's school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan's rich storytelling made me want to learn more.I've since read quite a bit of World War II non-fiction, but I've returned to novels set during the period as well, as they now help flesh out and humanize the history. In Liberation, novelist Joanna Scott takes us to the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, whose inhabitants are caught between the wars great powers. Ostensibly once loyal to Mussolini but then occupied by Germany, Elba is by 1944, as the novel's title suggests, in the midst of a whirlwind liberation by French forces that included an amalgam of colonial outfits, among them a battalion of Senegalese soldiers. Among the Elbans themselves, the chaotic liberation inspires mixed feelings of relief and fear, with the latter being directed toward the African liberators in particular.The story is primarily told in flashback through the eyes of a precocious ten-year-old girl Adriana, who spends the first night of the liberation tucked away in a cabinet, out of sight of any marauding soldiers. Adriana's mother Giulia sums up the turmoil and confusion of occupation and liberation:Elba had been liberated. Grosseto had been liberated. Rome had been liberated. What did any of this mean? Not what she'd said to her daughter -- mai piu, a promise much worse than an outright lie. The Germans were retreating? The occupation was over? What, exactly, had they occupied, besides beds and rooms and lavatories?Into Giulia's home, bucolic even in wartime, wanders a Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, 17, who decidedly lacks the temperament for war and fancies himself blessed, "chosen" by God and able to perform minor miracles if he puts his mind to it. Impressionable young Adriana becomes infatuated with Amdu, by his otherness mostly, and he with her for similar reasons. And though some of his countrymen are rampaging through the countryside, Amdu's intentions remain pure and he resolves to come back and marry Adriana one day. He is a gentle young gentlemen.Of course, not everyone else in Adriana's web of relations and family friends is nearly as enamored of Amdu, and the climate, with bullets and bombs still flying overhead, is one mostly of mistrust. Before long Amdu is cast out.But Liberation isn't a star-crossed love story - and perhaps this is its main shortcoming. Instead it is recalled in a dreamy reverie by a much older Adriana, now living in New York, as she rides the train into the city. These scenes go into fussy detail about Adriana's fellow commuters yank the reader from the Elban recollection in a not entirely pleasant way. Similarly, Mario, Adriana's uncle and the main "villain" of the novel, occasionally assumes the role of narrator and pulls us away from the book's most engaging characters, Adriana and Amdu. Child and childlike, Adriana and Amdu manage to elevate the book, and Scott crafts a delightful ambiguity for the reader to wade through in the pair's few scenes together. In broader strokes, she paints an atmospheric picture of one of the war's minor episodes.
One of my favorite magazines, which I now finally subscribe to thanks to a surplus of frequent flier miles, is The Week. It's done in the "digest" format, taking the week's news, events, and cultural goings on from hundreds of sources - newspapers, magazines, etc. - and distilling it down to about 45 pages. It's a great way to fill in the small gaps left by my other two standbys, the New Yorker and The Economist.One of my favorite features in The Week is called "The Book List," (not available online) in which the magazine asks a notable person to recommend a handful of books. This week's featured recommender was Lionel Shriver, whose new book The Post-Birthday World comes out soon. Her list of six books caught my eye because it includes two of my favorite books, Atonement by Ian McEwan and Paris Trout by Pete Dexter, as well as a book recently read and enjoyed by Mrs. Millions, Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (which I hope to read soon, too). So, naturally, I was curious to see what else Shriver was recommending since our tastes seem to be aligned.As it turns out, rounding out her list are two more books I've wanted to read and a third I've never heard of. The first two are The Age of Innocence and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. The third book - new to me - is As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann.
Since several others have covered the most anticipated books of 2007, I thought I'd fill everybody in on which of their favorite books are going to be ruined by Hollywood in the coming year. Since almost every movie made is based on some previously existing material (can we count Spider Man 3 as an adaptation?), I thought I'd separate the kids movies and the horror/comic adaptations from the "literary" adaptations. Feel free to point out the movies I missed.Kids flicks. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (IMDb) will dominate the box office in July. The latest installment of the juggernaut will feature a script by Michael Goldenberg (who is also penning the adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (IMDb)) and direction by David Yates, who is best known for his HBO movie The Girl in the Cafe. I've never read a Harry Potter book, and I've never seen any of the movies either. It's safe to say the phenomenon has completely passed me by, so I leave it to you to decide whether this movie will be better than the ones that Chris Columbus directed.His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (IMDb), which has been discussed before on this blog, will no doubt own the holiday season. After some turbulence during development and production, the first part of Phillip Pullman's trilogy will hit theaters on December 7.Finally, Bridge to Terabithia (IMDb) will get a new coat of paint, courtesy of Rugrats veteran Gabor Csupo. It's a live action version of the book, starring Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, and a bunch of child actors with whom I am not familiar. No telling whether this will replace the vaunted 1985 TV adaptation as the definitive Terabithia for the screen.Gore filled fun-fests. Dominic West, better known as hard-drinking detective Jimmy McNulty on the greatest show ever to air on television, has a hand in two bloody adaptations this year. In Hannibal Rising (IMDb), he'll be playing Inspector. I can only assume that this Inspector is a hard-drinking Eastern European detective, but not having read the book, I can't say. The folks over at Slow Match are debating the merits of Thomas Harris' latest this month. Maybe they have the answer.In 300 (IMDb), adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel, West will play Theron, the hard-drinking Spartan warrior. I wasn't that excited about either of these films before I found out West was in them. Now I'm planning on camping out, Star Wars-style for tickets.Mainstream Literary Adaptations. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (IMDb), directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair) will debut in March. Kal Penn, of Harold and Kumar go to White Castle fame, has the lead role. Here's hoping he has more lines than he did in Superman Returns.April will bring us showers, a new baseball season, and The Nanny Diaries (IMDb), starring Scarlett Johanson, Laura Linney, and Paul Giamatti. I'm sure the studio is hoping to hit the same market that made The Devil Wears Prada a huge success, but I'm skeptical. DWP had a tour de force performance from Meryl Streep (Don't you just get the feeling she's going to get snubbed for the Oscar, by the way?) and a generally likable cast. The Nanny Diaries has ScarJo, who I detest. Tough call.Also in April comes Atonement (IMDb). Directed by Joe Wright, whose version of Pride & Prejudice was almost universally lauded, Atonement features a bit of controversial casting. Yes, traditional English heavyweights Brenda Blethyn and Vanessa Redgrave have parts, but the lead role of Cecilia will be played by the skeletal remains of Keira Knightly. Fans of the book are less than pleased.In September, I will certainly be seeing Feast of Love (IMDb), adapted from the Charles Baxter novel. The cast features Selma Blair, Morgan Freeman, and Greg Kinnear (Tangent: Isn't Greg Kinnear having one of the most sneaky-successful careers of the last ten years? Who would've predicted it during his "Talk Soup" days?). It's an odd choice for an adaption. I've read the book, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it didn't strike me as terribly cinematic.November will see John Burnham Schwartz's novel Reservation Road (IMDb) adapted starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. This is the prototypical small-ish novel adaptation, along the lines of The Ice Storm. It could go either way, turning into another In the Bedroom or another We Don't Live Here Anymore.Also in November comes the granddaddy of all literary adaptations, Beowolf (IMDb). Robert Zemeckis directs a script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. Beowolf features my favorite bit of casting for the year - Crispin Glover as Grendel. How perfect is that?And finally, in late December, comes Charlie Wilson's War (IMDb), starring Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman. Julia Roberts, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are also aboard for this spy drama of which much is expected. Mike Nichols directs a rare film script from Aaron Sorkin, which means there will be lots of walking-and-talking scenes and probably too much pontificating, but hopefully no sketch comedy.Several literary adaptations of note, including the highly anticipated The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb), The Corrections (IMDb), and Motherless Brooklyn (IMDb) are all slated for release in 2007. My advice is don't hold your breath for any of them. Until I see an actual release date, I'm not buying it. 2008 sounds about right for all of those. Until then, you'll have to settle for Rush Hour 3, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ocean's 13: The Baker's Dozen.
Not wanting to be left out of the fun and controversy generated by the New York Times list of the top books of the last 25 years, the Guardian has rounded up 150 celebrity judges of its own (120 agreed to particpate), like Monica Ali, Rick Moody, and Jonathan Safran Foer, to vote for the best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005. "How they defined 'best' was up to them" is the caveat the Guardian gives us.After the votes were tallied, they bestowed the honor on Booker winner Disgrace by Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee. Money by Martin Amis was runner up, while Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie all shared third place. Will this list generate as much fevered dicussion as the Times list? I wouldn't be surprised if it did.
A new issue of Scott's excellent "Quarterly Conversation" is out. It contains a list of the "Books Since 1990," and I can vouch for Scott when he writes that he conceived the idea for the list well before the New York Times put out its similar list. In the introduction, Scott writes that he is making no claims that these books are the "best," which is so often the silly, attention-grabbing hook of such lists. Scott polled several literary types, and when he asked me to participate, he asked for the "best" books, but I think the point Scott is making is that throwing together a bunch of individuals' "best books" lists isn't how one determines which books are "The Best." Instead we learn which books are part of the shared consciousness of a group of readers, which I think is interesting as well. It's a tough line to toe, but I appreciate Scott's effort not to announce that the books in his list are "The Best."Which isn't to say that I agree entirely with the books named on his list, which I think in some cases skews obscure or difficult for the sake of obscurity and difficulty. At the same time, I do appreciate knowing which books people think it is important to highlight, and am glad of the opportunity to be newly introduced to such books.As one of the contributors, I thought I might present my selections for the list in case anyone is curious. A few initial caveats in addition to the points below. I fully admit that my picks are mainstream, but I tend to believe - with very rare and notable exceptions - that quality work tends to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace and thus becomes by some measure "popular," and second I have not read all the books I nominated (though I'd like to), but drew from conversations with fellow readers and from my perception of which books are most important to the serious readers I know. Third, it's very, very likely that as I read more from the contemporary era, this list will change (and it is important when looking at such lists to remember that they are fluid). And finally, I readily recognize that my selections exhibit a woeful lack of diversity; however, this is not to say that I only read books by white men, it's just to say that white men happened to write eight of the ten books that I selected for this exercise. On to my selections along with the number of votes each book got:2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones (I'm shocked that I'm the only person who nominated this book. Of all the books that I've read from this era, I think this one is hands down the best and will go on to be a classic.) (1)2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (I believe the hype. I think this book is an important chronicle of contemporary American life.) (2)1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo (5)2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2)2002, Atonement by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite books ever.) (4)1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1)2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (2)2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Proof that an entertaining read can and should be quality fiction.) (1)1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth (3)1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Of the three books by Boyle that stand out from the rest, Tortilla Curtain is the only one written after 1990. The other two books are World's End and Water Music.) (1)
Here in Sioux Falls, one of our local Lutheran private colleges puts on a library book sale. In name, it's a sale of epic proportions. In actuality, it's just a clever way for literary junkies and bibliophiles to stock up their collections and appear smarter than they are while the library clears out horribly outdated editions of unread literature.And it works - I'll never read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, and I'll probably skip W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but I'll be damned if I'm leaving them off of my bookshelf. Think of how intelligent I'll look!Admittedly, though, the books I buy and subsequently read tend to be all over the radar, and book sales of this sort truly fit my fancy. I mean, at fifty cents a book, you'd be surprised how willing you'd be to pick up some book that you may have heard of, or a book that you swear to have some vague recollection of a former college coffee buddy raving about - a willingness that wouldn't be as strong if it was spotted at Barnes and Noble for $13.99 plus tax.So my book stacks grow. Some of the authors are well known. Others are barely recognizable. And in time, I've found that I rarely - no, I'd say never - seem to find a real stinker of a book. Some are disappointing, yes. But never bad. Maybe I'm just really lucky, or I'm smart enough to take suggestions from those who already like the same books I do. Or maybe I'm like a literary garbage disposal, grabbing everything I read and devouring it with the same gusto I would a handful of vegetable scraps.So it came as quite a surprise when I finally picked up Atonement - Ian McEwan's tale of childhood misunderstanding and wartime barbarics - at the Augustana College Book Sale. Sure, I'd heard of him. Sure, I needed the book. I realized, rather shamefully, that I hadn't read anything by McEwan, one of the literary world's darlings, in my entire life. I didn't know what to expect - was he going to be wordy, an intelligent but inaccessible cacophony of allusions and pomp? Was he going to be so brilliant that I'd never look at literature the same way? Was he going to be just another English twit, barred from my life forever because of a critical over-acclaim? How could I continue to write a monthly book column (which I then condense into a smaller and more jovial version for this very website) and not have read McEwan?Would they take away my library card?Well, no. They wouldn't. But I figured I'd better read Atonement before it was too late. And here's the best part: he's actually good. Initially, I was simply pleased with what I was presented: a well worded, brilliantly researched account of high-class English life in the 1930s, followed by a gruesome account of retreat during World War II. Of course, it only got better as I fell further and further into its pages.Atonement is set out as a narrative: Briony, a ten-year-old girl who is committed to a life of writing, her sister Cecilia, and the son of their family's hired help, Robbie, prepare for company. Over one day, Cecilia and Robbie rekindle a flame while Briony, without knowing, extinguishes it - possibly forever. From this day, we jump ahead to World War II and the British retreat from Dunkirk. Then, it's a jump forward to 1999 - nearly 70 years after the first fateful day.McEwan's novel isn't just a "symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness," as the back cover so brightly puts it. It's a book that accurately recreates the mind of a child - Briony, in this case - and puts weight behind her thoughts and actions. The ideals of children are real, and Atonement illustrates this notion by showing us the consequences of an immature jealousy and unfounded protection. Through this, lives are forever changed because of Briony's unwavering account of a violent crime - the rape of her cousin by a stranger.It's wonderfully constructed, and McEwan writes at a level that's detailed, yet not too much so. Some of the narratives seem superfluous, but upon finishing Atonement I realized how important each account was. Four different voices populate its pages, and each helps give a full panoramic picture of the story as it unfolds. The clever way it's spelled out is central to the book, and it forced me to look at each character differently as the same scene was described again and again.Atonement shows how deeply an overactive imagination can quickly wreak havoc on those who are closest - how a misinterpreted event can lead to one person being thrown to the wolves, while another laments over a lost love. Themes run rampant throughout the book - too many to count, and much too much to write about in one column (if I could even pick them all out) - but even those who enjoy a good story, regardless of underlying themes and vague references, will enjoy McEwan's novel.My favorite part, though, was the subtle little twist at the end - which I will hold back for those who have not read the book. It's clever, and while many considered it an easy out, I thought it was brilliant. Atonement deserves all the praise it received - I felt the entire gamut of emotions while pouring through each of the characters. I was angry, I was despondent, and I was bitterly jealous. All because McEwan made each character feel as if they were a part of my own family.I scarcely think I need to ever visit the posh fields of England's upper class. I've lived it already - right there where the river flows gracefully though the fields and a horrible crime can cause children to lie, adults to glaze over with adoration and relief, and the law enforcement to barely bother to find the truth. As long as that little darling says it's true, it's going to be true. How horrible. Literarily, though; how wonderful.Now, I wonder what W. Somerset Maugham would think of it all.Oh, who am I kidding? I'll never know.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May
The more I learn about World War II, the more it fascinates me. I feel like most people have a vague, middle-ground understanding of the war. Two generations removed from the war, I have trouble fathoming both the global scale of the conflict and the impact it had on hundreds of millions of individuals. I had a child's school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan's rich storytelling made me want to learn more. I also realized that I ought to know more about the war that both of my grandfathers fought in, one in Europe and one in the Pacific.Wanting to get an overview, I opted for John Keegan's The Second World War, which turned out to be an ideal choice in that it was the broad, readable overview of the war that I had been looking for. (I would later read Keegan's history of the First World War and review it.) But after Keegan, I wanted to delve into the war more, to take a narrower view and learn about some of the hundreds of smaller conflicts that, taken together, comprised the war. I turned to Rick Atkinson, not least because I had the chance to meet him twice and because I read and enjoyed his book, In the Company of Soldiers, about being embedded in Iraq.An Army at Dawn is the first book in Atkinson's trilogy about the liberation of Europe during WWII. This book covered North Africa, while the forthcoming books will cover Italy and France. An Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer in 2003 and deservedly so. I don't think I've ever read a history book that flowed so well. The book is an incredible marriage of storytelling and historical fact, so that the reader feels both entertained and very well informed. Atkinson relied on battle memoirs and letters from soldiers to augment traditional, official sources and it shows. The war's narrative is textured at every turn with the words of the men who were there, providing an insight I've not gotten from other history books. Along with using the men's words directly, Atkinson also combines these collective observations in his own way to paint a vivid picture of the goings on. An example:The rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped for the first time in two days. A monstrous, blood-orange moon drifted behind the breaking clouds. Backlit by desultory shell fire, British victualers darted up with tins of cold plum pudding for men who spooned it down behind their pathetic fieldstone parapets. Flares rose to define the dead.That scene occurred near Longstop Hill as the conflict raged back and forth in Tunisia. We all know about World War II, but beyond the most familiar aspects of the War - the invasion of Poland, the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust - how much do we really know? For me, it didn't go much deeper than that, but as Atkinson makes so vividly clear, the world once watched North Africa, and battles like Kesserine Pass, Mareth, and El Guettar made headlines. To me, though, the book is powerful in that it goes beyond just knowing when and where and how these battles happened, it gives us a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the men who were there. In that sense I found this book both incredibly informative while also conveying the unfathomable (to me in this day and age) emotions of war.An Army at Dawn was one of the best books I've read in a while. I'll certainly read Atkinson's next two books when they come out, but in the meantime, as I look at my queue of books to read, I see that only Robert Capa's Slightly Out of Focus is about WWII. I need to read more books about World War II. Any suggestions?
The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one's yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year's National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of "big name" literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I'd love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)
This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan's book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren't in stores, and now Bertelsmann's Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary - though unstated - purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don't work this way. The book is the ultimate "word of mouth" product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It's my opinion that publishers shouldn't be pushing for the huge first week numbers - forcing a book to boom or bust - but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits... the way McEwan's last book, Atonement, did.
Now that all the 2004 best of lists are behind us, I thought folks might be interested in what we have to look forward to. I have no doubt that in 2005 we will be introduced to many new literary faces, but there are also a number of well-known authors whose books will hit shelves this year: Murakami, McEwan, Foer, and more. So, I've compiled a list of books that you may find yourself reading this year. The list goes through July; some of the release dates are rough estimates, and a few of the dates will probably change. Also, I'm sure there are books I've missed, so please leave a comment with any other books you might be looking forward to this year.There's a passel of intriguing books coming out in January. Hitting stores any day now is William Boyd's latest collection of stories, Fascination. This one has been out in the UK for a couple of months, and the Gaurdian described Boyd's stories this way: "They would seem a little too perfect if they weren't also suffused with an understanding of love, desire and emotional incompetence." You can read an excerpt here. Next week sees the arrival of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland. The New York Times isn't impressed, calling it "a high-art twist on chick lit," but the Boston Globe says the book "remains as thoughtful and melancholy as the Beatles song its title evokes." You can read an excerpt here (pdf). Then, on or around January 18th, comes a book that many readers have been looking forward to: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. This one's been out for a while in the UK, too. Kafka is not a departure from Murakami's surreal oeuvre. The book follows the parallel paths of 15-year-old runaway named Kafka and Nakata, an elderly bumpkin who can communicate with cats. According to initial reviews, the book doesn't seem likely to be considered his finest work, but it should please Murakami fans. I encourage you to take a look at the Kafka page at the Complete Review for all the review coverage, and if you would like to read the first five chapters of the book, go here, click on the contest link, fill out your info, and use the password "kafka."February: In 1990 Charles Johnson won a National Book Award for his book Middle Passage. Since then he has written a novel and a collection of short stories, and on February 8, a new collection, Dr. King's Refrigerator, will be released. A Publishers Weekly review says that some of the stories are too didactic, but "Johnson's longer, more carefully fleshed out stories are most effective."March: Francine Prose's A Changed Man, which will be out March 1, looks very intriguing. An early review by Publishers Weekly describes this story of a young neo-Nazi who walks into a human rights organization office wanting to change his ways as "a good-natured satire of liberal pieties, the radical right and the fund-raising world." It will be interesting to see if this book proves to be, as HarperCollins declares, "Prose's most accomplished yet." Given the astonishing success of Ian McEwan's Atonement in 2002, his follow-up effort, a novel called Saturday, may be the most anticipated work of fiction in 2005. A recent piece in the New Yorker which was taken from the new novel shows promise. The central character of the novel, Harry Perowne, is a confident but unconventional neurosurgeon whose altercation with a thug following a car accident is the catalyst that sets the plot inexorably in motion. You can read the excerpt here. Look for the book on March 22. After writing a book as massive as Rising Up and Rising Down (that's 3352 pages, by the way), you'd think William T. Vollmann would take a break. Apparently not. On March 24, Viking will release Vollmann's latest collection of short stories, Europe Central, which take place in Russia and Germany during World War II. The breadth of Vollmann's work is truly astounding.April: Buoyed by the success of his Boston Red Sox book (co-written by fellow fan Stephen King), Stewart O'Nan is probably hoping that some of those baseball fans will become fans of his fiction. His new novel, The Good Wife, comes out on April 1. O'Nan also considered calling this novel Upstate, a reference to the incarcerated husband of the book's protagonist. Everything I read about Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, makes me more and more curious. Among young, bright writers who have emerged in the last couple of years, Foer is probably the youngest and may be the brightest as well. His first novel, Everything Is Illuminated included narration in broken English, and his short story "A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease" did things with typography that I haven't seen done in fiction before. The new book - set to arrive on April 4 - will continue with this sort of experimentation, including the use of photography to illustrate the novel. There's an interesting interview available at this website where Foer goes into detail about the new book (You have to click on the Foer link and then on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to get to it, but it's worth the trouble). After a five year hiatus, Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book coming out on April 5. The new book, called Never Let Me Go, is about an English boarding school with a troubled, but until now forgotten, past. You can read an excerpt here.May: All the dedicated (some might say rabid) Chuck Palahniuk fans out there will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out this year (his official fan site is known as "The Cult," by the way). Haunted is a novel in 23 stories. Each story centers on a visitor to a writers' retreat where things, inexorably, go awry. I say it sounds like an update on the classic summer camp horror flick, but Doubleday describes it as "The Real World meets Alive." Look for it May 17.June: Paul Theroux's latest work of fiction is about "the ultimate one-book wonder." For such a prolific writer, with a new novel or travelogue out nearly every year it seems, I wonder if creating this character was a struggle for Theroux, if he was able to get into the mind of a man with writer's block, something I suspect Theroux is not often afflicted with. The book is called Blinding Light. It will be released on June 1. Apparently Jonathan Safran Foer isn't the only literary stylist coming out with an illustrated novel in 2005. Umbarto Eco's new novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana will be of the illustrated variety as well. According to the Harcourt publicity, the memories "racing before the eyes [of the book's amnesiac protagonist] take the form of a graphic novel." No word on who supplied the artwork -- or if it was Eco himself, but the book has been out in Europe since last year so I suppose someone knows the answer. Here are some thoughts on the book from a blogger who read the German translation. The book comes out on June 3. George Singleton's forthcoming novel -- titled Novel -- is the only debut novel on this list, but Singleton is already well-known by readers who enjoy his comic stories and Southern charm. You can read one of his short stories here. The new book, which is set to come out on June 6, is about a snake handler from the town of Gruel, South Carolina.July: John Irving isn't quite the superstar novelist he once was. Irving's novels -- The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Hotel New Hampshire -- were my introduction to contemporary literary fiction, and he was my first real "favorite author." But the middling quality of his recent novels, each one more mediocre than the last, ill-timed remarks about who should or should not pay taxes, and his dalliances with Hollywood have lost him some of his fans. Still, he keeps writing novels, and maybe this next one, Until I Find You (about a son's search through the tattoo underworld for his ink-addicted father), will be a return to form. The book comes out on July 12.And if these aren't enough for you check out preview articles from The Herald, The Age (reg. req.), the Boston Globe, and the Guardian. Happy reading in 2k5.
My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author's voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I'm auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that's why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan's Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan's vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I've read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn't know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan's descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won't be disappointed by John Keegan.
One of the guests on Fresh Air today was former cop named Edward Conlon, a Harvard grad and fourth generation NYPD officer who used to pen an anonymous column in the New Yorker. Now he has a new book called Blue Blood in which he recounts his life as a beat cop. It looks to be a literary take on macabre subject matter. Speaking of which, Ian McEwan, most recently the author of Atonement, a book adored by both readers and critics, has revealed some details about his forthcoming book. According to this Reuters story, it appears as though McEwan will return to the more visceral subject matter of his earlier novels with a book that centers on the life of a brain surgeon. He will finish it "within months." This new McEwan book will almost certainly be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, where, after much skeptical anticipation, Sam Tanenhaus has been appointed as editor. As beatrice.com pointed out yesterday, some in the literary world are skipping the grace period and sticking with the skepticism, cf. David Kipen's San Francisco Chronicle piece. This changing of the guard, you may remember, was a topic a few months back here at The Millions.
Scanning the headlines for news about books:I noticed, after I'd been working at the book store for a while, that there is a religious book industry that shadows the mainstream book industry. There isn't much crossover between the two: there are mainstream bookstores that sell exclusively mainstream books and Christian bookstores that sell exclusively Christian books. But now the Associated Press is reporting that the lines are blurring thanks to the success of the The Da Vinci Code and the odd cultural phenomenon of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ. According to the story, several psuedo-religious books, books that don't fit neatly into either segment of the book industry, have become big sellers in the last year. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, and The Woman With the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail by Margaret Starbird are among the beneficiaries.Advanced Book Exchange is a giant online marketplace for used books. I happened to notice that they recently posted a list of their "top 50 bestselling used, rare and out-of-print books on Abebooks in 2003." It's an interesting list that includes current bestsellers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), classics (East of Eden), collectible magazines (National Geographic Magazine), and scholarly texts and reference books (Black's Law Dictionary).And while we're talking bestsellers, here's Barnes & Nobles' 100 bestselling books of 2003, including one of my favorite books of recent years, Ian McEwan's Atonement coming in at number 46.
When I was a teenager and I slept in my teenager's bedroom in the basement of my parents' house, I used to keep my stereo on all the time. Every moment that I was in that bedroom there was music playing. I kept it on while read at night, and then I left it on while I was asleep. I liked my music so much that I would have rather listened to it all night than go to sleep. My compromise was to try to do both at the same time. The lasting effect of this, aside from my residual insomnia problems, is that I have intense musical connections with many of the books I read in high school. This has given rise to some odd but unbreakable pairings, like whenever I happen to see a copy of Lloyd C. Douglas' classic of historical fiction The Robe, I get songs from Bob Marley's Legend stuck in my head. I can use these odd musical, literary pairings like an archeologist to dredge up memories from years ago. Likewise, I can look back over the books I read this last year and extract the various experiences that are wrapped up with each one. When 2003 began I set a goal to read 75 books over the next twelve months. I didn't even come close. Unless I have left one or two off the list, and I may have, I read 29 books last year. I have many excuses for this, but the one I like the most is that I read a few books this year that I enjoyed so much that I couldn't help but to savor them, to ingest them nibble by nibble as I pushed aside my silly goal of gluttonous literary consumption. What I'm saying is, it was a good year, so lets get started.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee: This monster of a book is McPhee's paeon to the geology of the United States. As always McPhee is readable, but the ambition of this book (which is really five books in one) is what won him the Pulitzer when it came out. Sometime in the summer or fall of 2002 I read McPhee's book about Alaska, Coming into the Country, because it happened to be sitting on the bench next to me on my break at the bookstore. Once I started reading it I was hooked, and I've been a big fan of McPhee's ever since. This one is big (almost 700 pages) and it took me a while to read. I was also moving at the time to the house where I live now with fruit trees and a balcony and a guy who sells tamales out of the back of his car on our street every day. As far as I can tell, though, there are no exposed rock faces nearby and therefore no opportunities for amateur geology, though the book did manage to get me very interested in the subject.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I have long bemoaned the huge gaps in my library. There are many classics that I have never read. As I recall, I was particularly struck by this notion early in 2003 and one Sunday night shift at the book store, afroth with my desire to get some of those classics out of the way, I dove into Gatsby. I read half the book that night on my breaks and the other half when I got home, staying up late to finish the last few pages. I hadn't read a whole book in a day in a long time, and that felt good. When you digest a book as a single unit like that, you are able to look at differently. It's like the difference between falling in love in one night and falling for someone over a period of weeks or months. I enjoyed the book, of course, though it is referred to so often, in so many settings, that it felt like I had already read it. Still, it was great to finally see what all the fuss is about.Gilligan's Wake by Tom Carson: It was a very happy coincidence that I happened to read Gatsby right before I read this book because one of the sections of this book is an extended riff on the Daisy character. Gilligan's Wake is a truly bizarre post-modern confection the created a minor splash at the beginning of 2003. It's outlandish premise is to describe the lives of each of the characters of Gilligan's Island before they went on their fateful three hour tour. The result is a vibrant pastiche of twentieth century history and popular culture, for, you see, the Skipper and Ginger and all the rest happened to lead very complex lives that intersected with the lives of some very important people. Having said that, this book isn't a farce or a parody or anything like that, and in fact the language can be quite brutal. It might be best to describe the book as Pynchon soaked in TV culture. It's an interesting read that I never would have come across had it not been for the fact that many of the folks at the book store read it when it came out.Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski: When I read Kapuscinski's book The Soccer War a couple of years ago, I did so under the assumption that it was his best book. Maybe I was told this by a book store clerk somewhere, or I based it on Amazon rankings and reviews. It's a very good book, kind of mind-blowing for me, really, since I had never read anything like it. I was very excited about discovering the work of this globe-trotting Polish journalist, but I assumed that his other books might be slightly lesser works. So, naturally, I was thrilled when I discovered that Imperium, his book about the Soviet Union and its fractured remnants, was a fantastic book, full of Kapuscinski's usual personal insights and vision. This book propelled me on to a Soviet kick that would lead me to read several books on the subject before the year was out.The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor: For some reason, the review of this book in the New York Times put me in a real frenzy to read it. I think because it reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan, a book from 2002 that I really loved. Although I have read and enjoyed many of Trevor's short stories, I just couldn't get into this book. It was too even. There is a dramatic event at the center of this story but it is too buried by the passage of time to be a driving force.On Writing by Stephen King: I've always been a defender of Stephen King. As he will readily admit, he has written some clunkers for a buck, but his best books are really fantastic. I have also always enjoyed his writing about himself. This book is part memoir, part writing handbook, and part pep talk, and it is very readable. King avoids all the double talk that many writers will shell out when they write about writing. King manages to tell us that, just like anything else, writing is best when you have fun doing it, and if you're having a lot of fun, it's probably good enough to be publishedThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This was the great discovery of the year for me, a book that I spent a lot of time on and a book that I never wanted to finish. I spent nearly two months reading this one, and Mutis' book is so vivid with adventure and characters, it felt like I was living a double life. It all started with a review of the book by John Updike in the New Yorker early last year. I read the first few paragraphs and something clicked. I knew I had to read this book, and as soon as I started I knew it would be fantastic. Soon, I had convinced several coworkers to read it and we recommended it to many others. Over the course of the year my bookstore alone sold hundreds of copies, and friends of friends of friends were asking me if I had ever read this incredible book about a mysterious fellow named Maqroll. In March I happened to meet a hero of mine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and we talked briefly about Maqroll. Lately, my thoughts have turned to reading it again, and I'm thinking that sometime soon I will add it to my reading queue so that I can read it again soon, and I think I will probably keep it on the queue so that I can read it again every year or two. It's just that good.American Studies by Louis Menand: After reading Menand's Pulitzer prizewinner The Metaphysical Club, I added Menand to my list of favorite writers, so I was excited to read his follow up, a collection of essays with subjects ranging from T. S. Eliot to Larry Flynt. Menand is truly a master of the form, but I yearned for another book-length work that would allow him to really strut his stuff.Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards: I picked up this hardcover on a bookfinding expedition and had a good time reading through it. It's chock full of pill popping divorcees and heavily cloaked anti-Nixon screeds. Joking aside, there are actually some truly remarkable stories in this book as I describe in this post from May 13th.Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent: I've always been a baseball fan, but it seems like I spent much of 2003 in a baseball frenzy. Recognizing this, my friend Patrick recommended this book to me and I really enjoyed it. Okrent spent months researching and preparing to write an entire book about a single game. The result is a detailed picture of the individual intricacies that combine to create one ballgame.That's all for now. Parts 2 and 3 to come.