Await Your Reply: A Novel

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Through the Looking Glass: Notes on Disappearance

1.
My mother has me on a Canadian literature program. Twice a year, birthdays and Christmases, a package arrives from British Columbia with one or two Canadian books in it. I have strong opinions about selecting books for nationalism, but these gifts are wonderful, among the highlights of the year. She sends me novels and poetry that I might not have come across in an American bookstore: Shani Mootoo’s spectacular He Drown She in the Sea, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s The Way The Crow Flies, Patrick Lane’s poetry. The most recent package included Vanishing and Other Stories, by Deborah Willis. I’ve been reading it in the subway to and from work all week. It’s very good.

The title seemed familiar when I first saw it, and then I remembered Vanishing: A Memoir, by Candida Lawrence, which I’ve been meaning to read ever since it came out last year. Which made me think of something I’ve noticed lately: with no disrespect intended to either Willis or Lawrence, an awful lot of books have vanishing in the title. A cursory search on Amazon reveals about a dozen novels and books of poetry called either Disappearing Act or Disappearing Acts, and at least twice that many titled Vanishing Act or some variation thereof—I confess that I stopped counting after the first couple search pages on both counts—and that’s not even counting the scores of books with the word Disappearance in their titles.

Something else I’ve noticed: even when a given book doesn’t have vanishing in the title, it very often has vanishing in the plot. (Full disclosure: I’m guilty of this in two novels.) Once you begin looking for disappearance in the bookstore, turning over jacket flaps and reading plot synopses, it’s everywhere: our literature is full of abducted children, men and woman walking away from their lives, teenagers fading out into heroin cities.

And it isn’t that people don’t disappear in real life. There are haunting posters for an inexplicably absent forty-year-old woman all over my neighborhood today, and Lawrence’s Vanishing is, after all, a memoir. Children set out for bike rides and never come back, men and women step out for the paper and never return. But real-life disappearances are unusual enough that when they happen, they generally make the national news and fill airtime on CNN. People don’t disappear nearly as often in real life, it seems to me, as they do in fiction. I believe that we’re fascinated, as a culture, by the idea of vanishing.

2.
There’s a line that’s stayed with me from Martin Amis’ sensitive yet devastating look at Vladimir Nabokov’s body of work in the Guardian last year. “Writers like to write about the things they like to think about,” he wrote, in an examination of Nabokov’s unsettling insistence upon returning, in novel after novel, to the defilement of twelve-year-old girls.

Writers like to write about the things they like to think about: in the context of a pervasive fascination with disappearance, the most obvious explanation is that writers are, after all, just people, and a fascination with vanishing seems widespread in the general population: there are three apparently separate books entitled How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found on Amazon at the moment, one of them in print for the past thirteen years, and countless variations (How To Be Invisible; Cover Your Tracks Without Changing Your Identity; Hide Your Assets And Disappear.)

I doubt there’s anyone among us who hasn’t at least once, at least fleetingly, fantasized about stepping out of our lives. In darker moments, it’s a tantalizing thought: the opportunity to start over, a new name, past mistakes erased. “After reading this book,” an anonymous Amazon customer wrote on one of the How To Disappear Completely review pages, “I spent hours at the public library copying obituaries of baby boys who were born and died around my birthday. I wanted to prepare myself to assume another identity one day. It was a delicious obsession, and exhilarating.”

3.
I would be interested to know how many of the readers of the disappearance how-to guides have actually disappeared, and how many, like the anonymous man copying obituaries in the library, buy the books in order to make the fantasy of disappearance more tangible. Not just a dream but a real possibility, now that you have a guide to the territory. We live in a strangely paradoxical time: on the one hand, there has never been a period in human history when we’ve been documented so relentlessly as we are now, so fingerprinted and photographed and bar-coded and taped. On the other hand, our identities seem somehow malleable. This is an era where a complete re-creation of self seems possible.

In Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply—one of the great disappearance novels, in my opinion—a recent high school graduate who’s assumed a new identity begins to wonder who she is. She has no parents; she’s left her older sister and her dreary hometown and set off into a frightening new life. Her name was once Lucy Lattimore, but that’s not the name on her passport. “More and more,” Chaon writes,

she was aware that Lucy Lattimore had left the earth. Already there was hardly anything left of her—a few scraps of documents, birth certificate and social security card in her mother’s drawer back in the old house, her high school transcripts resident on some outdated computer, the memories of her sister Patricia, the vague recollections of her classmates and teachers, already fading.

The truth was, she had killed herself months ago. Now she was next to nothing: a nameless physical form that could be exchanged and exchanged and exchanged until nothing remained but molecules.

When I needed a copy of my birth certificate in order to claim American citizenship at the Montreal consulate, I ordered it online from a government website. I needed nothing but a credit card for the processing fee; the document arrived in the mail a few weeks later. It occurred to me later that I could have ordered anybody’s birth certificate, absolutely anybody’s, and that anyone else could have ordered mine.

4.
If writers like to write about the things we like to think about, and if we spend—as the plot synopses on our dust jackets suggest—an inordinate amount of time thinking about vanishing, another possibility we might consider is that the very act of writing fiction is in itself a kind of disappearance. And if you’re engaged in disappearance as a profession, doesn’t it make sense that it might become your theme?

We were raised on stories of brave children entering magical countries. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and steps through the looking glass, Max flees to an island populated by Wild Things, other children slip through the backs of wardrobes and through gaps in hedges and leave this world behind. Sitting down at a desk and slipping into a kingdom where the plot, the characters, the narrative arc, even the laws of physics are malleable and within your control is not, perhaps, terribly different. When you sit down to write a novel you step out of your life for a little while; it’s a separate world you’re creating on the page, wholly apart from the chaos and the disappointments of life on earth.

Brooklyn Underdog: Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats

I usually avoid talking about how much I love small presses. Partly because my feeling is that I’m so completely, obviously biased (both my novels are published by a smallish independent press, and I’m very happy with this state of affairs) that my opinion on the matter doesn’t carry much weight, and partly because the topic can quickly degenerate, among certain of my more committedly small-press-published novelist friends, into an “and I wouldn’t want to be published by a major press anyway, because they sometimes publish garbage” kind of a conversation, which I’m not really down with: it’s not that I have any desire to be published by anyone other than Unbridled Books, it’s just that I’m baffled by the idea that I’m expected to seriously condemn the houses that brought us Await Your Reply, Brooklyn, and Let The Great World Spin.

And yet: every now and again I’ll come across a book published by a small press that somehow seems, for all its dazzling excellence, like it might not have made it past the front door at a major publishing house. I’m not sure where I first heard about Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, published last November by Dzanc Books; I think perhaps it was from one of the guys at ThreeGuysOneBook. Shoeshine Cats doesn’t seem to have been very widely reviewed, which strikes me as a minor tragedy—this is one of the best and most wholly original books I’ve come across in a while.

The title character is Shushan Cats, a Jewish gangster famous throughout the five boroughs of Kestin’s version of 1963 New York, but the story is narrated by Russell Newhouse—twenty years old, an orphan, coasting effortlessly through his course work at Brooklyn College, mostly preoccupied with trying to sleep with the largest possible percentage of Brooklyn’s young female population.

Russell has recently been recruited to take the minutes for the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a sleepy organization of immigrants in Brooklyn.  He’s the only member of the Society who might reasonably be considered young, and he’s there only because his late father was a member. His cohorts are older Jewish men, foreign-born; their children are entirely assimilated, but for these men, Kestin writes, “American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it.” The Bhotke Young Men’s Society’s anxiously under-Americanized members have voted to change the official language from Yiddish to English, and Russell’s English is impeccable.

Midway through Russell’s first meeting as official minute-taker the doors fly open, and Russell meets the notorious Shushan Cats for the first time. Kestin is a master of character description: “The figure who stood there—it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.”

Shushan Cats would like to join the Society. Membership in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society comes with a cemetary plot in Queens, and Cats’ mother has just died. Within minutes Russell has been recruited to plan the gangster’s mother’s funeral. Within days Shushan Cats has disappeared and Russell has been installed as his protégé and unlikely successor. He finds himself at the helm of a criminal enterprise, forced to navigate a New York City underworld wherein the suits are well-tailored, the language sharp, and control of the Fulton Fish Market hangs in the balance.

The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is a fast, fearless, darkly comic book, the sort of thing that other writers read and wish they’d written. This is a feverish world, a refracted angle on 1963 New York that feels more vivid than reality. I find it admirable in part for its tinge of the improbable, its impossible suavité and secret rooms. Kestin catches us up in a gritty enchantment.

Where the book falters slightly is when Kestin breaks the spell: every so often we’re snapped out of the narrative with a brief digression meant to place this world in a historical context. We’re told that a purse purchased by Shushan Cats’ sister for $150 would be worth more than $1500 today, for instance, and of the Fulton Fish Market, Kestin notes that it “would later be relocated to the Bronx, thus freeing up valuable real estate for the stock brokers and bankers who would be buying condos on this site…” But it isn’t immediately apparent that the 2005 relocation of the Market is relevant to a story set in 1963, or that a note on inflation between early ‘60s and the present adds to the story; interruptions like these, in my entirely subjective opinion, serve only to distract us.

But the faltering is slight. I loved this book. I think that in some ways The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats represents the best of what small presses have to offer: freshness and originality, a unique voice, a boldness too frequently absent from our literature.

Bonus Link: A Year in Reading: Hesh Kestin

A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

I think I’ll remember 2009 as the year when I made a conscious effort to immerse myself in the culture of books, and fell more deeply in love with that culture than I would have thought possible. My first novel was published a few months ago, and in the lead-up to publication I began spending an inordinate amount of time talking to booksellers online and in person, going to other writers’ events, lingering in bookstores and reading all the fiction I could get my hands on. Reading has become one of the great joys of my life, and I think I’ve probably read more books in 2009 than I did in the previous five years combined.

It’s hard to pick a favorite. I thought Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn were breathtaking. I loved John Wray’s Lowboy. But in a year awash in books, one in particular stands out: Shaun Tan’s gorgeously illustrated Tales from Outer Suburbia is the size and shape of a children’s picture book, but I’m not sure I’d give it to a child. The Library of Congress summary describes the book as “fifteen illustrated short stories… set in the Australian suburbs,” but these suburbs aren’t quite of this earth.

Tan’s suburbia is a haunted place, sometimes banal and sometimes beautiful, populated by strange apparitions—a water buffalo who lives in a vacant lot and gives directions to children in need, a man in an antiquated and heavily barnacled deep-sea diving suit who drips water from his air pipe as he wanders blindly down the street. Mysterious courtyards open up impossibly between attics and upstairs rooms; figures made of sticks and clumps of clod wander silently over the landscape; dogs gather one night outside the burning home of a man who recently beat his own dog to death. I’ve been slightly obsessed with this book for months.

More from A Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

Stoner by John Williams is not about a dude who smokes blunts all day.  It’s about a man named William Stoner, and the book tells his life story in a mere 278 pages.  The prose is unadorned and crisp, and it captures the true essence of its protagonist, a man who grew up on a farm, and then studied, and went onto teach, English literature at the University of Missouri.  In other words, a person who isn’t particularly noteworthy in the broader scheme of things. This is a heartbreaking and beautiful novel, one of the best I have ever read, or will have the privilege to read, in my life.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon deserves all the praise it’s getting–and then some.  It masterfully interweaves three storylines (all of them compelling), and its characters, lost and alienated from the world and themselves, are rendered with insight and compassion.  I won’t soon forget the image of the severed hand in the cooler, or the eerie lighthouse motel, or the magic supply shop on some forgotten Cleveland street.  This novel made me want to use exclamation points, and watch scary movies, and read Shirley Jackson, and throw my computer out the window with a paranoid shriek.  Such a fun read.

Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson: What a wit Antonya Nelson wields, and what sharp observations!   I absolutely adored this collection of stories about fucked-up people and their bad choices, their sad aftermaths.  I loved how she compressed time, and how, with a single phrase, I understood a moment for all of its awkwardness, anxiety, hope, and honesty.  I want Ms. Nelson to come over my house, share a vat of pasta, and tell me some more stories.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: These two books, however different, will forever be paired in my mind.  I read them fairly close together, and in both, the prose stunned me.  I read significant portions of each out loud, lying across my couch, or sitting up in bed, or pacing from room to room.  I did this mostly because I was trying to understand Woolf and Morrison’s books better, but also because their prose is so beautiful and intricate, that it deserves to be recited as poetry.  I feel grateful to have been let inside of their worlds—that syntax, those sounds.  They made my year all the richer.

More from A Year in Reading

The Notables: 2009

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (a most anticipated book)
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (my review, Millions Top Ten book)
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (a most anticipated book, The Millions Interview with Dan Chaon, Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (a most anticipated book, The Kakutani Two-Step)
Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson (Jean Thompson on Edward P. Jones)
Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill (Best of the Millennium Longlister)
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (Wells Tower’s Year in Reading, a most anticipated book, my review, Best of the Millennium Longlister, Millions Top Ten book)
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (a most anticipated book, Edan’s review)
Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers (a most anticipated book)
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (Manil Suri’s Year in Reading selection, National Book Award Finalist)
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips (National Book Award Finalist)
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (a most anticipated book, my review, National Book Award Winner)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Booker Shortlister)
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Lion, The Witch and Ishiguro)
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (a most anticipated book)
The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips (Anne’s review, Arthur Phillips’ Year in Reading, Arthur Phillips on Kelly Link)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Booker Prize Winner)
Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (a most anticipated book)

Gender Confusion: On Literary Sausage Parties

I originally thought I wouldn’t write about the Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009, a list that quickly became infamous not for who’s on it, but who isn’t. Namely: women. I noticed the absence immediately, but I was more puzzled than troubled. Come on, PW, have you not read Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson? This year, readers and critics have gone gaga for lady authors, from Hillary Mantel to Jayne Anne Phillips, and so it was strange that none would be included on the list. It didn’t seem like these editors would have to consciously choose a woman–it would just happen, like breathing. Perhaps I’m naive, or I just like lady authors too much.

I was happy to see Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and Big Machine by Victor LaValle included, two novels I liked a lot and have championed here on The Millions. But, I also felt sad for these two wonderful writers: would they want to be associated with this list? Chaon and LaValle certainly deserve our attention, but the kind of attention they got from PW, I fear, is a reminder that they use the men’s room. See, that’s what’s happened: the maleness of the list is all people can talk about. A cynical part of me wonders if Publishers Weekly went with these picks precisely because of the outrage they were sure would follow. Nothing increases visibility–and web traffic–like outrage.

Lizzie Skurnick’s take on the list is compelling and worth a read; she writes about the topic with both perspicacity and good humor, and she (rightfully, I think) suggests that the term “ambitious”– as it’s defined by critics and prize judges–is questionable, partially because it is gendered. Like Skurnick, I also don’t find the list of notable books by women on the Women in Literature and Literary Arts (WILLA) website all that helpful, either. The wiki nature of the list means that the only requirement to get on this list is that you don’t use the men’s room. You see, women write good books, and they also write very bad ones. One’s gender, like one’s ethnicity, isn’t a sign of your literary merit or lack thereof. And anyway, ladies don’t really need this list. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves. After all, women read more than men, and women writers sell more books than male writers. And we do win prizes. Don’t forget that this year’s Nobel prize winner for literature was female, and that Elizabeth Strout won the Pultizer. In 2004, all of the National Book Award nominees for fiction were female. I remember my annoyance at how much gender was discussed that year. “What about the books themselves?” I kept crying. But, look at me now, lamenting that only sausages got invited to the Top 10 Publishers Weekly party.

My double standard, I suppose, comes from the fact that there’s a long and undeniable history of women not getting critical recognition for their writing. I read nearly equal numbers of male and female writers (I keep a record. Seriously.) but I’ve met numerous male readers (many of them booksellers), who rarely, if ever, read books by women. This argument also extends to work by writers of color. Books by white men are considered universal, while books by women, or people of color, aren’t. A male author wins a prize because he deserves it. A Latina woman wins a literary prize because, well… there was pressure… it was time. That’s a dangerous and unfair line of reasoning, for it undercuts the talent and accomplishment of these writers.

Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer for The Known World, not because he’s a black dude, but because he wrote an exceptional, brilliant novel. Yes, by giving Jones the prize, the Pulitzer committee championed and validated a narrative about African-Americans, by an African-American, and that is significant. But the writer’s race was not the reason he won the prize.

Which brings me to why I’m writing about this when I figured I wouldn’t. Last week, the National Book Award winners were announced, and all of them were white men. You might expect me to be upset by this, but I wasn’t. A few people I follow on Twitter were, however, and on her blog, author Tayari Jones wrote a genuine and heartfelt reaction to the awards (she attended the ceremony): “I will admit that I don’t know what to make of it. I know how it felt to be a woman writer of color that evening. I had a number of weirdly marginalizing personal encounters that evening. I arrived in high spirits and left feeling a bit deflated.” This reaction makes a lot of sense to me, and I respect it. But it also must be acknowledged that the judging process was fair–or as fair as can be (Jones does acknowledge this in her post).

The judges for each genre–fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature–don’t talk to one another. That is, if the fiction judges choose a white male writer to win, they don’t know that the nonfiction judges have as well. Furthermore, the list of nominated books was varied and interesting, and the judges were diverse. (Quite frankly, I’d read anything deemed the best by fiction committee Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Charles Johnson, Lydia Millet and Alan Cheuse.) So I’m all right with the results this year, as discomfiting as they might have been, coming on the heels of that terrible PW list. (And, perhaps it’s worth reiterating: do we even need the prizes? Do we need to “put a ring on it” so to speak?)

I’m most weary of lamenting this year’s National Book Award winners because it sets up an expectation for next year’s winners to be chosen on the basis of something other than literary merit. And if a woman and/or person of color wins the award, the last thing I want to hear is, “Oh, the judges felt pressure,” or, “It was time…” That kind of discourse is insidious.

In a dream world, the winners and best-of lists would always be diverse and surprising, and equality would just happen because people read widely, without any ingrained, problematic notions of what’s universal or ambitious or important. Now, the question is: how can we make that a reality?

The Millions Interview: Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon’s most recent novel, Await Your Reply, is a masterful tale of identity and how it’s made, stolen, and remade.  The book, with its three interlocking stories, and locales as disparate as Las Vegas, Nebraska, and the Arctic, is intensely readable, but as Janet Maslin of The New York Times points out, “…the real pleasure in reading Mr. Chaon is less in finding out where he’s headed than in savoring what he accomplishes along the way.” Chaon is also the author of the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and two short story collections, Fitting Ends, and Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award.  He was my creative writing teacher at Oberlin College, where he is the Irvin E. Houck Associate Professor of the Humanities.

The Millions: What really struck me about this book was how realistic and specific your characters felt, even as some of them dissolved and became nothing more than a name, a wardrobe, a series of gestures and ways of speaking. At the same time, though, other characters remained real—and, this isn’t exactly the right word—pure.  How did you go about creating the different characters for this novel?  How important was it that they all be believable, and what does that mean for this kind of book?

Dan Chaon: The book was written in little pieces, almost like a series of short-short stories in the beginning.  When I started, I didn’t know anything but little glimmers—scenes—that eventually began to fit together.  In general I don’t plan out my characters in advance.  Mostly, I begin with images, moments—a severed hand in an ice bucket, a lighthouse on the prairie, a guy driving down the Dempster Highway toward the Arctic Ocean. Once I had the moment in my head, I began to circle out and try to understand the people who were involved.  So I suspect that my experience of writing the book, and the discoveries that I made as I went along, are not so different from the readers’ experience. The characters all started out as “real” to me—I was getting to know them as I went along,  the same way you get to know friends over time–and I was as shocked as anyone when some of them turned out to be fakes.  You say that some of the characters “remained real—and this isn’t exactly the right word—pure,” –but I actually think this is exactly the right coinage. Pure.  I really like that word. That’s one of the issues that I was thinking of when I was writing. What is a “real” self?   What is a “pure” representation of character? Is it just a consistent set of behaviors?  Is there something truly essential that makes you,  you?  I don’t think I came up with an answer, but it was fun to think about.

TM: In your acknowledgments, you write that Await Your Reply pays homage to various writers you’ve loved, from Ray Bradbury to Shirley Jackson to Peter Straub, among others.  What was the extent of your “gestures and winks” toward their work?  Is this your own playful, literary version of identity theft?

DC: One of my early jobs when I was first out of undergrad was as a DJ. This was back in the late eighties, when the concepts of the “mash-up” and sampling were still in their infancy.  But there was something about that concept that I really, really liked—the way the songs seemed to be having a conversation with one another, and by being combined actually transformed into something new.  I’d like to think that there’s some of that going on here, too.  Many of the “samples” are tucked into the imagery, like Easter eggs:  for example, readers of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will recognize those birds that are circling Miles in the Arctic, with their cry of “tekeli-li!”; people who have seen Takashi Miike’s movie, The Audition,  will recognize that horrific piano wire in Chapter 2; people who have read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House will notice echoes of poor Eleanor Vance’s final thoughts… and—well,  let’s just say that there are a few dozen of these throughout the book,   which some people might enjoy finding themselves.  But my intent wasn’t merely to create a bunch of cute in-jokes, either.  To a larger extent, I was using these little touchstones to draw forth a particular texture and mood. For me,  it was almost an invocation, a séance.  That Ouija Board is in Jay’s house for a reason!

As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read.   Occasionally, an interviewer will ask:  “Who are you writing for?  Who is your audience?”  And in many ways the answer is that I’m writing for those authors I’ve loved, and the books I’ve loved.   If you’re an avid reader, and a book gets under your skin, it can affect you as intensely as a real human relationship, it lingers with you for your whole life, and there is always this desire to re-experience that amazing sense of connection you get from “your books.”  I understand completely why people want to write fan fiction.  To me, I guess, all fiction is fan fiction at a certain level, just as it always has an element of identity theft.

TM: Do you see your novel as a kind of Nabokovian puzzle, to be unwrapped and unlocked by discerning readers of the future?  How far does the rabbit hole go?

DC: As much as I’m flattered by the term “Nabokovian,” I’m not sure that I’m capable of that level of gamesmanship.   I’m sure that a literary critic could footnote the hell out of the book, but I suspect that a great number of the references she’d find here would be unintentional, or accidental, or drawn unconsciously from the cultural ether.  A couple of years ago,  I wrote the Afterward for the Signet Classic edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,  and one of the things that struck me,  re-reading that novel for the first time in many years, was how much of my recollection of the book was simply wrong.  Major scenes that I remembered vividly simply weren’t there in the text.  In fact,  as it turned out,  my memory of Dr. Jekyll  had been so radically infected by the enormous number of other representations that were floating around in the culture—movies and comics and parodies and so forth—that it was difficult to read the “real” version without filling in aspects from the version I’d imagined, the version that I’d pieced together out of a vast array of cultural detritus.  None of which had existed when the actual book was written.  I hope that something similar may happen to readers of Await Your Reply, and that in this way the “rabbit hole” goes on into Fibonacci-like infinity.  I set out to draw on some of the archetypal plots that I had always found most compelling—the Bluebeard story, the evil twin story, the mythology of shapeshifters, legends of ghosts and haunted places and  fruitless quests into the wastelands—all of which, of course, were viral memes for centuries before the internet existed. I suspect that the reader will be reminded of a whole set of references and touchstones as they read—but that their footnotes would be idiosyncratic, a kind of private,  Kinbote-like appendix for each individual reader.

TM: This novel is ingeniously structured, with three narratives that eventually overlap and lock together.  Part of the fun of reading it is figuring that puzzle out.  How did you put together this little narrative machine?  None of it feels accidental—but can that be?

DC: When I started out, I didn’t have any idea how the three threads were connected.   I just knew that they were—somehow. The first hundred pages of the book took me about two years to write.  I revised and revised, and fiddled around with the personalities of the characters,  and added and deleted subplots and minor characters—basically trying to frame out the farmland that I was going to be working with, cutting brush and taking rocks out of the soil and so forth. The second hundred pages took about nine months. This was when I began to use cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, leaving each thread with an unanswered question that I had to figure out, and that pushed things forward for me more quickly.  At this point, I was showing the book chapter by chapter to my editor, Anika Streitfeld,  and to my wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz.  They would each give me a little feedback and I’d float various plot concepts—which Anika or Sheila or both of them would frequently,  kindly,  shoot down,  or talk me through. The last hundred pages was written in a little less than two months,  but it really wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly had everything figured out.  The last bit of plot clicked into place the way a difficult math problem sometimes does.  Bing!  Suddenly it seems so obvious!  And I remember e-mailing Anika at about four in the morning.   “Does this sound crazy???” I had to go back and do some adjustment and revision—but it was actually quite surprising to me to discover how much of the plot was already there,   embedded in the narrative without my noticing. It didn’t actually require a lot of rewriting.  My wife Sheila died of cancer not long after I’d finished the final revisions,  and it’s both difficult and comforting now to look at this book, since there is so much of her in it, chapter by chapter: her advice and thoughts and spirit.  She wrote in pencil on the last page of the last chapter:  “You did it, honey!”  But really we did it together.

TM: As Await Your Reply progresses, it hearkens more and more to an old-fashioned thriller or horror tale, with its level of suspense, its secrets and plot revelations, and its pervading sense of unease.  This, for me, felt simultaneously like a departure and continuation from your earlier work, if that makes any sense.  What say you?

DC: I’ve been deeply influenced by two strains of North American fiction: first, by the realistic regionalism of writers like Alice Munro,  Raymond Carver,   Sherwood Anderson, and so forth; and secondly, by writers of dark fantasy like Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury,  etc. I’ve tended to be categorized more with the former group, the regional realists, but I think that you could make a good case to classify my work with the latter as well.  My short story collection,  Among the Missing,  was strongly influenced by the tradition of ghostly and supernatural tales, and my first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was drawing very heavily from tales of psychological suspense and Kafkaesque otherworldliness—not intended to be straightforward melodrama, though I think it was often taken as such.  I learned a lot about novel-writing from You Remind Me of Me—the effects that I wanted, and those that I didn’t—and I deliberately wanted to go back to the multiple narrative,  round-robin style of storytelling, and see if I could build on what I had figured out. Around the time I was finishing You Remind Me of Me, I also happened to write a story for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,  edited by Michael Chabon.  Chabon’s project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements,   and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like the story I wrote,  “The Bees,”  was a breakthrough for me, and I learned a lot from writers like Karen Joy Fowler,  Kelly Link, George Saunders, Arthur Phillips,  Kevin Brockmeier—and many others—who were doing interesting work with genre-bending.  I have to say, though, that perhaps the biggest cultural influences on the novel were my teenaged sons, Philip and Paul, and the books and movies and TV shows that they loved and which permeated our household—Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy of books,  and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the TV show “Lost,” the films Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,  all the various good,  smart stuff which one or both of my kids were obsessed with…

TM: In a 2004 interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, you remarked: “I’ve written stories since I was a little kid. To me there’s something compelling about being a different person for a little while and trying out a different kind of life.” I couldn’t help but read Await Your Reply as partly a meditation on fiction writing and reading.  In the book, when Ryan muses that identities are like shells that “you stepped into and that began to solidify over time… They began to take on a life of their own, developed substance,” I thought of my own creative process of inhabiting characters.  And Ryan’s sadness after retiring an identity articulated so well that peculiar grief of finishing a manuscript, or a beloved book.  Were these nods to the writing and reading life intentional?  Furthermore, do you think fiction writing is somewhat criminal—is it a weird invasion of privacy, this theft and composite of various real lives?  Do readers understand best the lure of identity theft, the chance to live another’s life for a while?  And, when you spend a large part of your time making up stories and reading made up stories, where does real life begin and end?  What makes some human beings real, and some fictional?

DC: Gee, Edan.  You articulate things so well here that I barely have to answer!     Yes to all of these.  I think that as a teacher of creative writing, it’s inevitable that you think a lot about the creative process,  and that you spend a lot of time trying to articulate how it works and why it is important, especially in a world that students face in which this kind of thinking isn’t taken seriously, when it’s seen as frivolous—or worse. One of the things that I talk about frequently with my students is the act of empathy—the act of trying to imagine yourself in the position of someone else—and the way this can be scary,  and transgressive, and even dangerous.  One of my assignments in my fiction class is to ask students to write from the point of view of someone radically different from themselves—to speak in the voice of a different gender or ethnicity or class, to try to think as far outside themselves as they can go, to try to inhabit that person—and for many of my students this feels perilous,  even morally problematic.

I remember one time we had a discussion in class about a sensational news story.  An insane woman had kidnapped a pregnant mother, and had killed the mother and performed a c-section and claimed the baby as her own.  A truly horrifying tale.  And we had been talking about it in class, and I asked:  which character would you choose if you were writing a story?   The pregnant mother or the insane woman who took the baby?   At that point, a young woman spoke up, a sophomore. “My God!”  she said.  “The ghost of that dead woman is probably spitting on us as we sit here talking about this!”  I think that was you, Edan, who was so appalled.  I remember that it gave me pause:  At what point does imagining, does the attempt to inhabit, become wrong?  At what point does it become morally repugnant?   I still think: never.  But I understand that it’s fraught,  that it’s compromised, that it’s suspect. That it’s an invasion that borders on—or crosses over into—the criminal. During the writing of this book,  I followed the exploits of a number of trolls who used invented personas to invade and then (often hilariously) disrupt various solemn internet message boards.   I read about a depressed teen who was goaded into suicide by a cruel classmate’s mother who was pretending to be the poor girl’s “boyfriend” on MySpace.  I myself set up a dummy email address and briefly tried out various fake personas to see what would happen.

Where does real life begin and end?  What makes some human beings real, and some fictional?  I don’t know the answer.  For better or worse,  the answers to these questions seem to be changing all the time,  and maybe there is no true answer.

TM: There’s an incredibly eerie and memorable second-person chapter at the end of Part One, where the narrator describes “your” identity being stolen, which, “Isn’t necessarily you, of course…you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling yourself.”  This chapter has the great power of planting paranoia in the reader’s mind, and forces her to question her own identity and notions of self.   As I kept reading, though, I found myself feeling paranoid about everything in the book—pretty soon I couldn’t trust anyone!  Um, Dan?  How in the hell did you do this?

DC: This chapter emerged from a late night free-write,   which wasn’t originally intended to be anything but a journal entry.  I was at a point when I needed to try to explain to myself what the book was about, and this was one of the few chapters  (the final chapter, Chapter 26, is the other) which came out in one draft, with very little revision. It felt like an inner voice that was speaking to me—a very eerie feeling for me as well.

TM: About the aforementioned chapter: why the second person?  It’s interesting, because while it’s about identity theft, it’s not taking away my identity, but, rather, giving me a different one.  In the text, I’m pulling off a snowy interstate—“And you wipe off the snow in your hair”—when in fact this reader lives in Los Angeles!  What went into this particular narrative choice?

DC: The narrative movement of this chapter was weird for me. Originally,  the narrator felt like me, Dan Chaon, the author—but then it moved into a more chilly and abstract omniscience, as if a little spark of myself had disconnected and was free-floating through the world, out-of-the-body travel, and then I found myself hovering over a stranger and entering into his consciousness.  Becoming part of the scene, and taking on his life story and personality. I realize now that I was trying to model the process of transference—to describe in shorthand the way imaginative empathy works.  “You”  are not in Los Angeles any longer.  You have become that melancholy middle-aged guy pumping gas in upstate New York.

There is a  poem by my friend Liz Rosenberg called “The Accident,”  which I think about a lot.  In the poem, a woman who is driving down the interstate observes the death of a motorcyclist from a distance, and there is an incredibly beautiful use of second person that I have always admired.  “You are still you,  but changing fast,” says the narrator of Liz Rosenberg’s poem, and she is both talking to the dying motorcycle guy and to herself.

TM: Has teaching at Oberlin influenced you as a writer? How do you manage to give students a sense of artistic freedom, while also offering them straightforward advice on technique and form?

DC: I love teaching, and I particularly like that moment when a student begins to discover the subject matter and voice that makes them unique. That’s a real high for me and it’s what keeps me coming back, semester after semester.  It’s such a pleasure to be around people who care passionately about books and writing and who have singular perspectives about the world, which is what I find almost across the board with Oberlin students.  I do find that I learn a lot from students, too.  The thing about teaching fiction is that there isn’t one answer to a problem—there’s no rulebook or easy fix. I learn a lot about my own process from helping students find solutions to the various issues that emerge when you’re working through a draft.  Not to get all new-agey, but there’s a lot of good energy that comes out of it.

TM: Have you noticed any popular themes or concepts in this current era of undergraduate writers?

DC: I notice a lot more post-apocalyptic scenarios these days, and I’m aware that as a generation this new group is pretty scared and pessimistic about the future they’re being left with.  In general, there’s less interest in straightforward realism than there used to be. It remains very difficult to get anyone under 21 interested in Alice Munro or William Trevor, but I guess that’s as it should be.  It’s hard, at my students’ age, to be sympathetic with the very middle-aged concerns of those two greats.  All in good time,  right?

TM: Because this is a book site, and because I know for a fact that you are a voracious, insane reader, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?

DC: Lies Will Take You Somewhere, by my wife,  Sheila Schwartz—and not just because we were married, either. I learned nearly everything I know about writing from her, and it’s a flat-out brilliant book: dark, funny, and strange in all the right ways.

Most Anticipated: Rounding Out 2009, An Epic Year for Books

At the beginning of the year, we noted that “2009 may be a great year for books.” With the publishing schedule for the remainder of the year filled out, calling 2009 a great year for readers is now a certainty. If anything, 2009 is backloaded, with new titles coming in the second half of the year from legends like Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth and fan favorites like Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Lethem. A peek into 2010, meanwhile, reveals more literary excitement on tap, with new titles on the way from Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, and others. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to right now. (Special thanks to the illustrious members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list, but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In July, Dave Eggers continues the trend he started with What is the What, working closely with his subject to produce a work with elements of memoir and non-fiction. In Zeitoun, the subject is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, “a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four,” who lived in New Orleans and disappeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, The Rumpus ran a long interview with Eggers that touches on Zeitoun, among several other topics. Eggers first encountered Zeitoun when McSweeney’s put out Voices from the Storm, an oral history of Katrina, and he told The Rumpus, “Their story intrigued me from the start, given that it’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia.” (Scroll down to October for more “Anticipated” action from Eggers.)William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California along the U.S.-Mexico border. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August kicks off with what will no doubt be a peculiar literary event, the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. It is a rare thing these days when a flurry of media attention centers on someone who has no interest in basking in it. And so, perhaps as Pynchon intends, the focus will be on the book. Inherent Vice promises to be odd. It’s 416 pages, shorter than the typical Pynchon doorstop, and the publisher Penguin, in its catalog, notes that Pynchon is “working in an unaccustomed genre” this time around. “Genre” seems to be the buzzword here. The book sports neon cover art and follows a private eye (Doc Sportello). The book begins: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.” Review copies are already out, and the early word is that the novel overlaps somewhat with and bears some similarities to Vineland.Inherent Vice shares a release date with a new book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, which Entertainment Weekly has already called “very beach-y.” (Sadly, it appears to have come in last in their poll to determine the “Must book of the summer.”) It sounds like fairly standard “suburban malaise” fare in which a mid-life crisis is endured over the course of the summer, the upside for the reader being that Russo is bringing his considerable skills to the table. PW is fairly tepid on the book, “Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered… the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo’s earlier work.”Of Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming, newly translated novels, Millions contributor Lydia writes: “I almost never know about the hot, up-and-coming items, but I do happen to know about this one, and I feel that, like many readers, my relationship to Bolaño has been one of breathless anticipation since the moment I first heard his name. Which was like this: at my old job, I was going through the mail. There was a New Directions catalog of aforementioned hot, up-and-coming items. I haven’t historically had a lot of interest in contemporary trade publications, but New Directions has a very warm spot in my heart because I associate it with The Berlin Stories. Anyway, in said mag I read a blurb about Nazi Literature in the Americas, and thought it sounded really neat, and then learned I would have to wait a year to read it, and since then it feels like there’s been a lot of waiting – sometimes with glorious gratification at the end (2666), sometimes not (Nazi Literature in the Americas, ironically). It’s thrilling that they keep coming! The Skating Rink in August, Monsieur Pain in 2010. It’s like new the James Bond franchise (btw, I’m a Craig, not a Brosnan). I just love having something to look forward to. I hope I don’t wet my pants on the way to the bookstore.” (Bolaño fans will also be looking out for Melville House’s Bolaño: The Last Interview And Other Conversations)Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply returns to the territory of separated siblings (You Remind Me of Me looked at a pair of long-lost brothers.) This time, the focus is on twins, one of whom has been missing for ten years. The book garnered a blurb from Jonathan Franzen, who will appear later in this list and who says of Chaon’s book, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I’m very glad Dan Chaon’s the one to have done it”Let’s just get this out of the way: In September, you are going to hear a lot about Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.More importantly, we’ll get Richard Powers’ follow up to his award-winning novel The Echo Maker. In Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores the idea of patenting the human gene for happiness. Last year, Powers wrote about the human genome for GQ. There’s not a lot of info available about this one but Ed Champion writes he “foresee(s) some animosity from the vanilla critics hostile to idea-driven novels,” and Sarah Weinmantweeted,” “Richard Powers’ new novel Generosity is about as audacious as a novel gets, and has fucked with my head as a reader every which way.”Lorrie Moore is set to deliver her first novel in over a decade, A Gate at the Stairs. All those Moore fans out there are faced with a huge dilemma this week. Do they read the “Childcare,” the excerpt of the novel that is the fiction offering in this week’s New Yorker, or do they avoid the magazine and hold out for two more months until the novel comes out? We’ve never been big fans of the New Yorker’s packaging of novel excerpts as short stories, so to all the Moore fans out there, we say – avert your eyes when you reach page 70 of this week’s issue!Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is already out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world. In The Guardian, Christopher Taylor described the book as “a carefully arranged sequence of interlocking stories” and said, “while many of the stories hinge on artistic talent – the risks and unkindnesses associated with it; who’s got it and who hasn’t – the strong focus on more widespread problems in life makes Nocturnes more than a writer’s thoughts on his job.” The Complete Review rounds up the rest of the early reactions.Pete Dexter returns in September with Spooner. This one sounds like another dark, Southern tale not unlike Paris Trout, the book that first put Dexter on the fiction map. The first line of Spooner is “Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a make-shift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Wood.”We’ll also get a new novel from E.L. Doctorow about a pair of brothers. Homer & Langley is about Homer and Langley Collyer, two famous Manhattan hoarders and recluses, who, after gaining notoriety for their obsessive habits and reportedly booby-trapped home, were found dead in 1947 surrounded by, according to Wikipedia, “over 100 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades.” Newsweek has an excerpt of the book. The novel’s first line is “I’m Homer, the blind brother. I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out.”Dan Brown is no doubt getting serious bank for his return to airport bookshelves and grocery store check-out lines, but he’s not the only one having a great recession. Audrey Niffenegger reportedly took home a $5 million advance for Her Fearful Symmetry, her follow-up to her very popular The Time Traveler’s Wife. Niffenegger describes the book on her website: “The novel concerns a pair of mirror-image twins, Julia and Valentina Poole… Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and function almost as one being, although in temperament they are opposites.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood, which has been described as “a journey to the end of the world.” The Random House catalog, meanwhile, called it a “dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power.” If that all isn’t intriguing enough, it appears that the book is maybe (or maybe not) the second book in a trilogy that was kicked off with Oryx & Crake. Atwood and her publishers have offered mixed signals on the trilogy question. Quill & Quire looked into the question, and included a quote from Atwood saying, “It’s not a sequel and it’s not a prequel… It’s a simultaneouel.” Ah, one of those.In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker covers well-trod literary ground by focusing on a writer protagonist. However, PW gave the book a starred review, calling it “lovely” and saying “Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope.” Baker’s protagonist is Paul Chowder, who is tasked with writing an introduction for a poet friend’s anthology and delivers the book’s stream of consciousness narration. By all early accounts the book is quite funny and also deeply immersed in poetry, with digressions on a number of history’s great poets. The Simon & Schuster catalog calls the book a “beguiling love story about poetry.”It’s my feeling that John Irving’s fiction has fallen off quite a bit in recent years (the last really good read for me was A Son of the Circus), but I still keep an eye on Irving’s new novels for any sign that he has regained his early career mojo. His last several books haven’t tempted me, and it’s probably too early to tell whether the Last Night in Twisted River will. Reading the first sentence of the publisher’s description, we already find a couple of Irving’s authorial tics, New Hampshire and bears: “In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear.” Don’t be surprised if a wrestler figures into the action somewhere in there. Still, Irving has compared the new book to The Cider House Rules. That’s a good sign.The venerable William Trevor will have a new novel out, Love and Summer.Millions reader Matthew looks forward to Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, due in September, “because Laird’s novels are fantastic.” Of Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez, he writes “This is his sophomore novel; his first, Part of the World was bizarre and funny.” He plans to read The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernandez (arriving in 2010) “because Borges sez so.”October is sure to bring Wild Things mania and Dave Eggers is going to be right in the middle of it. He worked with Spike Jonze on the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. And, in what is sure to be the most literary novelization of a film (adapted from a children’s book) ever, an Eggers-penned version of Wild Things is set to hit shelves when the movie comes out. There’s also the fur-covered edition.New Yorker readers have already gotten a taste of Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming book Chronic City. Of the excerpt, packaged as the story “Lostronaut,” I wrote, “This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in The New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a ‘Lostronaut’ aboard some sort of space station, to her ‘Dearest Chase.’ She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story.”Readers are soon set to see the fruits of an ambitious project by R. Crumb, his illustrated Book of Genesis, a surprisingly faithful rendering of the first book of The Bible done in Crumb’s unique style. Crumb talked about the project four years ago with Robert Hughes: “I was fooling around with Adam and Eve one day. Doodling about Adam and Eve. At first I did this satirical take off on Adam and Eve – lots of jokey asides and Jewish slang because they’re Jewish right? God is Jewish… Finally I got over fooling around and I realized I just had to tell it straight.”Booker winner A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, according to publisher Knopf’s description, “spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.” The book is out already in the UK, where a review in the Telegraph included this intriguing aside: “Byatt’s publisher is keen to present The Children’s Book, her first novel for seven years, as an equal to Possession, the work that secured her reputation and her mass-market appeal nearly 20 years ago. It certainly compares to its popular predecessor in its daring and scope and, unlike the more cerebral parts of Byatt’s output, is its equivalent in terms of storytelling and readability.”J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is a follow up to Boyhood and Youth in Coetzee’s series of memoirs. The NYRB recently published an excerpt.Quite a lot of sub-par material has been published in order to satiate the ravenous demand for Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. Thompson’s essays for ESPN in his later years were uneven at best, but fans may find something to like in The Mutineer, which Simon & Schuster says is “The highly anticipated final volume of the previously unpublished letters of Hunter S. Thompson, king of Gonzo journalism and one of the greatest literary figures of our time.” Insofar as HST,in his latter years, may have been more entertaining and lucid in his letters, this may put The Mutineer slightly above the low bar set by other recent HST collections. On the other hand, the book is edited by Johnny Depp, implying that the book is more about venerating the cult of HST than unearthing new work on par with his best efforts.November will bring the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short. In October last year, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been several books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine in November. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest.The great Philip Roth keeps churning out new novels. This year’s offering is The Humbling, Roth’s 30th novel. The publisher copy says “Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance.” The NY Times reported that yet another Roth novel, Nemesis, is due in 2010.Jonathan Safran Foer will have a non-fiction book out in November called Eating Animals, which most are guessing focuses on vegetarianism. An interview with Foer at Penguin’s UK website would seem to confirm this. It doesn’t mention the book, but the introduction says “Jonathan Safran Foer on why he doesn’t eat anything with parents.”Millions reader Laurie points us to My Bird by Fariba Vafi, translated from Farsi and originally published in Iran in 2002. The publisher Syracuse University Press says: “The narrator, a housewife and young mother living in a low-income neighborhood in [modern] Tehran…[is] forced to raise [her] children alone and care for her ailing mother… One of the most acclaimed and best-selling contemporary Iranian writers.” Laurie adds, “The novel won several literary awards in Iran and, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times, Vafi never attended college and writes when her children are in school.”2010: Probably the most anticipated book of next year will be the The Pale King, a coda to David Foster Wallace’s sadly shortened life as a writer. We already know a fair amount about the book – it will center on an IRS agent – and three excerpts have been published already, “Good People” and “Wiggle Room” in The New Yorker and “The Compliance Branch” (pdf) in Harper’s. A piece by D.T. Max went into some detail about The Pale King following DFW’s death. Given the amount work that lies ahead for DFW’s editors, this may be a second half of 2010 release.Also possibly arriving in the second half of 2010 is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which we are just beginning to hear about. The book is the long-awaited follow-up to Franzen’s loved, hated, celebrated, Oprah-snubbing novel of nearly a decade ago, The Corrections. Franzen has been coy about the title – the book is reportedly called Freedom – but readers got a taste of what Franzen has in store in “Good Neighbors,” an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago.Joshua Ferris will follow up his blockbuster debut Then We Came to the End with The Unnamed. The Book Case writes, “The novel focuses on Tim and Jane Farnsworth, a long-married couple who seem to have it all. But Tim has twice battled a bizarre, inexplicable illness.” Beattie’s Book Blog mentions that the illness is that he “can’t stop walking.”John McPhee has a new book due out called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “Silk Parachute” about his elderly mother. It begins “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.”Time Out NY says Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask is about “Milo, a New York father who is on the brink of economic ruin, and covers themes including but not limited to ‘work, war, sex, class, race, child-rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, the old-model brain, the commercialization of sadness and the eroticization of chicken wire.'”British publisher Faber says Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations “is a powerful novel about how our choices and our loves and the family life we build will always be an echo – a variation – of a theme played out in our own childhood.”In the comments or on your own blogs, let us know what books you’re looking forward to.

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