James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that always manages to surprise me because it just works. There is, of course, tremendous style and skill in the execution. But there is nothing ostentatious: no cheap jumps or surprises, no shifts in voice, no postmodern irruptions by the writer. “Sonny’s Blues” is simply an intense story with high stakes. Sonny will either manage to live in this world or, in his great desperation and pain, fall to heroin. This life or death conflict lies naked on the page, so that every word, spoken and narrated, must either point to it or pointedly talk around it, each word advancing the cause of one or the other outcome. Because there is no gimmick to it, because there is honesty and bluntness in the telling of the story, Baldwin is able to rest the world on Sonny’s shoulders. As the story goes on, Baldwin returns again and again to the pronoun “we” and to apocalyptic metaphor. A story about a man convincingly becomes a story about a nation, and a story about human beings. It is not only Sonny’s fate that remains undecided at the end of the story; the apocalyptic “cup of trembling” that sits at the top of Sonny’s piano in the final sentence is meant for all of us.
The stories in Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are built on the model of “Sonny’s Blues”. There is no trick to these stories, only brute intensity. These are stories about people, particularly women, who have suffered terribly, who stand on the precipice, and who implicate us in what has happened to them and in what they intend to do. These are women whose desperation to be heard and to be loved drives them to feel with a terrifying, violent intensity. They remind me of Dorcas, from Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a “girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made [her lover] so sad and so happy that he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” They expect nothing and somehow get less; they know better than to get their hopes up about anything. Parents forget to pay the electric bill and the lights get cut. They abandon their children in the house, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll return: “Liddie and I sat in our pajamas, alone, staring at the tree that wouldn’t light up. When our parents returned hours later with pizza and Chinese food and flashlights and candles, we exhaled breath we didn’t even know we’d been holding and ate cold food in the dark silence.” When the protagonist of “Virgins” loses her virginity, her ambivalence speaks for every other character in the collection: “I did understand then that there was no such thing as safe, only safer; that this, if it didn’t happen now, would happen later but not better.”
Evans also shares Baldwin’s talent for dialogue: both writers know well what lies are hidden behind every word. A character in “Jellyfish,” upon receiving a self-serving offer from her father, slips up and says “That’s wonderful for you,” instead of “That’s wonderful of you.” Despite her best intentions, the mistaken preposition and the greeting-card formality of her response reveals exactly what she thinks about the matter. The same story features this expert piece of dialogue:
“You sound like me the week after you left me the first time,” said Cheese. “I thought every woman walking beneath the window was you.”
“Well,” said Eva. “Here I am.”
Eva responds, but doesn’t really respond; that might make her vulnerable. It is typical of most communication in the collection, sensitive negotiations conducted between two hostile parties rather than any sort of genuine exchange. Characters seize on key phrases, remember them exactly, and quote them ad nauseum, as if they were valuable bargaining chips: “Anyway, he told me once that love was not a real thing because it was comprised of too many subsidiary emotions.” Dialogue, for Evans’ characters, is war by other means.
Evans is smart enough to know that suffering only very rarely makes you a better person. These characters are capable of staggering cruelties. The protagonist of “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” meeting the fiance of her ex-boyfriend, Brian, for the first time, is responsible for this exchange:
“To death and divorce, then,” he says, “which are forever.”
“And marriage,” I say, clinking my drink to his and nodding at Brian, “Which is not.”
I let out a hushed oath when I read that passage for the first time, as if the characters were sitting right next to me in a crowded restaurant and I was afraid of being overheard. I honestly felt, to my own surprise, scandalized. You know these characters shouldn’t get a pass for their behavior, but you don’t quite blame them for it either. They know a certain pitiless brutality to be an immutable truth of life. Tara, of “Snakes,” puts it nicely: “I felt like somebody ought to stop me from walking out, like there was a rule that you couldn’t leave behind such palatable need.” But, as she well knows, there isn’t. So she does walk out.
Evans’ collection, however, is all about attending to that palatable need. Like Baldwin and Morrison, Evans belongs to the branch of black literary humanism that, simply by recognizing its characters as people, carries with it an implicit social mission. These stories are written with such detail and attention that it sometimes feels like a personal letter, written by one black woman for another, by one loving person for another. It feels necessary. Somebody should tell these women that they are not alone and that they matter.
What makes this collection great is that moral mission, the way that the collection serves as a testament to the value of the individuals whose stories it tells. Race is here, of course. Race cannot help but be here, in every tiny crack and crevice, tainting everything from sunscreen to school pranks. Race cuts and bruises and scars the characters of this collection. But beyond their intricate filigrees of defensiveness, beyond the ways that others insist on seeing them, the characters of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self are people. They want those awfully basic things that can be expressed in simple, declarative thrusts: I want to be loved, I want your love, I want a real family. These primary human dramas are what ultimately drive the stories in the collection, and the need in these stories is so obvious and strong that it levels the heart. Such an insistent demand for love should be heard; it is worthy of being chronicled in books. There isn’t a rule that you can’t leave behind such palatable need, of course. We know this. But the gap between what we know and what we think should be is the place from which great literature often emerges. There isn’t such a rule, but as Danielle Evans persuasively argues, there ought to be.
I tend to like and lean towards creative things made by womenfolk—perhaps it has to do with being handed a Cibo Matto mixtape at a crucial point of adolescence or deciding to major in post-1945 yonic-ceramic-art-history in college (yes! I really did this!); yellow-wallpapered observations are always my default reads. But this year, I found myself reading almost exclusively female writers–and more specifically, their collections of short stories. As Lorrie Moore puts it (best, always best), I have entered “that awful stage of life between twenty-six to and thirty-seven known as stupidity,” and the best way I’ve found to navigate—or at least subsist within—it are these compact little morsels of ladywriting, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I blame the Internet and Saturn’s return.
My favorite discovery this year was Canadian bookseller Deborah Willis, whose debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories really floored me. Willis has this airy, almost giggly writing voice that sounds like a Valley Girl gifted with an Oxford education (example: “What I did understand, later but still way before Claudia did, was that it was impossible. That we could never break free. No matter what we did, we could never separate them from us. Our bodies were built by the lentils and flax they’d fed us. Their bone structure lingered in our faces.”) The title story in her collection is told by a woman whose neurotic author father mysteriously left his attic office one day and just never returned—the narrator is still stunned by it after so many years, this spectral longing, this losing a person due to the fact that they simply do not wish to be found. If you have time to read one more short story this year, consider making that one it.
Willis’ work reminded me a bit, but not too much, of Aimee Bender’s wonderful, casual magical realism, which I am (utterly, blushingly) ashamed to say was a 2010 revelation. Her latest novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake–about people who eat their feelings in every literal way–was one of my favorite long reads this year, but I found myself gravitating more often in quiet moments to her debut story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, which contains one of the best descriptions of losing love I’ve found. A woman’s lover experiences “reverse evolution,” becoming a monkey, then a salamander-like primitive creature that she must let out to sea. “Sometimes I think he’ll wash up on shore,” she writes. “A naked man with a startled look. Who has been to history and back.” And isn’t that what we all want from past loves? Bewilderment and a sudden return to our stoop. Point: Bender.
Last cold front, I dove headfirst in the Mary Gaitskill oeuvre after seeing her read at the Center for Fiction early in the year, gobbling down Don’t Cry and Bad Behavior (again, deep shame of not getting there sooner). I also found and courted and decided to settle in with Amy Bloom, particularly Come to Me—which was the winner in the “story openings I wish I’d written” category: “I wasn’t surprised to find myself in the back of Mr. Klein’s store, wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable.”
The last woman-penned story collection I read was Michele Latiolais’ forthcoming Widow, which is weird and sad and compulsive and continues to stick to my ribs. Latiolais writes about grief in such a raw way—she joins the general pantheon of No-More-Husband literature (high priestess: J-Did), but her style is so unique as to be another genre altogether.
And also! Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which nails so much in so little space.
There are many ways to measure a year, but the reader is likely to measure it in books. There was the novel that felt as fresh and full of promise as the new year in January, the memoir read on the bus to and from work through the grey days of March, the creased paperback fished from a pocket in the park in May, the stacks of books thumbed through and sandy-paged, passed around at the beach in August, the old favorite read by light coming in the window in October, and the many books in between. And when we each look back at our own years in reading, we are almost sure to find that ours was exactly like no other reader’s.
The end of another year brings the usual frothy and arbitrary accounting of the “best” this and the “most” that. But might it also be an opportunity to look back, reflect, and share? We hope so, and so, for a seventh year, The Millions has reached out to some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2011 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2010 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Fiona Maazel, author of Last Last Chance.
John Banville, author of The Sea, The Infinities, and many other books.
Al Jaffee, legendary Mad Magazine writer and cartoonist.
Lionel Shriver, author of So Much for That and several other books.
Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Joshua Cohen, author of Witz.
Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges and several other books.
Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red.
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future.
Bill Morris, Millions staff writer and author of Motor City.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room and several other books.
Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and many other books.
Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius and several other books.
Hamilton Leithauser, of The Walkmen.
Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood and other books.
Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and other books.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists.
Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and several other books.
Philip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag and several other books.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and other books.
Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge.
Joseph McElroy, author of Women and Men and several other books.
Alexander Theroux, author of Laura Warholic and several other books.
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
Emily St. John Mandel, Millions staff writer and author of Last Night In Montreal and The Singer’s Gun.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Edan Lepucki, Millions staff writer, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Ed Champion, proprietor of edrants.com and The Bat Segundo Show.
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review.
Tom McCarthy, author of C and Remainder.
Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men and founding editor of n+1.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There and co-founder of The Morning News.
Paul Harding, author of Tinkers.
Sigrid Nunez, author of Salvation City and several other books.
Matt Weiland, editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State.
Allegra Goodman, author of The Cookbook Collector and several other books.
Adam Levin, author of The Instructions and several other books.
Michael Cunningham, author of By Nightfall, The Hours and several other books.
Sam Anderson, book critic, New York magazine.
Richard Nash, of Cursor and Red Lemonade.
Seth Mnookin, author of Hard News and The Panic Virus.
Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age.
Marisa Silver, author of The God of War and other books.
David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy.
Emily Colette Wilkinson, Millions staff writer.
Jenny Davidson, author of Invisible Things and other books.
Scott Esposito, proprietor of Conversational Reading and editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
Carolyn Kellogg, LA Times staff writer.
Anne K. Yoder of The Millions.
Marjorie Kehe, book editor at the Christian Science Monitor.
Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making Of A Yoga Dude and other books.
Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
Allen Barra writes for the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Beast.
Dorothea Lasky, author of Black Life and AWE.
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books, The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.
Stephanie Deutsch, critic and historian.
Lydia Kiesling, Millions staff writer.
Lorraine Adams, author of The Room and the Chair.
Rachel Syme, NPR.com books editor.
Garth Risk Hallberg, Millions staff writer and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a goodreads review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In it, he wrote that he wished books with more than 10% of “teenage girl content” came with an advisory warning. This way, he could avoid them. This was puzzling to me. If a book had a label that said, “Warning! Teenagers Inside!” I would be more likely to pick it up. Doesn’t every reader, male or female, young or old, find that phase of life to be particularly dramatic, moving, screwed up, and beautiful? I loved the teenagers that populated Egan’s latest novel, especially Rhea, who narrates the chapter/story “Ask Me if I Care,” and not only because she’s a freckle-face like I was (am). She’s vulnerable and wise, and also incredibly naive, too. Her desires are painfully strong, and yet she cannot totally understand them.
Teenagers have a real drive to be independent, to discover and define (or defy) their identities. And yet, they’re also powerless. They have their parents’ will to contend with, and their friends’ complicated codes of behavior. They have the secret shames of the body. They long for the purity and ease of childhood even as they fling themselves into the dangers of adulthood. In short, they make for compelling characters.
Books about teenage boys, it seems to me, are often about a rage that is hard to control and understand. Jim Shepard’s Project X is a fine example of the genre. About a Columbine-style act of school violence, and the two eighth grade boys who perpetrate it, the novel is engrossing, compassionate, and oddly mundane in its faithful depiction of contemporary American adolescence. Whenever I think of Go-gurts, I think of this book.
I haven’t yet read Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone, but I want to. Narrated by seventeen year-old Jacob Higgins, who is sent to a juvenile correctional facility for committing a violent crime, the book has been described as sad and funny, and The Daily Beast promises “there’s no sappy uplift here.” At The New Yorker Book Bench blog, Eileen Reynolds writes that Jacob, “may be cut from the same cloth as Holden Caulfield, but he’s a good bit funnier and a lot less mopey than the angsty adolescent male narrators from many coming-of-age books that have followed Catcher in the Rye.” He sounds like a narrator I could fall in love with.
Though I like books about teenage boys, I prefer to read about teenage girls, most likely because I used to be one myself. Man, if I had been the narrator of a novel! What a weird and exhilarating book that would be! (See also: mortifying). I recently finished a novel manuscript about an adult woman looking back on her 16 year-old self. I (mostly) avoided reading books about similar milieus while I was writing it (for fear of undue influence), but I did, from time to time, consider some of my favorite teenage heroines. Here are just a few:
Jane Eyre. According to a footnote in my edition, Charlotte Bronte’s novel about the poor, unloved orphan who falls for that creep Mr. Rochester is probably the first occurrence of a first-person narration by a child in British literature. Perhaps that’s what renders this book so intimate and authentic. Jane is a complex, independent woman, and her storytelling is modern and hyper-conscious. I’ve always loved Jane’s bookishness, her honesty, and her plain looks. It’s her evolution from child to woman that provides us with a panoramic understanding of her character.
Mick Kelly. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I have a terrible memory, but this novel’s teenage protagonist is never really far from my mind. Mick dresses like a boy. She feels trapped in her small Southern town. She is composing a symphony in her head called “This Thing I Want, I Know Not What.” That phrase…God, it’s haunted me for years.
Thisbe Casper. Thisbe is the younger of the two teenage daughters in Joe Meno’s most recent novel, The Great Perhaps. She’s a fervent believer in God among a family of nonbelievers, and she also has a crush on her friend Roxie, which fills her with fear and shame. She’s aglow with all kinds of feelings, and I adore her. It’s no surprise that Thisbe was Meno’s favorite character in the book.
Chloe from Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love. The Feast of Love was on my list of favorite books of the decade, partially because of Chloe’s sections, which are narrated with a raw, kinetic energy. Chloe’s boyfriend is pierced-up Oscar with “the blond hair, the snaggle-toothed smile, the bomb-shelter eyes.” I’m not sure how old Chloe is (if it said in the book, I don’t remember), but she seems about nineteen to me — she’s got that reckless hopefulness in her. At the beginning of her first section, she says of her and Oscar, “We were swoon machines,” and I, the reader, swoon myself. I love that Baxter marries colloquialisms and cliche with striking, unique turns of phrase to get at a teenager’s way of moving through the world.
I’ve recently started Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, a debut collection of stories about young African-American women (some of them teenagers) living on the east coast. In her laudatory review in the New York Times, Lydia Peelle writes, “Rather than limiting the collection’s gaze, this perspective amplifies the universal pitfalls of coming of age in 21st-century America.” I’ve only read the first story, “Pilgrims,” but the conflicts therein already support Peelle’s thesis. In a scene between the high school-aged narrator, her friend Jasmine, and some older guys they’ve met a club, there’s one finely-wrought moment. The girls have, of course, lied about their age:
“Man, look who we got here,” said the one in the passenger seat, turning around. “College girl with a attitude problem. How’d we end up with these girls again? Y’all are probably virgins, aren’t you?”
“No,” Jasmine said. “Like hell we are. We look like virgins to you?”
“Nah,” he said, and I didn’t know whether to feel pissed off or pretty.
This exchange captures so well what it feels like to be that age: wanting approval, and respect, and also wanting to be desired, even if you don’t feel that desire back. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Evans’s stories, to see how she deepens her exploration of this puzzling and complex demographic. Something tells me she will.
Writing this almost makes me want to write another book about a teenager. Almost — it’s not easy, throwing yourself into that world again. But I could read dozens of books about teenagers. Dozens! And those warning stickers? They’d help.