My friends ask me if I am happy to be back in New York City. I am not.
My U.K. visa expires in January, but I fly home a week before Christmas, frustrated and anxious about rebuilding a life in New York. In the new year I take a short-term sublet a few blocks from a Superfund site in northeast Brooklyn, across from a tow impound lot and next to an enormous industrial complex. I can’t figure out which industry exactly. I spend much of the month working from the apartment, which belongs to a puppet artist, hunkering down because when it’s not snowing, it’s staggeringly cold, the temperature hovering somewhere near zero. I watch snow pile up on the rusted-out old cars that line the edge of the industrial lot; I count a dozen cats, maybe more, slipping in and out between the tires. I am trapped, physically and metaphorically.
At some point the year prior, I’d struck up an online friendship with the writer Katie Coyle. It began with little mutual hearts across the Internet; soon it was a series of emails that snowballed in length, the sort that took us both months to reply to. I bought her debut novel, Vivian Versus the Apocalypse, and its sequel, Vivian Versus America, at a convention in the height of the English summer, one of those rare days of unbroken blue sky. I’m bad with friends’ books: I psych myself out, worried I will be called upon to give constructive feedback, or worried I will give constructive feedback when it’s not called for. So I avoided Vivian for six months, placing her carefully on the shelf. In December, I packed her up in a huge shoddy box, held together by an entire roll of packing tape and hopeful desperation, and mailed her back across the Atlantic.
Holed up during my month of icy stagnation, I devour both Vivian books. They were published as Vivan Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle in the U.S., some worry about readers’ apocalypse fatigue, I guess. The first one begins the day before the rapture, as predicted by a Christian cult gone mainstream, and tells the story of Vivian and her best friend, Harp, who drive across the country kicking ass as they try to figure out what’s really happened — and how to survive. The books make me cry a little and laugh a lot; they’re perfect. The winter drags on and I still find myself restless and boxed in, but for a few days, Vivian sets me free.
The ice takes an extraordinarily long time to melt. I take a job that very quickly doesn’t work out, so by April I find myself holed up working again, this time in my new apartment, a fifth floor walk-up with high ceilings and a skylight. When I’m not hauling cat litter up those four flights, and when the light hits the right way, I feel like I’m living up in the clouds. I am assigned Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God Among Ruins, an intertextual sequel of sorts to Life After Life, which I have not read. They’re only paying me to review one book, but I decide to read the two, and Life After Life is miraculous, not least if publishers think we have apocalypse fatigue, I certainly have Blitz fatigue. Atkinson brings the period into the sharpest focus I can remember encountering in a while. A God Among Ruins is harder, full of characters you want to shake by the shoulders, and poor Teddy, once peripheral and now fully fleshed out, the quiet tragedy of his life made plain. I read them both sitting out on the Promenade, even though it’s still a little too chilly when the wind picks up, and I watch the Staten Island Ferry trundling across the bay.
But the book that sticks with me most in the spring is Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which I begin reading when ice is still collecting on the East River. I worked with Mary for five years at The New Yorker, deciphering her handwriting on proofs at all hours during my interminable years on the night shift. I find the same quiet brilliance and wry humor in the pages of her book, as well as a strange, almost unwanted nostalgia for my years spent making the magazine, as she describes her own decades there.
And then, somehow, I start working for The New Yorker again. Just projects this time, mostly in the archives, spared from the grind of the weekly magazine. It’s more than a little strange to be back at the magazine. The World Trade Center is sterile and foreign and people seem confused about where I’ve been for the past few years. I don’t tell them about all the things I’ve learned, or about how my entire worldview has shifted. I complain about restrictive British visa laws, or how Brooklyn rents skyrocketed in my absence; my small talk shrinks even smaller. Other freelance work starts to trickle in — and then out of nowhere, it’s a flood. I take every project that comes my way, and the bills get paid. My mother says it seems like I’m struggling to stay afloat, which I strenuously deny, but on a deep level I know that she’s right. I’m treading water, as quickly as I can manage.
I have learned my lesson from past New York summers. This year, when given the opportunity, I leave. I work a few weekends up at the racetrack, slow Saturday afternoons on a $50 window. I sit next to a joyful woman one day who tells me a customer recently gave her the perfect line: “Put a hundred dollar bill in the toilet and flush,” he told her. “If you reach for it, you’re not ready for the racetrack.” This was a new one, and a delight, because I’ve been taking bets so long that most lines feel scripted. “Good luck,” I say, and they smile ruefully and reply, “I need it.”
But I am a fan culture journalist now, and summer is “con season.” I am invited to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, so I fly across the country in early July. En route I read The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs, billed as “A Handbook for Girl Geeks,” which is equal parts charming and empowering. I needlessly packed another three books for San Diego, as I do for every trip, and they remain buried under clothes and toiletries as I spend four long SDCC days confused and eager and oscillating between caffeinated and intoxicated. One night I crash a Playboy party, replete with half-assed nods to science (beakers and test tubes!) and mostly-naked women dropping from ropes on the ceiling; another night I trek across the length of San Diego to see the band that played the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, maybe two dozen of us waving foam glow sticks as they launch into the familiar guitar riff for the third time.
As the racing season comes to a close, I get my hands on a copy of Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), and a guy assigned to the window next to me tries to fake-geek-girl me by proxy, with a line of weirdly aggressive questions about what exactly Felicia Day had done beyond a gaming series he’s seen on YouTube — essentially, whether she was even qualified to write a memoir. This only makes me like the book more. And leaves me a little disheartened — the racetrack has always been my place for sexism from the past, sort of a “Nice tits, babydoll” kind of clientele, and now I’m stuck here defending Felicia Day’s right to be into video games.
The world has changed — and my world has changed. American Pharoah loses the big race and the town deflates, and I head back down the Hudson. This year has been an exercise in putting off the big projects until fall, which is fast approaching. I’ve got an essay to write, a proposal to rework, a life to stabilize. Spoiler alert: a change in season doesn’t make this stuff any easier.
In the last week of September, my copy of Carry On arrives in the mail. It is thick and beautiful and I clutch it to my chest the way I can only really remember doing with Harry Potter books in the past. It is a similar size and shape, and similarly magical. In the following weeks, I will go on to spill a ton of pixels about the nature of Rainbow Rowell’s newest book, and the seminal point, in my friend Connor’s words, that intertextuality ≠ fanfiction. But before all that, on the first chilly weekend of the year, I light a fire and curl up and read in a way I rarely do these days, the kind of reading where you look up and realize 200 pages have gone by, and the fire’s down to a few smoldering embers, and you can’t imagine this book ending. Of course, it will.
I decide to spend October with Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, partly because it’s interesting and beautifully written, and partly because I’m trying to understand why certain texts grab us and drag us under. I read other books this year, books I won’t name because I thought they failed in some way, or in certain cases, many ways, but it’s the stuff that works — more than works, the stuff that you want to slow down for fear of finishing too soon — that intrigues me. I write about fans, after all.
After Thanksgiving, I put neat bows on my projects through the end of the year, and I start to pack to go back across the ocean. It’s just for a few weeks, not a few years, and I have a tall stack of books to be read, maybe to be packed and remain buried under clothes and toiletries. The Daughters, by Adrienne Celt, or the copy of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird I borrowed from a coworker, or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which I should’ve read a year ago, or When We Are No More, by Abby Smith Rumsey, out in the early months of next year, about one of my favorite topics, cultural memory in the age of digital technologies. But this trip to England is not about the realities of living there, but the pleasure of visiting, so a friend and I will take a trip up to the Peak District, to see Chatsworth and presumably cross paths with Mr. Darcy. I’ve read it before but I can read it again: without a second thought, I toss Pride and Prejudice into my suitcase.
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As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of The New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas. Relax, I wanted to say. I don’t make a habit of correcting people in conversation or in print — unless it’s for publication and they ask for it, or I’m getting paid. We copy editors sometimes get a reputation for wanting to redirect the flow, change the course of the missile, have our way with a piece of prose. The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.
But good writers have a reason for doing things the way they do them, and if you tinker with their work, taking it upon yourself to neutralize a slightly eccentric usage or zap a comma or sharpen the emphasis of something that the writer was deliberately keeping obscure, you are not helping. In my experience, the really great writers enjoy the editorial process. They weigh queries, and they accept or reject them for good reasons. They are not defensive. The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up — unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.
When the opening chapters of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist ran in The New Yorker, I got to OK it. It was immaculate, partly because we were working from the galleys of the book: copy editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had already been over it, and, once a piece is in that form, authors, agents, and editors are reluctant to change a ligature. I went over it, giving it all I had: sometimes copy departments at publishing houses miss something, just as we sometimes miss something. As it happens, I noticed a small inconsistency in a passage that was quoted from a children’s history book. It was a long quotation, set off in small type, and it was repeated at the end, with some slight variation. I marked it and gave my proof to the fiction editor, Bill Buford. Later, Bill’s assistant came bounding up the stairs and delivered to me a color Xerox of the first page of my proof, on which Buford had written in blue, “Of Mary Norris, Roth said: ‘Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?’”
Up to that point, I’d read only Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. Helen Stark, who was in charge of The New Yorker’s editorial library, had been all atwitter when The Ghost Writer ran in the magazine — she saved it for herself to index. Now I bought the audiobook of I Married a Communist and listened to it on a drive back from Ohio. It was read by the actor Ron Silver, and I almost went off the road during an ecstatic passage where the stars were furnaces: furnace of Ira, furnace of Eve. It seemed so warm and passionate. The book was funny, too: the hero is forced to schlep his girlfriend’s daughter’s harp all over town, and I had a harpist in the family, so I knew what a pain the harp was — there is nothing heavenly about a working harp. I subsequently had a year of Roth: Patrimony, The Facts (“Reader, I married her”), all the Zuckerman books. When Exit Ghost came out, I went back and read The Ghost Writer. I was on a trip to Amsterdam and saw Anne Frank’s house and reread her diary while staying in a hotel on the spot of one that burned down during the war. I was so sorry when I ran out of Roth to read.
I did speak with Roth on the phone once, closing a piece about Saul Bellow, and saw him at a New Yorker Christmas party. I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.
Excerpted from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Copyright © 2015 by Mary Norris. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.