In part one of this two-part series, Meaghan O’Connell and I discussed our experience reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. At that point, we were a couple of hundred pages into the novel. Now we are back to continue that conversation, and to illuminate for our audience just what it means to read (or not read) a classic in 2016…and to no doubt embarrass ourselves further in the name of honesty, entertainment, and, of course, literature.
Edan Lepucki: I’m 80 pages from finishing David Copperfield…and I’ve given up. I just can’t do it anymore. The endless scenes with characters’ verbal tics on full display; the moralizing about the beauty of a woman’s purity; Mr. Micawber’s debts and heart; Uriah Heep’s writhing. I just can’t. I am so bored! I found that I was barely reading and when I stop reading my life takes on a sad, lifeless tone, like my hair before I get my blonde highlights. My former English professor, the brilliant David Walker, wondered on Twitter why we didn’t try Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House. Why didn’t we? I guess I wanted a comic novel, a famous crowd pleaser. But I am far from pleased.
Where are you in the novel? Are you compelled to continue?
I am left with a few thoughts from this project. The first one being, what does “Dickensian” mean? Want to take a stab at defining that, based on what you’ve read of Davy C.?
Meaghan O’Connell: Oh, Edan. When I got this email from you I cheered out loud. I still have 200 pages to go and I can barely remember what it’s like to truly love a book. I am so behind and the book is starting to feel endless. Every night I tell myself, “Okay, go to bed early. Read for an hour or more.” Then I get in bed, read two pages, and fall asleep at 9 pm or whatever it is.
I am still a little invested, mostly in D.C.’s romantic prospects, but I, too, would prefer to never read the name Uriah Heep again. I think I want to finish it, but I need to bring a few more books into the rotation, save it for when I am in a certain mood, I guess the mood to be somewhat tediously entertained?
IT’S SO LONG.
I wanted to read David Copperfield because supposedly it is the author’s favorite, and based largely/vaguely on his own life. And the book does make me curious about Dickens himself, or at least the narrator. Like, hi, D.C., please, step forward, talk to me in like 200 pages instead of 860. Maybe tell a different story altogether? Great Expectations perhaps? I probably should have just re-read that. I love reading things I read when I was younger and understanding things that passed by me then.
Dickensian. I think in casual conversation people mean it to be “about poor people”? Things that are bleak. I picture a small boy with soot on his cheeks, begging for bread, maybe a starving cat in the background. It’s all very grey. There are waistcoats, which it turns out are simply VESTS, and they are threadbare. I think this is based almost entirely on Oliver Twist?
Having read 70 percent of the book I would say that I guess that isn’t totally off, but if you said a book was Dickensian, well, for one, I would not want to read it, at least not for a long time. I would imagine it to be bloated but funny, obsessed with class, tragicomic? An orphan? A lot of failed romance but probably some sort of happy ending (I may never know the end of this, but he does reference his future children at some point — which was weird!)
It’s been strange to read a book I just like okay, to be missing that big propulsive drive in my life. This book is not really making me think about anything? It’s not inspiring, or not in any way that is conscious. I guess I am inspired that Dickens took up so much damned space. Mostly it’s felt, much as it did the last time I read his work, like homework. I need a breath of fresh air! I have no urge to write lately and I never thought I’d say this/provoke lovers of Victorian literature in this way, but I blame Charles Dickens.
Have you really abandoned poor Davey? (Edan, you know he probably has abandonment issues!!) Are you on to other books? What’s it like on the other side?! I’m really left feeling like, God, maybe I should just watch a BBC version of this book and see if he ends up marrying Agnes after all. I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not a scholar of some kind, which seems like a pretty brazen pronouncement, but, you know what, I stand by it. Do not read this book!! Life is short.
Edan: What’s amazing to me is how many people, when I told them I was reading David Copperfield, said that they had read and loved the book when they were younger. This is startling to me because, while Dickens isn’t difficult on the sentence level, there are still quite a few cultural and era-specific references that were unclear to me, as a worldly adult. (For instance, all the stuff around Copperfield’s career, before he starts writing for money, confused me.) And the intense moralizing about young women made me worried about all the women who read this as kids. Don’t run off with the hot asshole, little girls, or you will never recover! (Well, hey, that’s maybe kind of a good lesson to live by…) It did make me consider David C. as a (very) long young adult novel, or even middle grade novel. The reader, for a time, is Davy’s age, and can grow along with him. There were a lot of plot turns that I saw coming for hundreds of pages, which might be less obvious to a younger audience.
When I think about “Dickensian” I, like you, first imagine waistcoats and soot, a bad cough. Certainly orphans. But also long narratives that rely very much on coincidence. Now that I’ve read most of David Copperfield, I’d say, too, that the Dickensian style has colorful and immediately memorable characters with distinct names and ways of speaking: Peggoty, Mr. Dick, Miss Murdstone. As much as I began to dislike this novel, I’m in awe of how efficiently he brought these figures to life, and with such joy, it seems.
In his terrific introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, David Gates does a bang-up job of citing the book’s flaws, from Mr. Micawber’s anti-semitic one-liner to Dickens’s flawed and flat depiction of women, such as Agnes, whom Gates calls “the celestially backlit hall monitor.” He goes on to argue that Dickens “writes best about damaged, dark, and dangerous women.” Gates cites the scarred Rosa Dartle in the novel, whom I was also very much mesmerized by. Aside from the needless length of the book, I do think the depictions of women were what made me finally put it down. I started skimming right around when Dora asked Davy to call her Child Wife. Just no.
Since you asked, I’ve given up D.C. for good and I’m enjoying reading again. I ate up Charles Yu’s metafictional How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which is like Italo Calvino crossed with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure crossed with George Saunders. Then I read the forthcoming debut novel Home Field by The Millions staff writer Hannah Gersen, which was so beautiful and compelling that she and I joked my blurb should be: “Better than Dickens!”
Speaking of Hannah, she told me that she appreciates Dickens’s influence more than Dickens’s work. What do you think this means?
Meaghan: It’s funny you wrote today because I picked the book back up last night! I’d read enough of Charlotte Shane and then Rebecca Curtis to be ready to reenter the fore. It was very pleasant. If I can keep reading intense lyric memoirs and bizarro short stories between chapters of this doorstopper, I might just finish it.
The “my great love is so delicate!” shit is pretty tedious, though I did laugh when he described her to Agnes, making excuses for how fragile she was, how she couldn’t be troubled with this or that. Getting relationship advice from the unassuming girl everyone else knows you SHOULD be with felt so modern — a satisfying set up! If he isn’t headed for one in a series of falls and if he doesn’t end up with backlit Agnes, I will be bitter indeed.
And you’re right — efficient! Who would have thought we’d use that word to describe Dickens? The very name Miss Murdstone makes me so angry. Mr. Micawber evokes dread, awkwardness. They flit in and out of the story so any lasting impression seems like an achievement. There’s a sort of necessary hamfistedness? Or if it’s deliberate maybe it’s just over-the-top, but good over-the-top. He’s having fun with it, there seems to be this continual raised eyebrow throughout, and yet he maintains such sincerity with David Copperfield! Maybe that’s what feels sort of YA about it? He’s so pure of heart and unflagging and “honorable” and so on. He’s good-humored but never totally self-aware? It’s SO sincere even as it’s funny.
Poor kids being assigned this book in school. At least with Great Expectations there is the spider cake to cling to.
I totally get the influence versus the work thing, what a smart, gentle thing to say, like maybe he might read this. A friend, when I told her I wanted to read some Dickens, was like, “Or maybe read some Nancy Mitford? Or Jane Austen even?”
To me “Dickensian” evokes what I was trying to get at earlier, a sense of playfulness (I hate when adults say “play” but there it is), a very kind evisceration, wit, and a noble heart. It is fun, though I think it’s more fun to have that foundation and then undercut it. It’s thrilling in a way, how tired so much of it feels, while still being full of life. To have him be brilliant but also to feel like we (“we” lol) have made progress, literature-wise! Is that crazy to say? We’re better than you now, Dickens, but thank you for your service.
Edan: I love your phrase, “a very kind evisceration” — this is such an accurate description of what Dickens is up to in David Copperfield. I definitely appreciate this gift of his. But gift-appreciation is different from pure enjoyment.
Again, though, I circle back to this idea that perhaps we chose the wrong book; certainly we wouldn’t say that the contemporary novels we adore are better than, say, Bleak House, which everyone seems to agree is a masterpiece. I would bet that most Dickens scholars and lovers would choose another book of his for us to judge. Maybe David Copperfield is too of its time to truly work for contemporary readers such as ourselves. I get the sense that it was written to be an immersive, rousing text for the readers of its day; perhaps his more “serious” novels were striving for something other than immersion: complication, profundity.
All the 18th-century literature I read in college, like Pamela, or Humphry Clinker, were fun to talk about but a chore to read — their storytelling techniques were just so obvious and clunky. While David Copperfield was a far better read than those novels, I’m still having a better time discussing the book with you than I did reading said book. Back when I was in that 18th-century literature class, I remember feeling that The Novel, as a machine to entertain and move the reader, had become much sleeker and more powerful over the years. But by the 19th century, the machinery had improved considerably. We have Austen, as you mentioned. (Emma was published in 1815.) And George Eliot — my god, what brilliance! Middlemarch came later in the century, in 1874. David Copperfield, published in 1850, came between those two books. Perhaps some learned person can step forward to tell us why and how novels got so much more refined in the 1800s — only a century (or less) later. And is Copperfield’s episodic/picaresque quality (is it a picaresque?) a throwback to these older books? I wonder, I wonder.
I asked Hannah Gersen what she meant by Dickensian influence and she echoed what we’ve been saying, and she also remarked that Christmas movies owe a huge debt to Charles D. She’s right!
Will you read more Dickens in 2016? Ever? What do you take away from this experiment in ye olden classics?
Meaghan: God. It’s just TOO LONG. My edition is 866 pages. Life is too short to read something so plodding. And yet, I’m still reading it. I have a hard time giving up on books. I keep thinking maybe there will be some revelation near the end that will have made it all worthwhile. Like something big will unlock for me, literature-wise.
I am still a good 200 pages from the end and I just read the chapter about him marrying Dora (spoiler alert) and he totally elided the sex, while still referring to it in a sentence that manages to be both not quite comprehensible and totally revolting:
It was a strange condition of things, the honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home, when I found myself sitting down in my own small house with Dora; quite thrown out of employment, as I may say, in respect of the delicious old occupation of making love.
A run-on, but a lot of nice language I think. “My own small house” is good. “The honeymoon being over, and the bridesmaids gone home,” also really good, I’d say! BUT THEN, he ruins it all with “the delicious old occupation of making love.”
Coming from him, it reminds me of that SNL skit where they eat meat in a hot tub and call each other lover. Also I’ll admit I don’t quite know what he means by “quite thrown out of employment, as I may say” — NO YOU MAY NOT SAY, because it makes no sense. Is he fucking too much to go to work or did she fire him from fucking her? Is he just done doing it around the clock and settling into married life? (Probably.)
Anyway, not a word about the sex except that it was delicious, which, good for you, but gross. Very Jonathan Franzen.
There is a part of me that wants to try a different book because I am so stubborn and I don’t want to have given over like six weeks of my reading life to this book that is not as good as Austen! To think they were written around the same time! I am no expert in “what the novel does or is or wants to be” but, wow, the ladies were doing it better (If I may say! And I may!).
Maybe if I read Bleak House and it’s a masterpiece that opens up my brain, this will all have been worth it? These are the thoughts I’m left with, Edan.
I just read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and it was the perfect antidote, which is what other books are to me now: antidotes to David Copperfield.
Despite my best intentions, 2015 went and happened before I even opened the copy of David Copperfield I’d purchased months earlier. I wanted to better acquaint myself with the genius of Charles Dickens — or so I had told myself. Thankfully, my friend Meaghan O’Connell, author of the forthcoming essay collection And Now We Have Everything, had told herself the same thing. And she’d been just as delinquent. So we decided to read the book at the same time, in a two-person book club, reveling in our shared ignorance and eventual education. What follows is part one of our email correspondence about the novel.
Edan Lepucki: I realized, before I began reading David Copperfield with you, that it’s been more than four years since I’ve read a ye olden classic. I spent a lot of my 20s tearing through famous books I’d failed to read as an English major in college: Wuthering Heights; Anna Karenina; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Middlemarch. But when I turned 30 and had a baby, I stopped. I’ve basically read nothing but contemporary fiction for the last four and a half years. Why? I primarily blame sleeplessness — when you haven’t slept, your brain doesn’t want unfamiliar syntax! Also, maybe because I never go out anymore, reading the latest greatest novel is my way of being social with people? (God that is dorky.) All I know is, on my book tour I went alone to a bar with a Henry James novel. I ordered a glass of sparkling wine. I took a sip. I opened the book. I took another sip of wine. Then I closed the book. The James remains on my bookshelf, unread.
But now that I’m 11 chapters into David Copperfield, I recall how wonderful it is to read lit-er-a-ture. For one, a 19th-century novel is dramatic and juicy. The book is appealing to the part of me that needs plot (what is going to happen to Davy next?!), as well as the part of me that needs to be moved. Leave it to Dickens to make me worry about a poor little British boy — who would’ve guessed? The language, too, has been inspiring me. For instance, the series of questions early on, regarding Copperfield’s mother:
Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocence and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night?
He goes on with this, “Can I say…” motif for another line or two and it kills me — the present narrator negotiating memory with present day objectivity and the demands of storytelling! What a feat!
Meaghan O’Connell: Right! Like, hey, who knew? Charles Dickens is a really great writer! The voice of the narrator — David Copperfield, looking back on his life — is so charming and funny and in my opinion effectively makes the case that people CAN speak in parentheses.
The fact that he was being paid by the word, that the book was published in monthly installments, is definitely laughably clear when you hold the 850-page book in your hands (D.F.W., what’s your excuse?), and clearer still when you read a few chapters a night and realize this was how it was meant to be read. Ideal reading experience: have a friend force you to read two chapters of this book every night in February.
And yes, I did need to be forced. Or, okay, cajoled. I knew that if I could just get into it, get over that initial hump, it would be such a great book, and not just in a “get it under my belt so I don’t have to vaguely nod and change the subject at parties” way. It’s not a difficult book at all; Dickens, when he wrote this, was a really famous, popular writer. It’s really, really entertaining. But my god, I opened the first page and my eyes crossed.
Is it just expectations, and the hugeness of the book? That we associate reading the classics with undergraduate reading assignments? The last time I read Dickens was eighth grade, Great Expectations. I’m sure it was some textbook abridged thing and I remember it feeling like a slog despite enjoying all sorts of jokes about Miss Havisham.
I think you’re right, a lot of what I read is in an effort to participate in something. I really do like reading a just-published book and enthusing about it publicly or shit-talking it privately. I like the conversation, and discovery, and following a thread of my own interest. Rarely do I read a book that leads me to Charles Dickens, especially considering I tend to read either autobiographical fiction or semi-experimental nonfiction written by women. So who is gonna fave my David Copperfield tweets, I guess is my point?!
Plus, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if literature generally has not improved as a whole, it has improved, if nothing else, at opening chapters. Novelists, now, know how to HOOK you. Charles Dickens is a master of many things but not a master of an opening chapter. Yes, fine, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” is, I’ll grant you, a great line. Though I do humbly submit that this line would be better felt as say, the last line of the first chapter? We don’t know our narrator yet! We aren’t invested! The line is lost! We only notice it because we’ve seen it posted on Tumblrs the world over.
(I am interested in what you think, as a novelist, about the challenges of writing a book that is literally like, chapter one, I was born, and goes from there — doesn’t that mean the most spotty recollections and boring things happen in the beginning?)
Edan: Honestly, I have been down on Dickens since the ninth grade, when my English teacher divided us into groups and assigned a different novel of his to each. Of course mine got the biggest book, Bleak House. I was the only person in the group to read it and I did all the work so that we didn’t collectively fail the class. Before now, Dickens has always — to no fault of his own — made me feel resentful, like I’m just a goody-goody the cool kids can take advantage of. Sort of like Copperfield himself, who is so tenderhearted that he will stay up late retelling Tom Jones to the popular boy at school, or give away his money to a waiter, and so on.
But I digress.
I too have been thinking about the paid-by-the-word aspect of Dickens and how he clearly planned these prolonged comic “bits” that in his day must’ve had people laughing uproariously and discussing with friends; it’s the 19th-century equivalent of sharing clips and .GIFS from our favorite shows. (Dickens = Dick in a Box!) Right now I’m interested in how many of these comedic parts are concerned with class. Dickens loves to parody various British accents, and I wonder how intriguing Davy was to his readers; he’s this boy who is able to (or is required to) skip from one social class to another, and thus belonged nowhere.
As for the opening, I actually really liked it! Once I figured out what the hell “who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs” meant, I was intrigued. I love a semi-omniscient first person narrator. It’s impossible and the conceit recognizes that, and moves ahead with it anyway. It reminds me of the Alice Munro story “My Mother’s Dream,” wherein the narrator talks about life and her mother’s life (and subconscious life!) when the narrator was but a wee infant. It’s such a magical device.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fictional autobiography as I read this, and what I’d do, were I to write a contemporary one. I think the drama actually lies in the spotty recollections and the double vision of retrospection. I like, too, how David’s narration becomes more mature as he gets older. Can you think of any modern day versions of this form?
Here’s another question: Are you reading this in public — and if so, has anyone approached you? I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet (gah, I know, I know) because I don’t want to read it in public and suffer feedback from Wallace superfans (gah again). This is such a silly reason not to read a book. And yet…
Meaghan:Ha! I haven’t read it in public but am embarrassed just at the thought of slamming it onto the table of some coffee shop. I’ve been reading it every night before bed and really enjoying breaking the spine and measuring how far along I am and whether I’m halfway yet. This is usually not a good sign for me, when I start counting pages and viewing reading as a sort of endurance challenge. You know, when you sort of see how many pages are left in a chapter and weigh how tired you are? “You can do it!!!” Which is to say, THIS BOOK HAS A HIT A SLUMP.
You texted me today asking if I had given up but I haven’t. I do cheat on it sometimes with other faster-paced contemporary novels (Novels By People I Follow on Twitter, a large-looming genre of my nightstand), and sort of feel like I’m betraying you. I think Dickens has timed his little slump well, though, because it slowed down a bit right when I started feeling so IN IT, so invested in old Davey/Daisy that there’s no way I’d give up and not find out what’s gonna happen. I mean, it’s fucking David Copperfield, I trust some good shit will go down. But right now he is like, deciding about whether to be a lawyer? And checking out apartments with his aunt? And yeah I feel I miss the subtlety of a lot of these bits, so when it drags it’s like, come on, man.
And I will say the inevitable: it reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard in this way. I have read so many damned My Struggle books, the next book could be themed like, Shits I Took in the ’80s and I would feel compelled read it. (Okay obviously that would be an amazing book, but you get what I mean.) I need to know what Karl Ove does! It’s like watching a TV show that gets bad the last few seasons but my god, you’ve sunk so much time into it already, why not see it through? Also it’s just familiar. I’m invested. I’m in, I’ll follow you anywhere.
D-Copp is this sweet little boy, still nine years old in my head though I think now he is a teen, and I need to know who he ends up with. I pray to god there is some sex in this book though I imagine it’s the coy kind. I’m already annoyed.
Edan: I doubt there will be sex, alas. I’ve been pretty bored by the book as well. But even through my boredom I have literally gasped aloud at the power and genius of Chapter XVIII “A Retrospect,” which introduces — in summary! — David as a sexual adolescent, compressing time through the lens of the crushes he gets. I loved it. I also love the writhing, disgusting Uriah Heep (again with the class issues!), the obviously duplicitous Steerforth, and the fact that David’s aunt mourns David’s nonexistent twin sister. My pretend dissertation will be about the unreal yet ever present and performed females in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Um, right, Daisy?
Will we finish the book? Will we be able to define Dickensian? Find out next time, in part two of our discussion!
I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and loved it, but more I needed to talk about it.
I sent out a few emails, but the dedicated readers in my life hadn’t yet read A Little Life, so I went on offensive by gifting a few copies. I posted tweets about the book to fish around for conversation. I identified and emailed soft targets, like the luring message I sent to my Donna Tartt-loving friend, “almost like The Goldfinch as far as epic reads go.”
While I waited for my book seeding to take, I posted a photo of the book cover on Instagram that got an immediate reaction: “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” said one. “My heart was in my throat the whole time,” said another.
My agent and I started pecking out messages about the novel on our phones. To her, reading the book felt like an addiction. She questioned such impossible success in a group of friends, which prompted a conversation about the first part of the novel. To me, the set up felt like it was of the Manhattan ensemble genre, a distant cousin to The Age of Innocence or an episode of Friends. The brilliance lay in how Yanagihara set that tone and twisted it.
One of the copies I’d planted under the guise of a birthday gift gave back in a big way. My friend, who lives in Colorado, finished the book and emailed right away. We sent reviews from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker back and forth. We broke down each one. Was it the great gay novel? Maybe and maybe not, though there was no doubt that Yanagihara wrote across difference in a way that was refreshing and modern. In the next moment we compared the book to Great Expectations and Bleak House. “I keep thinking of Jane Eyre,” she wrote. “It’s the best kind of old-fashioned melodrama.”
At that point, a friend’s husband sent a message. He wondered if the book was any easier to read than it was to love someone who was reading it? I wrote back: “No.” That was the only brief conversation I had about the book.
A writer who lives in the U.K. posted on Facebook that she had read an early copy and needed to talk. I dove right in. We had both read about how Yanagihara had been
Garth Risk Hallberg first appeared in my inbox in 2009 through the mediating voice of Max Magee, the founder of this site. Max wrote in gentle tones that, while he and his partner welcomed my contributions to The Millions, they both felt that “war is peace, bitches” was not a useful embellishment to a work of criticism (a note so self-evident that I couldn’t take it personally). In the subsequent years I’ve gotten to know Garth a little — as an intensely committed reader, a generous colleague quick with encouragement, and the proponent of an egregious class of pun. He is also the author of criticism that I hesitate to call forbidding only because I suspect that it wounds him.
Garth has a medieval intellect: free access to a vast array of texts, of points and counterpoints, which he is able to call forth from an internal commonplace book at a moment’s notice. This intellect is evident in pieces like “How Avant Is It?” or “Why Write Novels at All?”; the former references 50 names and nearly as many texts. These aren’t wielded like bludgeons, rather placed deftly and precisely around his writing — points on a schematic drawing showing in bewildering detail something familiar you’d looked at but never really seen. Garth’s intimidating schemata are illuminated by something friendly, though — the light of a true flashlight-under-the-covers reader, one unafraid to issue calls to arms for capital-A Art:
…we need ways of evaluating a novel’s form and language and ideas in light of, for lack of a more precise term, the novelist’s own burning. We need to look beyond the superfices and cultural hoopla…and to examine the deep places where private sensibility and the world as we find it collide.
When Garth wrote the above, in 2011, it’s unlikely he knew just how much cultural hoopla he would himself one day generate. The revelation of the startlingly large advance for City on Fire — an advance unprecedented for a 900-page debut — caused a slight distortion in the fabric of the universe. I never expected to see, as I did last week and which it will also undoubtedly wound him to mention, a photo of Garth in Vogue, wearing costly designer items and looking like a goddamned matinee idol.
Garth’s previous published work, a novella called A Field Guide to the North American Family, made heavy use of photography and textual fragments to propel a surprisingly tender work of fireflies-and-cigarettes Americana. When City on Fire arrived, I noted the visual elements — the recreated pages of a punk girl’s ‘zine, a journalist’s whisky-ringed article draft, a patriarch’s handwritten letter. Taking these, with the novel’s size, with the $2 million, with the monastic vastness of the author’s frame of reference, I had, frankly, no idea what to expect.
What I found was not the terrifying post-modern edifice I feared, but something warm and generous. Something beautifully written, fantastically plotted — something suspenseful and moving and full of interesting people and ideas. It’s a book written to create communion between reader and writer. It is also a book that, despite its frequent appearance in articles on the current popular interest in the New York of the 1970s — despite its rhetorical signposts, its blighted streets, its Patti Smith soundtrack — feels contemporary and fresh.
There are other big books that have caused people to mention Charles Dickens and for which “accessibility” is actually a subtle neg; this is not the case for City on Fire, which deftly gathers up the stories of over a dozen people, half-a-dozen “scenes,” and one teeming city in careful prose, with a reverence and faith that escape naivete only because they are the things that motivate all great stories. As one of Garth’s characters, the veteran reporter Richard Groskoph, puts it
What he wanted above all to get right was the web of relationships a dozen column inches had never been enough to contain…He wanted to follow the soul far enough out along these lines of relationship to discover that there was no fixed point where one person ended and another began.
I spoke to Garth in the weeks before publication, when he was going to a lot of matinees to kill time and, at his wife’s behest, avoiding pregnancy metaphors to describe the surreal anticipatory state he occupied. No one is more startled by all the hoopla than Garth himself. That said, I think there is a way in which, like any writer, he has spent his life preparing for the contingency (playfully referenced in his character Mercer’s imaginary Paris Review interviews, daydreamed when production on the great American novel had stalled). I asked Garth how he went about transforming from critic to novelist, and how he navigated, in his novel, those lines of relationship–those deep places where the author and world collide.
The Millions: When we started this conversation via email, you mentioned that you were already writing fiction when you “walked backward” into reviewing: what does that mean? I don’t think I actually know, or remember, how you got started with The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg: That’s a bit of a long story, but basically I met Max when I was 17, in Washington, D.C. I had grown up in North Carolina, on tobacco road. “Down East.” My town was a college town, but a small one, and such elements of college culture as we got largely involved keg stands and pool halls. Both of which I came to appreciate as a teenager — but it lacked that density of record stores and plays and paintings or whatever it was that I was probably hungry for. So I was a voracious reader from an early age: novels and nonfiction and increasingly poetry. And then the summer I was 16 I was working in a radiologist’s office, literally typing Social Security Numbers into a computer for minimum wage and spending the proceeds on, um, various forms of contraband, and my mom said, “That is not going to look very good on your college application.” I told her I wasn’t going to apply for college. We went back and forth about it, and she finally in a fit of despair suggested a residential poetry workshop at Duke at the end of the summer. I think her pitch was that it was only a week long. So I went up there, and naturally it was instantly like, “My god, a community!” What’s that line from the end of Jesus’ Son? “Freaks like us?”
[Supplies clarification via email: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”]
Among them was a kid from Washington, D.C., named Derek, who became a close friend. And I started going up to D.C., which was about a five-hour drive from where I lived. On the weekends and in the summers, I’d drive up and find a place to crash and hang out with Derek and his friends, all of whom seemed bewitchingly well-read and creative. And also very wholesome in a strange way. I should emphasize that the teenage culture where I was from was not one of great psychic or spiritual health. Like, the group of people I’d been ratting around with included, on its periphery, a couple runaways and a small arms dealer.
And I think I had a tropism for cities already, but I’d never been to New York, I’d never been to Paris or San Francisco or LA or anything — so to me D.C. was at that point the paradigmatic big city. Max was a friend of Derek’s. So Max and I hung out a lot. And then I started using D.C. as a jumping-off point for raids on New York.
TM: And when did The Millions enter the picture?
GRH: I guess that was after I got out of grad school. I’d gone to NYU after having spent three post-college years in the workforce in D.C. and not liking what I’d seen. That’s actually not entirely true, but…
TM: What kind of work?
GRH: My first job out of college was writing Internet content, which paid shockingly well but was not good for the world. But a couple months into that came September 11. And in the aftermath, I quit that job and went to teach elementary school for two years.
TM: Like how some people joined the army.
GRH: Well, I’m a lover, not a fighter. In any case, I had surrendered by then to the fact that I was not, or was no longer, America’s Greatest Living Teenage Poet. But I’d been writing fiction steadily, and in the fall of 2001, for inexplicable reasons, the fiction started to feel really alive. All of a sudden, I started to feel like I was good at it. When it got to where I couldn’t split time with teaching, I applied to graduate school, which was also an excuse for my wife and me to move to New York. And then a couple years later, in maybe 2007, Max called and said, “You read a lot of books, and I’m turning The Millions into a group blog — will you contribute?” So I did one thing, and I think we maybe got an email from the person under review, saying, “I had written off blogs as this hysterical thing, but this piece is actually thoughtful.” I’m sure you’ve gotten those emails, too; they’re gratifying. It’s a very direct connection. So I started writing reviews alongside the fiction. I didn’t really know what I was doing as a reviewer, besides thinking through questions of aesthetics. But I knew what I didn’t want to do.
TM: It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read some of those works of criticism — the pieces like “How Avant Is It?” I remember writing you some cringe-inducing emails in the past asking how you got so smart. I find it astonishing that you can write these dense essays and simultaneously be writing such an expansive and, accessible is not the word, imagine-a-better-word novel. You’re a Pierre Bourdieu in the streets but a, um, Dickens in the sheets.
GRH: Well, maybe another way of phrasing your generous response to the novel is that I haven’t yet managed to hit the mark I’d like to in the critical writing. Because to the degree that there’s anything intimidating about the voice of the criticism, then I’ve failed in my attempt to make something demotic and beautiful. And I should also say, about those pieces, that maybe I manage to be more humane and given to levity in the mode of praise than in the mode of attack. It took me a long time to get over “Somebody said something wrong on the Internet” and to just find something to hold up for praise. My favorite piece I wrote for the site is probably the one on Deborah Eisenberg. And of course in the essays you cited above, I’m kind of covertly working out some ideas about my own fiction.
But in any case, the rhetoric of fiction is so different. If being a passionate amateur is a rhetorical complication you have to deal with starting out as a critic, it’s an asset, or even a birthright, for the novelist. Or anyway, for this novelist. Or that’s my opinion. Instead of needing to establish you know something, you’re more credible as a novelist establishing that you don’t understand something, that you’re seeking to fathom the unfathomable. There’s more room for mystery. Things can be both true and false at the same time — true for one character, false for another; right in one context, wrong in another. You have to be willing to be duped, Henry James says. That’s sort of my standard for “irony” in the novel, and I guess it creates kind of a gentler temperament.
TM: When you say that the rhetoric of fiction is different than writing criticism — is there a time when you sit down and say “I’m being too arch right now, I’m being too knowing, I’m using some kind of device that I would use when I’m writing criticism”?
GRH: I’m tempted to say, conversely, that the voice of the fiction just comes more naturally to me, but I’d be using the adverb in a very peculiar, almost technical sense. Because writing is definitely not what we typically think of as “easy” or “natural” for the person doing it. You know this as a writer — it’s mostly torture. You have those days when you kind of light up inside like a pinball machine or something, and all of a sudden everything is feeding back 10 times as much as it did the previous day, and you have this sense of joy and you walk out of the house and run into someone you know, or your spouse comes home and says “How was your day,” and you say, “This was a great day! The writing went well!” And then if you actually paused and walked back through the writing hour by hour you would realize, “No, it was still mostly torture, but it was a kind of exquisite and joyous torture on this day, as opposed to the gray horrible torture that it is on most days.”
I tend to forget this about other writers, because I read as if the person doing the writing were speaking. So if an essay takes 45 minutes to read, I have this kind of unexamined assumption that it also took 45 minutes to produce. And then it’s like, “Damn, E.B. White is so natural, he writes with such ease, how does he do that?” But I know from experience that no, no, no, that’s an 18th draft and he spent months and months and months pulling his hair out to get there.
What I can say is that fiction is the first writing I do every day. And if there’s a day — and there have been many in the last couple of years — when I’m only going to have room for one or the other, fiction or essay, I’m always going to choose fiction. Because writing nonfiction doesn’t make me less crazy in the way that fiction does.
For me in a piece of fiction when everything is working, everything is embodied and incarnate, and sometimes ideas that are illogical or I don’t agree with or seem silly to me in real life suddenly become compelling because a fictional person believes in them. And that’s maybe part of the strangeness of the rhetoric of fiction.
TM: It’s funny because I kind of think of you just sitting down and speaking the novel to an extent. I think of it as being narrated by a generous late-20th-century god with an extensive vocabulary who periodically zeroes in on the respective consciousnesses of the characters.
GRH: That’s sort of what I mean about belief and the fictional person. You dig a little way into that, and it opens up all kinds of bizarre logical problems and mysteries and circles to be squared involving subjectivity and objectivity. This novel is clearly a deep attempt to be “with” the characters, but also to make them meaningful by knitting them together into something larger.
So I wanted the narrative voice to be constantly modulating between the poles of total objectivity and total subjectivity — but only ever actually touching one or the other pole in a few select places. And using a broad vocabulary gave me the room to dial up or down the degree of slanginess or rhetoric or whatever as we move in and out. To send a constantly modulating signal about vector and position. Rather than free indirect style just being a switch you flip — now in character; now out of character — I wanted it to have what Kurt Cobain once described as “psychedelic” dynamics.
[Supplies Cobain quote via email: “I wanted to learn to go in between those things, go back and forth, almost become psychedelic in a way but with a lot more structure.”]
Which is also closer to how I experience life.
And somehow the interludes in City on Fire, those first-person “documents,” are related to that. I thought a lot about how the enjambment of Esther’s first-person voice and Dickens’s third-person voice works in Bleak House, even though it “doesn’t work.” Or, like, the letters in Herzog. I’m pretty sure Bellow was frustrated with having to choose first or third person, and kind of wanted the resources of both, us being both inside and outside of Herzog, and just is like, “A-ha! The letters!” As the Dude says, there are a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what have-yous. [Garbled sound of talking with phone covered.] Sorry — the exterminator and my landlady were walking around.
TM: What do you need to exterminate? What do you have?
GRH: We’ve got some mice. We’ve got a few mice.
GRH: Which I’d rather not exterminate. Maybe rodent prophylaxis is what we’re trying to practice here. [More discussion with landlady, exterminator.] Where were we?
TM: The ins and outs and what-have-yous. Which extend beyond the characters and the voice to the plot. Did you have to create a map for yourself ahead of time?
GRH: Well, in a very strange way — a way that’s almost mystical — I already had a lot of the book ahead of time. I’d had this sort of vision, which I’ve probably beaten to death in other interviews…
TM: The famous bus.
GRH: Right, on a Greyhound from D.C. to New York, to scope out places to live, and as improbable as it sounds, in the space of 45 seconds or however long it was, a lot of things — characters, architecture, images, events, scenes — sort of all came at me at once. But it was like getting a box of puzzle pieces in the mail. You can tell how big the puzzle is going to be, roughly, and how intricate, and what the color scheme is, but you don’t necessarily know whether the piece you’re holding is the upper-left or the lower-right corner. Nor do you know how everything connects. And mapping it all out ahead of time may close off certain intuitive leaps.
I had this dream — I still have this dream — of the novel, what D.H. Lawrence called “the big bright book of life,” being as organic as a tree. In order for a tree to achieve its shape, it has to grow and respond to all kinds of obstacles and dry years and wet years. So even in this case of extreme complication I was reluctant to do any kind of formal outlining. If I’m verbally tracing over something that’s already been outlined in schematic or graphic form the words just die. And maybe this is an overlap with how I feel about essays: the feeling of the writer being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a reader, and the feeling of being taken by surprise is a totally enchanting feeling for me as a writer, because something has just emerged that I was not capable of producing through purposeful thinking. It’s bigger than me.
Anyway, I just kind of wrote and wrote and arrived at a process that seemed to work, stitching together pieces and seeing what fit. And some answers would come to me very quickly, and some would come after a lot of trial and error. And some came while I was sleeping.
TM: Like what, for example?
GRH: Like the design stuff. I had this dream in what was probably spring of 2008, early on in the writing of the novel. And, peculiarly, I saw the finished book. This wasn’t under the sign of anxiety, as much of the rest of my life is — it was a dream of, like, feeling joyful and at peace. Me handing the book to a reader, a specific person in my life. And inside the book, some of the pages looked a little funny. And I woke up and thought, “Well, that’s odd.” But I guess that’s what it turned out to be.
TM: One thing I’ve learned about you from this is that you are kind of a Desert Father, having visions and dreams. Do you have signs and portents all the time, or were they specific to this book?
GRH: It may just be that I’m very suggestible. Maybe the delinquent habit reading trains you into is to be highly suggestible, so that if someone writes that Character X is performing Action Y, you say, “Oh, yes, I can see that.” So by the same token, if my son says, “Dad, you’re stepping on the sidewalk cracks!” there’s a very real part of me that wants to call my mother. Opening umbrellas indoors, all that kind of stuff, I’m very superstitious about. I’m tempted to say very California, but I don’t want…
TM: I live in California and I’m exactly the same way.
GRH: Well, you’re a good reader. So you’re also highly suggestible. Of all the people writing regularly for The Millions you and I probably have the most similar relationship to literature. And superstition is also just a kind of Pascal’s Wager. You know, just in case.
But that was part of the attraction to writing for me. I always saw it as intrinsically related to dreams and visions and the whole gnostic thing, the call from the beyond. I’ve basically been writing since I was six, and I think of it as a vocation more than a profession, both because it’s a preposterous profession, which remunerates very few people in ways that allow them to live in the world, and also because it just seemed like…Have you read The Gift? Lewis Hyde?
GRH: You should read it! You would love it. And not to presuppose that I had any talent as a kid, or do now, but it seemed to me from a very early age that writing was something I had to do. It felt like a gift in the sense that it was given to me, not by me — it didn’t feel like a choice. I thought when I was a teenager that this meant I would become a poet. And I did not turn out to have a gift in the senses that are required to do that. But I still think of that — being a poet — as the purest and holiest and (interestingly) least professional way of being a writer.
But the job posting for Poet, in the mind of the 15-year-old beatnik, is like, Duties include: Must spend lots of time walking around waiting for signals from the universe. I think a lot of that stuff has stayed with me, both because I remain inordinately attached to the person that I was when I was 17 and wanted to be Rimbaud, and also because no superior way of making sense of the universe has yet presented itself. So I remember at that age driving around at night and having the streetlights go out right at the moment I drove under them. And the rational explanation is that there was something electromagnetic going on with my car. But how do you then explain that exactly the song I needed to hear came on at exactly that moment on the radio? And I experienced that as a profound moment. No amount of disillusioning can ever persuade me that it wasn’t a profound experience.
Two other things occur to me on the question of superstition. One is that the whole writing thing is just sort of magic or alchemy. I was talking to someone last night about questions that make writers groan, and this person pointed to “How much of the work is autobiographical?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” And I was thinking that, yes, okay, those questions are sort of banal (even as they underpin so many higher-order interview questions). But also that maybe there is something of anthropological interest in the fact that people keep asking them and gravitating toward them. Like, maybe one of the interesting things about the question of autobiography is that it remains a mystery — and the reason it drives writers crazy to be asked it is that they can’t answer. Who the hell knows where the ideas come from? And who the hell knows how much of the work is you and how much of it is not? We live in an age that is mildly allergic to those kinds of mysteries. But if you sort of consecrate your life to something that brings you face to face with those mysteries on a daily basis, you learn to respect them, or leave room for them to just be, and maybe that encourages tolerance for all sorts of other weird behavior. It’s like the baseball player who doesn’t wash his jockstrap. I don’t usually wear a jockstrap when writing, and if I did I’d like to think that I’d keep it in good repair, but I understand the mentality.
The second possible account of the superstition would be that it’s less a concomitant of the underlying mysteries than a mask you put on them. I’ve never been very trusting of what writers said about their own writing — I remember this came from E.L. Doctorow and it might be apocryphal, but something about Lawrence claiming to have finished a draft of Aaron’s Rod or whatever and to have turned it over face-down on the desk and written the next draft never looking at the first one. Doctorow’s surmise was that this was probably bullshit. But in order to leave room for mysteries, maybe sometimes you kind of concoct these fictions about how and why you’re doing what you’re doing, which are not true but you believe them to be true, and they help you not to look at the real reasons or to try to find out what the real reasons are. So I feel like some of that writerly mumbo-jumbo may just be a way of attempting to preserve…
I’m sounding really new-agey about this.
TM: I’m hearing that writing is a kind of cult, not in the sense of Jonestown, but of Delphi, oracles, gases coming out of vents in the earth and so forth.
GRH: I’m thinking more about the double-edged nature of self-consciousness. On one hand, as a writer you have to be really self-conscious. And I haven’t even figured out, and don’t know if I want to examine too closely, whether it’s a constant thing or whether you’re toggling back and forth — but at least periodically you’re moving into the reader position and becoming conscious of yourself as you will sound to the reader. But then, too much self-consciousness is totally paralyzing. It seems practically, even if it is not empirically, a very weird and mysterious thing. And then you write the book and the book gets published and you sit down to write the next book, and the fact that you’re all the way back at the blank page trying to figure out how you did it last time just speaks to the mystery.
TM: There were so many moments when I would think, “Hmm, Garth is somehow now a 24-year-old gay black man from Georgia, or a 36-year-old woman recovering from an eating disorder.” And not in some shoddy “He couldn’t stop being himself” way, but in a way that I could feel some fundamental connection and sympathy with the characters.
GRH: I’m flattered, because that was very much how I thought about the ambition of the book. There’s a great Mark Singer profile of David Milch, who’s the creator of Hill Street Blues and Deadwood, and Milch is like emerging from a somewhat dissolute background of addiction and pain via a lot of crazy and superstitious ways of thinking about Art. He’s one of those guys who will capitalize Art and not put it in quotation marks. And it might be generationally just not attainable for me, but I aspire to be the kind of person who can write Art with a capital A and no quotation marks, because that’s how much it meant to me and still means to me. When I was 17 it meant that to me every day, all day — in a very real way, it saved my life — whereas now at 36 I fall slightly out of contact hour by hour with all that Art can mean. But when it’s really operating on me it’s definitely a capitalization-with-no-quotation-marks thing. Anyway Milch, in this profile, uses the phrase, which I think he gets from one of St. Paul’s epistles: “Going out in spirit.” And Art-making for me is a going out in spirit. With this book, I thought that — I don’t even know where the characters came from, but they came to me in this solid form, and I thought, I have to find a way to go out in spirit to them. “Compassion” means suffering with. So I had to compassionate, or suffer, with these characters. And pretty early on, I realized the question I had to keep in mind was “How is this person me?” Because they are all me. They all have to be me, or the book won’t work.
TM: The ones for whom you feel that — or the reader feels that — it’s all the good guys. There’s a distance between the narrator and the bad guys.
GRH: That might be a failing of the novel!
TM: No, because structurally it should be that way. Why should the person who is coming out with this narrative — why should he be able to… Okay, no spoilers. Well, no, I’m not quite right, you do get some backstory for the Goulds, but that’s biography.
GRH: It was complicated for me because I think I really want, philosophically, to have the bad guys, the antagonist figures, be as fully human…I think of this as the Dick Cheney Problem. It goes like this: I know philosophically that Dick Cheney is human to Dick Cheney, and to his wife and daughters and friends, and that his inner life is as rich as mine, but I’m not quite a good enough novelist to understand what it might be like to be Dick Cheney.
And what you end up with if you subscribe to the Dick Cheney Problem is you have antagonists who don’t participate in the full breadth of the writer’s sympathies. This may feel a little bit 19th-century, and that’s not displeasing to me. I mean, Dick Cheney is a little 19th-century. Still…
One of the books that was sort of on my mind as I wrote was Demons, the Dostoevsky book. Stavrogin has great vitality, but I don’t remember him having as much interiority as, say, Ivan Karamazov does. And I think what fascinated me about Amory Gould, the worst actor in City on Fire, is that here’s someone who, if I get inside him, has all the things that I have as his author. He has the means to know everybody’s secrets, and he has the means to plot, like a novelist does, and he is very intelligent, but he doesn’t have…he can’t go out in spirit. He’s spiritually defective. Or rather, I hope we see, damaged. And without the strange ineffable thing that we were gesturing at earlier, all of the concrete talents and drive required to make a fiction won’t work. People won’t achieve their destinies within the story because you won’t be able to understand them.
But it’s nice, I guess, that the book is long enough to have problems for me as a writer, things I can’t decide whether they are what I wanted. Though that may be another enabling fiction: the book wanted it that way, and I’m the innocent bystander. Anyway, I’m glad you picked up on that Amory thing, because it definitely stood out for me. Maybe I don’t have enough evil in my soul.
TM: There’s the authenticity of character, and then there’s authenticity of, I guess, scene. On that score, did you worry about the punk stuff? Is that a scene you were familiar with, in its contemporary iteration?
GRH: My canon at 15 would have been Kerouac, Brautigan…you can fill in that whole canon. Hippies, proto-hippies, and post-hippies. And also heavy doses of Stephen King. But yes, when I was in D.C. and for three years after college I was kind of hanging around the punk scene there, which was still very small. Or not small, but a size where everybody knew everybody. Small enough to have that feeling of being a community. It was also intensely political and creative and just a fascinating contrast to the more louche, symbolist New York punk scene of the ’70s. There’s actually a good story about Minor Threat coming up to play New York with Bad Brains and being like, “Screw this place, you guys are all junkies.”
The thing that really struck me about the punk scene in the ’90s was how creative it was. It was about making things, making your own bands, making your own ‘zines, making your own fashions, making your own life — and judging people not by the aesthetic content of how they presented themselves but by how much effort had gone into creating themselves. But I loved both sides of the music and both sides of the impulse, both the creative and the destructive or nihilist. The sort of Thanatos and Eros — and those two things seemed ultimately to thread together for me most satisfyingly in Patti Smith.
So when I realized I was going to write this book, one of the thrills was knowing that all these feelings about punk and what it had meant to me, the scope and variety of it, would have a place to go and live. And of course that’s just one of many things that found a home in the book. There was also all I’d been feeling about race and class and sex and coming-of-age and marriages…It was the first thing I’d ever worked on where all the parts of what was meaningful to me could find a home.
TM: Speaking of marriages, I just read a little snippet of an interview with Adam Johnson. “When I’m writing, I become a terrible husband, I abandon my children.”
GRH: That’s what Jenny Offill calls “the Art Monster,” right?
TM: Exactly. I’m curious about how your writing works with parenting and how much your wife, who works full-time, has to pick up — how do the logistics work?
GRH: The short answer is that they don’t. The first draft of this I had nearly finished right before becoming a father. In fact, I was close enough that I probably could have finished. But I’d always known that the novel was going to end with the blackout of ’77 — that it was going to have to have this grand finale. And I thought, foolishly, “I’m going to wait and finish it after we have this baby, because that’s going to give me something I don’t already have emotionally.”
This idea that the book needs a different writer at the end — I adapted it from George Saunders, who claims it’s from Einstein, but apparently Einstein can’t be found saying it anywhere: that “no worthy problem is solved on the plane of its conception.”
And in fact my older son arrives and I discover that I am different, but not in the way I’d thought. I’m instantly so much tireder and dumber and more impatient and slower. I wrote the blackout that summer. I started waking up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, so I was writing it in the dark, in the summer, the stifling summer of 2010, and it took forever and it was a totally different kind of writing. The ratio of joy to torture was lower in a lot of places, and it took me a long time to get it right — or what I thought was right. Maybe it’s not right still.
By the time I was finishing the fourth draft and revising, our second son had come along and my wife was finishing her dissertation. So we were like a small publishing concern, only half our staff was under the age of three, and it was insane. There was no sleeping happening at all — though that did give a kind of visionary edge to the work. I was basically hallucinating from fatigue. And we were completely broke and not happy campers in a lot of ways. It was very, very hard. We kept getting priced out of where we were living and moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn. And people write these essays, “Why Do Writers Live in Brooklyn?” But even if I didn’t love New York, which I do, my wife was shackled to her job, which was in Manhattan, and my teaching income — I was teaching four classes a semester at that time — came from being in a place that has enough colleges to support that kind of adjunct-teaching load.
So not to oversell this, but in those years I felt like the schlepping mascot of the new gig economy. And now I continue to wake up really early — our basic agreement is that whatever happens before 8 a.m., I’m not responsible for. So if I wake up at 4:30 or 5 I can have three-plus hours before everyone’s awake. My brain’s very pliable at that hour, and it’s quiet. Then I take the kids and finish them on breakfast and get them ready to go and take them off to their allotted places, and am back at the desk by 9:30. But by then my brain feels like it’s been the victim of assault with a melon baller, and it can take me a dangerous 45 minutes to figure out where I was and what I was doing. And within that 45 minutes if I succumb to the temptation to glance at a newspaper, there goes the rest of the morning.
But then there’s this beast that emerges at the end of every draft. I call it the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, Jenny Offill calls it the Art Monster, Adam Johnson has his version…It’s a place of not shaving. A place of questionable hygiene, because you’re like, “I could shower or I could keep working on this for 15 minutes.” A place of not eating for long periods of time and then gorging to make up for it, a place of no sleeping. And that creature, the Crazy Old Man of the Mountain, is scary for children. Like Der Struwwelpeter, who might come and eat you out of absent-mindedness. It’s just not a healthy thing to have in the house. It’s not a model of probity or balance. Yet somehow having kids makes the Crazy Old Man worse, because you have to allocate more of your meaningful work time to overheated obsession, since you’re not getting as much done in third gear. Or you’ve been in second gear when you really needed to be in third, so then you have to make up for it by shifting into fifth gear. And fifth gear is crazy for everyone, and the kids are like, “Dad, why are you driving so fast?”
So again, the short answer is, it really doesn’t work. But I look at someone like Michael Chabon or our friend Edan Lepucki. Or Dickens and Joyce — no, wait. They were terrible fathers, so they don’t count. But people have done it. It must be a kind of muddle-through thing.
TM: And now you’re done. And now it’s all starting, in a way.
GRH: [Laughs.] Yes, I’m having the uncomfortable feeling that some things are being typed as we speak. And I don’t know what it’s all going to be like. I have no scale for what it will be like, how people will react. Having written a 900-page novel is already unforgivable. But in my defense, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. There’s something in the book somewhere about choice and freedom not being the same thing. So: I didn’t feel like I was choosing this. Yet on the other hand, I’ve rarely felt so free.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.
Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”?
Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet’s path most enjoyably at November’s Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845)
In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first “Conversation,” a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She’d later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were “talking with pen in hand.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins — nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed — Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
The restless desire of Hardy’s doomed characters, especially the bewitching “Queen of the Night,” Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel’s beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th’s Bonfire Night.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
It’s on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and — either lost or saved, she doesn’t know — makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there’s no escape.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945)
Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation?
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Mr. Ewell,” asks the prosecutor, “would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?” Those disputed events are what the jury — “twelve reasonable men in everyday life” — is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese (1966)
A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile — and profile of celebrity — for Esquire.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970)
Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal — trying to make a number of deals, in fact — in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.”
The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)
The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother — both lost to him — stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)
Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice.
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995)
The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen.
A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004)
November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
What was Charles Dickens’s best novel? It depends whom you ask of course. G.K. Chesterton thought Bleak House represented the mature peak of Dickens’s skill as a novelist, although he went on to remark, “We can say more or less when a human being has come to his full mental growth, even if we go so far as to wish that he had never come to it.” This past February, on the occasion of Dickens’s 200th birthday, The Guardian put together this mesmerizing chart ranking 12 of Dickens’s 16 novels on a scale of most to least Dickensian. Bleak House came out first, Great Expectations was last, yet those two titles occupied the top two spots when Time issued its own Top-10 Dickens List for the Dickens bicentennial.
Searching for clarity, I decided to pose the question to a handful of leading Victorianists. In June, I sent out emails to select scholars asking them if they’d be interested in choosing a novel and making their case. I noted that of course there is no such thing as a singular best, and that really the exercise was meant to be fun. Just about everyone I reached out to was game. And, in recognition of how obsessive many Victorianists are about Dickens, one added that after debating his best novel, perhaps I’d be interested in curating a more esoteric discussion: Best Dickens character for a one night stand, or maybe which Dickens character you’d most like to have as your own child.
Saving those conversations for another day, here then are six impassioned, knowledgeable opinions on the topic of the best Dickens novel. I hope you’ll enjoy reading them, and that when you’re through, you’ll share your own views in the comments section.
1. Bleak House
Kelly Hager, Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, Simmons College
“Not to put too fine a point upon it,” as meek Mr. Snagsby is wont to say, Dickens’s best novel is Bleak House. It might not be everyone’s favorite (that honor might go to Dickens’s own “favourite child,” David Copperfield, or to the newly-relevant tale of a Victorian Bernie Madoff, Little Dorrit, or to that classic of 10th grade English, Great Expectations), but Bleak House is absolutely his best: in terms of plot, characters, pacing, social relevance, readability, and its possibilities for adaptation, just to cite some of its virtues.
The BBC’s 2005 version brought to the fore the pathos of the heroine Esther Summerson’s plight and the hypocrisy of the world that produced that plight. Brought up by a guardian (actually her aunt) who led her sister to believe that her (illegitimate) baby was born dead, Esther does not learn who her mother is, or even that she is alive, until she has been so disfigured by smallpox that she no longer poses the danger of incriminating her (now married and ennobled) mother by their resemblance. The scene of their first (and only) meeting is heart-rending but not maudlin, revealing just how far Dickens has moved beyond the sentimental portrayal of Little Nell’s deathbed (in The Old Curiosity Shop) and his precious depiction of the orphaned Oliver Twist. The emotions the scene calls up are honest, earned, poignant.
Similarly, the anger John Jarndyce feels at the Chancery suit that occupies the novel is not the self-righteous ire of those who uncover the educational abuses of Dotheboys Hall (in Nicholas Nickleby) or rail against the inequities of the law of divorce (in Hard Times), but the heartfelt anguish of a man who has seen friends and relatives destroyed by the red tape and bureaucracy of the Court of Chancery (a court that relies not on common law statutes but solely on precedents and was abolished in 1875). Dickens mounts a comparable attack on the aptly named Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, where the important thing is to learn “how not to do it,” but there, the depiction is comic. He does the more difficult and subtle thing in Bleak House, relying not on humor but on sad case after sad case to reveal the evils of the system. He writes with empathy; he doesn’t poke easy fun. In Bleak House, written between two national epidemics of cholera, in 1849 and 1854, Dickens also draws attention to the need for sanitary reform (specifically for a regulated, clean supply of water for the public); Bleak House is, in fact, one of the earliest fictional engagements with the field of public health.
Engaged in social issues, moving, and full of characters we love (the unflappable army wife, Mrs. Bagnet; Jo, the crossing sweeper; Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock’s loyal husband) and characters we love to hate (the selfish parents Mrs. Jellyby and Mr. Turveydrop; Vholes, the vampiric solicitor), Bleak House is Dickens at his very best.
2. Bleak House
Anna Henchman, Assistant Professor of English, Boston University, and author of The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature
Bleak House begins in sooty obscurity: swirls of fog, snowflakes black with grime, indistinguishable masses. Movement is circular — “slipping and sliding,” — without progress. The laws of this world are quickly established: There is rigid separation between classes. Characters are moving parts in a system that consumes them. Separate realms coexist with little contact with one another.
But then the novel explodes when gauche Mr. Guppy presumes to call on the cold Lady Dedlock. She agrees to see him, and even more strangely, betrays in his presence a quivering vulnerability, a longing to know that echoes our own perplexity as readers of this novel. “What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury with the powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?” After Mr. Guppy’s visit, a new sequence of events unfolds, and Lady Dedlock’s life rearranges itself before our eyes. Later, on the open grass, another extraordinary meeting brings us even more closely into her consciousness.
Like us, Mr. Guppy has been playing detective, putting together the pieces of the book, and at this point he’s doing it better than we are. Bleak House is a novel full of detectives with whom we sit in uneasy intimacy because their inquisitive state of mind mirrors our own.Their “calling is the acquisition of secrets.”
Two distinct narrators take us through this increasingly comprehensible world. The omniscient narrator can enter anywhere, taking us from foggy London to Lincolnshire. He floats through walls, moving from the airless chambers of one house in town to the greasy interior of another that stinks of burnt flesh. Esther, by contrast, is a timid outsider, for whom everything is new and strange. Some of the greatest effects of the novel occur when Esther takes us through spaces we’ve visited many times and thought we knew. Right after Esther talks with Lady Dedlock, for instance, she walks through the fragrant gardens of Chesney Wold. “Grostesque monsters bristle” as she thinks about the lives they lead inside, and for the first time we feel attached to the stately home.
The great pleasure of this novel is the pleasure of plot — of retroactively putting events into sequence. Like detectives, novelists construct patterns out of disparate fragments. This novel more than any other Dickens novel feels both ordered and dynamic. Characters who flash past us — a man from Shropshire, a crossing sweeper — resolve into detail, acquire names, and fill out in time and space. As the lines between networks of characters thicken, the world gets smaller, more recognizable, but also more dangerous for the ones we love most.
3. David Copperfield
Maia McAleavey, Assistant Professor of English, Boston College
“Of course I was in love with little Em’ly,” David Copperfield assures the reader of his childhood love. “I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly, quite as tenderly, with greater purity and more disinterestedness, than can enter into the best love of a later time of life.” Loving a person or a book (and “David Copperfield” conveniently appears to be both) may have nothing at all to do with bestness. The kind of judicious weighing that superlative requires lies quite apart from the easy way the reader falls in love with David Copperfield.
To my mind, David is far more loveable than Pip (Great Expectations’ fictional autobiographer), and better realized than Esther (Bleak House’s partial narrator). And it does help to have a first-person guide on Dickens’s exuberantly sprawling journeys. David, like Dickens, is a writer, and steers the reader through the novel as an unearthly blend of character, narrator, and author. This is not always a comforting effect. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” David announces in his unsettling opening sentence.
Here he is, at once a young man thoroughly soused after a night of boozing and a comically estranging narrative voice: “Owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. I was feeling for it in the window-curtains…We went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”
Is the novel nostalgic, sexist, and long? Yes, yes, and yes. But in its pages, Dickens also frames each of these qualities as problems. He meditates on the production, reproduction, and preservation of memories; he surrounds his typically perfect female characters, the child-bride Dora and the Angel-in-the-House Agnes, with the indomitable matriarch Betsey Trotwood and the sexlessly maternal nurse Peggotty; and he lampoons the melodramatically longwinded Micawber while devising thousands of ways to keep the reader hooked. If you haven’t yet found your Dickensian first love, David’s your man.
4. David Copperfield
Leah Price, Professor of English, Harvard University
“Of all my books,” confessed Dickens in the preface, “I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
David Copperfield fits the bill for a “best of” contest because it’s all about who’s first, who’s favorite, who’s primary. It’s one of Dickens’s few novels to be narrated entirely in the first person; it’s the only one whose narrator’s initials reverse Charles Dickens’s, and whose plot resembles the story that Dickens told friends about his own family and his own career. (But Dickens takes the novelist’s privilege of improving on the facts, notably by killing off David’s father before the novel opens in order to prevent him from racking up as many debts as Dickens senior did over the course of his inconveniently long life.)
That means that it’s also one of the few Dickens novels dominated by one character’s story and one character’s voice (This stands in contrast to Bleak House, say, which shuttles back and forth between two alternating narrators, one first-person and past-tense, the other third-person and couched in the present). As a result David Copperfield is less structurally complex, but also more concentrated, with an intensity of focus that can sometimes feel claustrophobic or monomaniacal but never loses its grip on a reader’s brain and heart. Its single-mindedness makes it more readable than a novel like Pickwick Papers, where the title character is little more than a human clothesline on which a welter of equally vivid minor characters are hung. Yet at the same time, it’s a novel about how hard it is to be first: Can you come first in your mother’s heart after she marries a wicked stepfather? And can your own second wife come first for you after her predecessor dies?
On David’s birthday, he tells us, “I went into the bar of a public-house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best — your very best — ale a glass?’ ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.'” David Copperfield is the genuine stunning: there’s nothing quite like it, in Dickens’s work or out.
5. Little Dorrit
Deb Gettelman, Assistant Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross
There’s a different best Dickens novel for every purpose. Even though Dickens’s peculiar characters with their tic phrases sometimes appear interchangeable, his novels as a whole are surprisingly different from each other in their focus of interest, narrative structure, and in some cases, length. The best Dickens novel to read? Bleak House. To teach? Oliver Twist. To boast that I’ve read? Martin Chuzzlewit (really, I have). To understand Dickens’s consciousness as a writer? Little Dorrit.
I’d like to think a writer’s best novel is the one that, if it had never been written, would cause the greatest difference in how much we think we understand about that writer’s overall work. It might be predictable, but for me the later, darker, reflective books often suit this purpose best: Persuasion, Villette, The Wings of the Dove. For Dickens’s readers it is Little Dorrit, his deeply personal novel of middle age that reveals the author’s consciousness as an artist at its most mature, reflective, and darkest stage
Little Dorrit is Dickens’s moodiest novel, and comparatively little happens in it. There are the usual plot complications — and what Dickens called the novel’s “various threads” often seem to hang together by a thread — but at its heart is the stasis of a debtor’s prison, where Amy, or Little Dorrit, has grown up tending to her self-deluding father. The novel’s many psychologically imprisoned characters mostly sit around brooding about their thwarted lives, especially the hero, Arthur Clennam, who is older and more anguished than Dickens’s other heroes and heroines. Elements familiar from Dickens’s other novels — satiric portrayals of bureaucrats and aristocrats, the self-sacrificing young woman, even a murderous Frenchman — seem more sinister in this novel because they are the cause of so much melancholy.
At one point Dickens summarizes Clennam’s thoughts in a way that seems emblematic of the novel: “Little Dorrit, Little Dorrit. Again, for hours. Always Little Dorrit!” As Lionel Trilling observed, Little Dorrit is the most interiorized of Dickens’s novels. Shortly after writing it Dickens made a spectacle of breaking up his family, and characters in the novel torture, contort, misrepresent, and stifle one another’s feelings in spectacularly awful ways. In a game of word association, ‘Dickens’ would readily call to mind words like ‘comedy,’ ‘caricature,’ and ‘satire.’ ‘Little Dorrit’ would yield ‘interiority,’ ‘psychological depth,’ ‘angst,’ and all the inventive strategies Dickens uses to achieve these qualities. It enables us to see the fullest possible psychological and artistic spectrum of his work.
Our Mutual Friend was my Dickens gateway drug. The opening sequence plays like a Scorsese tracking shot on steroids. A body fished out of the Thames becomes gossip at a nouveau riche banquet, from which two lawyers slip out to a dockside police station, where they meet a mysterious man who runs off to take lodgings with a clerk, whose daughter becomes the ward of a dustman, who hires a peg-legged balladeer to read him The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And I haven’t even mentioned the taxidermist.
It’s the Facebook fantasy: everyone is connected — though in the darkly satiric world of late Dickens, this is less an accomplishment than an indictment. The surprise comes from how much fun it is to navigate his corrupt social network. Conventional wisdom asks you to choose Dickens savory or sweet: the ineluctable fog of Bleak House or the bibulous conviviality of The Pickwick Papers. Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel, gives you both an intricate web of plots and a cast of delightfully scurrilous plotters.
Its particular tickle comes from the recognition that everyone’s an impostor, and a gleeful one at that. People who dismiss Dickensian eccentrics as fanciful caricatures miss how much the fancies are the characters’ own insistent projections. As the narrator says of the self-important balladeer: “His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others.” The self we perform is the self we become.
And everyone’s performing in Our Mutual Friend. A lawyer pretends to be a lime merchant for an undercover job in pub, and after the sleuthing concludes, he’s so enamored of the role that he offers the potboy a job in his fictional “lime-kiln.” When the orphan Sloppy reads the newspaper, “he do the police in different voices” — a line that T.S. Eliot pinched as his working title for the The Waste Land.
This literary legacy, along with the novel’s sustained imagery, have led some critics to call it proto-modernist. Dickens shows us as well that the insights we call post-modern (personality as performance, fiction as artifice) have Victorian roots. The creators of The Wire declared their debt to the 19th-century master of serial narration, and it’s no surprise that a season finale of Lost revolved around a copy of Our Mutual Friend. This is the book you want on a desert island.
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In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey’s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”
At a reading in Cambridge this past fall, Ann Patchett said in passing that she doesn’t believe in acknowledgements. During the question and answer period, I asked her why. She explained that she feels it’s better to thank the important people in your life by giving them a copy of your novel in which you’ve written a personalized inscription. If nothing else, she added, a private inscription saves the author from the possible future embarrassment of having her book forever tagged with the reminder of a friendship that has faded away. But Patchett’s deeper concern seemed to be that the handwritten acknowledgement was more sincere, free of the performative element of a thank you that will be publicly reproduced every time the book is printed.
Inscribing my own copy of Run that evening, Patchett wished me luck in deciding what to do with “this acknowledgement thing” when it comes time for my own novel’s back page in a little over a year. Indeed, what might have once seemed to me like a purely joyous opportunity now seems like a potential minefield, a hazard of etiquette and emotions. It’s so easy to put a foot wrong. What if you omit a key player in a workshop? What if you go on too long and risk looking like someone who couldn’t have managed without an enormous entourage? What if you feature someone prominently in your list and later have a falling out? Perhaps that last one is among the worst, beaten only by the dedication to an eventual ex-spouse.
There was a time when acknowledgements were brief and rare. There was even a time when dedications sufficed. Charlotte Brontë signed Jane Eyre off to Thackeray, plain and simple, while Anne was even sparer, offering no dedication at all to Agnes Gray. One could argue that the sisters’ need to conceal their identity led them to be circumspect in their gratitude. Maybe that’s why someone as confident in his place among men of letters as Wilkie Collins could dedicate The Woman in White to “Bryan Walter Procter from one of his younger brethren in literature who sincerely values his friendship and who gratefully remembers many happy hours spent in his house.” Or why Collins’s friend Dickens could say that Bleak House is “Dedicated, as a remembrance of our friendly union, to my companions in the guild of literature and art.”
Of course, there’s nothing plain and simple about even the most seemingly simple dedication. Collins’s to Procter can be seen as a strategic move to ally himself with someone whose name hardly made it to posterity but who, at the time, held some reputation in Collins’s world. And Brontë’s nod to Thackeray may have been purely reverential but looked to contemporary readers like proof of a romantic connection. Then there’s George Eliot’s lack of any dedication to Middlemarch. Looking at that unaccompanied title page now, it’s tempting to see her direct stride into the novel as a move of extreme confidence in the masterpiece that follows.
Though novels went along for more than a century without them, acknowledgements have now become an expected part of a novel’s presentation—along with the reader’s guide and the about the author page. Which is why I was astonished to turn to the end of Rosamund Lupton’s Sister this summer and find this: “I’m not sure if anyone reads the acknowledgements, but I hope so because without the following people, this novel would never have been written or published.” She’s a first-time author, but still: doesn’t she know? Everyone reads the acknowledgements. In fact, for many of us, the first thing we do when we pull a book off the store shelf is to flip to the back. The writers among us might be searching for the agent or the editor we can query, or we might be seeking our own name in the list. But we certainly read the acknowledgements for the drama and the human story revealed therein. Some acknowledgements are works of art, expressing with finesse and sincerity the gratitude for a supportive surrogate family, a patient and understanding spouse and kids, a best friend who saw the writer through difficulties hinted at sufficiently so that we can glimpse a bit of the author’s life. At their best, acknowledgements can be finely-wrought short stories with the author as protagonist.
At least one acknowledgements has made me cry. What makes Robin Black’s acknowledgements for If I Loved You I Would Tell You This so moving is the simple fact that she hasn’t let up on the rigor of her prose in writing them. The language is just as careful and precise here as it is in the collection. Black’s thanks run to three full pages and have the narrative arc of a story—fitting for the story collection they conclude. She begins typically enough, thanking her agent, her editor, and her publishers, moving on to the various institutions that supported her, and then to individual readers, friends, and colleagues. Finally, she gets serious, taking in turn her mother, her children, and her husband. Some might say this is a bit over the top, but when you reach this point, you realize that the pleasant bath of thanks you’ve been lolling in contains quite serious emotions. It’s almost like eavesdropping, reading these last paragraphs, and I won’t quote them here out of a sense that to do so would be somehow nosy—despite the fact that every single copy of this strong-selling book ends with these words.
When Ann Patchett speaks about acknowledgements, it’s clear that she’s not opposed to expressing gratitude, but is instead against its public expression. If the gratitude is sincere, convey it directly to the person who deserves it; why does the rest of the world need to know? I can see her point. There is nothing so transparent as the message that hitches the writer’s wagon to a more illustrious star. But I hope this doesn’t mean that writers who choose to express their thanks in public, as I am likely to do, are inherently insincere. Because I imagine that by the time I’m in a position to write up my thanks, I will feel a strong need to shout them from the rooftops.
Every book comes with a second narrative, that of its creation. I keep going to those framing pages to see what that other story is. Sometimes, the discovery is unsettling, as with this eerie dedication to Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs: “To Jon Cook, who saw them too.” And sometimes the discovery is sweet. In the step from White Teeth to On Beauty, Zadie Smith reveals a lovely transition in her own life. In 2000, for White Teeth, Smith says she is “also indebted to the bright ideas and sharp eyes of the following people” and includes “Nicholas Laird, fellow idiot savant” among them. By 2005, she dedicates On Beauty to “my dear Laird.” There are no acknowledgements.
Image credit: Editor B/Flickr
“There are so many books. Always so many. They collide in my mind.”
– Colum McCann
Another Year in Reading is behind us, and I speak for all of us at The Millions when I sincerely thank everyone who wrote, shared, and read our articles. It’s a bit daunting to let strangers into our private reading worlds, but it’s also quite rewarding.
There is always the temptation to dive into a new book just after finishing another. There are, as Colum McCann says above, just “so many books” we’ve yet to read. However it’s also true that reflection can deepen appreciation: your reading timeline becomes contextualized, and its connections develop like a filmstrip in your mind. Our series, in the end, is all about such reflection.
We also recognize that it’s becoming easier than ever to rely on algorithms and lists for one’s book recommendations – and while there are some treasures to be found through such means, there is nothing quite like the warmth of an actual human being’s testimony to vouchsafe your next reading choice. We hope that these articles have turned you on to new writers – authors of books selected by others, or authors of the articles themselves.
With 72 participants naming 214 books, it’s safe to say this has been our biggest and most high profile Year in Reading yet. Our participants included the current Poet Laureate, a longtime candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the reigning winners of the IMPAC and Pulitzer Prizes, two authors of books named The New York Times’ 10 Best of 2011, a recent inductee to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and more Pushcart winners than I care to count.
A number of authors wrote their own Year in Reading articles as well as books chosen later on in the series. This honor roll consists of McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Orozco, David Vann, Siddhartha Deb, and Geoff Dyer.
Yet in spite of these credentials – impressive as they are – I thought it would be fun to note some statistics, and to award some further superlatives based upon the articles written for this series. (Note that all research is highly unscientific.)
By the numbers: of the 214 books named, 139 were fiction, 68 were nonfiction, 5 were poetry, and 2 were graphic novels. The average length of the books chosen was 338 pages, and the average publication year was 1994. The oldest book selected was Moby-Dick, the longest was Bleak House, and the shortest was Buckdancer’s Choice. If you’re a fan of our Post-40 Bloomers series, you’ll appreciate the fact that the average age of each book’s author, at the time their book was originally published, was 47.53 years old. Most of the books were from the United States and the UK, but many were from Ireland, Canada, France, the Russian Federation, Hungary, and Germany. Six of the seven continents were represented, and these books were published by presses ranging from the New York Review of Books to New Directions to Fantagraphics to Random House. (I won’t release the name of which house published the highest number of selections because I don’t want war to break out in New York City.)
Some favorites from the series, based on feedback from readers and links, comments, and other stats, included McCann on The Book of Disquiet, Jonathan Safran Foer on The Shallows, Ben Marcus on Nothing, Michael Schaub on The Great Frustration, and Egan on Butterfly’s Child.
Three books tied for the most popular selection this year: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (selected by Dan Kois, David Bezmozgis, and Adam Ross), Edouard Levé’s Suicide (selected by Scott Esposito, Mark O’Connell, and Dennis Cooper), and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (selected by Charles Baxter, Kevin Hartnett, and Garth Risk Hallberg). Seven more books tied for second-most popular: Phillip Connors’ Fire Season (selected by Chad Harbach and yours truly), Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (selected by Harbach and Emily Keeler), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (selected by Brooke Hauser and A.N. Devers), Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (selected by Hauser and Rosecrans Baldwin), Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (selected by Schaub and Chris Baio), Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (selected by Hauser and Rachel Syme) and Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (selected by Scott and Garth).
Still I am compelled to award a couple of half-serious superlatives to close this thing out:
The “Gashlycrumb Tinies” Award for Saddest Selection of Books goes to Emma Straub for her tear-soaked article. “Mr. Consistent” is an Award I’d like to bestow upon Brad Listi, who exhausted the Sarah Palin canon only to then go on to exhaust the David Markson one. “Most Indecisive” belongs to Brooke Hauser and her 15 selections, while “Most Topical” goes to Michael Schaub because 90% of his list published in 2011. The Award for Coolest Byline undoubtedly goes to Duff McKagan, but the Award for Coolest Backstory (as well as my unending jealousy) goes to Benjamin Hale. Finally, the Award for Most Valuable Participant goes to you, dear reader, for allowing us to continue our series and for helping it grow with each passing January.
Until next year, happy reading.
The Millions staff
P.S. If you’re curious as to how we put the series together, please do check out Electric Literature’s interview with our founder, C. Max Magee. The series, the articles, and the site itself would not be possible without him.
In a promotional video for The Great Frustration, Seth Fried’s debut book, the author deadpans, “Technically, the book is a collection of short stories. Though I prefer to think of it as a novel that doesn’t make any sense. [Pause.] That is how we’re marketing it.” On his “Bare-Minimum-Blog Blog,” he fantasizes about ditching literary fiction to become an advertising copywriter hawking “Seth Farm Pigeon Butter” (“the pigeon butter that’s a smidgen better”); and urges fans who want to help sales of The Great Frustation to “social media the book with social media.” And before Hurricane Irene, he offered some (good) advice to New York apartment dwellers by way of a hilarious tweet which ended up going viral.
Fried, 28, is one of the funniest writers in America. But it’s not just his sly, absurdist sense of humor that makes him an author to watch — his short stories manage to be both hilarious and tragic, both surreal and enormously sensitive. The Great Frustration is a debut, but it’s also something most writers, even the most acclaimed ones, have never accomplished: it is a perfect short story collection. It’s also the best book I read in 2011.
Too often, fiction written by very funny people can turn either frivolous or precious, but Fried’s stories never even come close to trivial. He’s a brilliant humorist — see “The Frenchman,” one of the funniest stories I’ve read in years — but he doesn’t use jokes where they don’t belong, and he never uses humor to show off, or to avoid tragic conclusions that many authors would rather not face.
Humor isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal. Fried has a keen sense of history and science, which he uses to great effect in stories like the heartbreaking “The Misery of the Conquistador” and the uniquely beautiful “Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures.” (I wouldn’t be surprised if both of those stories someday end up in a definitive anthology of American fiction; they’re that good.) Like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders, Fried is a master at the absurdities, small and large, that make up the human condition. He’s a deeply funny, deeply generous author, and on the basis of The Great Frustration, I’m ready to pay him the biggest compliment I could ever give an author: there’s never been a writer exactly like him before.
I should mention some of the other great books I read in 2011. This year brought some amazing fiction — Alan Heathcock’s dark, beautiful short story collection Volt, and the brilliant novels Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and, especially, The Vices by Lawrence Douglas. I was happy to read two wonderful essay collections, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, and You Must Go and Win by Alina Simone (who, like Fried, is also a gifted humorist). And the books The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean were shining examples of flawless nonfiction. And finally, this was the year that I promised myself I would catch up on the classics I’ve missed, and read Bleak House.
I did not. Here’s to 2012.
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Maybe you’re young enough to remember Blue’s Clues, or old enough to have a little one hanging on the mystery-solving adventures of Steve and Blue as you read this. If, by any chance, Blue’s Clues happens to be on in the background, try this experiment: watch and see how long the camera holds on a single shot.
You will, by design, be waiting a long time. The child psychologists who helped create Blue discovered that young viewers don’t know what to do with cuts and edits; they understand them as a new scene, not the same scene shot from a different angle, and they’re soon too confused to keep up. So the Blue’s Clues camera almost always holds steady, in a series of long and deliberate takes.
On the grown-up channels, the camera can do more—but only because we’ve already learned the complicated visual grammar that makes the camera make sense. Think of the long list of visual cues we take for granted. How do we know, without struggling to process the fact, that a scene shot from three angles by three cameras is the same scene? How can we tell the difference in emotional register between a series of rapid-fire cuts and a single, slow, agonizing take? Who says that a series of short shots often indicates the passage of time? As much as we may take these conventions for granted, as natural as their emotional associations might seem to us, they make sense largely because we’ve had “practice.”
Who invented this visual grammar? A film historian might look to pioneering pictures like Battleship Potemkin or Birth of a Nation; but before there was such a thing as a movie camera, it was a writer’s job to juxtapose and jump between images—from a battlefield to Mount Olympus, from medias res to the far past, with resources limited only by imagination and the price of ink.
In college, I was lucky enough to take an English class with the novelist Reynolds Price, before he died in January—and one of his most striking arguments was that John Milton, with his instant transitions from Hell to Earth to Heaven, was one of the inventors of the cinematic jump-cut. It was a throwaway comment, but it led me to think that we ought to pay more attention to writers’ tricks of “editing”: not in the usual sense of revision, but in the cinematic sense of transitions from image to image and from scene to scene. I’ve come to believe that writers, as much as filmmakers, are responsible for our visual grammar—that their imaginary jumps, and the thematic use they’ve made of those jumps, have laid the groundwork we take for granted today whenever we watch anything more demanding than Blue’s Clues. If the camera goes somewhere special, the chances are good that a writer’s imagined camera has gone there before—and shaped not just filmmakers’ sense of what’s possible, but the expectations we bring to the screen.
We can consider the influence of the writer’s “camera” by looking at one of the most dramatic edits available: zooming out. What can a writer accomplish by playing tricks with distance and scale, sometimes pulling away from the action, leaving the characters neglected in place as the viewpoint pulls back to take in the landscape, or even the whole planet? We’ve all seen dramatic zooms used for effect—but what exactly is the effect, and have writers helped shaped it? I want to start to answer those questions by examining three important—and moving—instances of literary zooming out. I don’t claim that these three authors are responsible cinematic zooming out, but I do think they helped create a lasting set of conventions that give it its power and its emotional meanings. Zooming out relies for that power on the tension between human smallness and human dignity—on the possibility that putting us in cold, “God’s-eye-view” perspective can, against expectations, make us more important.
Let’s start, naturally enough, with Milton: the blind poet who, perhaps because he was cut off from the visual world for so long, came up with some of the most inventive and unexpected edits in poetry. Among these, the most stunning—centuries before we had cameras to take the picture or satellites to send it back—is one of the earliest images of Earth seen from space.
The place is Book II of Paradise Lost, and the scene is Chaos: not exactly outer space in our sense, but certainly the great trackless void between worlds, “a dark / Illimitable Ocean without bound, without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth / And time and place are lost.” Satan has escaped the gates of Hell and traversed this blind wilderness on his mission to infect our world; and as he reaches the border between Chaos and the created world, he pauses to take stock by the first beams of visible light.
The “camera” turns and scans the distance, leaving Satan behind. “Farr off” is Heaven with its jeweled towers—but still so enormous that we can’t tell, from this distance, whether its border is a straight line or an arc. A little further on, the light by which we and Satan see passes on to Earth:
hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr
Of smallest magnitude close by the Moon.
Later, Milton will catalogue this world’s creation in microscopic detail—but the first time he shows it to us in Paradise Lost, it is small enough to be blocked out by a finger. The sense of insignificance—next to the massive Heaven, next to Chaos—is overpowering. So is the sense of danger: the “pendant world” is literally hanging in the balance. It and all its life, which are set to be corrupted, look like a fragile toy from this distance.
And what about Satan? Though the camera seems to have pulled back from him, he’s still the closest object to our viewpoint. Next to Heaven, he is tiny, a nuisance, a perpetual underdog, but he towers over Earth—the theology of the whole poem summed up in an image. But we’ve also just seen Satan at his most courageous, a voyage through Chaos that sees Milton explicitly compare him to the Greek epic heroes. The image of him brooding over Earth from afar is one of our first introductions in the poem to Satanic glamour—a glamour that Milton will whittle down over the course of his epic, but one that reaches its seductive high point here. It’s no surprise that the image of a hovering hero watching over Earth would resurface much later in an entirely positive light—as the iconic image of Superman.
Between Earth and Satan, distance and closeness, where does Milton mean for our sympathies to lie? On one hand, “we” are “down there”: our home and (by the poem’s theology) our ancestors are on that shadowed speck, and surely we can be expected to feel some of its danger. On the other hand, “we” are also “here”: our viewpoint is not there on Earth, but alongside Satan’s, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t share some of his exhilaration at this moment. That, too, is part of Milton’s point.
Either way, it’s a moment of high drama—but what happens when a writer uses a zoom to pull away from drama, at its climactic point? What’s the point of deliberately trading conflict for calm?
Toward the end of his huge novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens gives us a long and languid zoom out by night, over London, over the English countryside, and all the way to the sea. But it’s not an exercise in scene-setting, or in picturesqueness for its own sake. It’s a calculated, and almost infuriating, distraction from one of the novel’s turning-points: the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn, an attorney who has spent hundreds of pages building an elaborate scheme of blackmail, which he has almost seen through to success.
Tulkinghorn, coldly self-satisfied as usual, has just returned home after issuing a decisive ultimatum to his blackmail target. On the way in, he’s distracted by the sight of the moon—and so is the story itself, which leaves Earth and zooms into a lyrical passage tracing the progress of the moon across the sky and leaving Tulkinghorn almost forgotten below:
He looks up casually, thinking what a fine night, what a bright large moon, what multitudes of stars! A quiet night, too.
A very quiet night. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her, that influence even crowded places full of life. Not only is it a still night on dusty high roads and on hill-summits, whence a wide expanse of country may be seen in repose, quieter and quieter as it spreads away into a fringe of trees against the sky, with the grey ghost of a bloom upon them; not only is it a still night in gardens and in woods, and on the river where the water-meadows are fresh and green, and the stream sparkles on among pleasant islands, murmuring weirs, and whispering rushes; not only does the stillness attend it as it flows where houses cluster thick, where many bridges are reflected in it, where wharves and shipping make it black and awful, where it winds from these disfigurements through marshes whose grim beacons stand like skeletons washed ashore, where it expands through the bolder region of rising grounds rich in corn-field, windmill and steeple, and where it mingles with the ever-heaving sea; not only is it a still night on the deep, and on the shore where the watcher stands to see the ship with her spread wings cross the path of light that appears to be presented to only him; but even on this stranger’s wilderness of London there is some rest….
What’s that? Who fired a gun or pistol? Where was it?
When the gun goes off in that staccato burst—“What’s that?”—we aren’t there with Tulkinghorn to take the bullet. We’re still in the folds of a lazily sweeping 206-word sentence that takes us from London to the coast and back, everything frozen and watching.
There’s far too much effort in those 206 words for them to be a plot contrivance. Yes, the identity of the murderer is supposed to be a mystery; but if that were the only consideration, Dickens only had to narrate the scene from Tulkinghorn’s perspective or keep the killer conveniently in the shadows. Dickens’s transition to the landscape is doing much more work here.
For one, it builds the shock of the murder. The long sentence takes us so far away from the action of the story, and is so full of motionless calm, that it almost lulls us into putting Tulkinghorn out of mind—until the shot, heard but not seen, snaps us instantly back. It’s a fitting end for a man who, like this impeccably controlled and cunning lawyer, considers himself untouchable. Instead, he is wrenched out of his reverie in the most violent way possible—and so, in a way, are we.
At the same time, is our surprise really as total as his? The long zoom out over the landscape is an investment in surprise, but it also seems designed to build suspense, even dread—based on a nagging sense that the landscape doesn’t belong here, is out of place for a reason we can’t identify until we hear the shots. It is, in other words, an early instance of “It’s quiet—too quiet.” In film, in fact, a long shot at a climactic moment is a cue to worry, not to relax; think of the fishing-boat murder of Fredo in The Godfather II, which is interspersed with lake scenery and shots of his brother watching the killing he ordered from a distance. Mr. Tulkinghorn’s sudden death seems like a distant ancestor of that scene.
Should any of this change our thoughts for the victim? In one sense, no: Tulkinghorn was a manipulative and double-dealing man in life—and while no one deserves a pistol-shot between the eyes, few readers have shed a tear for him. But Dickens could also deal out far more grisly and humiliating deaths: one minor character in Bleak House spontaneously combusts. Here, instead, zooming out turns the end elegiac, and if we can’t be moved to feel any injustice over a bad man’s death, maybe we can feel the injustice of a beautiful scene cut off too soon. The stillness “attends”; woods and steeples and ship seem to be waiting for something, and though they cannot possibly know what is about to happen in a London courtyard, Dickens makes us feel that they can—that the local death of a single lawyer, placed in such a wide setting, has much more than a local significance. Finally, remember that we begin the scene by following Tulkinghorn’s gaze up to the sky; his eyes don’t sweep as far as the camera, but at the moment he dies, he is looking at the same moon as we are. For us, the wide world of that 206-word sentence is cut off by a line break; for him, it is cut off permanently. Entirely hateable characters rarely die with that kind of pathos. As much as a death with dignity is possible, Dickens gives one to Tulkinghorn—and he dignifies him by zooming out.
It’s this tension between dignity and dwarfing scale that is tackled most directly by the last example I want to look at: the novel Star Maker, by the British writer Olaf Stapledon. Written in 1937, it’s not as well-known as the two other works I’ve looked at, but its influence has arguably been just as strong. It was a landmark work of serious science fiction and held up as an inspiration by writers like H.G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, and Arthur C. Clarke, and even physicists like Freeman Dyson; it is an ancestor of science fiction movies and literature that play out across star systems and galaxies. It is, in effect, one book-length, cosmic-scale zooming out: it is the story of a Londoner who finds himself leaving his body, and then floating above the Earth, and then in interstellar space. Throughout this strange novel, our narrator does nothing but observe, searching out traces of intelligence wherever he can find it; slowly he comes across and joins forces with alien minds that have become disembodied in the same way, and as this snowball of consciousness accumulates and rolls through galaxies, the book comes to be narrated by “we,” not “I.”
Immaterial and unfixed in time, they watch the histories of entire planets unfold: some are Earth-like, some utterly alien; some pass whole through the stage of “world crisis,” while some destroy themselves. Ultimately planets and galaxies build collective consciousnesses and absorb our narrator; as the end of history approaches, the universe itself becomes self-conscious and takes over the narration—“I” again. Finally, the universe comes face-to-face with the Creator—only to find that its maker is not a loving God, but something of an uncompromising artist, who discards the universe as imperfect and begins again. Across the universe, intelligence winks out, cold and entropy set in, and our original narrator wakes up on Earth again, lying on a hill.
And this is, to my mind, the most interesting part of the book. How can you go on after a vision like that—not a vision of warm, mystical comfort, but a vision of unimaginable smallness and rejection? What could the point possibly be, when you have literally seen Earth die?
The narrator gathers himself up and zooms out again—but only in imagination this time, and only as far as the circuit of his own planet. He can look at Earth now with the otherworldly objectivity of a man who has lived many lives on many alien worlds, and yet at each stop he is jarred by human suffering, by events that ought to seem trivial, but cannot: “In the stars’ view, no doubt, these creatures were mere vermin; but each to itself, and sometimes one to another, was more real than all the stars.”
His view sweeps past England to Europe, where “the Spanish night was ablaze with the murder of cities,” to Germany and its “young men ranked together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Führer,” on to Siberia, where “the iron-hard Arctic oppressed the exiles in their camps,” east to Japan, which “spilled over Asia a flood of armies and trade,” south to Africa, “where Dutch and English profit by the Negro millions…and then the Americas, where the descendants of Europe long ago mastered the descendants of Asia, through priority in the use of guns, and the arrogance that guns breed….”
Even though he has learned to think of his home with an alien’s detachment, the features that capture his attention are more than those that can be seen from space. They are the tiny events that pass across the landscape: war, trade, politics. And as the story ends, he believes, or chooses to believe, that he is watching the same crisis through which every world has to struggle, the universal story in miniature—and that everything he sees on Earth is dignified in that light. He looks down the hill to the light from his home, and up to the light from the stars, and concludes:
Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars…with its crystal ecstasy. Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even the possible defeat of our half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness.
C.S. Lewis—who would go on to write his own series of science fiction novels as a rebuttal, in part, to Stapledon—was shocked enough by Star Maker’s unorthodoxies to call it “sheer devil worship.” But its conclusion, as an attempt to hold in one thought our smallness and our importance, reminds me of nothing so much as some lines Lewis would have immediately recognized, which cut between the human and the galactic scale as effortlessly as any of the passages I’ve considered here:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available on Amazon and in some stores already, and the official release date is March 1st.
The writer of the future will crouch in wind-swept aeries miles above the electronic din of the modern world, crafting feathers out of the leaves of old books.
Watch him strap the wings to his back and toddle to the nest’s edge.
Watch the wind ruffle his fine, sparse hair as he tilts farther and farther into the abyss.
At night, the writers of the future sleep but never dream. In the morning, their watchman arrives and flips on the lights, whistling under his breath. He carefully unrolls the writers’ dust-cloths. The writers are bunched on a stainless steel table, their screens so thin that it is impossible to believe that they each contain the power of a million typing monkeys. The watchman flips their switches; the cursors blink on the screens; the writers hum to life; and by the time he emerges from the back room with his caffè mocha and ham sandwich, already one of the writers is printing out the first chapter in a multi-generational comedic masterpiece, destined to be hailed by a similar bank of critics of the future as “Powerful,” “Luminous,” “Finely Wrought,” and “An Important Debut from a Writer to Watch.”
The writer of the future will sell her wares on the dog-crotted sidewalks of city streets, desperately flinging open her trench coat to reveal advance reading copies, braving the disgusted or averted faces of the more respectable kinds of pedestrians to whom French flaps or deckle edges mean nothing even remotely titillating.
A writer of the future sits in her office in the present, trying very, very hard to not panic.
Every year, the writers of the future will gather on a desert island, nervously clutching their notebooks to their chests and shuffling their spectacles on their noses. Over the course of two weeks, a series of competitions will take place in a great number of disciplines: Awkward Social Encounters, Furious Scribbling, Midnight Angst, Imperviousness to Blistering Reviews, Book Club Chatter, Esprit de L’Escalier, and Networking, among others. At the end of the Writer Olympics, points will be counted and the Bestsellers will be announced, and the losers will be shuffled one by one off the cliffs onto the jagged rocks below, notwithstanding some bitter muttering about how none of the judges even cracked the spines of the manuscripts under consideration.
It will be mandated: At every table in every diner in the world, there will sit a writer about the size of a napkin dispenser. At the end of the meal, one shall put in one’s credit card and out will pop a novel in a hundred and forty characters, or fewer.
Bleak House: Fog in London, judicial shenanigans. How does it end? Nobody knows.
The Road: A boy and his father in black and white and red. And roasted babies!
Portnoy’s Complaint: Oh, my penis. Oh, my mother. Oh, my penis again.
A writer of the future holds her head in her hands.
For a moment, the writer of the future stands backstage, listening to the roar of the crowd chanting her name, steeling herself for the inevitable barrage of panties and roses as soon as she emerges, hearing the nervous voices of her groupies whispering their good lucks, and knowing that while this part of the job isn’t the easiest, all writers must deal with such crazed adulation at some point in their lives, and she can rest for the hour or so after her poetry reading in the carriage behind the six white stallions that will draw her slowly over the petal-strewn streets that will be, inevitably, thronged with her admirers shouting her own words back to her in soft and mellifluous tones.
In America’s brutal quest to compete with China to produce the best writers of the future, Baby Farms will sort infants into two distinct groups: Future Writers and Future Watchers of Television. The elite few will be ruthlessly prodded, tested, measured, and coached for the first thirty years of their lives, after which time they will have roughly five years to attempt to attain the status of Great American Novelist. If they fail, as of the eve of their thirty-sixth birthday, they will be forever afterward shuffled into these increasingly belittling categories: Promising Emerging Writer; Regional Writer; Midlist Writer; Catalog Copy Writer; Composition and Rhetoric Adjunct; Award-Winning Short Story Writer; Writer’s Writer; Genre Writer; Self-Published Writer; and, last, and most ignominious, Hollywood Screenwriter.
A writer of the future knows that no matter where she sets her work (in the historical-fiction past; in the science-fiction future), all she really is doing is talking about the present, anyway.
The writer of the future comes into his study and shuts the door behind him. There are actual books on the shelves, to the frequent wonderment of his friends, who secretly decry the dust; the windows have darkened themselves at his entry; the coffee of the future has been instantly percolated and awaits his lips. He paces for a moment or two to listen to where he left off the day before. When the last words die down, he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes.
He unfolds his hands from the sleeves of the robes of the future. He lifts his elegant fingers. And he begins to conduct his words with vigorous armstrokes, the way a theremin player summons music from the air.
If the writers of the future all look just like James Patterson, with their leathery jowls and sandy comb-overs, it is because they all are, as a matter of fact, genetically cloned replicas of James Patterson.
All writers in the future, in order to be granted permission to publish their first books, will first have to collect a satisfactory number of previous careers. The Ministry of Arts and Letters, or Mini-Al, will issue little badges at the completion of stints in the occupations of: Food Server, Lifeguard, Transcriber for the Deaf, Rheumatologist, Data-Entry Clerk, Cashier, Sherpa, Furiously Disgusted Amazon Reviewer, Picketer, Pamphleteer, Census-Taker, Auditor, Policeperson, Interior Decorator, Groveling Toady to an Outsized Ego, and Over-consumer of Media Culture.
The writers who are at last allowed to become Writers sometimes sit in their mahogany-lined studies, behind locked doors, and dabble their fingers in the miniature waterfalls on their desks. They sigh, pace, and check that the door is locked. At last, they open their desk drawers, take out their little sashes with the badges stitched on them, and run loving fingers over each badge, in fond remembrance of those distant, awful times.
From a distance—say, through binoculars from an unmarked Mini-Al van in the street, or from the satellite that has turned its pulsing attention to that exact spot in the world—the writers who fondle their badges and wear fond, misty smiles on their faces often look like oversized Girl Scouts, beanies and all.
The writer of the future will have her body surgically modified to fit the contours of her work, canting her spine forward so it hovers over her desk, bowing her hands to better fit the shape of a keyboard, and inserting a titanium shell under her epidermis so that she can take her agent’s wise advice and grow a goddamn thicker skin already, jeez.
A writer of the future shakes it off and continues on.
Of all the many predictions that one can make about the writer of the future, there is only one that holds a whiff of the indisputable: that the writer of the future is the writer who writes. He is the one drawing word after word, pushing his sentences outward, into the darkness, into the thrilling unknown. He’s not going to put it off for tomorrow, and he’s not content with yesterday’s work. He is the one alone somewhere, writing, right now. And right now. And right now.
When I say, referring to Bleak House by Charles Dickens, “They don’t write books like that anymore,” I really mean it. Reading it is like a guided tour of things serious authors aren’t allowed to do. Exactly two of the characters are complicated and unpredictable, everyone else is either angelic or demonic. Dozens of pages go by with nothing happening except amusing characters having silly conversation. Halfway through the book an entire chapter is devoted to introducing a new character who never goes on to do anything integral to the story. And a few of the characters start crying almost every time they have a conversation.
Bleak House felt unlike the modern fiction I’m used to reading until I realized that the comparison is a disservice to Dickens. You have to embrace Bleak House for what it is – a rambling, confusing, verbose, over-populated, vastly improbable story which substitutes caricatures for people and is full of puns. In other words, an 800-page Dickens novel.
And that description only fits if you want to call it a novel. Its original readers read it in 20 monthly installments. Reading it in a matter of weeks is kind of like watching a season of Lost on DVD over a weekend. You start to notice how often character descriptions are repeated, how many important topics are discussed at regular intervals, how new characters and twists are fabricated to buy time.
As a serial, it’s much more likeable. I started to read Bleak House slowly, and found that dropping in on its world was reliably amusing and full of pathos. Some episodes of the story stand alone. They don’t advance the plot or broaden the characters, but rather stop to ponder what happens when a London street urchin needs a place to sleep, for instance. Once I’d abandoned hope of narrative momentum in Bleak House, the episodes were nice to read. Dickens may have slowed the story to a crawl to prolong the income he was getting from it, but even when he writes about unimportant characters accomplishing very little, there’s something to like on every page.
Dickens, a keen observer of mankind, was one of its sharpest critics and proud champions. He was viciously capable of drawing cruel, unapologetic characters, but he seemed more fond of creating characters that he liked – either because they were heroically good-natured, or because they were so bizarre that he had no qualms about making them look ridiculous. Unlike many modern writers, as he’s toying with the fortunes of his characters, he doesn’t mind that you can tell how much fun he’s having.
In one scene, a gentleman whose dignity is being insulted reacts by appearing as magnificent as possible until, at the final insult, “Sir Leicester’s magnificence explodes. Calmly, but terribly.”
Bleak Houses’s jester, Guppy, is always bursting in on people and subjecting them to ludicrous conversation, which Dickens delights in relating. During one exchange in which he is being particularly bothersome to his interlocutor, “Mr. Guppy considers this a favourable moment for sticking up his hair with both hands.”
These goofball scenes, of course, are juxtaposed by the depraved condition of man that Dickens is also always so eager to show us, and the predictably rosy ending for Dickens’ favorites among the cast is offset by a surprisingly high body count.
I can’t escape the impression that Dickens was just mucking around half the time. (In order to get rid of one character whose usefulness was over, he killed him by spontaneous combustion.) But if Dickens is only trying half the time, you’ve still got an enjoyable book. I wouldn’t want all of the books I read to be so meandering and indulgent, but it was nice, in this case, to sit back and watch Dickens amuse himself.
The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain. Here are some snapshots, month by month, of my marginalia from 2010. (Click each image for a larger view)
Point Omega by Don Delillo
Reality Hunger by David Shields
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.
If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.
Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.
In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.
Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.
To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”
For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.
At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!
One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.
From the New York Times:A grandfatherly figure, his bearded face wrinkled into a smile, peers down from billboards around town. It is surprise enough that the man is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the once-exiled writer, Nobel Prize winner and, of late, octogenarian scold. It is even more so that the billboards advertise his adaptation – broadcast on state television, no less – of one of his fiercely anti-Soviet novels, The First Circle.While the article goes on to say that Solzhenitsyn is not being embraced by all, I think this is an interesting example of a melding of literature and media to attempt to deal with history – rather like “Roots” the miniseries here in the US.Another thought: In the comments of this post, Pete and I had a little back and forth about how, in light of “Brokeback Mountain,” it would seem that the short story is more sensibly adapted to film than the novel in that novels so often have to be pared down considerably to fit into two hours of screen time. It follows, then, that the mini-series is much more suitable for the novel. Considering how many literary novels get slashed in film adaptations, I’d love to see a resurgence of the mini-series as the preferred format for novels. (Bearing in mind of course that the PBS’ recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House proves that the form isn’t dead here.) And with novels like The Corrections (IMDb) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (IMDb) in the Hollywood pipeline, I’d love to see them in their full splendor in a longer format.
I recieved this note from a reader the other day and I enjoyed it so much I thought I would provide it for public consumption. Enjoy: I came upon your blog this morning and I liked it. The meta of the blog is a noble idea and I wish you the best. Thought you might appreciate a little ditty I penned- SummapoetaSumma was a bookie, not the Vegas thing where 5 will get you 10, but a fairy thathung out around ink and parchment and leather bindings. Summa hung out around books.Sometimes bookies are call library angels, but Summa bristled at this nomenclature.She was always quick to point out that angels were entities that had been very bad,that were now trying to be good. Not so with fairies. Fairies had always favoredphun and play and giggle, wiggle, laughing. Why be bad when having phun was so muchbetter?Summa’s full moniker was Summapoeta. She favored the short sweetest of poems to thedrudgery of wading through the ramblings of fools and their novels. Yes, beauty toSumma was to say much with little. – And unto my beckoningit did comea perfect point of celestial splendorand with this light I now seethe beauty amongst the shadows.- to Summa this was a zillion times more beautiful than any novel.I have always liked the concept of library angels or book fairies, an invisible handthat seems to lead you to what you need.You can catch some of my other stuff on http://robertdsnaps.blogspot.com. Hint -Some of the big ones hang out in the archives.Doing time on the ball,”d”I love libraries and I love the idea of “library angels and book fairies.” Libraries can be incredible, mystical places. Anyone who has been to the New York Central Library or the Los Angeles Central Library knows it… and anyone who has read the work of poet, writer, philosopher and blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, knows the power of the library as well… see his Collected Fictions for various magical library tales. My favorite fictional library? It would have to be the library in Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion. In this library, anyone can walk in and place their own handmade book on shelves that gather no dust, and the book will remain there for posterity, for anyone who wishes to see it.Bookfinding… Classic Literatures and my Broken Down CarI feel no particular affinity for my car. It is very average and there is nothing romantic about it. And yet, living in Los Angeles, I depend upon the car perhaps more than any of my possessions. Somehow though, this unassuming car of mine must be really tuned into my psyche, because it seems to collapse sympathetically when ever my life hits a rocky patch. During my various periods of full and gainful employment, my car has behaved admirably, quietly doing it’s job, asking and recieving no special notice from it’s owner… very unassuming. However, whenever I am scrimping and struggling, my car seems to feel my pain and its insides deteriorate and fail, seemingly reacting to the stresses felt by its owner. And so, naturally, with a rent check looming that may be beyond my means, I brought my car to a trusted mechanic for routine and necessary maintainance, and sure enough my trusted mechanic, after spending some time under the hood and under the car, quickly identified several areas where my car was teetering on the brink of total collapse. Having seen the decay with my own two eyes, and resigned to the fact that my car’s chronic desire to push me ever deeper into credit card debt, I set out on walk, not often done in Los Angeles, to kill time while my car was unde the knife.Along my way, I passed several bookstores peddling both new and used books, many of which I would like to have owned, none of which I could afford. So, I was much pleased to come upon a Goodwill store in the course of my travels, one with many shelves of dusty paperbacks going for 49 cents a piece. Many of the usual thrift store suspects were present, mounds and mounds of bestseller fodder from two decades ago, but I was able to lay my hands on three classic novels that I am very pleased to add to my growing library. First I found an old Signet Classic paperback copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens has long been one of my favorites, and I am especially fond of Great Expectations and Hard Times. Many consider Bleak House to be his greatest work. I also found a copy of one the most important American novels ever written: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Finally, I came across a novel that I had not heard of before working at the bookstore. Somehow I went through life without any knowledge of Carson McCullers, who as a 23 year old wrote a Southern gothic masterpiece called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But now I own the book, and I can’t wait to read it.