Listen to this and other great longform stories read aloud with the Audm app, now available in the App Store.
So one time you enter this beauty pageant. It seems like a good idea at the time, and hey, why not? Then you get third place and have to spend the year being a princess, travelling around doing parades and shows in this royal-blue off-the-shoulder gown and a purple cloak with fake fur trim, and this crown.
“You” is me. It’s from a short story I wrote about it a few years afterwards. I was 15 when I took my short, cold dip into pageant life, and I can’t shake that naive voice. I slide into it when I talk about that time, which isn’t often (I never published the story). A fog descends, not just at the thought that it was me swanning around western North America in a rhinestone tiara. Like a lot of smalltown girls, I gave a good impression of agreeable calm — like a lake. When I think of myself and my friends then, I see us holding still in spite of all the usual teen infernos, as if just about to be photographed.
The Lady of the Lake is a young woman who has a personal presence that leaves a favourable and lasting impression. She has the integrity to meet anyone in an honest and genuine manner, the self assurance and judgement to converse intelligently, the finesse to meet dignitaries in any social setting, the natural warmth and grace of a young lady, as well as the intelligence, and excellent public speaking skills. Combined with the fact that she has an awareness of herself as an individual, and you have the young woman who is the Ambassador of Kelowna.
This is from the curiously antique-sounding pageant website. Or maybe not so curious, given that the competition began in the 1930s, when my British Columbia city was hauling itself up from its one-horse-town roots. It hit its stride in the 1950s, when the winner’s every move was reported breathlessly in the news. “Lady of the Lake” is Miss Kelowna’s alternate title, straight out of King Arthur, wherein the Lake spits out Excalibur and the Lady is Lancelot’s foster mom. Kelowna has a lake of its own, and its parade float is covered in blue tinsel to approximate it. The real lake is narrow and very deep, and home to more than one lost corpse. I used to swim down as far as I could off my grandmother’s wharf with one of those disposable underwater cameras, trying to photograph bones or ghosts.
Photographs eat your soul, right? (We all talked like that, in questions.) But that’s what I think about when I think about that time: being looked at. This was the early 1990s, pre-cellphones, pre-Instagram, but in training the pageant candidates developed an alertness for cameras, like animals for danger, or for food. We learned how to wave (one from the elbow, two from the wrist). How to eat soup (dip the spoon away from you, it looks less greedy). How to sit down (edge of the chair, legs angled to one side, ankles uncrossed). How to close a door (behind you, without turning around to look). How to exit a car without displaying your unmentionables (press your legs together and swing them out first). What unmentionables to buy for beneath evening gowns and suits (“Cinnamon” was an approved shade for nylons. So was “Nude”). How to pose: three-quarter turns, feet in third ballet position, arms at sides, chins slightly down. Look up at the lens from under your eyelashes.
I loved it. This was stuff I would never have learned anywhere else; my parents were bookish and kept to themselves. The ladies who ran it, the 30-ish Trainer and the 60-ish Director of Royalty, insisted this was not a beauty pageant, but they took femininity seriously. They looked the part, never without jewelry and full hair and makeup. Here was arcane knowledge: This is how it’s done. I remember going to the drugstore for their recommended French-manicure polish and touching a bottle of Witchcraft brand on the shelf. That’s how it all felt, occult. Initiation. Ritual. Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts, watered down for middle-class Canadian girls.
Men start things for me. Two of them, friendly and middle-aged, from a local service club, get my name from school, and one evening they come to my house to meet me and my parents and ask if I will be their sponsored candidate for 1991-92. They sit in the living room and politely accept cheese and crackers and ice water. The glasses sweat as the men chat with my dad about ski lifts and construction. My mother keeps out of it. My younger siblings lurk in my view at the top of the basement stairs, narrowing their eyes identically when the conversation turns to me. Why you?
I sit next to the fireplace, keeping my back straight and ignoring them. I’m flattered to be asked, persuaded easily, as I am into most things. The men are full of good cheer. The club buys me a dress. I pick blue velvet. The club’s name goes on the white satin banner I have to wear over it.
A couple of my more academic or proto-feminist friends are dumbfounded by my decision. But Why not is a minor refrain with me, and I’m used to pleasing adults. I usually choose Truth in Truth or Dare, so I can lie pleasantly if necessary and escape. This candidacy feels like a dare, and I take it. It plays into my inner perversity, doing something that already feels bizarre and out of time.
I have long hair, I like makeup. I play piano and flute, I get good grades. I look at myself in the mirror frequently. A bloodier part of me, the part that pours out gothic tales in a flowery journal and occasionally startles the English teacher, knows to stay in its kennel. But it’s easy enough to move between selves. I want to see me as you see me. Joyce Carol Oates makes this a refrain in Blonde, her psychological portrait of Marilyn Monroe. But I think it goes beyond that.How thick a shell can I build, so you can’t see me at all?
The competition takes months. There are nine candidates, all sponsored by local shops and clubs and societies. I’m the youngest, the oldest is 20, the upper age cutoff. Two girls are Asian, the rest white. Most of us have biggish 1991 hair. There is much friendliness, sisterliness, at training nights and the local events we are sent to. We wear matching boxy suits and white heels. We hear over and over in speech practice about respective career plans (teaching, beauty therapy, “a singer in Japan,” the law) and causes (children, mostly). Some of the girls are deeply earnest about all of it, with stage-mothers bustling in their wake. If you win this, you go on to more pageants, ideally to Miss Universe. Win that and then what? Then you win.
No one is mean. There’s a Miss Congeniality trophy at stake.
But first blood outs itself at the talent competition. Our hackles shift as we side-eye each other’s outfits and abilities. What can you do? For me, this question goes two ways: what is your talent, and what are you supposed to do about it? One of the more outspoken girls talks petulantly about a candidate from another year who played a video of herself synchronized-swimming while she did ballet live, in a costume she’d made herself, also singing at the end. The sense of injustice is visceral. Showing off is not what you do with your talents. But what do you do, then, if you have to perform them in public?
This part is held one evening at the Centennial Hall in the middle of the sports fields, with its chalk-dust smell and its raised curtainless stage. A girl puts on a felt beret and shows off her art. Another performs a liturgical dance in a white robe. There are a couple of jazz routines, a dramatic monologue in a fetus’s voice. I play the flute to a fuzzy tape-recording of myself playing the piano. The Trainer stops me backstage and powders more blush on my cheeks and forehead. More smell of dust. I get out there and do reasonably. In spite of nerves and hissing worries about being showoffs, we’re all enjoying being looked at onstage. Doing something that merits being looked at. We know this is what we’re here for.
The audience is gravely favorable. A full house, half-visible in the dark, but no cheers, just long gentle applause for everyone. One of the girls is tearful afterwards. She sniffles, “I want to do it again.” I’m not sure whether she means she wants to do her song better, or just to be on stage again. She’s inconsolable. We circle her, pat her.
As it turns out, my flute and piano and I win this part. Standing alone on the stage again, I feel I had nothing to do with it. I’m always surprised by things that happen to me. And I’m tired. The training nights are getting longer and more frequent, as are the weekend charity events.
School ends, and we do a summer fashion show for a full house. The pageant is approaching like an express. We inhabit our bodies more and more uneasily, though we go over and over walks and turns for the evening gown component, and the Phantom of the Opera jazz-dance routine we’re all in. There’s a judges’ question we each have to answer at the end of the big night, and the practice answers get sharper, and at the same time less sincere. No one says she doesn’t want a career or a cause, but a flabbiness has struck the responses. Yeah whatever, I want to be a teacher, I guess. Will we ever need careers? Aren’t we enough, doing this? Isn’t this what we’re here for?
Then it’s late August and the valley is soaked in heat. I’ve been avoiding tan lines all summer because of my strapless blue velvet. And it’s time. On pageant day, I get my hair done in long spirals, though it’s already curly. I take a bubble bath and it sags. My mum has caught a whiff of the stage mothers by now and starts to fuss around my head, but I tell her to leave it, and I get myself into my blue velvet dress and white banner. My heart is thudding like an old machine. When I arrive at the hotel hours early to get ready for the night, the candidate trainer clacks her tongue and attacks me with bobby pins. “They need to see your face,” she tells me, looking hard into my eyes and puffing my hair above my forehead. I close them against the hairspray bomb until she’s pleased with her work. She touches my cheek softly, an uncharacteristic gesture, checking me like a grocery store fruit.
The hotel is older, built to look modern in 1961, and still the most formal in town. The water in the central courtyard’s outdoor pool shifts and glitters. People in swimsuits watch from their lounge chairs as we dart back and forth between dressing and rehearsal areas. A woman is lying facedown, her white bikini top undone, the man beside her massaging her tanned back in slow circles. In a sudden sweat I thank God there is no swimsuit competition; I don’t think I’ve considered that possibility until this moment, and it’s nauseating. It’s not the abrupt hint of sex that scares me. Teenage pageants are resoundingly asexual, or at least the outer rind of them is, in spite of being all about bubbling femininity and strapless dresses, in spite of male-gaze theory. Those father-daughter Purity Balls are cousins. Girls doing what they ought to do, while everyone waltzes around the fact that they’re getting old enough to do what they want to do.
I stare at the half-naked woman on the lounge chair. It hasn’t occurred to me that people might look at us that way, though one of my indignant friends told me that prostitution and pornography are exact equals to what I’m doing. But those analogies are too easy. They don’t take into account the hiding in plain sight. And this woman isn’t hiding. She couldn’t care less who looks at her. The nauseating part is that I never think things through. I see that now. I don’t want to be stared at, but here I am, asking for just that.
The ballroom begins in darkness. The emcee is a slow-voiced AM radio host. The judges are local celebrities, two women and the token man. We know them by now, we’ve seen them watching us. And we know each other, we watch one another more closely. These are all smart girls, and tonight, waiting to go on, I see the way they use or screen their smartness. One is grieving her mother’s recent death, hoping to make her proud, but she rarely brings up this fact, though others might have. Her eyes swim with tears now. One, who has little chance, stands with military straightness in the knowledge that her candidacy has given her family undreamed-of pride. A couple inhabit their bodies with ease and proficiency, in tighter gowns than the rest of us, shifting their breasts in their bodices, posing better. They look as if they were another species, bred to this.
We do everything we’ve trained for. The judges’ surprise questions come towards the end. They ask me whether young people today should have goals and I’m momentarily flummoxed. Is the question stupid? Is it deeper than I’m seeing? Do they want us to have goals? Should I say No, they should not?
I don’t argue. I come up with something about physics, and my struggles with it, that somehow relates. The two in the tight gowns are asked about whether men and women are different (yes, but equal! Like hands!), and about heroes (people with cancer!). One of them tells me later that “Hitler” was the first word that popped into her head, but her big hazel eyes never showed a fleck of obscenity. She is very good. The purple cloak she ends up with suits her.
She wins, after last year’s Princess revenges herself on the Queen with a farewell speech about how she ate too much Mexican food on a trip to Washington. The other tight-gown girl is second. I am third, and dazed, and thinking Now what. The tiara is now what. Its combs gnaw at my scalp as I’m crowned, and the three of us stand on the low stage doing our wave to the long, packed room. Some of my friends and family are there, grinning in amusement or bemusement. As we walk off, escorted by scarlet-coated RCMP officers, Lionel Ritchie’s “Ballerina Girl” plays loudly.
The Director of Royalty takes us aside. She tells us we’re now living in a goldfish bowl, and all our movements will be scrutinized by the public. Her lined face is plentifully made up. Her heavy earrings tremble as she talks. She’s been running this show for years, she lives for this. She radiates joy. It hits me in the chest, like heartburn.
The watching goes on. The Director and her husband chaperone us during all our royal duties. He drives quietly, doing his male part. We three new royals are crammed together in the backseat of their compact Chevrolet, listening to Abba tapes or to the Director talk about World War II and why she will never buy a Japanese car or wait in line for a restaurant. It’s not something we do. We travel to parades and other pageants around BC and Alberta and Washington State. It’s another planet, all of it. We model wedding dresses and sportswear. We meet other royalty and exchange city pins. We meet Superman, Christopher Reeve, at the Calgary Stampede, a few years before he falls and is paralyzed. In our matching gowns and cloaks, or matching suits, or matching snowsuits, and always in crowns, we ride the City of Kelowna float with its blue tinsel. Floats lumber, parades are long. The driver, a realtor, is hidden underneath with the controls. I can just see the back of his head from my place left of Ogopogo, our resident lake monster, staring bland and bug-eyed from the top. I wave until my shoulder shakes, I smile until my jaw trembles and migraine stabs my left temple.
The Queen is sometimes handed solo gas-station roses in plastic tubes, or asked for autographs. I’m impressed by her easy handling of these peripheral guys, these dumb spider mates. She and the First Princess get along splendidly. They don’t wear unmentionables under their nylons, avoiding panty lines altogether. They’re not shy about showing me how this works. They idly discuss whether posing for Playboy one day would be a good idea.They’ve already staked their claims on womanhood, and they don’t know what to make of me. The Queen tells me, “You’re so innocent.” I’m not sure if she’s exasperated or curious. I use my innocence as a shield, pretending not to understand what they talk about half the time, though I’m always listening. They snap my bra, do my hair, hide my textbooks, tease me about sex, paint my nails, lend me earrings, rub my neck, make me share a bed with one of them everywhere we go. The rooms are always doubles. The motels are always functional. In small bathrooms, I take long showers to be alone for a while.
At many events, we’re paired up with local high-school boys as escorts. I find this humiliating and hilarious, as most of the boys seem to. One of them tells me he’s doing it for a PE credit. We usually dance one or two dances and then I try to bow out and sit on the sidelines, tiara-ed and smiling gamely. One night I end up with a boy I’d known in primary school. We haven’t seen each other in years. We leave the gym for air and stand around looking at the stars and laughing. Our reunion makes me bizarrely joyful, as though my actual life is still tethered to me. As though I have a life. I feel it then, shifting around in my chest under my strapless bra.
I remember a lot of disconnected details like this. The stars, the helpless laughing, the welts from control-top underwear, the pads in the balls of high-heeled shoes to ease pain. At one parade, a little girl with brown braids and a purple shirt asked me if I was a real princess. She was suspicious. I liked kids, I babysat all the time, but I curtly told her no. I’m not real.
I found the blue velvet dress in the garage a while ago. It smells, but I tried it on anyway. It just fits (it has a full skirt). But teenage me still doesn’t seem to have quite existed in this world. Stacy Schiff’s recent book about Salem in 1692 makes clear that the original accusers at the infamous witch trials were very much adolescent: The neighbor made me do this. I don’t like her. She pinched me. I’m tired all the time. The men and the hints of sex only entered the story later: She bewitched me. She made me think of her constantly. Her form came to my room at night. The way things slide away from you. You start them, then they escalate, they’re not in your control. You can only watch.
We looked a little witchy in the early ‘nineties, given free rein. Black dresses and tights, dried-blood lipstick. I got my driver’s license during the pageant year. I passed without having to parallel park; the examiner and I had the same name, so he let me off the hook, saying it was a wonderful coincidence. After being introduced to the mayor with the other candidates that night, I got to take the family Honda out by myself for the first time. I was still in my boxy suit and nylons, my white heels thrown into the passenger seat so they wouldn’t scuff. I drove everywhere, aimlessly, for hours. It occurs to me now that what I felt like was one of those teen witches flying off on a broomstick through the night over Puritan New England. Surveilled, questioned, harnessed by someone else’s power, but turning it around. Watch me now.
Miniatures on a Broad Canvas
At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure.
While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his “best” book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.
Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow’s fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World’s Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971).
In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book’s theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel’s serene opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel’s tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel’s success. When we learn that “Father” built this house, we assume that the man’s son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to “Grandfather” and “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother” and “the Little Boy” reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of “Father,” Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after “the family” took possession of the house, it seemed that “their” days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow.
The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel’s long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel’s signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world.
The gambit unfolds like this: “Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White’s mistress.” A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, “a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” in front of the family’s house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races.
In the course of the novel we’ll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow’s historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini’s “black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow’s mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel’s central conceit from sliding into mere schtick.
From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse
All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975.
But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist’s novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass’s violent death; in Doctorow’s novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse’s violent death.
“Kleist is a great master,” Doctorow told the interviewer. “I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction… Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn’t know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that.”
Ragtime’s Ragged Spawn
I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: “I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.” And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
I think he’s right. Doctorow’s selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow’s strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression.
(For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.)
Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow’s way of writing novels. McCann’s early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit’s mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.” It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, “I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer’s imagination.” And then? “Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer…and then more or less ever since I’ve been hovering in this territory.”
He’s not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime’s progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal’s more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci’s Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim).
The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker’s technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick.
On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime’s worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here’s the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions:
“Miss Hickey…may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?”
The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart.
“Interesting role you’ve got,” said Susan.
“Well, look,” grinned Clift, tolerantly, “this is just a Western, you know.”
“Still,” she persevered, “the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow.”
“Hey, Howard,” whined Clift, “was Garth a real person? Is that right?”
Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. “There are no real people,” he told them. “See if they sue.”
There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks’s made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list.
The I’s Have It
This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character’s voice and enter his mind. One of this strain’s early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok).
In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb’s reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: “So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.” Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals.
The second strain is something that has come to be known as “self-insertion,” which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it’s not yet universal. I can’t imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing.
Too Much Like Work
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination now upon us, it’s worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King’s thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: “I have never tried anything like that before and I’m not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work.”
E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.
Joyce Carol Oates turned 75 years old yesterday, and she’s now writing some of the best fiction of her career. More than any other American novelist of her generation, Oates has been ruthless in questioning her obsessions. Constantly experimenting with different styles, situations, and characters, she has refused to settle into a fixed viewpoint, either toward herself or other people. We recognize the Oates world of physical and psychological violence when we read her, but there has never been anything complacent in her vision. She doesn’t romanticize violence in the way Mailer or Hemingway do. She also doesn’t romanticize victimhood, even if victims of aggression are key figures in many of her works. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened to Oates when she was young, though books like Son of the Morning, with its nightmarish gang rape, give us some disturbing clues. But whatever it is that powers her writing, she races on, making mistakes and learning from them, relentless in her pursuit of each new novel. In Virginia Woolf’s terms, Oates has put as much of her art down on the page as possible, has expressed herself completely, achieving “the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire” the work that is in her.
In her latest novel, The Accursed, the characters hunger to eat the people around them, and sometimes hunger to be eaten in turn. The hunger thrives on the mutual incomprehension between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, ministers and anarchists, journalists and university presidents, blacks and whites, artists and propagandists, social reformers and politicians. The novel repeatedly demonstrates how, despite our best intentions, we can fall in love with our ignorance, the compulsions that blind and fulfill us. Our appetites are terrible and destructive, but they also drive us toward whatever flawed, incomplete actions we might take — only to force us, in the end, to discover we’ve advanced the worst in us along with the best. Consummation is something to be feared and desired.
Our urge to feed on others is built into the novel’s prose. The narrator, M.W. van Dyck II, is writing the book in 1984. Van Dyck is a man in his late-seventies, with many of the prejudices of someone from his time and place. Oates doesn’t, however, spend the novel scoring cheap points against him. Instead, we often have a hard time separating his self-deceptions from his insights. Oates doesn’t want us to feel superior to van Dyck. She wants us to see that his flaws aren’t so different from ours. Our convictions might not age any better than his have.
Van Dyck claims to offer us his research on the Curse, a series of “mysterious, seemingly linked events occurring in, and in the vicinity of, Princeton, New Jersey, in the approximate years 1900-1910.” Yet he admits his account is a stylized distillation. The multiple “histories” of the events, he says, “have been condensed into a single ‘history’ as a decade of time has been condensed, for purposes of aesthetic unity, to a period of approximately fourteen months in 1905-1906.” Is he an unreliable narrator who doesn’t see how far he strays from the facts? Or a strangely reliable narrator who deliberately draws our attention to the fictions we impose on our experiences? He’s both, and the tension between these possibilities extends to every person in the story, and to the entire world of the novel, which is constantly shifting before our eyes.
Van Dyck’s voice is only one among the many voices he gives us, from diaries, coded journals, a deathbed confession, the text of a blasphemous sermon. All of the speakers are determined to have their say against the words of the people who come into conflict with them. What’s at stake isn’t just the interpretation of the Curse but the question of whether the men and women in the novel have wasted their lives. Their struggles mean more to them than they feel others can understand, and Oates catches them in the act of trying to impose that meaning everywhere they go. As usual, Oates is in thrall to her characters without being limited to any single viewpoint or any specific type of figure. She immerses herself as passionately in Marilyn Monroe in Blonde as she does in the reckless businessman Corky Corcoran in What I Lived For, the lawyer in Do With Me What You Will, the wife in American Appetites, the evangelist in Son of the Morning, the leader of the girl gang in Foxfire, the alcoholic father in We Were the Mulvaneys. No single person in The Accursed stands out as strongly as Corky Corcoran or Legs Sadovsky or Michael Mulvaney do. In compensation, though, this is the Oates novel that best displays her range, her feel for the pressures we all exert on each other.
2. The Bog Kingdom
The plot of The Accursed is a parody of a Gothic horror story, a mash-up of Dracula with samples from Hawthorne’s greatest hits. We get the spreading consequences of passed-down sin from The Marble Faun and The House of the Seven Gables, the guilty conscience of Dimmesdale and the communal punishment of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, the problematic utopianism of Brook Farm and the rebelliousness of Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance. At first the novel seems to promise merely a mock romance, a reaction against Twilight-style sentimentality. Quickly, however, we enter a far-reaching meditation on history, class, racism, politics, religion, business, and power, involving a wide array of characters and settings. Though nearly 700 pages long, and despite its intricate collage of documents and viewpoints, the story moves with Oates’s characteristic deftness. The Accursed has a striking tone of playful seriousness, the exhilaration that comes from a writer who knows she’s doing a major book and knows she’s doing it well.
The Dracula figure is Axson Mayte. He ruins the reputation of Annabel Slade on the day of her wedding to another man. She is with Mayte for a short time, becomes pregnant, dies in childbirth.
But the facts of Annabel’s seduction are unclear. The gossip-mongers in Princeton see Mayte as a demonic aristocrat who holds a vampire-like sway over women. But did Mayte kidnap Annabel or did she simply decide to walk out on her wedding?
The question becomes more urgent when Annabel returns to her family and gives birth to Mayte’s child. Before the birth, she allegedly makes a confession to her brother about her experiences in Mayte’s home, the surreal Bog Kingdom. The Bog Kingdom is an anti-sexual version of a Gothic estate. It strips the Gothic conventions of their plush eroticism: for Mayte, seduction contains no love or passion but only a cold, bored, exhausted exercise of power. The Bog Kingdom is all about turning everyone to food and waste, with the emphasis on the waste. Annabel quickly learns she is meant to be used up by Mayte and his drinking companions, and then thrown in the marsh with Mayte’s other dead brides. The dying women in Mayte’s harem are held in rooms for horrific medical experiments, or function as broken-down manual laborers. Mayte and his men soon lose interest in raping Annabel and make her a servant-girl. As they eat cannibal sandwiches, “raw beefsteak that leaked blood down their chins,” they jab Annabel’s pregnant belly with their elbows. Then she is exiled to the cellar-crew. She must bail out the sewage from the cesspool, through “the continuous emptying-out of buckets, hour after hour, day following day.”
What are we to make of this bizarre confession? Is this really Annabel’s voice? Her words reach us through at least two degrees of warping — first from her brother, who hates Mayte, and then from van Dyck, who has a complicated relationship to the Bog Kingdom story. Is the story Annabel’s crazed version of a more conventional seduction-and-abandonment, the result of her mind being broken by Mayte’s cruelty? Or do the exaggerations come from her brother, who turns increasingly unstable as the novel goes on? Moreover, what do the exaggerations reveal? Is the vision of the Bog Kingdom the brother’s revenge on Annabel for damaging her family’s reputation? Is the monstrous image of Mayte a puritanical fairy tale, a warning to all Princeton women against following their desires?
Oates won’t allow us any easy answers. Instead, she develops the possibility that Annabel’s confession is a mix, a bastardization of Annabel’s version of the truth along with the versions of her brother, the community, and of course van Dyck. The confession contains odd layers, contradictions that might have survived because the brother and van Dyck have either allowed them to survive or haven’t recognized them or have inserted them later. Many of the novel’s characters have moments when they find themselves saying or thinking something that contradicts what they would usually say or believe. They surrender to unexpected countercurrents, reversed or distorted twists on their self-image. These individual moments of madness — or moments of one strain of madness within other strains of madness — gradually join the larger movements of the Curse through the community. Finally all of Princeton becomes as strange and wildly divided as the story of the Bog Kingdom.
I don’t want to make too much out of it, but the divisions in Oates’s characters might help explain some of the minor lapses in her nonfiction writing and her public statements. She recently tweeted, for instance, that reviewers should try to limit the opinions they express, even though she has spent years producing highly opinionated criticism for The New York Review of Books. Oates has an eye for our paradoxes, the quarrels and inconsistencies we carry around inside us. Possibly she writes so well about our contradictions in part because they’re so strongly present in her personality. I sometimes wonder if she even courts her inconsistencies in order to see them more clearly for her novels and stories. Oates is the opposite of those writers who devote most of their effort to maintaining an artful persona to help market mediocre books. Her public image is slipshod and poorly managed, while her fiction has consumed the bulk of her exceptional energy, has nourished itself on the special ferocity she brings to the design and execution of her work.
3. Birth and Rebirth
Van Dyck tells us Annabel died when her child was born; the baby lived only a few seconds. Van Dyck also reports that gossip turned the baby into a grotesque snake creature, the appropriate offspring for Mayte. Later in the novel, however, we suspect the child has survived. He might even be van Dyck, who was officially born soon after Annabel’s death. Van Dyck’s legal parents hadn’t slept together for years when the wife supposedly became pregnant. In the second half of the novel, the husband goes insane mapping the lines of the Curse and trying to work out if his wife has been unfaithful.
The narrator is lost in the impossibility of knowing whether he’s Annabel’s son. If Annabel gave birth to a demon, is the demon van Dyck? Is the Bog Kingdom his admission of some hidden strain of brutality in him? Or is he satirizing the prejudices the community marshaled to pass judgment on Annabel’s actions? There’s a chance that Annabel or van Dyck’s legal mother — or both of them working together — invented the Bog Kingdom and the story of the baby’s death. They might have used the misogynistic fantasies behind the Curse to conceal the baby’s transfer and perhaps, as the disorienting penultimate chapter hints, to give Annabel and her siblings a chance at being reborn themselves. If Annabel was caught between her original romanticizing of Mayte and Princeton’s equally inaccurate demonizing of him, she might have fed on those who fed on her, might have turned their hungers against them. But in the process, she might have helped the Curse radiate outward, releasing pain and death in ways she couldn’t anticipate. Though she possibly outwits the people who use her, they respond by letting the Curse run wild, as a cover for their most destructive acts, including the rape and murder of at least two young men.
4. Dogs and Dinners
The Accursed is full of deluded leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to Teddy Roosevelt to the heads of some of the elite Princeton families. They treat other people’s lives as a banquet, an endless feast of cannibal sandwiches. Yet Oates devotes the bulk of the book to characters who hold only a limited amount of influence, which they’re desperate to protect or expand.
The chapters on the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair link the nightmare of the Bog Kingdom to the complexities of political and social reform. With The Jungle, his famous and still-timely exposé of the food industry, Sinclair forces people like Annabel’s brother to wonder if they’ve literally become cannibals, drinking the blood of workers injured or killed in the factories. Sinclair is both a genuine reformer and a cringing, timid, would-be tyrant. His drive to reveal the injustices of capitalism blinkers him to his neglect of his wife and helps him rationalize his kitsch Nietzcheism. Oates views him satirically, but the satire isn’t a simple matter of declaring him a hypocrite. For Oates, identifying our hypocrisy is less interesting than tracing the eccentric ways our mingled impulses carry us forward. It’s his contradictions — his clashing waves of kindness and insecurity and intolerance — that make Sinclair human. The same can be said of Annabel’s brother, who becomes more vivid for us as he becomes more confused about what he wants.
Jack London appears in the book as an activist version of Mayte: a man who seeks revolution so he can satisfy his appetites without restraint. The Bog Kingdom used to belong to aristocrats; Mayte was a servant in the Kingdom and led a revolt against his masters, so he could take their place and install an even more brutal regime. This is what Jack London wants as well. He worships violence, thinks he is a “natural warrior” who was “born deprived of his heritage.” His destiny, he says, is to “rise up against those who exploit him — and drink their sang impur.”
Upton Sinclair is horrified by London’s bloodlust yet mesmerized by his vitality. London has a rough magnetic presence that the physically delicate and emotionally divided Sinclair lacks. Again like Mayte, London bullies his followers. He demands their abasement along with their admiration. Sinclair watches London give a speech, and sits “gazing up at his hero with the unstinting admiration of a kicked dog for his master, who has left off kicking him for the moment and is being kind to him, capriciously, yet wonderfully.” This recalls Annabel’s delusions in the Bog Kingdom. Even after Mayte has sentenced her to endlessly emptying the cesspool, Annabel fantasizes that he is merely testing her, “hoping to determine if I loved him purely, or was so shallow as to foreswear my vow to him.” Only gradually does she realize that she has chosen to come to the Bog Kingdom, and that she can choose to leave it.
The powerful want us to believe that submitting to their demands is natural, irresistible, right. Sinclair and Annabel, however, end up abandoning their masters and refusing to follow orders. Oates can see the strength in Sinclair’s wavering kindness and delicacy, and the weakness in Mayte’s boorish aggression. Still, the standout quality of The Accursed is the turn and flow of the characters’ personalities, the constant repositioning of their relationships with each other. The characters never harden into a final form we can pass judgment on, and we understand them differently depending on where we are in the book. Like The Golden Bowl and the other Henry James works that Oates references, The Accursed resists moralistic parsing. The novel finds its beauty in its ability to keep all its competing interpretations alive and strong, spinning around each other in humming, electric motion.
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table.
With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities.
But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America?
In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans.
During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor’s note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.]
Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia).
Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places – U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia – they might normally never visit.
But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples.
The New Yorker
During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.”
Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe — is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone.
The Soul Mate
Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations?
Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency.
Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris — like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year.
Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating.
According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces… of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry — a sort of win-win, all things considered.
Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.
Image via christine zenino/Flickr