Before we get too far, I have to be candid: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book from which one must recover. I’m serious. No book since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has left me in such a state of utter, cosmic helplessness. So, if you’re here because you’re trying to decide whether or not to read Bolaño’s 900-page opus, I can only say this: it must be read, but no shame to any person who cannot.
And don’t, I would add, read it when you’re sick. I can say this with some confidence because I read it recently when I was sick, parked on the couch while my little kids played and did homeschool at the dining room table, and the dark fingers reaching up from the pages constituted a private hell to which my cheerful family remained utterly oblivious. 2666 is taxing on the best of days, to say nothing of when you’re all body aches and fever.
2666 was Bolaño’s last book—published in 2004 with Natasha Wimmer’s English translation arriving in 2008—and the grandest realization of his bleak, charged vision. The central thrust is necessarily vague, but basically here it is: For a host of reasons, a cast of seemingly unrelated characters—a scholar, a sports reporter, a celebrity detective, and a reclusive writer (along with the three literary critics who are hoping to find him)—have all come to Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez, a city haunted by the mysterious murders of hundreds of women. No one knows how or why the women die. They simply turn up in the desert.
Bolaño’s signature conflation of high and low literature has always been underscored by a palpable sense of dread, but in Santa Teresa that dread builds into a haunting wail that billows across the desert and envelopes his characters and readers. For hundreds of pages. Several times, we feel we’re close to an explanation for the crimes but, of course, an explanation never comes. And central to this tormented stasis is the never-explained 666 in 2666.
It is easy to reduce Bolaño’s vision to a familiar apocalyptic trope: everything’s going to hell, everything’s burning up. But to do so is to misread both Bolaño’s book and the purpose of apocalyptic literature, which, most often, was not written to explain the end of the world or reveal prophecy—though in some notable occasions it does just that. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor once said of the grotesque in fiction, apocalyptic literature offers a cartoonish exaggeration to shock the apathetic. Resisting common misreads, apocalyptic literature traditionally serves to describe a spiritual condition or stasis. The title of Bolaño’s novel represents a stasis that has little to do with the year 2666 but everything to do with the century that was dawning at the time of his untimely death. By blotting out the new millennium’s ever-changing numbers (2008, 2027, 2912…) with the placeholder 666, Bolaño hinted at a horrific—and, yes, apocalyptic—continuum descending upon us. One that we are growing accustomed to and, eventually, will fail to notice.
Humanity is entering its prolonged denouement. Will we make it to the year 3000? With the constant news of daily violence and ecological catastrophe, that sometimes seems hard to imagine—certainly this was the case for Bolaño, who cited the 20th century as a possible explanation for 2666’s deconstructed narrative terrain. The unprecedented horrors of World War I and World War II are where we come from, Bolaño suggests, and the tortured earth of Santa Teresa embodies our not-too-distant future: we are asleep at the wheel, coddled in luxury, indifferent and distracted, and we are largely blind to the many ways in which our world, every day, breaks just a little more.
Even the most dedicated readers, wading through the ceaseless violence of “The Part About the Crimes” section of 2666, will grow tired of the descriptions. The horrific rape and murder begin to blur as our brains, struggling to cope, become desensitized. Bolaño intended this. He lulls the reader into blood-spattered apathy. Then, in perhaps the greatest example of his authorial sleight-of-hand, Bolaño describes the investigating police trading chauvinistic jokes while ending their shifts. Immediately, we realize our own apathy. If the police investigating these inhumane acts can make jokes about the victims—and this is what captures our attention as readers, not the continued violence—then what does it say about us? Sure, we find the jokes distasteful, but our own indifference is worse: in our need for comfort, we stopped caring about the murder victims. Bolaño has called us out—and, as long as such horrors exist in the world, each of us remains culpable by extension. In this way, Bolaño bludgeons us awake with a power few writers possess, and the murders become shocking once more.
Again and again, Bolaño grabs us by the scruff of the neck and pushes our heads into the abyss. For Bolaño, the year 2666 is the symbolic culmination of humanity’s neglect and violence, a state of being that has become our modus operandi. Even our best efforts cannot avert the evil bearing down on victims and the apathetic onlookers alike. For that, Bolaño suggests, is where it all starts: at the very spot where we stop paying attention and slip into deadened stasis.
“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” Ever since I turned 40—that is to say, for a week now—this final sentence of Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” has been rattling around my head. When I first read it, back in college, it landed like a hard left hook, knocking me flat with recognition. (I can’t be alone in this; Cormac McCarthy nicked the phrasing for the end of Blood Meridian.) Right, I thought. Exactly. But now, revisiting the end of “Indian Camp,”‘ I see that my younger self was missing at least half the point: It’s supposed to be ironic! Of course he’s going to die! In fact, maybe that’s why the line has been on my mind, along with Dante’s “mezzo del camin di nostra vita” and Yeats’s “widening gyre” and Larkin’s “long slide.” For though I’ve managed to avoid until now the garment-rending and gnashing of teeth around birthdays (“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” right?) forty really does feel like a delineation. At 39, rocking the Aaliyah quote is still a youthful caprice. At 41, it’s a midlife crisis.
And the fact that I’m no longer immortal would seem to raise some questions about the pursuit I’ve more or less given my life to: reading. Specifically, if you can’t take it with you, what’s the point? Indeed, I now wonder whether the bouts of reader’s block I suffered in 2014 and 2017 had to do not with technological change or familial or political crisis, but with the comparatively humdrum catastrophe of getting older. Yet 2018 found me rejuvenated as a reader. Maybe there was some compensatory quality-control shift in my “to-read” pile (life’s too short for random Twitter) or maybe it was just dumb luck, but nearly every book I picked up this year seemed proof of its own necessity. So you’ll forgive me if I enthuse here at length.
First and foremost, about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. This Icelandic classic had been on my reading list for almost a decade, but something—its bulk, its ostensible subject (sheep farming), its mythic opening—held me back. Then, this summer, I took a copy to Maine, and as soon as Bjartur of Summerhouses blustered onto the page, the stubbornest hero in all of world literature, I was hooked. As for those sheep: This is a novel about them only in the sense that Lonesome Dove is a novel about cows. And though I love Lonesome Dove, Independent People is much the better book. Laxness’s storytelling offers epic sweep and power, but also, in J.A. Thompson’s stunning translation, modernist depth and daring, along with humor and beauty and pain to rival Tolstoy. In short, Independent People is one of my favorite novels ever.
Also among the best things I read in 2018 were the shorter works that padded out my northern travels: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck. I’m obviously late arriving to the former; there’s not much I can say that you won’t have heard elsewhere, or experienced yourself. (Still: the prose!) Of the latter, I can report that The End of Days is ingenious, as if David Mitchell had attempted Sebald’s The Emigrants. And that Go, Went, Gone, notwithstanding Jonathan Dee’s careful gift-horse inspection in Harper’s, is even better. But for my money, Erpenbeck’s finest novel is Visitation, which manages to pack much of the story of 20th-century Germany into the 190-page description of a country house. In any case, Erpenbeck’s writing, like Robinson’s, seems built to endure.
On the nonfiction front, I spent a week this fall immersed in Thomas de Zengotita’s Politics and Postmodern Theory, a heady, lucid, and ultimately persuasive philosophical recasting of nearly a half-century of academic kulturkampf. Much as Wittgenstein (who gets a chapter here) claimed to resolve certain problems of philosophy by showing them to arise from elementary confusions, de Zengotita seeks to dispel muddles over the legacy of post-structuralism and the Enlightenment thought it ostensibly dismantled. He does so by giving key 20th-century thinkers—Kristeva, Derrida, Deleuze, Judith Butler—a rereading that is rigorous, respectful, accessible, and, in important ways, against the grain. As an etiology of the current cultural situation, this book belongs on a shelf with Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. And, notwithstanding its price tag, anyone who cares deeply about issues of identity and solidarity and being-in-the-world today should heed its lessons.
This was also a year when the new-fiction tables at the bookstore seemed reinvigorated. For my money, the best American novel of 2018 was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, whose urgent blend of social conscience and poetic vision made debates about “reality hunger” and the value of fiction seem not just quaint but fallacious. So, too, with Mathias Énard’s Compass, now in paperback in a crystalline translation by Charlotte Mandell. It would be hard to find a novel more indebted to historical reality, but in its fearless imagination, Compass turns these materials into something properly fictive, rather than factitious—and wholly Énard’s own. And I’d be remiss not to mention Deborah Eisenberg’s story collection Your Duck Is My Duck. Eisenberg writes the American sentence better than anyone else alive, and for anyone who’s followed these stories as they’ve appeared, serially, her brilliance is a given. Read together, though, they’re a jolting reminder of her continued necessity: her resistance to everything that would dull our brains, hearts, and nerves.
And then you could have made a National Book Awards shortlist this year entirely out of debuts. One of the most celebrated was Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man. What I loved about these stories, apart from the Fitzgeraldian grace of Brinkley’s voice, was their tendency to go several steps beyond where a more timid writer might have stopped—to hurl characters and images and incidents well downfield of what the story strictly required and then race to catch up. More important than being uniformly successful, A Lucky Man is uniformly interesting. As is Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. The “unexpected” coda, in my read, put a too-neat bow on things. I’d have enjoyed it even more as an unresolved diptych. But because the novel’s range and hunger are so vast, such asymmetries end up being vital complications of its interests and themes: artifice, power, subjectivity, and truth. They are signs of a writer who aims to do more than simply write what is within her power to know.
Any list of auspicious recent debuts should also include one from the other side of the pond: David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device (from 2017, but still). The novel presents—tantalizingly, for me—as an oral history of the postpunk scene in the Scottish backwater of Airdrie in the early 1980s, yet Keenan’s psychedelic prose and eccentric emphases make it something even more. I was reminded frequently of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and could not fathom why this book was overlooked in the U.S. Hopefully, the publication of a follow-up For the Good Times, will change that.
It was a good year for journalism, too. I’m thinking not of Michael Wolff or (God forbid) Bob Woodward, but of Sam Anderson, the critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, and his first book, Boom Town. If there’s one thing less immediately exciting to me than sheep farming, it’s Oklahoma City, which this book promises (threatens?) to explore. On the other hand, I would read Sam Anderson on just about anything. Here, starting with the Flaming Lips, the land-rush of 1889, and the unlikely rise of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, he stages a massive detonation of curiosity, sensibility, and wonder. (Favorite sentence: “Westbrook, meanwhile, started the season Westbrooking as hard as he could possibly Westbrook.”) And as with David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, he leaves you feeling restored to curiosity and wonder yourself.
I’m also thinking of Pam Kelley’s Money Rock, which focuses on the drug trade in 1980s Charlotte. It reminded me, in miniature, of a great book I’d read a few months earlier, David Simon’s sprawling Homicide. Simon and Kelley are sure-handed when sketching the social systems within which we orbit, but what makes these books live is their feel for the human swerve—for Detective Terry McLarney of the Baltimore Homicide Squad or Lamont “Money Rock” Belton, locked up behind the crack game.
This was also the year I started reading J. Anthony Lukas, who, among the ranks of New or New-ish Journalists who emerged in the ’60s, seems to have fallen into comparative neglect. I checked out Nightmare, his book on Nixon, and was edified. Then I moved on to Common Ground, about the struggle to integrate Boston’s school system, and was blown away. With little authorial commentary or judgment, but with exhaustive reporting, Lukas embeds with three families—the Waymons, the McGoffs, and the Drivers—to give us a 360-degree view of a pivotal event in American history. The book has its longeurs, but I can think of few working journalists this side of Adrian Nicole Leblanc who’d be patient enough to bring off its parallactic vision.
In talking to friends about Common Ground, I kept hearing memories of its ubiquity on the coffeetables and library shelves of the 1980s, yet no one my age seemed to have read it. Like Homicide, it hangs in that long middle age where books slowly live or die—not news anymore, but not yet old enough to fall out of print, or to become a “classic.” Recommending these books feels like it might actually make a difference between the two. So here are a few more shout-outs: 1) John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure, from 1996. Anyone who relishes, as I do, the fundamental sanity of Lanchester’s essays will be surprised by the demented glee of his first novel. Its prophetic sendup of foodie affectation throws Proust into a blender with Humbert Humbert and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume—and is maybe the funniest English novel since The Information. 2) Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis, from 2001. I ran down a copy in preparation for interviewing Cercas and ended up thinking this may be my favorite of his books: a story of survival during the Spanish Civil War and of an attempt to recover the truth half a century later. In it, the heroic and the mock-heroic achieve perfect balance. 3) Emma Richler, Be My Wolff, from last year. Impressed by the beauty of Richler’s writing and the uncommon intelligence of her characters, I sent in a blurb for this one just under the deadline for publication, but still 50 pages from the end. When I finally got around to finishing it early this year, I found I’d missed the best part. I love this novel’s passionate idiosyncrasies.
And finally…back to Scandinavia. In August, while luxuriating in Independent People, I was asked to review CoDEX 1962, a trilogy by the Icelandic writer Sjón. This in turn forced me to put aside the introduction I’d been working on for the Danish Nobel Prize-winner Henrik Pontoppidan’s magnum opus, Lucky Per…which meant a further delay in finishing Book 6 of the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. With more than 3000 pages of Nordic writing before me, I felt certain warning signals flashing. As Knausgaard writes (of being 40), “Why had I chosen to organize my life this way?” The truth is that there was no organization involved, just a random clumping of the reading list, and I’m happy to report that things are now back to normal. But once I got past the anxiety, I actually enjoyed my two solid months of Nordic fiction. I wasn’t totally convinced by CoDEX 1962, but a couple of Sjón’s shorter novels killed me—especially Moonstone, a coming-of-age story set in Rekjavik in the cataclysmic early days of cinema. And though most of Pontoppidan’s corpus hasn’t been translated into English, the novellas The Royal Guest, The Polar Bear, and The Apothecary’s Daughters, make fascinating companions to Joyce, Conrad, and Chekhov…if you can find them. (Lucky Per will be republished by Everyman’s Library in April.) As for Knausgaard, the final volume of My Struggle is one of the more uneven of the six, and I’m still digesting the whole. But at this point almost a decade of my life is bound up with these books. All these books, really. And that strange adjacency of real, finite life and the limitless life of the imagination…well, maybe that’s been the point all along.
More from A Year in Reading 2018
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In 2009, Cormac McCarthy sold his Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter at Christie’s for $254,500. With it, he wrote close to five million words over the course of five decades, including his highly regarded novels The Road and Blood Meridian, and the Border Trilogy, which brought him commercial success. Rather than graduate to a computer after the sale, McCarthy replaced his Olivetti with the exact same model—though one in a newer condition. He valued it because it was lightweight, reliable, and portable. For these same reasons, this classic Olivetti model was popular with traveling journalists in the ‘60s.
Don DeLillo and Will Self are also loyal typewriter devotees. “Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think,” Self told The Guardian. “You don’t revise as much, you just think more, because you know you’re going to have to retype the entire thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.”
When I first began writing, I would have considered this apparent technophobia as old school—or worse, trendy. Writing can be done anywhere and with anything, can’t it? Writing on a computer is convenient.
I first realized the advantages of analog when observing how my husband, who is a photojournalist, uses his vintage film camera from the ’60s. It is a slow, tedious process, one that many other photographers who have “graduated” to digital consider unnecessary, given technological advancements. He spends up to a minute changing each roll of film. A roll contains 12 frames. Between each shot he must wind the crank. For these reasons, a photograph cannot be taken as instantly as it could be with a digital camera. The film is costly to buy and to develop. You can’t check the frames as you take them. These might sound more like disadvantages, but his photographs, taken during a trip to Cuba and Mexico two summers ago, went on to win the people stories prize at World Press Photo 2017 and were published widely and exhibited internationally.
One disadvantage of digital photography is the temptation for photographers to check their pictures while they’re still shooting. The thumbnails on that tiny display screen often look better than they actually are when enlarged on your computer screen. The digital photographer relaxes—“I’ve got this,” they think, perhaps preemptively.
With film there are fewer distractions like this tendency to self-assess as you go along, and the financial and speed limitations encourage a more mindful process. To avoid wasting precious film and energy, the photographer must frame the picture more carefully. The results are consequentially more often better thought out; the composition more exact. The editing process is also more arduous, given the need to scan contact sheets. You spend more time with your pictures and get to know them better.
The pictures, though fewer in quantity than their digital counterparts, are usually better.
I was starting to notice an obvious parallel to my own experience of writing on a laptop, and soon began looking for an analogue solution. Pen and paper was the obvious alternative—writers like Truman Capote and Vladimir Nabokov always managed without a computer in the past. More contemporary, Neil Gaiman has written many books longhand, including Stardust and American Gods. Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, and J.K. Rowling also prefer penning their first draft.
There is something romantic about the notion of writing in a notebook, though unfortunately I can only sustain it short-term for journalling and the jotting down of ideas; my writing is so small that it’s sometimes illegible even to me, and I can’t imagine having the wrist power to write an entire first draft with pen and paper.
During that summer in Cuba with my husband, I realized how dependent I had become on the Internet for everything; I also learned how much of a distraction it can be from the things I really want to get done. It was the summer of 2016 and Internet access was hard to come by in the country. You had to go to an Internet point and pay about $5 an hour for an Internet card. Even then, the Internet was slow and many websites were censored. Often these Internet zones were on the street; they were easy to recognize, for crowds with smartphones and laptops would be gathered sitting on the sidewalk, despite the stifling humidity. An unusual sight in a country that is not connected. An uncomfortable place to write anything more than a few emails.
Initially being Internet-free seemed impossible—how would I keep up with freelance writing commissions? How would I upload photos of what I was eating or where I was on Instagram, or keep in touch with friends back home? What about responding to urgent emails? I came to realize that there were no urgent emails—most could wait. Without the distractions of social media, I was able to write for myself and read more than 20 books in just one month. I will keep this up when I go home, I thought, but back in London it was far too easy to switch the modem back on and resume procrastination.
Alarm set for 9 a.m.—coffee and toast, followed by four solid hours of writing time. I open Word, write a sentence, then rewrite it. I tell myself not to self-edit, but the delete button is like a bag of unshelled pistachios—too easy, so you keep eating—or in this case pressing.
Some time goes by before I find myself scrolling down my Facebook feed, checking emails, refreshing the page. I wonder how I ended up here, and then I realize I don’t have the will power I believed I possessed. An important email arrives, and reply I must. Morning writing session over.
We as consumers seek convenience, though convenience is often made with the objective of encouraging compulsiveness and habit in users. We’re propelled to keep pressing buttons, opening clickbait articles, and liking mundane posts by acquaintances on social media.
With time, I began to realize that the option to self-edit your own writing as you go along is also seldom a conscious choice. I would spend hours rereading a sentence and dissecting it, when perhaps I should have written with the objective to finish and then rewrite the completed, albeit imperfect, first draft.
It was this need for a slower and more deliberate process, coupled with Will Self’s recent pessimistic prediction about the future of the novel, that reminded me of what he had said about his preference for a typewriter back in 2008; he perceived the slowness it requires as a good thing.
The computer has liberated us in more ways than it has constrained us; while trawling through my dissertation on a laptop during my final year of university, I remember feeling a grain of sympathy for those who lived before the digital age, who would have to write first, second, and sometimes third drafts of essays longhand. Even for those who could not hit “delete” on a typewriter if they misspelt a word or wanted to change the word order.
The Internet has also democratized art in that talented creators from all backgrounds can share their work and self-promote from anywhere and everywhere using social media. Publishers are turning to blogs and platforms such as Instagram and Blogspot in pursuit of the next big thing. Patrons are increasingly self-starters who are interested in new, diverse voices who have not necessarily followed a traditional path to develop their craft.
Though for all their advantages, technological advances have also made us accustomed to instant gratification, and we expect results faster. We’re used to working alongside multiple distractions in multiple tabs and windows: a conversation with a friend in messenger, an interesting tangent on Wikipedia, that funny cat video your mum knew you’d like. With a computer in front of me, I seldom have a moment for quiet and self-reflection. There’s always something to keep me occupied—and if there’s not, I can be distracted at the click of a button—which is detrimental to creativity.
Sometimes constraints are what we need to work well. As Stanford professor of management science (and bestselling author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t) Robert I. Sutton points out, most—if not all creative feats—are created by people facing constraints. During the Renaissance, when patrons commissioned artists to produce works, the contracts would specify what was required for a given project—the deadline, the colors, the style, the materials used, etc. The artist would have had a degree of freedom within these constraints.
I resolved to buy a typewriter to set myself some constraints and reap the benefits of being alone with a page and a legible font that is thankfully not my own handwriting. I travel regularly, so after considering the Brother typewriter, and various similar lightweight models, decided upon the Olivetti Lettera 32. Aside from knowing it’s the model used by Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite living writers, it’s a beautiful machine and a retro design piece.
In a past life, my mother had worked a brief stint as a secretary, like many women of her generation dissuaded from more risqué jobs and encouraged to do something “respectable” (she later left her desk to pursue her dream of becoming a musician). Feeling like we had swapped places, I recruited her to help on my search for the perfect typewriter. She would be able to test it and ascertain the condition.
After explaining my reasoning for returning to analog, she suggested I instead look at getting an electronic typewriter so I wouldn’t have to replace the tape. She had been glad to see the back of the typewriter, which was slow, noisy, and often broke down. I told her I wanted that kind of slow, awkward process.
“Bit weird,” she’d said, seeing that I couldn’t be swayed, “but okay.”
Buying and using a typewriter is expensive—but I see it as an investment. Analog generally outlives digital and is less likely to decrease in value. I purchased a refurbished turquoise Olivetti Lettera 32 from Gramercy Typewriters in New York City. The family-run business has been around since 1932 and their knowledge and skills have been passed down through three generations. The familial old-world feel inside the shop contrasts with the hum of the traffic and crowds outside on the streets.
In recent months I’ve drastically reduced my time on social media, and I’ve found that returning to analog has helped me reconnect. We’re in a world where we’re always connected, but we lack intimacy. I’ve rediscovered the art of letter writing—in a letter, you can only say what you really need or want to say as space is finite. There’s something exciting about sending and receiving mail. I like holding in my hand a letter, knowing it’s something tangible I can return to, unlike the old messages and emails that get buried in long-running conversations by memes, links, and cute emoticons. Then there’s knowing that someone went the extra mile for you, that they deemed you important enough to write to.
My Moleskine has found a place again in my handbag, and though I’m unlikely to write anything fully-formed in it, it’s there in case an idea appears while I’m in a cafe, in a train, or on a plane. It’s there in case I grow tired of other mediums, which happens in the same way that I sometimes grow tired of a given working environment and need to relocate.
Writing on a typewriter is slower than typing on word. It’s more expensive—I have to replace the ribbon and regularly buy more paper. It’s a bulky thing to carry around. But as I hit the keys, I hear the sound, and I’m more aware I’ve just written a word. I put more care into carefully crafting each sentence in my mind before I write. Advantageously for me, given my indecisive disposition, with a typewriter I can’t dwell on a section for weeks or months; with no backspace, you have to write to finish. The tidying up of awkward prose can come later. You’re forced to reread and at least write second drafts to smooth out inevitable typos. The laptop can come back for edits. Most importantly, perhaps, there are fewer distractions. The desire to make another cup of tea is perhaps the most pervasive.
Another advantage of analog, one which I hadn’t considered prior to reducing my screen-time, is the reduction of computer-related eye strain caused by looking at bright screens, reflections, and glare. Around 50 percent to 90 percent of office employees who work primarily on a computer suffer from eye strain—and other annoying visual symptoms as a consequence, such as eye floaters and red eye. Migraine aura sufferers often have a visual aura triggered by looking at a flickering screen.
Switching to a new medium in any discipline will not automatically make you a better artist—that requires both talent and commitment. But it can teach you to slow down, disconnect, reconnect, and in this instance favor quality over quantity—and completion over counterintuitive perfectionism.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.”
His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace’s reading about the brain.
In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace’s reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace’s reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can’t Talk About It.” In Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson’s remark that “Freud’s vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace’s scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.”
These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing.
If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it’s because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders’s and Wilson’s “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO’s True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom is actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.”
The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace’s Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author, he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now.”
As it turns out, Wallace’s assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch’s horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide.
“Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc’s of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary.
In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace’s neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator’s consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator’s attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain.
The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father’s “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah’s “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace’s work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.”
This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection’s “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon,” Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal’s extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal’s condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it’s “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal’s suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal’s fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.”
In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can’t tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator’s “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story’s oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story’s eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE’S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story’s focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion.
Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch’s movies were about “not about monsters…but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one’s stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror.
If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace’s final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace’s pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.”
I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace’s attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace’s potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James’s. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace’s neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to…how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism.
The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace’s suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn’t think his way out, couldn’t “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It’s possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn’t able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace’s own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO’s True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don’t choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I took so long to learn how to drive. Eight years. “Learn” is perhaps the wrong word, because I spent many of those years strenuously avoiding addressing the issue out loud, or else expending equally vigorous effort into making my inability to drive a charming and integral feature of my personality. I have avoided many things I am frightened of in this way. I was a writer. Someone like me couldn’t drive a motorised vehicle, obviously; it would chip into the time I needed to ride a horse around my hilly and varied mental landscape. What was I, an accountant? A businesswoman in an office with some kinds of scanners? It got so at one point I freely drew equivalencies between the ability to drive and collusion with The Man. But even as I compared people with licenses to BP executives, I pined. I wanted to be able to do it so badly. I was just so scared, and so terrible. I was not good at any of it, but starting was the real problem. Starting on the flat, starting on a hill. Starting on a busy road where the idea was that the enraged hooting of the people behind would spur me into competence. Starting in an empty parking lot next to the dump, where the idea was that the rows of abandoned washing machines and rotting office chairs would make me see that I had all the time in the world. I just couldn’t do it. My heart would start beating in my ears so fast I became deaf. My legs wouldn’t work, and it was a good thing they didn’t, because if they did then what I would do is get out the car and run round and round in panicked circles until I fell to the floor exhausted.
I tried, though. I tried to start for six months, while driving instructor Hester patted my shoulder as I cried and told me that she knew it was hard, but that she knew I could do it, and that I needed to do it because it had been Too Long, now, and adults need to know how to drive. What if their boyfriends are choking on a piece of fruit and they need to get to hospital pronto? What if someone cracks their head open at the beach? Or someone gets bitten by a snake and we sit there waiting for the ambulance and watching the poison make its way up from their bitten leg to their heart, and it’s all because I can’t start a car? It just made me cry even more. I didn’t want to hear from well-meaning driving instructor Hester that it was hard but necessary. I wanted to hear that it was easy, and so fun, and like being in Wacky Races every day. No one ever said this to me, not in eight years, not even when I eventually pulled myself together and got a license and found out that driving is so easy, and so fun, and exactly like being in what I remember of the cartoon show Wacky Races, where everyone just zooms around and has a wonderful time. If only someone had told me. I have had a car now for five years and every day I drive up and down hills with the cruel proud smile of a Roman emperor on my face.
I am still intimately acquainted with the feeling of dread panic that accompanies Not Knowing How to Start, though. I get it every time I have to write something that I suspect someone other than my mom might read, or something that I think is important, or honestly just any time at all. It’s never the actual writing itself, which is always okay when I get going. It’s the starting, and the prospect of starting, and the thinking about how I will have to think about starting, that makes me want to vomit and die on the floor for a long time.
But a person can’t just die on the floor for their whole week, and so I have developed ways to cope. Over the years, I have compiled a list of writers who are the literary equivalent of an instructor patting me on the shoulder and promising me that the process is nothing but a complete riot from start to finish. I read them before I have to start, and it reassures me to an unbelievable degree. Sometimes specific essays or poems or profiles, sometimes a certain paragraph from a novel, other times the whole book. This is just off the top of my head, but for a while now I have relied on the following: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile on Bunny Wailer, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” the second third of A Brief History of Seven Killings, George Saunders’s “Victory Lap,” Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (all of it, but especially the bits about Beli), Masande Ntshanga’s “Space,” Miriam Toews’s Irma Voth, Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” the first section of Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” the ending of Lucky Jim (the whole thing, but especially “As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome Face”), the very end of Blood Meridian. Most recently: Molly Young’s profile on Amanda Chantal Bacon, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy. Always: Denis Johnson. I have never figured out how a Denis Johnson story works, what the trick is, or if the trick even exists. I don’t know why I think about “Two Men” once a day, at least, or why every single time I go into a hospital I am just about overcome with the desire to relay the plot of “Emergency” to whoever is in the lift with me. I do know, though, that whenever I read him, I feel that the problem of starting is not really a problem at all. Just start. Just be Denis Johnson and make it seem like you tipped forward a bit in your seat and the whole story just fell out of your brain and onto the page. Just get going.
It’s not that I want to write like these people, or that I could even hope to try. It’s that they make me feel better, in the way that reading, say, Franz Kafka, does not. Kafka, whose every word assures me that writing is a terrible torment, and that it kills you off early. Kafka, febrile, writhing and twisting about in a chair that he purchased precisely because it was uncomfortable, his leaden fingers gripping his slightly broken fountain pen. The pen is made out of iron and holding it makes his fingers smell like the railings of a cold bus. The room is icy. I understand how Kafka’s agony would make a certain class of stoical person feel better about her own writing-related tortures. I am not one of these people. I need to be buoyed. I have no idea whether any of the writers on my list actually find the process to be enjoyable or not, but I read what they have written and I believe in my heart that they are having the time of their lives. They are driving up and down hills very fast, and their favorite song is playing on the radio. They have no trouble starting at all.
Image Credit: Wikimedia
For well over a year people have been trying to make me read A Little Life. I will not. I believe them when they say that it’s good, and that they loved it, and what an epically harrowing experience the whole thing is. Still. Can’t do it. Don’t want to. Don’t even know why I don’t want to. Just don’t. This would not be any kind of an issue, were it not for the fact that people keep trying to set me up with it. They want me to read it so badly! They are adamant in their belief that it is the book for me. My resolve is only hardening. I have about me the look of a person who will never read A Little Life. The look of a person at peace with herself.
I know what will happen though. At some unspecified point in the future, I will walk past A Little Life on my bookshelf and I will stop, because it will suddenly be the right time. I have come to recognize the feeling. It will be a terrible and perfect marriage of my weird mood and this undoubtedly weird book. I’ll start to read and I will be immediately gripped, instantly crazy about it. I will try force people to read it and when they say they don’t want to, I will say that they are wrong. It always happens like this, with the right book at the right time.
The only thing I can compare it to is falling abruptly in love with someone you have been distantly aware of for years. You have seen the point of them in general, but nothing more. They were just there, going about their lives, greeting you politely at parties. They seemed nice, in a remote sort of way. Then something happens, there is an audible click, and there they suddenly are, in front of you, ready to be adored in all their weirdness. Their personality seems to have been engineered in a lab to please you. It’s awful, because you think at once about what a close thing it was, and how hideously perilous love is in general. They had been under your nose this whole while. What if you had missed them? What were you thinking, overlooking them? It’s no good berating yourself about time wasted, though. It’s not that you had overlooked this person, it’s that you weren’t ready for them. You needed a few bitter experiences under your belt first — one or two awful break-ups, a few incidents where you see your own flaws with searing clarity, some moments of pure, high boredom. It’s only now that you are prepared, that you can see them properly.
It happened to me first like this with Middlemarch. If you spend any length of time in an English department, you will be obliged to have an opinion on Middlemarch, whether or not you have read it. My opinion, for many years, was that I hated the very idea of it. Everything I read about it got right on my nerves, beginning with Dorothea. I couldn’t understand why people seemed to love her so much, so Spartan and always reading a boring book. I took her very personally. Why always Dorothea? I did not like the sound of Lydgate either, or think that I could mind very much about a vaguely thwarted country doctor. The historical backdrop did not strike me as very interesting (I still don’t really know or care what a rotten borough is), and it didn’t have any good wars. It also seemed too long, and by all accounts there weren’t a lot of parties. My whole soul shied away. People kept telling me to read it. My mother, especially, who knows me better than anyone. Read it, she kept saying, and you’ll understand.
I couldn’t and I couldn’t, for about six years, and then one day I could. Some things had happened. I had broken some people’s hearts, and I had had mine broken in return. I had gone through a period of severe underemployment, related directly to my inability to pull myself together. I had realized that existing in the world with other people meant understanding that we were not the same as each other, and that we were all just trying our deeply inadequate best. I had realized, further, that knowing this is not the same thing as being able to do anything about it. What I am saying is that I was finally ready to listen to what Middlemarch had to tell me. I just picked it up, like it was no big deal, like I hadn’t spent years and years resisting it, and I was done for. That first time reading it, I kept looking around like Jesus, will you please get a load of this? Does everyone know that Middlemarch exists and that you can go ahead and read it just whenever you please? I couldn’t believe how good it was, how much I felt that it was speaking directly to me.
This is of course a definitive feature of the novel — the narrator’s inclusive, confiding address to the reader. I felt that it had been written for me, that it was mine. Again, this is the same thing as falling in love very hard, with all the egotism behind the outlandish notion that a) the person was put on this earth for you, and b) they are objectively the best person to ever exist in the sorry history of the human race. Love! What would we do without it? I couldn’t talk about anything else for weeks. I found a way to bring it up in all kinds of situations, to tilt the angle of my conversation so that it flowed straight back to Middlemarch. It is amazing how many reasons one can find to bring up the pier glass bit, for instance, or to talk about what a nice man Caleb Garth is. He really is very nice, and we should all strive to be more like him. I developed my own understanding of the novel’s co-ordinates, my own greatest hits collection. I still, for example, don’t really care about Dorothea. She is not my scene, in the same way that Jane Eyre is not my scene. Too severe. I still also don’t care about Lydgate, although I can feel that changing. Better to say that I don’t care about Lydgate yet. Fred Vincy, though, my God. I cared about him a lot from day one. It is not an exaggeration to say that Fred Vincy changed my life.
Middlemarch’s narrator has been accused of being overly partial to Fred, the implication being that he is not all that wonderful or deserving of the narrator’s time and attention. This accusation is false and I resent it. He is selfish and frivolous, yes, and almost unmatchedly entitled, but he is also a person capable of being redeemed by love. He is good not because of anything intrinsically fine in his character, but because of who he chooses to care about most. I mean, he is okay, but the reason he is good is because he wants to be good enough for Mary Garth. We do not speak of him enough. Fred Vincy: good humoured, a tiny bit silly, a tiny bit too interested in fun. Fred Vincy: the man responsible for me finally getting a grip.
I was enduring, as I said, a period of underemployment that was only and entirely my fault. I was trying to be good but I just couldn’t. Is it enough to say that I was 25? Everyone around me was working, and getting on with things, taking their lunch breaks and being responsible for their little sisters, and I was just…not. Fred Vincy and I, messing everything up, with our self-absorption and our quiet belief that other people would sort things out for us. It was at about age 25 that I realized, to my horror and distress, that no one was going to come riding in and fix my life for me. The injustice of this only enervated me further. It was bad, and then I read Middlemarch.
Chapter 25, and the bit where Fred comes over to tell Mary Garth that he has landed her father in debt, a debt which he knows Caleb Garth will find nearly impossible to pay. Mary looks at him with first alarm, and then, worse, dismissal. He asks him to forgive her and she asks him what difference her forgiveness would make, given that it would not alleviate a single one of his fuck-ups. He says, infuriatingly, that he is “so miserable, Mary — if you knew how miserable I am, you would be sorry for me.” A great man for missing the point. He says, panicked, that he is “going now”, and that “I shall never speak to you about anything again.” I read all this with the particular kind of mounting alarm that comes with being recognized. Not even recognized: accused. I knew this particular movie so well, and had starred in it too many times.
And then, Mary says, “How can you bear to be so contemptible, when others are working and striving, and there are so many things to be done — how can you bear to be fit for nothing in the world that is useful?” That’s all she says, and that’s all it took. It was as if George Eliot had reached into my brain and jiggled it around a bit. It seems like a small thing, but it really wasn’t, because how could we bear it? We were better than that, surely? It was the thing I was finally ready to hear, after years of Vincy-ing around.
The change did not come overnight, not for Fred Vincy or for me. He goes away from that meeting with Mary still needing to spend many pages getting over himself. I needed a few more months before I was ready, too. But I swear to God it was the seed for us both. Fred Vincy was made better by Mary Garth; I was made better by Middlemarch. He spends most of the novel getting to a point where he is good enough for her, and good enough even to love her properly. I spent half my twenties getting to the point where I was grown up enough to receive the medicine Middlemarch was determined to administer.
I’ve had this with other books since. Blood Meridian was a good one. It sat on my shelf for years, giving me no good reason to read it. Friends had loved it, but it sounded ridiculous, mostly, and over the top, all that stuff about “he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself.” Come on. It seemed rude, also, to entirely disregard humor as a mechanism. And then, I went through a period where I don’t remember smiling for about two months. Some bad stuff happened, some massively over-the-top stuff, and the funny or ironic side of things remained obscured. I felt extremely dramatic, as ancient as the hills, and do you know what is a good book for a mood like that? Why, Blood Meridian. I devoured it, reading long sections about scalping out loud. I have the last lines of the novel pinned above my desk, now, the bit about the judge dancing and saying that he will never die, and I look at them every day. He is a great favorite, the judge. That ending: so scary, so serious and devoid of irony, and so fine with that approach. It knocked me out then, and it knocks me out today. I needed a book that confirmed my sense that things were bad, and getting worse, and while this may sound counter-intuitive, it did make me feel better. I wish I was reading it right now. I think about Toadvine’s ear necklace all the time.
Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters got me for the opposite reasons. It is often dismissed as quaint, and it is, a bit. It is small, and focused on small things. Not grand in any sense except that it is in love with the world. I had read it once before, and liked it fine, and then I fell in love in that way which does not confine itself to the person but spills out onto everything and everyone. I chose a strange moment to feel this way, because the world at that time was presenting itself as an objectively unlovable place. Almost everyone I knew was focusing on the bigger picture, and was being made desperately unhappy by this. I was happy, though, because I was in love, and I badly needed a book which would tell me that it was fine to focus on small things, to see the whole universe in one car journey, one disastrous wedding, one drink. The world can only be kept at bay for so long, but inside the car, with Buddy Glass narrating, it felt briefly okay.
Some books you know you will love straight away, and other books you need to sit on for a while. You need to coexist with the book for some time, resenting it, maybe, assuring yourself that it is not for you. Rolling your eyes when it comes up in conversation etc. Saying oh PLEASE when it’s mentioned. Talking about it at dinner parties in a way that is actually a bit strange. Are you sure you’re not in love with the book? You are certainly talking about it a lot, for someone who says that they hate it and they wished no one had ever read it. Are you sure you don’t, at least, have a bit of a crush on the book? Hmm? You and the book, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Admit it. You secretly love the book and you know it.
Image credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
When The New York Times T Magazine recently published a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer, reactions ran from bafflement to hostility at what seemed a particularly precious bit of high-level marketing (both had projects to promote). But as it turns out, Foer isn’t the only novelist with whom Portman pen-pals. Below are excerpts from a long-running email exchange the actress and director has enjoyed with Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and Cities of the Plain.
>> On Tue, May 3, 2016 at 3:44 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Let me begin by saying how incredibly gratifying our correspondence has been. In recent years, as I worked on translating Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, into my first film as a director, I constantly thought of artists whose work I aspire to, and — I say this with a fan’s self-consciousness — you were one of them. I thought if I could suffuse my film with the visceral nature of, say, Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, then I will have succeeded. Thematically, Oz’s book couldn’t be more different from your novels — but that propulsive feeling, that razor’s-edge sense: that’s the important thing.
I’d love to keep writing but it appears that my son is trying to jam his SpongeBob underwear down the garbage disposal. Such is the artist’s life, is it not?
>> On Wed, May 4, 2016 at 8:12 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
The boy is wise. Pressing the remains of a dying world into the steely void. Did the boy succeed? Did he shred them? Send them tattered through the murk, the sludgewaters below. The refuse of our age. Flowing to brownclotted rivers where corpses of things drift at brackish shores. Bloated and grinning. The grief of the empty sun. An idiot’s reckoning.
>> On Thu, May 5, 2016 at 2:02 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Luckily I got the underwear out of his hands before he could do any real damage, and he gave me the sweetest hug in apology. Being a mother is a great gift, a blessing, and there’s nothing I can say on the subject that hasn’t been said before. But, in part, I think that’s what’s so amazing about having a child: we can each experience this thing that feels so unique and special — and nobody else will ever be able to understand the depth of our feeling. It’s something that we all can do, yet when it happens, it feels exceedingly rare. Does that make sense? Or is motherhood just turning me into one of those unbearable, sentimental types?
>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 12:54 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Children with sharp small teeth, grasping fingers. Sucking life from all, as an inferno takes its oxygen from the blackening treefringe. As apt to evil as men, simply not grown to it. Their evil a pair of trousers too large yet to fit. But there will come an hour when the boy will know what he is capable of and he will weigh it and know that it is there. He will attire the trousers and they will fit him handsomely. His evil will emerge as a snake from its trembling nest.
>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 10:47 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
My son and I were at a café in Paris last year — the Boulangerie Poilâne, on the Boulevard de Grenelle; if you’re ever there, you must try the chaussons aux pommes — and I caught him trying to pour salt in my café au lait! So, yes, I certainly know what you mean about children’s capacity for “evil”!
It’s funny — although I’ve been working in film since I was 11, it’s only now, working as a director, that I’m thinking of my own life in terms of “scenes” — I’m visualizing my boy’s attempt at ruining my coffee as a director, not as a mother, or as the person who the event actually happened to. As I think about it, I’m working out camera angles, lighting, everything. There’s so much more to directing a movie than there is to everyday life. In everyday life, you don’t have to think about what type of saltshaker will look best on-camera — it’s already there.
>> On Sun, May 8, 2016 at 5:20 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Salt. Scattered across the fields by marauding deathcults, necklaces of severed ears. Destroying all in their bleakening fury. Crops stunted and gray, harvest of locustshells. Farmers leaving their wrackened steads, moving through bluffnotches towards full nothingness. Asking an absent god what they endeavor to. Yearning for surrender, to offer bloodscabbed necks to the rusty scythe.
>> On Mon, May 9, 2016 at 2:11 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
In a very small way, I feel like one of those exhausted farmers. On the one hand, I’m extremely tired from a long day of shooting. But on the other, I’m energized by my colleagues. I’m working with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and other wonderful actresses, and the end of each day is a little bit sad, because we know we’re that much closer to the end of our camaraderie. I want to get through this project — it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, professionally — but at the same time, I want it to last forever. Is that something you’ve encountered in your own work?
>> On Wed, May 11, 2016 at 11:04 AM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
What is forever. The blasted plains. Low scarps of rock. Nothing upon them but carcasses and things to become carcasses. Bones and yellowed teeth, scattered bits of fur. Chronicles of nothing. A vulture lighting upon illfestered carrion. To tear at flesh, rancid spoors green in the fading day. Murders of crows massing in the branches beyond. Black night sky. A void where nothing breathes. Mute to the hoarse sufferings of an extincting race. Howls unheeded. Lodestars of pain. These things are forever.
There is nothing else, Natalie.
More from Cormac McCarthy: The Road (A Comedic Translation)
With summer nearly upon us, thoughts naturally turn to the beach — and, of course, to beach books, the seasonal genre known for its breeziness and ease. And though I’m planning on visiting the beach this weekend, I can’t decide what I should read. (The Girls? The Wright Brothers? How the hell to choose?) What’s more, I find the beach a terrible place to read, as it’s teeming with distractions, annoyances, and lingering traumas. So I’m asking you, dear reader, to help me select my next beach book. I do have to warn you, though: I can be a little picky.
My beach read should help me forget the roaming packs of half-feral children who will no doubt be running within millimeters of my blanket, kicking sand in my eyes, and screeching like wounded monkeys. So I don’t want to read Lord of the Flies or Blood Meridian.
It should help me ignore the seagulls that always seem to hover above, waiting for the perfect moment to steal my sandwich, shit in my hair, or gouge out my eyes. So Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds is out.
I’d like to forget about the time I nearly drowned when I was eight — I tripped while playing paddleball and was dragged a terrifying 30 feet out to sea. For that reason — and, yes, I know it won a goddamn Pulitzer — the last thing I want to read is William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days.
If possible, I don’t want to be reminded that, at 37, I have the physique of a creepily hairy toddler — and that the shoreline will feature a parade of deep-tanned lunks built like young Schwarzeneggers. So if you’re thinking of recommending something Austrian — Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth — you can forget it. (Also, by extension, no Kafka on the Shore).
I don’t want to think about the fact that it will likely be broiling, a full 12 degrees above the day’s average temperature — or that the beach I’m lounging on was ravaged a few years back by a climate change-fed hurricane. So Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded and Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm probably won’t do.
On a trip to the shore when I was in high school, my friends and I managed to pick up some girls, and I was fortunate enough to later grapple with one of them on the moonlit beach. It was as romantic as it sounds, and as we pitched about in the sand, I was certain that I would a) see her again and b) marry her. We exchanged numbers, and I gave her my flannel shirt as a token of our love. But when I called her a few weeks later, she acted as if we’d never met, and the conversation devolved into me apologizing for my existence and stammering a goodbye. This is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t want any book that involves a person giving a shirt to another person — which I believe happens in both Anna Karenina and Clockers.
I definitely don’t want to be reminded of the fraught few months that I spent adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger as my sole companion. So nothing with tigers, please.
I’m going to the beach to forget the pendulum-ticking tedium of the job I’ll be forced to return to come Monday, so any workplace novels — Then We Came to the End, The Imperfectionists, et al. — are likely to bring on a low-level depression. And that’s the opposite of what a beach book should do.
You know what? Fuck all this. I appreciate your help, but this isn’t working out. Forget it. I think I’ll just stay home.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In Francine Prose’s introduction to BOMB: The Author Interviews, a collection of 35 interviews spanning 30 years, she repeats the word “conversation.” “Interview” suggests an uneven exchange, but “conversation” implies interaction between participants. Whether interview or conversation, the idea that two writers would sit and talk shop, and allow us to listen, is enticing.
The art of literary conversation, by whatever name, is certainly not new. Hannah Rosefield opened her review of John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist to a larger discussion of our cultural obsession with the interview as a way to look behind the authorial mask. Rosefield is dismissive of Freeman’s collection of 55 profiles of novelists, calling them “weirdly artificial…as if the writer is sitting alone in a restaurant or, sometimes, in her glamorous apartment, addressing occasional comments to the atmosphere.” Literary hero worship.
Rosefield isn’t enthralled with interviews as a whole, but her discussion is insightful. Many contemporary writers are known for their disinterest in the form — ranging from the prolific and visible Joyce Carol Oates to the prolific and invisible Thomas Pynchon — but she traces the displeasure back to Henry James, who gave his first interview in 1904, nearly 30 years after he published his first novel.
The magazine that has become synonymous with interviews is The Paris Review, which, as Rosefield notes, published a long interview with E.M. Forster in their first issue, Spring 1953. John Rodden, author of Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves, the first book-length examination of the literary interview genre, thinks George Plimpton “virtually invented” the literary interview as a genre for the “little magazine.” The magazine’s “Paris editorial office on the legendary Left Bank and [Plimpton’s] talented group of young expatriate co-editors gave the magazine cachet with both the American literary intelligentsia and with European writers.” Plimpton “became the bridge figure linking the ‘highbrow’ French and the journalistic or ‘Hollywoodized’ American interview traditions.” In practical terms, the form was perfect and inexpensive (free) for an ambitious little magazine. For authors, interviews were faster and easier to complete than original essays. Plimpton didn’t care much for capturing unrehearsed moments. He “was the first editor to work on revision after revision of an interview, making it into a sculpted artwork.”
Only an unrealistic purist would scoff at such editing. Rodden considers interviews performance art, simply another, very public genre for writers to play within. He offers a useful, provisional taxonomy of five interview types. Traditionalists “put their work in the foreground.” Their interviews are plain, direct, and marked by “self-effacement.” They “eschew all inquires into their private lives, and sometimes even questions about the relation between their lives and their work.” In contrast, raconteurs are storytellers who thrive on anecdotes, digressions, and asides: “traditionalists downplay their personalities, however, raconteurs display them.” They are performers. (Plimpton was pure raconteur).
Advertisers are self-promoters who “exploit interviews…to make their personae into objects of interest and contention equal to or greater than their work.” Provocateurs manipulate the form even further by defying the conventions of typical exchanges. Finally, prevaricators are liars, whose contradictory selves muddle any sense of their conversational words holding worth beyond artistic performances.
Whereas the collected interviews from The Paris Review lean heavily on the single author as authority, the pieces in BOMB: The Author Interviews are entirely different beasts. Francine Prose is correct that these are conversations, and they become quite fluid. I do not think it is reductive to agree with Rosefield that interviews are written for writers; in fact, I think interviews are more useful to writers than craft essays or lectures that are chiseled toward theses: “What people really want to know is what it is that the writer does that enables her to transform ordinary words — the same ones non-writers use all day, every day — into art.”
In that way, writer interviews serve a strangely utilitarian purpose. They open the writer. They disarm her. The BOMB interviews evolve into meditations on art and action. “Inspire” might be a thin word in our cynical literary present, but dare I say that reading these conversations made me want to handwrite excerpts on index cards and lean them against books on my shelves. Rather than dismiss interviews for their performative components, I am more drawn to them as literary duets. A great interview as conversation reaches the sentiment Wallace Stevens dramatized in “Of Modern Poetry,” that moment when a poem performs for an “an invisible audience [that] listens, / Not to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one.” The conversations in BOMB: The Author Interviews are like “metaphysician[s] in the dark,” stripped of introductory context or description of body language. There are only words.
Here are snapshots of some of my favorite exchanges from this worthwhile anthology.
Patrick McGrath and Martin Amis
McGrath: Do you see [literature] decaying alongside everything else?
Amis: Literature? No. I mean, they say the novel is dead. Well, try and stop people writing novels. Or poems. There’s no stopping people. I suppose it’s conceivable that no one will know how to spell in 50 years’ time, but not while the books are still there. You don’t need a structure. The autodidact is omnipresent in fiction.
Roberto Bolaño and Carmen Boullosa
Boullosa: Women writers are constantly annoyed by this question, but I can’t help inflicting it on you — if only because after being asked it so many times, I regard it as an inevitable, though unpleasant ritual: How much autobiographical material is there in your work? To what extent is it a self-portrait?
Bolaño: A self-portrait? Not much. A self-portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been. Literature is full of autobiographies, some very good, but self-portraits tend to be very bad, including self-portraits in poetry, which at first would seem to be a more suitable genre for self-portraiture than prose. Is my work autobiographical? In a sense, how could it not be? Every work, including the epic, is in some way autobiographical. In The Iliad we consider the destiny of two alliances, of a city, of two armies, but we also consider the destiny of Achilles and Priam and Hector, and all these characters, these individual voices, reflect the voice, the solitude, of the author.
Dennis Cooper and Benjamin Weissman
Weissman: How do you find the language for your books? Everything echoes everything else in a particular way. You’re able to make the most intense things happen in a single, seemingly nondescript sentence.
Cooper: It’s a combination of things. The writing has a very strong rhythm. It seems half of what I do is maintain rhythms and fuck with them. I choose words partially based on syllable count and on sound. You don’t notice all this reading it necessarily, but it’s structured like music. Every sentence length, the way it moves, sounds…it’s all calculated to create an effect. In Try, I was working with a hyper-real version of how I talk or the way inarticulate Californian kids speak. The way you might start to say something clearly then wander, confused, and you’ll stall, then you’ll take it back and rush forward in a different direction, then step back, and try to sum up your thought…all that movement is so beautiful. I try to mimic that a lot, make it recognizable, but brewing it up with a kind of poetry.
Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat
Danticat: I think most folks would want me to ask you, those of us who’ve been waiting with bated breath for this book: What the heck took you so long?
Díaz: What, really, can one say? I’m a slow writer. Which is bad enough but given that I’m in a world where it’s considered abnormal if a writer doesn’t produce a book every year or two — it makes me look even worse. Ultimately the novel wouldn’t have it any other way. This book wanted x number of years out of my life. Perhaps I could have written a book in a shorter time but it wouldn’t have been this book and this was the book I wanted to write. Other reasons? I’m a crazy perfectionist. I suffer from crippling bouts of depression. I write two score pages for every one I keep. I hear this question and want to laugh and cry because there’s no answer. What I always want to ask other writers (and what I’ll ask you) is how can you write about something so soon after it’s happened? What’s to be gained by writing about something — say, the death of a father and uncle, as you do in your new book, Brother, I’m Dying — when the moment is close?
Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer
Safran Foer: What wouldn’t you sacrifice for your writing?
Eugenides: I used to be scared of that line from Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” I thought I’d never be able to make that choice, that I wasn’t disciplined enough, or committed enough. It sounded so painfully ascetic. But now I find that my work pretty much is my life. I don’t think I could operate without it. The lucky thing is that writing has only made me sacrifice things I can get along without: a frisky social life, a manly feeling of being “out in the world,” office gossip, teammates. You can be married and write. You can have a family and write. So you do have a life, after all. It’s waiting for you just outside your studio.
Brian Evenson and Blake Butler
Butler: Do you feel haunted by the things you delete?
Evenson: It’s starting to sound like that. I mean, all these possibilities of fiction accumulate. One way that a lot of my stories start is from reading something and seeing it go in one direction and thinking, Hey, I could take this in another direction. In fact, “The Second Boy” originated with a passage from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in which a boy falls down “a shaft or pit or chasm up the mountain.” The ambiguity of that phrasing opened something up for me. A lot of my stories come from the path that another story could have taken but didn’t take. They attempt to animate these moments that could have existed but didn’t.
Rachel Kushner and Hari Kunzru
Kushner: The polemical work is not a work of art; it’s something lower. It doesn’t transcend its objective to influence and explain.
Kunzru: It’s instrumentalized writing.
Kushner: Precisely. The novel ideally is not reducible to the political. It’s a journey toward meaning that transcends the frame of politics. Blood Meridian — just to think of a great novel that traverses the political — is not simply a book about the violent policies of the American government paying out for scalps on the Western frontier. It takes up subject matter that is inescapably political, but it builds of systemic violence a work that comes to rest only in the territory of art, where the thing built is so elegant and strange that it cannot be justified or even really explained.
Kunzru: I always get muddled between intention and effect. The author’s intention is never visible in a text — we know this as good poststructuralists. Also, we can read anything politically; we can read things that are silent about political issues against the grain. Maybe engagé is a useful word. I think the novel has to hold things open rather than close things down or collapse things onto a single polemic point of view.
Eldridge: Which brings me to teaching. Where do you begin with your graduate students at Columbia? What do you say on the first day?
Marcus: I try to stress how important it is, when you’re asking for the attention of a reader, that you’re doing the most intense, interesting, compelling, fascinating thing that you could possibly do. I focus on getting writers to recognize when they become bored while reading other people and why. And then why they might allow themselves that boredom when they’re writing. Students want to give themselves permission that as readers they won’t give to another writer. Graduate students in fiction are some of the least forgiving readers I have ever met. They tend to be very critical of almost everything.
Sharon Olds and Amy Hempel
Hempel: You also said one purpose of a poem is to cause another poem to be written. Does that work for you and for somebody reading your work?
Olds: I would think so. I often write poems after I’ve read poems. What I was thinking was that if you have a story all ready to be written and you don’t write it, maybe the next one won’t come down the chute. Was it Bill Matthews who said that we need to write our bad poems, because if we don’t write them, how will we get to the next one, which might be a good one? But of course, what you say is also true, that we inspire each other.
Tobias Wolff and A.M. Homes
Homes: How do you know when you’re finished with a story?
Wolff: When everything necessary is done, and I feel as if even another word would be superfluous — would, in a manner of speaking, break the camel’s back. That sense of completion comes about in different ways, and plot is only the most obvious of them. You should feel, when you’ve finished a story, that it has achieved a life independent of yours, that it has somehow gathered up the golden chain that connected you. This feeling is not always reliable. I often go back and revise endings that I was pretty sure about when I set the last period to the page. In writing, of course, everything is subject to revision. But I am guided, however roughly, by inexplicable instincts like the one I have just attempted to describe.
A less audacious author, when splitting his 600-page epic of the American West into three separate narratives, would have simply written three books and published them as a trilogy. That way, readers could skip the less scintillating sections of Philipp Meyer’s The Son and focus only on the near-mythic tale of Eli McCullough, the first boy born in the Republic of Texas, who is kidnapped as a child and raised by wandering Comanche warriors.
But then Meyer, a high school dropout from Baltimore, Md., who worked as an emergency medical technician and a derivatives trader before quitting to become a writer, does nothing by half-measures. Meyer had not lived in Texas until he moved to Austin for grad school in 2005, but he spent five years researching and writing The Son, reading some 300 books on Texas, teaching himself how to hunt with a bow, and shooting a buffalo so he could experience what it was like to drink its blood.
Meyer’s research methods may sound extreme — or perhaps exaggerated, depending on your degree of cynicism — but, whatever, it pays off on the page. The sections of the novel dealing with Eli’s son, Peter, and his great-granddaughter, Jeannie, brim with historical insights but occasionally stall out as narrative. The long sections about Eli and his years riding with the Comanches at the blood-soaked edges of the American frontier, on the other hand, are as riveting and sensually vivid as any book I’ve read about the American West since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
The Son serves as a bookend to Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, which I wrote about in last year’s Year in Reading series. The Orenda, set in the 1600s in what is now Ontario, Canada, tackles the story of the European conquest of North America from the Native perspective. The Son, set in Texas in the 1800s and 1900s, comes at the story from the white settlers’ point of view. But both books set out, as only great fiction can, to rewrite the creation myth of white North America from the ground up, replacing the war-whooping Injuns and chaw-spitting cowpokes of an earlier generation of Westerns with dynamic, three-dimensional characters, both Native and white, who are capable of unimaginable cruelty but who never lose their essential humanity.
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Fear of William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist, is a rite of passage for Catholics in New Jersey. Children and grandchildren of immigrants, their childhoods are suffused with the supernatural. Crucifixes, not plain crosses, hang above doorframes. Catholic school closings brought those children to public schools, where the vocal faith of their Protestant classmates seems foreign. Catholics are an idiosyncratic bunch. We allow our theologies to splinter, moving in the directions of our personal desires and demons. In one of the strangest states in the union, a place where webbed highways connect farms to coasts to wrecked cities, Catholic children sneak glances at the film, worried that it might come true.
The novelist and critic William Giraldi’s hometown of Manville is largely indistinguishable from my own roots in Hanover Township. We are separated by a half-hour drive on clogged Route 287. Our shared upbringing made me surprised to read that although his mother saw The Exorcist while pregnant with him, Giraldi did not watch the film until more than 30 years later. He admits that he might have avoided the film since he was a “child of Roman Catholicism, weaned on drama, ritual, hocus-pocus, and flesh-fetishism that for eons have made Catholicism an attractive option for those who crave pageantry.” The Exorcist did not scare him. He lived through the Satanic Panic of the ’80s, which showed that evil was “more terrifyingly, the work of average psychopaths,” not the devil.
Giraldi skewers the film in this essay, although his criticisms are delivered with the smirk of someone who is trying to convince himself there is nothing to fear. He thinks The Strangers (2008) is a far more effective work of terror, since there is the “very real possibility that this can happen to you: no incubi or other paranormal nonsense.” He quotes from James Baldwin’s masterful 1976 book-length essay, The Devil Finds Work, noting Baldwin’s rebuke of The Exorcist’s central premise:
I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff…in the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens…and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror…[The devil] does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.
Giraldi channels Baldwin when he writes that the “psyche needs Satan, his minions, his habitat; we need those metaphors to illustrate the horrors deep within us, the awfulness of being human.”
I enjoyed Giraldi’s essay, even if I disagree with him here; ontologically, his assertion doesn’t mean Satan couldn’t also exist. Many of our most forceful metaphors have real figures. But what has always scared me most about The Exorcist is not merely possession and helplessness, but that this drama, however hyperbolic, occurs within a home. It is a film of hallways and bedrooms. In one infamous scene, actress Chris McNeil has a house party attended by the director of her current film, Burke Dennings, as well as several members of the Georgetown community. Chris’s young daughter, Regan, comes downstairs, and tells a guest — an astronaut — “you’re gonna die up there.” She then urinates on the carpet. But immediately before that scene, Burke, drunk and belligerent, gets in an argument with the McNeil butler, Karl. Burke calls Karl a Nazi. Karl chokes Burke before they are broken apart. Burke laughs, claps his hands, and asks what is being served for dessert. This tightly shot, shadowed moment is lost among the more gory and obscene sequences, but it struck a chord with me. What Giraldi found wanting in The Exorcist was real life terror. I found evil right there, in the kitchen.
It is important to understand these cultural and religious tensions to appreciate Giraldi’s fictional approach, which began with the satirical Busy Monsters (2011), but reaches a new level in his second novel, Hold the Dark. Giraldi’s critical treatment of The Exorcist echoes a line from his first novel: “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all.” Critic D.G. Myers correctly places Giraldi in the same breath as Christopher Beha. Beha’s first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (2012), was concerned with questions of faith, although at the time Beha identified as a lapsed Catholic, both in essays and interviews (Beha told Terry Gross “I’m someone who was raised Catholic and was indeed a believing Catholic, not just a cultural Catholic by upbringing, who then lost his faith. And in lots of ways, faith became much more interesting to me once I didn’t have it.”).
With the recent release of Beha’s second novel, Arts & Entertainments, he now identifies as a rare practicing Catholic writer of literary fiction. While talking about how his new novel might be seen as a satirical counter to the “very narrow version of scientific materialism” present in celebrity and reality television culture, Beha sounds like an eloquent apologist: “If you believe that God has endowed each of us with a soul and placed us here for some reason other than our own gratification, it becomes more difficult to treat the rest of the world as bit players in your own personal drama.” As for literature:
The publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don’t include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include — often just a species of madness — bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn’t occur to them. Whatever one’s beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.
Beha’s evolution as a Catholic doesn’t surprise me. Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a religion. It is indelible. A tattoo. One of the difficulties of writing about a Catholic writer’s religious practice is that practice might depend on the day of the week, the location of the moon. Although he no longer professes the faith, Giraldi is, through and through, a Catholic writer. Beha is interested in representing how Catholicism affects contemporary reality. Giraldi depicts a soulless, surreal world, where evil is overwhelming. Their foundations are the same. Their performances differ.
Giraldi opens Hold the Dark with an epigraph from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s long poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”: “O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth.” Giraldi read Hopkins as “penance and purification. Penance because every former Catholic feels the guilt pangs of apostasy.” In an essay on the Jesuit poet, he references the “molars of melancholy” and the “tarred abyss” of Hopkins’s life, and channels the poet Geoffrey Hill when summarizing Hopkins’s passion: “Last days and last things are always looming. The time for astonishment is short. Stretch for austerity made sublime. Cry the miracles of God.”
The tension that occurs when an unbeliever so effectively uses the language of belief makes Hold the Dark a charged work. The novel begins with an ominous note: “The wolves came down from the hills and took the children of Keelut.” The children are taken without “a scream, not a howl to give witness.” One of the children kidnapped from this isolated Alaska town is the six-year-old son of Medora Slone, who responded by “trek[ing] over the hills and the across the vale all that evening and night and into the blush of dawn with the rifle across her back and a ten-inch knife strapped to her thigh. The revenge she wanted tasted metallic.”
All this happens on the first page, and Giraldi doesn’t let up. His pace creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. Medora writes Russell Core, a wolf expert, to “Come and kill [the wolf] to help me.” Her husband Vernon is fighting his own battle in a desert war, where a soldier knives out the “eyes and tongues of the dead — these would be his keepsake.”
Core’s arrival as an outsider to Keelut gives Giraldi an opportunity to describe setting without sounding contrived. Medora’s cabin is sketched in pared sentences, as is the town:
Adjacent to some cabins were plywood kennels for sled dogs. Unlabeled fifty-five-gallon drums, rust-colored, most with tops torched off. Shovels and chain saws and snow machines. Coleman lanterns dented and broken. Gas-powered auger to drill lake ice. Blue tarp bunged around a truck’s engine on sawhorses. Vehicles mugged by snow and stranded. The church an unpainted A-frame beside the schoolhouse. And all around, those hills with howls hidden within.
Readers of Cormac McCarthy will find precedent, but not mirror, in the careful description of Blood Meridian. Giraldi creates a rhythm with these descriptions. The repetition is like stakes in this Alaskan ground, a tangible contrast to the moments when his prose becomes more lyric, as when Russell longingly looks at Medora: “The firelight had died and the blue-white night was unnaturally intense around her. He saw the folds of her waist, the weighted breasts falling to either side of her rib cage, the cup of flesh at her elbow. He lay unmoving in a kind of fear looking at her over his cosseted body, his breath stifled lest she hear him watching, lest he disrupt this midnight vigil.” In a world where children disappear into the dark, even the remaining adults seem like ghosts.
Giraldi’s concrete topography contrasts with the aphoristic pronouncements of his characters. Medora assures Russell that “The wildness here is inside us …Inside everything.” Keelut is unique. “There’s something off,” Medora says, “something wrong with the sky here.” Although Russell is pragmatic, assuring Medora that the wolves are “nothing more” than “hungry animals,” either this place or her presence begins to inhabit his psyche. Unable to find her missing son, he returns to her cabin, where he notices a door that leads to an unfinished root cellar. There he discovers her son’s frozen body.
The revelation upends the plot at the right moment. Vernon, injured, returns home from war, and Medora disappears, the target of a manhunt. Vernon is silent when asked about his wife, although later he does more than simply not cooperate with the police. He wants to find her on his own terms. Giraldi’s plot is tight, and best experienced in the actual paragraphs, not summarized here. This is one of the few novels that earns the title of literary thriller, so the thrills should remain in the actual book.
Between the many bullets and arrows, Giraldi is also building an examination of evil. This is a new Catholic fiction, one forged in the smithies of writers who reject belief but retain reverence for religious language. His work recalls McCarthy, a fellow lapsed Catholic, in more than mere prosody. Bryan Giemza notes that McCarthy’s “literally liturgical” prose shows his “fascination with the mystery of evil,” a description that could also be applied to Giraldi. His characters speak with real fear. One of the investigators worries “there are forces in this world you cannot digest or ever hope to have hints of.” The narrow slice of Alaska in Hold the Dark is a place of ritual and prophecy, where violence is the only future in sight. Myers calls it “an archive of bloodshed,” and wonders if “Christ’s blood was ‘shed profusely in the scourging’ and ‘poured out on the cross’ (to quote the Church’s litany of the precious blood), why should anyone be surprised at the bloodbaths men create in order to seek out, again and again, the salvific torture of the flesh?” It’s a smart reading of a book that can handle such theological inquiry without demanding it. Giraldi’s endgame, in his fiction and his criticism, appears to be searching for transcendence in a world plagued with evil. Hold the Dark will be tough to stomach for many. It is a violent, dark novel, written by a man who thinks “knowledge and art are survival,” someone who still considers sin real.
Giraldi’s previously mentioned epigraph comes from a poem about the 1875 shipwreck of the SS Deutschland, in which five Franciscan nuns were among the dead. Hopkins’s poem is an elegy for those women, a prayer that they have gained redemption. Giraldi has discarded that theological framework, but remains artistically formed by those stories, and that formation gives power to his pages.
Literary travel has been around for ages, but it needs serious updating. Reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while wandering around London or Robert Bowles while exploring Fez may be perfectly enjoyable for your grandfather–but you are not your grandfather. You’re young, you’re free, and let’s face it: going abroad could seriously impede the routine you have developed. You’ve got a commitment to the bike co-op, several dateable co-workers, plus a full Netflix queue. Reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in Venice is not a top priority. And so that’s why I’m providing you with literary travel recommendations to fascinating locales well within the boundaries of my four hundred square foot apartment. Prepare yourself accordingly for an adventure encompassing the holy trinity of time, space, and fiction, on a substantially more modern (and moderate) scale. If you can get used to my roommate, I promise it will be an incredible experience.
Pairing #1: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian with the Bedroom
You will find the first pairing of the Bedroom with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian appealing if you have ever desired to delve deeper into the violent history of the American West. Not unlike that vast lawless frontier, this Bedroom first existed in pioneer minds as a seemingly blank slate. For them, it was simply territory for the taking, albeit mostly for above-garage storage. Over the years it was explored and divided. Settlers claimed portions of land through their strategic placement of Bob Marley posters, black lights, and dirty clothes piles. As you read Blood Meridian in the gap between my well-organized desk, lofted bed, and crisp, clean sheets, and my roommate’s half-inflated air mattress covered in zines, Doritos, and half-empty Kombucha bottles, you will explore the dark realm where civilization breaks down and gives way to total, bloodsoaked anarchy. Reading McCarthy’s masterwork in this No Man’s Land of the shared Bedroom will push you to search for meaning in a world of ceaseless chaos. Why is humanity so irredeemable? Why can’t he ever wash his hideous flannel sheets?
Pairing #2: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with the Living Room
In the Living Room, most specifically near the window where you can see the Discovery Zone in the strip mall across the street, you will find Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to be a most fitting read. Like the beacon and symbol in Woolf’s novel, let the bright red and yellow “DZ” shine forth to represent all of your unfulfilled hopes and aspirations, reminding you, even after an enjoyable night with friends, that you are still stuck living where you are. Curl up on the couch and read to the accompaniment of my roommate watching reality TV. While you try to focus on the novel, allow yourself to be enveloped by the din of Kardashian conflict while my roommate’s nasally voice rambles on about how great it would be to go to the Discovery Zone drunk tomorrow. Try to ignore him as he describes in great detail what it would be like to romp in the ball pit and clamber through those endless plastic tubes. Look up briefly to watch as I say, “There will be no going to the Discovery Zone tomorrow.” Notice the desolation in his eyes.
Pairing #3: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the Bathroom
This third pairing of Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the poorly lit Bathroom will allow you to throw yourself into an incarceral atmosphere strikingly true to the author’s own exile in Siberia. Fitting with the novel, the Bathroom is cramped quarters and lacks any windows or access to sunlight. While you struggle to read comfortably on the bathmat, my roommate will enhance the general uninhabitability of the “cell” by leaving beard trimmings on the counter, splattering toothpaste over the sink and mirror, and leaving wet towels and various other injustices strewn across the floor. This will all be capped off by a consistent, if not downright malicious, failure to replace any empty toilet paper rolls. For reasons of decency I shall only allude to the room’s poor ventilation. Just let it be said that there will be peak hours after my roommate’s morning cup of coffee when you will suffer along with Dostoyevsky, wondering what you ever did to deserve such harsh treatment?
Pairing #4: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the Kitchen
This final novel fits well with the Kitchen, which happens to be the southernmost room in the apartment. Here I recommend that you sit on the counter beside the increasingly filthy microwave that I’ve finally given up on cleaning to enjoy Faulkner’s renowned As I Lay Dying. You can bask in our only available direct sunlight and explore the varying perspectives of Addie Bundren’s death and burial. If you get too warm, there is a fitting coffin-like quality to the pantry. The fact that it has one of the only functioning doors in the entire apartment offers the chance to escape, however briefly, the presence of my roommate and to feel most in-tune with buried Addie herself. Furthermore, by reading this novel now, you won’t risk having your imagination contaminated by the James Franco movie adaptation which my roommate so earnestly claims will be a product of “pure Franco genius.”
Final Note and Offer!
If you are using an e-reader, I encourage you to download these novels before you arrive since a certain someone doesn’t think it’s necessary to pitch in for internet when our neighbor’s spotty wifi is available. But even more importantly, I want to let you know that if you find these pairings enticing, yet feel you won’t be able to get through them all in one weekend visit, there is the option of subletting the apartment or simply trading apartments with me. Just think how much fun you could have with a new roommate and so many books to read! But seriously. Think about it. I can’t take this much longer.
Image via evan p. cordes/Flickr
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: LPW
What would Blood Meridian look like as a children’s book? The question is vaguely unsettling, but Jerry Puryear set out to answer it anyway, drawing up detailed mockups of literary children’s books and posting them on his Tumblr. At Slate, a selection of his book covers. (This might be a good time to look back on our US-UK Book Cover Battle.)
Perhaps it’s appropriate that when I found out Richard Matheson was dead, I was watching television; there are few writers, after all, with a more intimate, lengthy relationship with both that living room medium and its bombastic cousin, the feature film. The storyteller in me wishes I’d had one of the many Matheson-penned episodes of The Twilight Zone on in the background at the moment I learned of his passing, if only because it feels like a modicum of disquieting coincidence in keeping with the sort of urgent, vital fiction he seemed to pump out effortlessly for decades. Imagine it: a fan learns of a famous writer’s death as the very words he wrote drift from the television, and cut to the fan’s face and cue the spooky score as he senses invisible, supernatural hands at work.
Alas, there was no such luck, as my fiancée and I were approximately chest-deep in an evening marathon of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and I had to make do with the melodious sound of Detective Elliot Stabler slamming a perpetrator’s head into the reflective glass of the police interview room. Of course, Matheson, of all people, likely wouldn’t have begrudged me a brief indulgence in what you could (charitably) call campy, disposable entertainment (if you’ve seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, you know what I mean).
“Richard Matheson died today,” I said.
“Hm?” My fiancée said. I pressed mute so we wouldn’t have to talk over Stabler cartoonishly brutalizing a suspect.
“This writer, Richard Matheson, he died today. He was 87, but still, you know. Terrible.”
“That’s so sad,” she said. We were very nearly through half a moment of reflective, respectful silence when she returned to playing Sudoku on her iPad. Stabler gritted his teeth and sneered something into the perpetrator’s ear.
“So, you don’t have the slightest clue who that is.”
“Nope,” she said politely. “Should I?”
I opened my mouth to begin what would, knowing me, be an exhaustively detailed, near-insufferable process of explanation, complete with video clips, historical context regarding his influence on other important contemporary writers, and breathlessly quoted vital passages, but after a moment, I found nothing would come out. Matheson’s long been a favorite, and someone whose career and influence I find inspiring, but here I was, unable to speak about him.
My fiancée looked at me. “You know who he is, right?”
It’s hard for me to talk about writers.
Don’t get me wrong. I can talk about books and writers for-goddamn-ever, and love to; we can spread some sleeping bags on the kitchen floor and have an impromptu sleepover and talk about stories all night if you’d like. That being said, I believe the lens through which I view such things is a little odd. It’s not just that I love literature and books — it’s that my mind is built with an obsessive proclivity for recalling lists of titles, and influences, and passages, and on and on. Like I said, this is odd, but more importantly in regards to interacting with others, it’s boring.
Inciting yawns, you see, is precisely the opposite of my intention, particularly if it means shutting someone’s mind down about an author with whom they might someday fall in love. I want to be a participant in the literary community, and an envoy for short stories and novels and any other means of delivering some of the cream of the printed crop; I don’t want to screw someone out of discovering something great because they got bored after I started rattling off James Baldwin’s bibliography like I’ve got literary tourettes.
So if someone hasn’t heard of Cormac McCarthy (and I’ve avoided impulsively bludgeoning them with something), I don’t say: “Here’s Child of God and The Crossing and Blood Meridian and the script for The Sunset Limited, take a quick gander and you’ll have a good idea of his importance to the western canon and HEY WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” Instead, I simplify for the sake of continuing the proverbial conversation by relying on a perhaps more easily accessible cultural reference: feature films. Let’s be honest. Films are easier and quicker to consume than novels or short stories, for the most part, and that fact alone makes them an easier experiential mountain to climb for the majority of busy people and their shorter and shorter attention spans.
“He’s the dude who wrote No Country. You remember. The one where Javier Bardem had the bowl cut and fucked up like thirty people.”
“Oh, rad. Yeah, he housed that guy with the air gun. That was fucking sweet,” they say, nodding.
Does this constitute participation in the long, slow dumbing-down of culture? Maybe. However, what I’m also saying, what I consider the more salient ultimate point is that my strategy at least continues a conversation about an artist instead of ending it; having seen a film they liked, a friend may pick up the novel that inspired it.
I can bask in a momentary thrill when a friend nods in recognition, because hey, maybe I’ve just played a small part in someone discovering something cool. Of course, my endorsement or quick distillation of an author’s identity through film adaptations may not lead to a friend mowing through an extensive list of works, but it might.
I’ve used film as a successful means to introduce people to writers before. It works for Annie Proulx. It works for Toni Morrison. If you’re willing to be disqualify anything from the ’80s (or anything, like the legendarily bad television adaptation of The Stand, that involves Gary Sinise), it sort of works for Stephen King. You’d think that given his extensive list of adapted works and his own involvement in the television and film industries, it’d work for Matheson, too.
You would be wrong.
You would be breathtakingly wrong, in fact. You would be so wrong as to necessitate a bracing shot of something almost incalculably strong before looking at the man’s IMDB page. In fact, instead of reviewing his filmography, content yourself with this miserable spoiler alert: Matheson’s work has been adapted into a stunning litany of shitty movies.
Other authors you might fairly categorize as important are at least the occasional beneficiary of good film adaptations — or at least they trend much less toward the sad, dark wasteland of whoops, does anyone remember why we cast Paul Walker? With Matheson, that’s not the case. A number of his works — each considered at least addicting, pulpy-fun page turners, and at best as profoundly influential to a generation of writers — have been adapted in recent years, and, well, they are all really, really bad. Even though the written work is good, the adaptation — despite widely varying directors, screenwriters, and casts — ends up bafflingly terrible.
Is there something inherent in Matheson’s writing that makes for bad adaptations? Such a premise doesn’t seem to make sense, because the works vary enough — stylistically and thematically — to rule out a single fundamental flaw. What Dreams May Come is a novel incredibly different from I Am Legend. “Steel”is a short story with no readily apparent similarities to “Button, Button.” And yet all four have produced adaptations (What Dreams May Come, I Am Legend, Real Steel, and The Box, respectively) in the last few decades that have been (deservedly) panned by critics and fans.
Frankly, it seems worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. Richard Matheson. 87. A writer and screenwriter and noted figure in the annals of contemporary literature. He’s about to find out, though, that simply producing an effective story is not enough. When adaptations are concerned, sometimes, an effective story is just what one needs to produce a completely ridiculous and terrible story. Richard Matheson is entering a world beyond sight and sound. He’s about to arrive…in The Twilight Zone.
Let’s look at the evidence.
“Button, Button” is without question a classic example of the short story form. It’s a work of stunning power that flashes by with equally breathtaking brevity. You know the plot; a cash-strapped couple are offered the opportunity to make $50,000, simply provided they push the button on a small, innocent-looking contraption delivered unexpectedly to their doorstep. The only catch? As a result of their button-pushing, someone they’ve never met, somewhere, will be killed.
The story’s few, intense, spare pages are spent exploring the couple’s conflicts over the morality of a utilizing a device they agree cannot possibly do what its mysterious proprietor claims it does. It’s a bad joke, Norma and Arthur are certain, but, as they wonder over tense dinnertime disagreements, what if it isn’t? It’s a question Norma especially wrestles with, and after her resolve crumbles, the story climaxes with an eminently re-readable denouement that seems a forerunner of the now-ubiquitous twist ending:
She felt unreal as the voice informed her of the subway accident, the shoving crowd. Arthur pushed from the platform in front of the train. She was conscious of shaking her head but couldn’t stop.
As she hung up, she remembered Arthur’s life insurance policy for $25,000, with double indemnity for-
“No.” She couldn’t seem to breathe. She struggled to her feet and walked into the kitchen numbly. Something cold pressed at her skull as she removed the button unit from the wastebasket. There were no nails or screws visible. She couldn’t see how it was put together.
Abruptly, she began to smash it on the sink edge, pounding it harder and harder, until the wood split. She pulled the sides apart, cutting her fingers without noticing. There were no transistors in the box, no wires or tubes. The box was empty.
She whirled with a gasp as the telephone rang. Stumbling into the living room, she picked up the receiver.
“Mrs. Lewis?” Mr. Steward asked.
It wasn’t her voice shrieking so; it couldn’t be. “You said I wouldn’t know the one that died!”
“My dear lady,” Mr. Steward said, “do you really think you knew your husband?”
It’s a strikingly memorable story, and perhaps its best quality is also, in regards to film adaptation, its biggest problem: the restraint with which Matheson writes. Consider what he doesn’t tell us; we don’t learn the intent of the organization behind the contraption or the button; we’re never given much in the way of background or description of the story’s closest thing to an antagonist, Mr. Steward; and we’re certainly not provided any explanation as to how Arthur’s death is orchestrated or what nefarious, possibly supernatural forces are at work. All Matheson gives us is a mirror of the same troubling awareness his characters are grappling with — that forces they cannot possibly understand are at work in the background of their lives. “Button, Button” does what all the great works of the short form do: it gives the reader a sense of a larger world.
The larger, imagined world can be used, figuratively speaking, for both good and evil, though. I’d argue the good is to be found in the sometimes nameless, occasionally sleep-depriving consideration that results from reading a story like this, while the proverbial bad comes from people who decide there’s money to be made in committing to film their answers to questions Matheson probably meant to be rhetorical.
Which brings us to The Box, the 2009 adaptation of “Button, Button.” I won’t harp opportunistically on the casting missteps (though I could, because did you realize Cameron Diaz is in this movie dear God), but there’s a mistaken approach at work here — one that illuminates the precise problem in modern filmmakers adapting Richard Matheson’s writing.
They want to tell us everything.
Whereas the source material short story derives much of its power from the sense it creates of normal people rendered pawns in a mysterious, inexplicable game, The Box explains, helpfully, that the machine delivered to Arthur and Norma’s doorstep is a means of testing the morality of humans.
“Okay, we knew that,” you’re saying. “That’s pretty much what the short story is implying.”
Yes, but DID YOU KNOW IT’S A TEST CONCOCTED BY ALIENS THAT CONTROL LIGHTNING?
“…oh,” you’re murmuring.
It’s not sufficient, you see, for the creators of The Box to hint at dark forces beyond our understanding up to no good. For the purposes of a movie, they implicitly argue, implication and suggestion are not good enough. Our villains need a big, scary plan, and an origin story, and they need a larger plot, and you better goddamn believe they need some CGI to be the whipped cream on top. Here you go.
Let’s not waste time cataloging how few of those things are even close to included in the source material (another spoiler: NONE). Adaptations are precisely that — reimaginings of preexisting material, often shaped and expanded for the purposes of a particular project. The problem here, though, isn’t that someone dared to alter Matheson’s material; it’s that they approached a narrative that works in large part because of suspenseful atmosphere and implication, and then totally abandoned both. The end result, as you can see, is somehow at once hokey and painfully dour.
It’s not just something dark at work, it’s aliens. It’s not just a suggested moral conflict, it’s actually a scientific test of morality conducted by aliens to determine if a species should be exterminated. It’s a distinctly Hollywood sort of affliction, one born of the ill-conceived notion that movies are better if they have something bigger, something cooler, something more impressive, something just a little bit more.
Now, of course, you can argue these ideas (aliens, lightning, CGI water coffins, CGI face scars, whatever CGI is used to make James Marsden so supernaturally attractive) are ones Matheson held in his head when he wrote the original story, but I’d have to argue pretty strongly that A) no and B) if he did, at least he had the artistic decency and good sense to let his evil lurk in the shadows instead of dragging it embarrassingly out into the bright light.
And therein is the problem. Matheson had the good sense, the near-unteachable instinct that told him when a story’s construction necessitated the appearance of a shadowy, foul terror — but also the courage to do the opposite, to leave us with unanswered questions. That degree of artistic discipline and restraint, though, isn’t particularly common in contemporary filmmaking. In fact, if popular genre fiction in this day and age creates lingering uncertainties instead of neatly concluded narratives with tidy endings, you almost have to expect a clumsy director to render it into some unintended horror show of green-screen hackery. To use a phrase that’d get me a flying elbow to the throat from Detective Stabler, you’re pretty much asking for it.
In The Box as well as the other Matheson adaptations I’ve mentioned that fall short of the mark, source material that artfully leaves work up to the reader’s imagination is abandoned in favor of whiz-bang film wizardry or action that is not actually particularly magical. It’s not intended to be magical, either, for magic baffles and confounds the brain, and leads it to try and make sense of the fantastic, the mysterious, the impossible. It’s not a special effect intended to supplement and expand a story — it’s a gimmick that does the imagining for you.
Can you blame Matheson for employing uncertainty and letting readers formulate their own shapeless boogeymen, whether moral or supernatural or otherwise? Of course not. His deep relationship with campy entertainment aside, even an imagination as vivid as Matheson’s couldn’t have possibly anticipated the nature of the myriad adaptations of his work to come both during his life and after; no author or artist can. It’s not their job to, either, because stories and movies and everything else they commit to paper or film or whatever medium is next aren’t static, finished things. Once they’re published or released, your art is no longer your own. Like it or not, the work belongs to everyone.
Which is, come to think of it, how reputations function, too. They’re not fixed, they’re fluid — from book to book, from film to film, from generation to generation, and most gallingly to me, from person to person, too. The truth is that I was struggling to speak about Matheson not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because the adaptations of his work are so bad I worried my fiancée, in this case, would never check him out again. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be a conduit for great writers — I was trying to decide what someone thought for them, before they experienced any of a particular writer’s work. I was, in other words, committing roughly the same sin as all those unmitigated trainwrecks of film adaptations, the lackadaisical imaginations at which I rolled my eyes and scoffed.
How about that for a twist?
Of course, I’d love for everyone to experience and understand the artists I find rewarding and enthralling the same way as me, but such a thing is impossible — not just because of Will Smith and CGI zombies, or Cameron Diaz and lightning aliens, or Hugh Jackman and silly jumping robots, but simply because we’ve all got different relationships with art, and varying ideas of what it should do and the role it should play. Who am I to act as the arbiter for people’s taste, or decide how anyone else should experience a writer? My job isn’t to make anyone’s mind up for them.
My fiancée was still staring at me expectantly. I thought about some of my favorite Matheson stories. Some scenes from adaptations flashed through my mind.
“Let me tell you about some amazingly bad lightning aliens, dear,” I said. “You are going to love this.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia
JW McCormack has some Notes Toward [A Potential] Film Adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 up at The American Reader. As somebody who can’t even fathom making Cormac McCarthy’s decidedly less brutal (although still unimaginably brutal in its own way) Blood Meridian into a film, let me tell you: the idea of turning 2666 into a theater-ready motion picture seems impossible. (P.S. You really should just read both of those books…)
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.
Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.
Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.
The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.
Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”
Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.
Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”
Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.
To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.
Photo courtesy of the author.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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Russell Banks’ latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin, is a descent into a netherworld of convicted sex offenders, banished to the outer edges of a seedy Florida city called Calusa, beside the primordial “Great Panzacola Swamp.” It’s a novel of the ruin and possible renewal of the Garden of Eden, where “maybe the Internet is the Snake and pornography is the forbidden fruit.” It’s a novel about the interpenetration of real and digital skin, and of self-hatred and self-gratification, in their basest and most exalted forms. Banks here is an old American master taking on a new world run not by the gossip and slander of small towns, as in many of his earlier works, but by Facebook and YouTube, Pay-per-View and the bottomless archive of online porn, coursing through communities of individuals who are at once infinitely connected, lost in some huge shared dreamscape, and, at the same time, fundamentally incapable of confronting the reality of other people. As such, Lost Memory of Skin is a pretty harrowing look at loneliness in America today, following the long path away from being “a mere loner” toward being “someone desperately lonely.” The novel leaves us with the hope that, beyond this point, reality might finally begin, even as we get deeper and deeper into the 21st century.
Like most of Banks’ work, Lost Memory is about the inner turmoil of American men. It combines elements of social realism with an intense inquisition into its characters’ collapsing and regenerating inner lives. In many ways, it’s classic Russell Banks, but it’s more than the shift in setting from frozen north to sultry south, and from hushed small town to roiling big city, that sets it apart from Banks classics like Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, and makes it a book that demands to be read, substantially enriching the already-overflowing Banks canon.
Just as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the main character here is a young man known only as “The Kid,” a lost soul that, at the beginning, prefers the apathetic ease of being lost to the hard responsibility of being “found.” He prefers to remain a Kid, despite the fact that he is drifting into his twenties, which helps explain why he never quite accepts the guilt for the crime he was convicted of, as if he and the fourteen-year-old girl he attempted to have sex with were internally the same age, even though externally, in the eyes of society, they very much are not.
Furthermore, like McCarthy’s Suttree, Lost Memory takes place on the bottom rungs of an unglamorous American city, down by the water where trash and sewage pile up and ooze away. Here, the sex offenders live like animals under a causeway because they are forbidden from residing within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might congregate. Also like McCarthy, Banks uses italicized text rather than quotation marks to set off his dialogue, giving the narrative a feverish, melting quality, as if the descriptive prose and the dialogue were all of the same essence. What his characters think and try to conceal, and what they say about themselves versus what others say about them – none of these are separable into an ordered, permanent record. On these pages, lies can take root anywhere and dissembling is the rule rather than the exception.
Although Banks’ world is less sweepingly Shakespearean than McCarthy’s, adopting instead a shaky conversational tone built from scraps of Facebook postings and chat room dialogue, his work, like McCarthy’s, is marked by its insight into American manhood, and its aspirations to permanence beyond time and place. Unlike McCarthy, however, and unlike Banks’ previous novels, Lost Memory of Skin is about sexual criminals rather than violent ones, and so the ways in which it thematizes manhood are different. It’s about men locked in cycles of desperate make believe, men who can only “picture having sex with… people who couldn’t reject them. Like dead people. Or little kids.”
Earlier Banks novels tend to be about the ways in which men commit and get away with acts of violence, in a society that tacitly tolerates them. The sex crimes in Lost Memory are likewise products of American society, but now the tacit tolerance has been replaced with vindictive hysteria. There is a commonly held belief, I think, that violence is not something we all do, and thus, paradoxically, something we can do, when we must, because it’s already contained in its own separate category. Our understanding of sex, on the other hand, because it is such a common part of commercial and private life, cannot tolerate any such deviance. Thus, society produces sex offenders – nurturing the requisite starving loneliness, and then offering the entire pornographic and predatory infrastructure of the Internet to satiate it – while at the same time exercising extremely punitive power over them. The power of Banks’ premise comes from the volatile nature of this paradox.
As Banks construes it, society’s decision to banish sex offenders into its most unseen corners is yet another form of self-deception, a vast cultural unwillingness to engage with other people, as vast as the Kid’s unwillingness to find a mature, reciprocating partner. Thus, the colony under the causeway is a hiding place for what society does not want to see: it’s a deep, police-enforced lie.
More than a study of societal hysteria, what Banks has written is a meditation on the cultivation of lies over time. The truth about the Kid is available online to anyone who has his real name and wants to look him up in the National Sex Offender Registry, and yet, without porn’s lies about sex, his name never would have been in that Registry in the first place.
So the Kid is trapped in the midst of this network of lies. A “white guy in his early twenties,” unemployed and estranged from his single mother, he shares plenty of traits with typical Banks characters: he’s an alienated outsider, looking into society with a mixture of fear, disdain, jealousy, and longing. He’s self-taught and self-reliant, determined to maintain “strictly enforced surface relations with people.”
From telling others that he’s just returned from Afghanistan, to disguising his real name like a paranoid ex-spy, the Kid hides behind smaller lies to mask the giant lie that hovers over him: that he does not know who he is, nor even how to be certain that he’s alive and not dead. It is this larger lie that recoils from the nuances and ambiguities of love and sex, and craves pornography’s static, one-sided comfort. While online, he’s connected to the outside world and everything in it, and yet, at the same time, he’s profoundly alone, lacking even his own company. He cannot imagine what to do while not watching porn, and, while watching it, he hangs suspended between worlds, imagining himself participating in the virtual sex act on his computer screen, while actually participating in a very different act just in front of it.
Although in many ways “an Innocent,” he is in no way innocent. He is, rather, like all the men under the causeway, both a victim and a victimizer. He has been victimized by his mother’s indifference, by a school system that failed to reach him, by the military, which discharged him for giving away a few porn DVDs, by “brandi18,” the young girl he went to visit who told her father to ambush him when he arrived at her house, and by the justice system that sentenced him to ten years of exile for a single offense. Victimization is a common theme in Banks’ fiction, especially the victimization of children by adults, and the ways in which this both stunts moral development and also, frighteningly, stimulates it, as if the very process of passing into adulthood were necessarily one of being victimized by the adults who’d passed that way before.
The Kid’s fall into damnation is hard and sudden: the moment he shows up at brandi18’s house, it’s all over. After being burned on his first attempt to reach out, it will be a long time until the Kid works up the courage to try again. The process by which he begins to do so makes for a dramatic coming-of-age story, but what really fleshes out Lost Memory’s considerations of truth and falsity is the Professor, one of the most intriguing characters in all of Banks’ fiction. When he appears beneath the causeway, ostensibly to study the Kid as part of a project on homelessness, and begins to coerce him into giving candid, taped interviews, the novel shifts toward exponentially weightier mystery.
Morbidly obese and colossally brilliant, the Professor’s ideal life is “one with no witnesses,” lived “at the extreme outside edge of human interaction.” Addicted to binge eating alone in the middle of the night, and unshakably convinced of his right to tyrannize everyone he encounters, the Professor introduces something grotesque, even bizarre into the novel. His disquieting effect exceeds even that of the worst and most unrepentant of the sex offenders.
Like the Kid, who comes under his wing but never learns whether or not to trust him, the reader has to scramble to keep up with the Professor’s constantly changing intentions and explanations. He is not the Kid’s foil, nor his double, nor, quite, the novel’s antagonist, although he fills all of these roles. A walking “quarter ton of flesh,” he’s at once an almost unbearably physical presence, and also a specter, someone about whom so little can be known that even the fact of his existence feels tenuous and provisional. Ultimately, he becomes a kind of gross manifestation of the unknowability of absolute truth, as hard to reach in reality as the porn actresses deep in their digital lair.
Like the Judge in Blood Meridian, who has a similarly threatening hand in helping or forcing McCarthy’s Kid to grow up, and like the victimizing adults in other Banks novels, the Professor serves as a highly unstable model of adulthood. Because of this, he stands as living proof of the inherent instability of being an adult, the acceptance of which may itself be the rite of passage that the Kid must undergo. Through his failed efforts to establish the truth about the Professor, the Kid begins to appreciate how maddening uncertainty can be, and to devise some rough belief system to preserve his sanity against this.
When real danger starts to infect this uncertainty, a sense of acceleration and impending cataclysm gathers, especially after a hurricane wrecks the colony under the causeway. As the Kid sees it, the hurricane is “like Noah and the Flood.” It is, essentially, the bottleneck through which the novel’s spirit must pass. It is also the culmination of a long series of biblical motifs that underscore the Kid’s attempts to move from guilt and willful blindness into innocence and self-recognition, aided by his discovery of a Bible in the tent of a deranged former senator. These motifs sharpen Banks’ portrait of the causeway colony as a land of lepers, or a polluted Garden of Eden (much like the snake-infested Panzacola Swamp). One could well see the Kid’s move away from porn, through the limbo of his exile, and finally toward the possibility of love, as a journey away from idol-worship and into a sturdier, harder-won religious faith, one as crucial today as ever before, but also harder than ever to arrive at.
During one of their interviews, the Kid asks the Professor, “You ever wonder why they call them skin mags and skin flicks, by the way? …I mean they’re not really skin, they’re just pictures of skin. The only skin they get you touching is your own.” Pondering this question, we come to see that the novel’s title refers not only to the Kid’s distance from reality at the moment of his crime, but also to a hope that this lost skin – his own and that of others – might not be forever lost, but might one day be “remembered,” or found for the first time. As the hurricane recedes and the Professor’s fate rushes toward him, snaring the Kid in its undertow, the novel approaches its harsh but by no means hopeless conclusion. Still under the causeway but beginning the work of climbing out, the Kid leaves us with the possibility that he may one day emerge from the Internet’s murk of avoidance, and accept the difficulty of reckoning with other people, understanding at last that the price of not doing so is more than he can pay.
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.
Like any number of people who love fiction, I tend to re-read my favorite books. It is not, however, common for me to read the same book twice in one year, and yet this year I’ve read two books twice—Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities and Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels. I want to say that these books remind a reader that his life is fleeting, that he’ll be separated from everything he loves pretty soon, that he’ll disappear forever and rot and be forgotten, but I worry that might sound like overstatement (if not—ick—oversharement), or, even worse, that it might lead you, the Millions visitor, fellow lover of fiction, to assume the books are unfun reads, when, in fact, they are playful and joy-bringing. What reminds you you’ll die is their in-your-face aliveness, their assured immortality.
Novy’s The Avian Gospels is a novel in two short volumes about a foreign boy in an unnamed city-state that borders Hungary and Oklahoma. The city-state is run by a despot, its local Gypsies invent first- and second-wave ska, the boy falls in love with the despot’s daughter, and when a plague of birds descends upon all of them, only the boy and his father (who are much at odds) can protect the city-state from total destruction, for the boy and his father can both control birds. Just to be clear: the foregoing two sentences contain no spoilers. All I’ve described is in play by page 20. Did I mention this novel’s really funny? It’s funny in the way Blood Meridian is funny, and American Tabloid, and In the Penal Colony.
The only kind of book that’s harder for me to describe than a good collection of short stories, is a great collection of short stories, and Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a great collection of short stories. As in Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair, Salinger’s Nine Stories, and Hannah’s Airships, the subject matter in The Awful Possibilities varies widely, piece to piece. There’s the story about the girl who’s kidnapped by kidney thieves, the one about suburban hardcore rappers, the motivational-speaker-who-needs-a-new-wallet story, and the set of instructions for abusing your child that’s told by….See? It’s hard. I’m having a hard time. I’m doing TeBordo’s work very little justice—about as much justice as I’d be doing Mark Twain’s if, in summarizing Huckleberry Finn, I said no more than, “It’s a book about this kid.” I’m thinking that the only hope I have of even beginning to get across how stellar the experience of reading The Awful Possibilities is, is to give you the beginning of The Awful Possibilities, then get out of the way and say goodnight:
Imagine you’re planning your own school shooting. Imagine you have good reasons, and it’s none of that I-play-too-many-video-games-and-listen-to-Marilyn-Manson-because-no-one-likes-me bullshit. You’re in tenth grade and you do okay in classes and you’ve got plenty of friends for what it’s worth but it’s not worth much to you. You live in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Iowa. There are no Jews in Brooklyn, Iowa. Keep that in mind.
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H.L. Mencken wrote that rubbernecking – that voyeuristic impulse to gawk at someone else’s difficulties – was “almost a complete treatise on American psychology.” The term perfectly describes the recent outpouring of interest in the industrial heartland of the United States, known as the Rust Belt, which has been in decline since the 1970s and which has suffered even more during the recession. First came news stories about places like Dayton, Ohio, where unemployment has more than doubled since the beginning of 2008 thanks to the closing of several manufacturing plants, or Gary, Indiana, the home of the largest integrated steel mill in the northern hemisphere, where an average of one person a week is murdered and over a quarter of its residents live below the poverty line. Then came the literary interest: 2009 saw the publication of books such as Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of a Small American Town, Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’s Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, all of which catalogued the various social and personal ills, and the universal sense of despair about the future, that plague Rust Belt cities and towns.
In the crowded field of “recession literature,” however, Philipp Meyer’s relentlessly pessimistic debut novel American Rust has attracted an outsized share of acclaim and attention, and deservedly so. The book follows Isaac English and Billy Poe, two friends whose families have anchored them to the steelworking town of Buell, Pennsylvania. Isaac is the smartest kid in the entire county, but is stuck tending to his disabled father and trying to understand his mother’s recent suicide. Billy, meanwhile, passed up an offer to play football at Colgate College just because he was too stubborn to leave. At the ripe old age of twenty, both can already see an unfulfilling future stretching out in front of them.
So Isaac strikes out for California. In his head he takes on the persona of “the kid,” a modern-day Huck Finn figure whose idea of freedom involves studying astrophysics at Lawrence Livermore. On the way to the Pittsburgh rail yards, he runs into Billy Poe, and the two take shelter from the rain in an abandoned factory. Unknowingly, they have trespassed on the territory of three vagrants who assault Billy and hold him at knife-point, and Isaac is forced to kill one of them in order to save his friend.
Both boys panic and hastily try to cover up their crime, and in doing so reveal the self-destructive tendencies that consume them over the course of the novel. The next day, the police arrest Billy, who feels that he has little choice but to take the blame for a crime he did not commit. He stubbornly refuses to implicate Isaac or even talk to a public defender, which lands him in prison; there, his hair-trigger temper makes him an outcast among outcasts. Meanwhile, Isaac treats his escape as an adventure at first, but eventually his guilt at abandoning his father and sister slowly consumes him, and the picaresque tale of “the kid” takes on more and more false bravado with each humiliation that he endures, from washing himself in the bathroom of a diner to getting his money stolen by a tramp.
The murder begins to poison those who have a stake in Billy’s and Isaac’s future as well. Billy’s mother Grace despairs that her decision to stay in the Valley, and her refusal to throw her deadbeat husband Virgil out of her life altogether, has robbed her of a career and a a son. Isaac’s sister Lee feels like she has to save both her brother Isaac and her former lover Billy, whom she abandoned for the Ivy League and an unfulfilling marriage to a wealthy classmate. And local police chief Bud Harris, who once convinced the local prosecutor to dismiss an assault charge against Billy, wonders whether he should try to save the boy a second time, or whether such an effort will prove as effective as “trying to catch a body falling from a skyscraper.”
American Rust is an ambitious book, both in terms of its structure (it follows six narrators) and its subject (“the ugly reverse of the American Dream,” according to one character). As a result, it occasionally loses its focus. At times, the reader can at times get lost in a sea of introspection that is leavened only occasionally with action. Certain passages sag under the weight of the characters’ regret, indecision, and self-loathing, and the plot takes a long time to develop forward momentum; the murder takes place at the end of the first chapter, but it is not until about halfway through the book that Poe gets arrested and Isaac begins hopping trains for points west. Meyer also cannot resist an ostentatious tribute to his literary forebears once in a while. For example, Isaac’s sister Lee broods over the relative merits of James Joyce, Henry James, and Jean-Paul Sartre for almost an entire page (there is no other literary criticism in the entire novel), and Meyer tells the reader several times that Isaac’s mother killed herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and drowning herself, a grisly tribute to Virginia Woolf. Finally, the ending, which sees Bud Harris transform from a beleaguered Good Samaritan into a self-serving vigilante, feels unearned; nothing in the first 300 pages of the book sets up such a drastic personality change.
Still, these authorial missteps do not really detract from the book’s ability to portray the Rust Belt in new, unsparing, and unsentimental ways. Ten years ago, fictional post-industrial towns served merely as stages on which to act out much larger melodramas. In Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, for example, misery comes not from large, impersonal forces but from the choices that the characters themselves make. Russo is much more raconteur than social commentator, however, which gives him the freedom to write in a decidedly tragicomic mode, and to make his characters relatively ambivalent about their own hardships; at one point, the novel’s protagonist, Miles Roby, asks, “If I was so unhappy, wouldn’t I know?” The plot of Empire Falls, in other words, just happens to be set in a declining mill town in Maine, and although there are moments of genuine suffering and humiliation in Russo’s novel, they are the exception rather than the rule.
In American Rust, the setting is the story. Isaac and Billy’s hometown of Buell is a stand-in for any number of Rust Belt towns like Dayton and Gary: its factories have been shut and its good jobs have been gone for nearly two decades, its former steelworkers, who in the 1980s made twenty dollars an hour, now bag groceries for less than five, and neither its residents nor its municipal government can make ends meet. Besides getting the economic indicators right, Meyer understands that socioeconomic malaise and personal malaise are two sides of the same coin. He shows, through the eyes of each of the main characters, the human consequences of a sick economy, which include desperation, psychic distress, moral confusion, and the real or imagined loss of one’s free will. He has the luxury of space and unmediated access to his characters’ thoughts, which allows him to explore a familiar topic – the effects of a prolonged economic downturn – in ways that writers of non-fiction cannot.
As a result, American Rust provides a gentle corrective to the kind of fact-and-statistic-based reportage that focuses more on rubrics and measurements (punctuated, of course, by the occasional human interest story) than the recession’s non-economic effect on individuals. A newspaper article about a rise in shoplifting, for instance, provokes quiet a different reaction from the reader than Isaac’s theft of an overcoat from a Wal-Mart:
The other customers stared intently at their merchandise until he passed. Embarrassed to look at you. Who wouldn’t be? Except the kid does not care. Possessed of a higher mission—self-improvement. Resource gathering. Like the original man—starts from scratch. A new society. Beginning in Men’s Outerwear. All those coats. Never know how much you value a coat. Took months to make in the old days. Now you just go to a store. Don’t be nervous, she’s looking at you.
The novel is also much-needed challenge to the kind of myth-making that the political commentariat has forced down Americans’ throats over the past few years. One the one hand, there are the wedge-drivers like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who pit a mythological “real America” (blue-collar, religious, small town, uncorrupted) against the so-called “coastal elites.” On the other, there are the tone-deaf and the contemptuous. At a San Francisco fundraiser in April of 2008, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama nearly derailed his primary campaign by commenting about small Pennsylvania towns where people “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” And New York Times columnist Frank Rich has spent the better part of a year celebrating the slow and violent death of “a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind.” Clearly, it is much easier to misrepresent places like Buell for the sake of political gain, or else to dismiss them as irrelevant and insignificant, than it is to treat them without cynicism or contempt.
How, then, to categorize this book? Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, American Rust documents the psychological and moral tangle that comes with poverty, something that people with savings accounts, secure jobs, and enough disposable income to spend on a hardcover book usually cannot intuit, or else choose to forget. In stylistic terms, Meyer’s clipped, stream-of-consciousness narration brings to mind not only the modernists (Hemingway, Woolf, Joyce) but also Cormac McCarthy, especially when Isaac begins to refer to himself as “the kid,” just like the narrator of Blood Meridian.
The book’s dust jacket provides the most commercially shrewd answer to the question of literary descent, however. American Rust, it says, belongs with “Steinbeck’s novels of restless lives during the Great Depression.” On the surface, the comparison seems fair; both Meyer and Steinbeck wrote about times of extraordinary economic insecurity, both created characters who struggle for independence despite their circumstances, and, most of all, both resisted the easy sentimentality of many writers of “regional” fiction.
But there are no Tom Joads in Buell, Pennsylvania, and Philipp Meyer is no romantic. Steinbeck’s fiction, though often stark, had brave heroes, clear moral lessons, and even the barest hints of redemption playing about their edges. In American Rust, poverty does not ennoble the dispossessed; instead, it leads them down the path of moral hazard, where they rationalize theft, murder, and other bad decisions in the name of survival. At best, the constant presence of the characters’ internal monologues allows the reader to understand, if not pardon, their worst choices.
Meyer also does not share Steinbeck’s tendency to sermonize. There are a few grand pronouncements about The Way Things Are (“We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”), but Meyer always dilutes them by putting them in the mouths of secondary characters, or else by immediately exposing them in a character’s internal monologue as empty clichés:
In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place. A brilliant observation. She was probably about the ten millionth person to think it.
Ultimately, American Rust is not a hymn to the fraying brotherhood of man, and its characters do not survive for the sake of illustrating how despair fortifies the spirit or poverty strips away all pretenses or some other uplifting observation about the human condition. Instead, Meyer insists only that his readers pay attention, even (or perhaps especially) to those whose main accomplishment is the simple act of carrying on, of finding the desire to “keep setting one foot in front of the other.” In that sense his goal is at once humble and profound, and deeply sympathetic to those who can only seek imperfect improvements upon unacceptable circumstances.
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
The great English broadcaster Ray Hudson once said of the great Argentine footballer Juan Román Riquelme, “Look at him, so languid, look at him walking. He’s like a big, beautiful zombie, Riquelme. He just strolls around…like smoke off a cigarette.” Hudson values hyperbole over precision—or at least succumbs to the former—for he suffers from a sort of fanatic epilepsy when he works. Hudson told me, “When that spotlight’s on you, and you’re calling a game, you’re in the moment, instantaneous, and the selection of words, phrases, and anecdotes are improvised. There’s very little time for actual thought. There’s very little time for reflection on what you’re actually going to say.” And Hudson’s quips, spontaneous and unedited, have gained him a reputation as one of the most notorious announcers in all of sports.
Hudson made his career first as a soccer player—for Newcastle United in England, and later for various teams in the defunct North American Soccer League. But he is best known for announcing the modern game for GolTV. Commentary for a soccer match, more so than in any other sport, is like the musical accompaniment to ballet. Therefore as a broadcaster, Hudson is comparable to the conductor of an orchestra playing in the pit beneath a stage of dancers; he adds context and emotion to the drama. No wonder, then, that he often likens footballers to beautiful women. “I’m telling you man,” Hudson once said of FC Barcelona’s seventeen-year-old striker, Bojan Krkic, “this kid could be the best thing on two legs since Sophia Loren.”
Unlike most American sports, soccer is a fluid game, with frequent changes of possession and few clear, numeric statistics to evaluate. Soccer is improvisational, whereas American football is regimented. In football, plays are designed then executed, to greater or lesser success. In soccer, players practice formations and then improvise within a spontaneous framework. Therefore soccer, whose action is as constant as light, requires a reactive, jazz-like call. “Most people,” Hudson said, “have no concept of how challenging and demanding it is to call a game. I mean, we’re seeing those pictures the same second you’re seeing them.” There are few numbers to pore over, so the color man’s broadcast, if done well, strives, not to investigate the efficacy of a play, but to transliterate excitement. “When it gets into the red zone,” Hudson said, “when it gets into that area where something truly special might develop, that’s where I come out of the long grass. That’s when it’s showtime for me. And that preparation takes on its own dynamic. If it’s an intoxicating game that has all the ingredients for a beautiful, hot stew, then what are you going to do?”
Stylistically, Hudson is a compositor of metaphor. Like the critic and memoirist Anatole Broyard, who describing a lover once wrote, “Her waist was so small, it cut her in two, like a split-personality, or two schools of thought,” Hudson is disinterested in, or even incapable of, inventing basic similes. His description of a goal scored during a meeting of the Mexican and Argentine national sides—“Heinze jumps up like Rudolf Nureyev, beautiful, [and] stabs it home. But it’s Riquelme, man… [His movement is] impossible, like pouring a pint of beer into a shot glass”—suggests, if not a frenetic mind, an uncontainable one. His mouth can’t always keep up with his brain. “It’s not within me,” Hudson said. To be pedestrian with any of my descriptions. I’m just incapable of it. I mean, you hear me now. Once you start me, you cannot stop me.”
I asked him to tell me about the most exciting match he ever announced, and he thought immediately of the 38th round of the 2007 La Liga championship (judging by Youtube views, it is also his most famous). Hudson’s announcing is passionate to the point of violence. To give a little context to the game, Hudson was the color analyst, and Phil Schoen the broadcaster, for Real Madrid’s season-ending match at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. The morning of the 17th, Real Madrid was tied at the top of the table with its perennial political and sporting rival, FC Barcelona. Earlier in the season, in their head-to-head match-ups, Madrid had taken four of six points from Barcelona, beating the Catalans at home and drawing away. This meant that if by day’s end both teams were victorious in their matches, Madrid would win the league.
Both clubs kicked off simultaneously. By halftime, Barcelona was laying waste to Gimnastic 3-0. Madrid, on the other hand, was trailing 0-1 to Mallorca at home. If the result stood, Barcelona would win the title. But then in the 68th minute Madrid scored, leveling their match. In the 78th they scored again, taking the lead. When Jose Reyes scored two minutes later, he confirmed Madrid’s victory, and with it, the title.
“The world was watching,” Hudson remembered, “and you felt something historical was going to happen. Also in that game, there was a good bit of jousting between Phil [Schoen] and me, because the camera kept cutting to these people in the stands, these Hollywood celebrities. I remember in particular for that game Tom Cruise [and Rafael Nadal] were there. And Phil kept going on about Tom Cruise while this gladiatorial fight to the death was happening before us.” As we talked, Hudson’s voice began to rise. “And I got so incensed that I nearly lost it.”
Recapping the match live as time ran out, Hudson said of Madrid’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, who by his estimation had saved the game, and who had cried in joy after the definitive third goal got scored, “That’s why you see those beautiful tears from a man whose heart is bursting.” The camera, here, cut away to the crowd, where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were kissing triumphantly in the stands. Perhaps to annoy him, Schoen asked if Hudson’s comment were directed at Cruise. Hudson screamed, “Would you stop talking about tennis players and stupid Hollywood actors, Phil! It’s the gladiators out there, man.” Then, with great disgust, Hudson went on: “Tom Cruise. Give me a break. If he smelled a soccer jockstrap, he’d faint dead away.”
Between his playing and commentating days, Hudson has seen countless goals—and many magnificent ones—but one in particular stands out above them, as Real Madrid’s definitive game in June 2007 rises in his mind above the other matches he’s called. Ronaldinho, the Brazilian striker who played his best football in Barcelona, once scored a goal against Villa Real that during the match, along side other hyberboles (“As electrifying as a hairdryer thrown into a hot tub” ) Hudson claimed was tantamount to religious art.
Hudson described the goal to me this way. “It was an overhead kick, at an angle, just into the corner of the box, and I called it, if I remember correctly, ‘A Bernini sculpture of a goal, that rivals the Ecstasy of St. Teresa.’ Now, there are probably two people around the United States tuning in who had even heard of Bernini. But for me, it was that good. And in my opinion, instances like that need to be compared to something monumental, to something of an exquisiteness completely unique. And that sculpture came immediately to mind.” He went on: “[During the replays] there was this one wonderful shot of the defender who had been the closest to Ronny, who had just seen this goal, and he was simply stupefied. I described him like Lot’s wife, turning to salt. And then the next second the camera cut away to this little blonde boy in the stands, this little cherub in a Barcelona shirt, and he started smiling. I remember saying, ‘His big bright eyes have just grown the size of saucer plates. He’s never seen anything like this in his life, and he never will again.’”
I did not grow up a sports fan. I played soccer and baseball, and later golf, but my father, despite coaching a number of teams I played on, didn’t watch games on TV. By the time I got to college, being a sports fan seemed primitive to me. I fancied myself an artist. Entertainment, I thought, should be a strictly intellectual pursuit, so I watched a lot of emotionally vacant French films, and read a bunch of calamitous, dystopian novels. Back then I thought of Bande á parte and Blood Meridian as the pinnacles of culture.
Then in October of 2002, I was staying at my parents’ house. I’d dropped out of college in New York two days before the start of my sophomore year and returned to California. I was drinking too much in Brooklyn, but more significantly, my girlfriend lived in my hometown. Fittingly, though, a month after I got back, she left for school in Irvine. Finding myself alone and acutely depressed one Saturday evening, I turned on the sixth game of the World Series. The Giants, who because of their proximity to my hometown I’d been a nominal fan of as a boy, led the Angels until the seventh. But with one out in that inning, Dusty Baker pulled his starter, Russ Ortiz, who to that point hadn’t allowed a run. The reliever, Félix Rodríguez, promptly gave up a three run homer. In the eighth, the Angel’s third baseman, Troy Glaus, doubled in two more runs. The Giants lost.
The next night I watched the seventh game, which was a sort of underwhelming catastrophe. By the third, all the runs that were to get scored had been. The Giants almost rallied in the ninth, getting two men on with only one out. But Kenny Lofton flied out to right-center to end the Series, in favor of the Angels. I broke down in tears. It’s the only time, before or since, that I’ve cried over a game. But that loss, and my illogical reaction to it, proved to me that sport has the capacity to evoke, or at least unlock, genuine emotion.
Since then I’ve been a dedicated fan—first of baseball, then of soccer, and finally of mixed martial arts and cycling. As a writer, sports provide for me a finite dramatic stage where a protagonist and an antagonist attempt metaphorically (though in fighting sometimes literally) to kill each other. The plots of the stories, if I’m being reductive, are repetitive. But the distillation of competition, thematic and actual, is the stuff of art. One night in Boston, after the Oakland A’s (I am, again, a geographical fan) got swept by the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series—a defeat that ruined my mood for the remainder of the playoffs—I felt inspired to write on my wall when I got home from the bar, “If I’m not allowed to care terribly about a game men play, neither should I be affected by anything else man invents.”
This is why I like listening to Ray Hudson. He takes sports even more seriously than I do. If, for me, soccer (or baseball or cycling or football) is a representation of human struggle, and is in that sense a means to dissecting and then producing art, for Hudson the game itself is the end—and therefore art itself. “What an absolute scientific goal again,” he once said of a Riquelme masterpiece. “[It’s the great Argentine] who is the Einstein of it…Stand up! Get out of your sofas and applaud if you’re a football fan, because the poets just wrote a sonnet to all of us.” Soccer, for Hudson, is the conflation of science and art, equal parts spontaneity and technique. But when I spoke to him, he was rather dismissive of his role as a broadcaster. “I’ve never had much foresight into what I’m doing. Literally, when the lights go on, I just get out there and tap dance my way through it… I use my very minor knowledge of the English language, and my passion for the game, to accentuate a match.” When everything is said and done, though, the novelist only strives to accentuate the world around him. He observes and he comments. And if that commentary is sufficiently careful and emotional, he commemorates the action permanently.
Looking back over 2009, there are far too many books that I loved to write them all up here, but here are some of the standouts that may not have received the attention they deserve.
As a judge for Open Letter Books’ Best Translated Book Award, I read The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, originally published in the Netherlands in 1958. Plotwise, it’s as riveting a detective story as I read all year, but its purpose is far beyond that of your average noir. The book dramatizes the experience of a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II, but with a twist: eventually he, and we, become uncertain as to which side he’s actually working for, with disastrous consequences. When the book was published in 1958, Nazi collaboration and Holocaust guilt were huge factors in Dutch society (they remain so today), so the book was attempting to grapple with a major issue of the day. It remains wholly affecting as both a novel and as a dramatization of the fog of war.
We continue to hear rumblings that postmodernism as a cultural and literary era is ending, and that we’re moving on to whatever comes next (post-postmodernism?). If so, I have the feeling that the literary ideas and techniques bequeathed to us by postmodernism will, like those gifted us by modernism, live on in the literature to come, whatever form it takes. One book that did a superb job of embracing and tweaking postmodernism as a literary genre was 2009’s The Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller. As I wrote in my review at the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the book “is an encyclopedic guide to the life work of an imaginary, reclusive sci-fi author whose initials are PKD.” He’s not Philip K. Dick but rather Phoebus K. Dank, and the two men writing the encyclopedia about his life’s work are: 1) Dank’s sycophantic best friend, and 2) his pompous, angry arch-rival. The result is an honestly hilarious “novel” that’s part Pale Fire, part murder mystery, and part grad student Easter egg hunt. It remains one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I hope lots of people give it a shot.
This year I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, which was not only a wonderful reading experience but also a revealing one: those who think they know him from his post-Blood Meridian work aren’t nearly as well acquainted with McCarthy as they think. Real McCarthyites need to read the four novels that came before Blood Meridian, the longest and most amazing of which is Suttree. The book, quite simply, is McCarthy on Joyce. It’s a pastoral, quasi-epic set on the Tennessee River; it’s been called an anti-Walden, a worthy sequel to Huck Finn. Whatever label you want to put on it, it’s the longest, lushest most intricate and baroquely bizarre thing McCarthy ever wrote. (Those who think Blood Meridian is baroque need to read this.)
A book that had long been recommended to me and that I finally got around to was Stoner by John Williams, which has me convinced that Williams was a devotee of Thomas Mann. Like Mann, Williams shows here an ability to tell you everything you need to know about a character’s function in the book with leitmotifs. He also resembles Mann in that he masterfully orchestrates the evolution and interplay of numerous ideas throughout the course of the novel while never neglecting the very human drama that forms the heart of the story. Stoner is essentially about the value of a life: the titular protagonist is a perfectly mediocre academic who lives and dies without ever making much of an impact. Yet in Williams’ hands we see all the value and struggle that goes into a life that has no historical importance. Williams won a National Book Award for Butcher’s Crossing, which I’ve heard is even better, all that more reason that I’m glad NYRB Classics has brought him back into print.
Lastly I’d like to mention The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas as one of the more interesting critical works I’ve read this year. Striphas simply sets out to describe the publishing industry and associated apparatus in which he calls the “late age of print.” In order to do that he must recapitulate a good deal of the publishing industry as we know it, going back into the middle of hte 19th century. The resultant book is interesting both as a history of publishing and a look at this late age and where publishing might be headed tomorrow.
There are, in Cormac McCarthy’s impossibly affecting novels, details that simultaneously open up his dismal universe and draw in the reader. In Blood Meridian, it’s the Apache wearing the wedding dress. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s the bullet hole in the wallet. In No Country for Old Men, the glass of milk, still sweating on the coffee table. In The Road, it’s the can of Coke, pulled from the guts of the vending machine. No, it’s that the soda has somehow stayed carbonated after the cataclysm. No, it’s that the father lets his son drink the whole thing. Surely this is one of the most humane and deeply inhabited moments not just in fiction from this millennium, but in all of literature.
And yet the book is rife with such moments, replete with such deep empathy for the father and son that some of the bleakest passages will turn your stomach as only love can. This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Road: what remains, what you remember years after you’ve read the book, is the beauty, the compassion, the relentlessness of possibility that burns on the colorless horizon. You understand—much in the way that you first understand poetry, through feeling and syntax and imagery rather than logic—that no matter how desolate the story, it is made bearable through language. There is, the novel asserts, something like triumph in the very telling of a tale, a commitment to the act of witness, and to receive a story is to exalt the imagination, to participate in the process of faith, to accept deliverance. Why else, then, would the father in the novel—when his son is too scared to sleep, when the noise of the world dying its cold death keeps him awake—comfort the boy with narrative? They’ve been stripped of everything except voice, but even on the darkest path words can retain their meaning, their promise of light that will lead lost travelers home.
Nam Le’s debut collection of short stories, The Boat, was awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award. It was also chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. Le is currently the fiction editor of the Harvard Review.It might seem unadventurous to nominate a book recently proclaimed by the New York Times as the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, but in fact, when the list came out, some people may remember that an immediate, insidious backlash began against the winner, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (accusing it, among other things, of being the obvious and politically correct choice), and I’ll confess that I, too, found it all too easy to get swept along – especially given my one-eyed barracking for two of the runners-up, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Due to no fault of its own, the book – which I’d last read in high school – sank in my sheeplike (and sheepish) estimation. Then, this year, more than two years later, I finally returned to it. What I rediscovered stunned me: Beloved was a work of incomparable moral and aesthetic focus, in which structure, the actualised “intricate patterning” toward which Fitzgerald strove all his life, had elevated itself into ethical argument; in which memory-play, slippage and narrative deferral guided the reader – as all great books do – to a new mode of reading. It was a book planted deep in dirt and human muck, in a history where nothing – not feeling, nor language – remained uncompromised. And yet – and yet – it contained the sternness of heart and steadiness of will and stoutness of authority to claim this piece of history and completely possess it – to render it into testimony and prophecy both. Truly, I realised, Beloved was one of those rare works that remakes the whole enterprise; that marks, with one cruel stroke, beginning and epitome.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I’m a big advocate of the test of time – often I’m favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I’m going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there’s a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children’s hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn’t – Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian’s an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this – so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won’t bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau’s Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about “nothing.” Some have said that this is Queneau’s gloss, in novel form, of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau’s prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there’s a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it’s highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you’re going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira’s How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It’s a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch’s masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross’s fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (which I can’t recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun – Boccaccio’s swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Kings of Infinite Space, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish. He’s a Michigander, but he’s lived in Austin, Texas, since 1995. Hynes adds, “I have a new novel that is, if I’d only get my ass in gear, a month or two away from being finished.”James Hynes’ Top Three… No, Top Four Books of 2007Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I’ve been an atheist since the age of 15, when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, but since then I’ve never really bothered to examine why I believe what I believe (or don’t believe, as the case may be). So, with atheism in the air recently, I read Ms. Hecht’s wonderful popular history of skepticism, from the Greeks to the present. It’s elegant, witty, and very light on its feet, with none of the arrogance, self-righteousness, or snarkiness of the New Atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). I learned a lot, and now, thanks to Ms. Hecht, I have purchased a small library of classics of skepticism (by Epicurus, Cicero, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, and David Hume) that I’m working through, books I should have read as a philosophy major years ago, but didn’t.Rabbit at Rest by John Updike. When I was a young, stupid, unpublished writer, I used to diss Updike for being all style and no substance – sure the sentences were lovely, but his books weren’t about anything important, the way, say, Gravity’s Rainbow was. But since my father died a few years ago and I turned fifty, suddenly it turns out Updike’s novels, the Rabbit books in particular, are about everything. I started a couple of years ago by rereading Rabbit Run, and I finished the fourth and final book just a couple of weeks ago. Updike’s pointillist rendering of an ordinary and not even especially likable ordinary guy is both unsentimental and humane, and it manages, somehow, miraculously, to make everyday life into something epic.Dance Night by Dawn Powell. I decided to try Powell because my friend Kate Christensen (author of The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man) has always spoken highly of her. I even had Katie’s permission not to like the book. But, as it turns out, I loved it. I gather that Powell’s best known books are about bohemian life in mid-century New York, but this one is a vivid and clear-eyed rendering of some intricately intertwined lives in a small, working-class town in Ohio in the early 20th century. Apart from a few touches, this book feels surprisingly contemporary. It’s expertly and surprisingly plotted, and, like the Updike book, it somehow manages to be mercilessly honest and tender all at once. It’s like a boiled-down Dreiser novel, only much, much better written than Dreiser.No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. After I finished the first hundred pages of this, I e-mailed my friend John Marks (author of The Wall and Fangland), who had raved to me about this, and asked him what all the fuss was. It’s just a Jim Thompson novel, I said, weary sheriff versus heartless psychopath out in arid West Texas, only with a higher literary gloss than Thompson’s work. John was gracious, as always – he’s a Texan himself – but I sensed that he thought I’d missed the point on this one. Which, it turns out, I had. I finished the book – just last night, as a matter of fact – and it turns out to have more in common with Dostoevsky than with Jim Thompson, if Dostoevsky wrote lightning-paced, violent thrillers that get adapted for the screen by the Coen brothers. As a thriller, it’s first rate, but what makes it a great novel are the first person sections by Sheriff Bell, whose faith in goodness is shaken to the core by the events of the novel and who speaks in pitch-perfect Texan. I’m still not sure it’s as good as Blood Meridian (my favorite McCarthy novel), but, as we say in Texas, it’ll do till the real thing gets here.More from A Year in Reading 2007
The New York Times whipped bloggers and readers into a frenzy with its linkbait list of the best books of the last 25 years along with A.O. Scott’s voluminous essay on the “great American novel.” The reasons why this list is silly and flawed have been discussed on a number of blogs – the panel of judges skewed male and boring, the timeframe and criteria are arbitrary, etc. What amused me about the list was that the Times made such a big production of it – with a panel at BEA, a press release, and, of course, Scott’s giant essay. It’s like the Times didn’t realize that such lists are standard filler at glossy magazines. Was the Times’ best fiction list all that different from People Magazine’s annual “Most Beautiful People” list? No, not really.The Austin American-Statesman was similarly bemused by the Times list and so it put together its own list using the Times list as fodder. It asked academics and critics to name the “most overrated” books on the Times list. The resulting comments from their judges are both thoughtful and funny. And for those of you scoring at home, the most overrated books on the Times list are A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
Fans of historical fiction set in far flung lands will likely enjoy Jane Alison’s new book Natives and Exotics. It’s a multigenerational tale set in South America and Australia that spans the twentieth century. The publisher notes liken the book to W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, which is a lot to live up to. PW describes the book thusly: “More impressionistic than narrative, Alison’s third novel is a lush evocation of the way people love and alter (and are altered by) the environments they inhabit.”Closer to home is Steve Amick’s debut The Lake, the River & the Other Lake. The center of the book is the small town of Weneshkeen, Michigan. And as is so often the case, this small town buzzes with odd characters and neighborly conflicts which are exacerbated by the summer presence of inconsiderate tourists. PW says this: “Bitterly comic and surprisingly meaty, this roiling tale of passion, anger, regret and lust is dark fun for the Garrison Keillor demographic.” So I guess it’s like a much less saccharine Lake Wobegon. There’s an excerpt available here. And if that’s not enough for you, try this short story from the Southern Review.Rick Bass’ new novel, The Diezmo, is garnering comparisons to a pair literary adventure classics, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, both favorable and unfavorable. Still, I love this sort of book so my interest has been piqued. Bass’ setting for the novel is the rough borderlands between Mexico and the Republic of Texas in 1842. Here’s a mixed review of the book from the Denver Post, and here’s an excerpt so you can make up your own minds.Ann Beattie doesn’t need much of an introduction. She’s one of America’s better-known short story writers, and her latest collection, Follies received the hard to come by Michiko Kakutani seal of approval with the declaration, “Ms. Beattie has hit her stride again.” Here’s an excerpt.