This July, I published my first novel, An Innocent Fashion, the story of a queer, biracial millennial who spirals into a depression after landing his dream job at a fashion magazine. The book was aptly pitched as “The Bell Jar meets The Devil Wears Prada” — with one foot firmly in each of both the “literary” and “commercial” realms. Yet the latter half of this equation proved the source of a major frustration. Specifically, I was self-conscious about other people’s biases against fashion, the commercial (read: “unserious”) theme on which my whole novel pivoted. In interviews I downplayed the fashion element over and over, explaining that despite being set in the office of a fashion magazine, the book was complex, using fashion to explore deeper societal issues.
Part of my preoccupation with “seriousness” came with the territory of being a first-time author; I yearned to be well-respected, considered “good enough” for one’s work to count as capital-L Literature. But the other part stemmed from a truth I’d been fighting from a young age: that fashion, which I had been passionate about from a young age, was not a very serious or important subject.
I grew up within a tight-knit Cuban family in Miami, surrounded by traditional values including the sharp distinction between male and female gender roles. As do many others, I learned that fashion was “for girls,” the subtext being that as it was somehow lesser — a frivolity. Personally, I didn’t see why fashion should be considered inherently more trivial than any other form of creative expression — writing, for instance, or fine art. I maintained that fashion’s unfair reputation was a reflection of my conservative environment. But even as an undergraduate at liberal-minded Yale, where intelligent peers sometimes expressed a heady disregard for the sartorial sphere, the effects of an entrenched bias were still evident. Others didn’t think as highly about fashion as I did; everywhere I went, fashion was considered frivolous.
Many books that embraced fashion as subject matter seemed to confirm and perpetuate this notion. As far as I could tell, fashion-oriented books fell primarily into the category of chick lit — juicy reads like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bergdorf Blonds, in which “fashion” was a code word for the same kind of guilty pleasures afforded by junk food and reality TV. Of course, the biggest phenomenon in this league was The Devil Wears Prada.
Because like the author of Prada, I too had been a fashion assistant when I wrote my book, Prada had made for an inevitable comparison to An Innocent Fashion from the start. But unlike my book, however, in which even the least likable characters defy overarching stereotypes, Prada devotes 360 pages (and the film equivalent, two hours) to driving home the idea that fashion is not only frivolous, but also, inexplicably, “bad” — and that the people who love it are some inevitable combination of mean, superficial, and/or stupid. Aspiring to a career in”serious” journalism — the protagonist Andy Sachs paints an unanimously damning picture of her colleagues: nasty, brutish, and dagger-heeled.
The result of this reductive portrayal of the fashion industry is that pithy stereotypes remain unchallenged — a missed opportunity.
After all, it wasn’t always this way. If, in many realms, fashion has had an unfair reputation as a shallow womanly diversion, in literature it was put to use by some of our most important authors.
Consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which, after her husband’s death, she can’t bear to throw away his shoes, which she compares to vital organs: “How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?” There’s Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar paints a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing her sanity, while working for the fictional equivalent of Mademoiselle in the ’50s. While the superficial magazine goings-on provoke the main character’s despair as she realizes her powerlessness to resist her destiny as a wife/mother/homemaker, she is frequently transfixed in earnest by the beauty of clothes and shoes, and “a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet” — making her relationship to fashion complex and real. In Edith Wharton’s society novels, corsetry and ruffles help Wharton make elegant, searing criticisms of class and gender inequality (“If I were shabby no one would have me,” says Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself”) — while who could forget the meaningful implications of fashion in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind?
Contemporary books touting fashion as subject matter rarely, if ever, offer such depth or complexity, while those that revolve around fashion magazines nearly always feature a cast made up exclusively of privileged white women. This perhaps more than anything is what I hoped would distinguish my novel. Given the precedent set by annals of homogeneously populated chick lit, the main character isn’t who you’d expect. He’s a person of color, queer, and the opposite of rich — an outsider named Ethan for whom the glamour of fashion represents the inaccessibility of the American dream. In the Prada-sphere, Ethan would surely be reduced to a stock character — most likely, a white woman’s sassy gay best friend.
The need for nuanced representations of fashion in fiction has never been greater. Fashion offers a unique lens to view some of the most important issues of our time: class, gender, race, and sexuality. Depictions of fashion in literature can and should reflect that, providing new ways to engage with the dialogue of human progress, challenging our ideas about society and personal identity. These goals, after all, are at the heart of literature and fashion alike.
See Also: Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
This year is already proving to be an excellent one for book lovers. Since our last preview, we’ve gotten new titles by Don DeLillo, Alexander Chee, Helen Oyeyemi, Louise Erdrich; acclaimed debut novels by Emma Cline, Garth Greenwell, and Yaa Gyasi; new poems by Dana Gioia; and new short story collections by the likes of Greg Jackson and Petina Gappah. We see no evidence the tide of great books is ebbing. This summer we’ve got new works by established authors Joy Williams, Jacqueline Woodson, Jay McInerney, as well as anticipated debuts from Nicole Dennis-Benn and Imbolo Mbue; in the fall, new novels by Colson Whitehead, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Safran Foer on shelves; and, in the holiday season, books by Javier Marías, Michael Chabon, and Zadie Smith to add to gift lists. Next year, we’ll be seeing the first-ever novel (!) by none other than George Saunders, and new work from Kiese Laymon, Roxane Gay, and (maybe) Cormac McCarthy. We’re especially excited about new offerings from Millions staffers Hannah Gersen, Sonya Chung, Edan Lepucki, and Mark O’Connell (check out next week’s Non-Fiction Preview for the latter).
While it’s true that no single list could ever have everything worth reading, we think this one — at 9,000 words and 92 titles — is the only 2016 second-half book preview you’ll need. Scroll down and get reading.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In a recent interview in Out magazine, Dennis-Benn described her debut novel as “a love letter to Jamaica — my attempt to preserve her beauty by depicting her flaws.” Margot works the front desk at a high-end resort, where she has a side business trading sex for money to send her much younger sister, Thandi, to a Catholic school. When their village is threatened by plans for a new resort, Margot sees an opportunity to change her life. (Emily)
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers: The prolific writer has made his reputation on never picking a genre, from starting the satirical powerhouse McSweeney’s to post-apocalyptic critiques on the tech world. But if there’s one thing Eggers has become the master of, it’s finding humor and hope in even the most tragic of family situations. In Eggers’s seventh novel, when his protagonist, Josie, loses her job and partner, she escapes to Alaska with her two kids. What starts as an idyllic trip camping out of an RV dubbed Chateau turns into a harrowing personal journey as Josie confronts her regrets. It’s Eggers’s first foray into the road trip novel, but it’s sure to have his signature sharp and empathetic voice. (Tess)
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra: The Chilean writer Zambra’s new book is: a.) a parody of that nation’s college-entrance Academic Aptitude Exam, b.) a parody of a parody of same, c.) an exercise in flouting literary conventions, d.) all of the above. The correct answer is d.) — because this sly slender book, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is divided into 90 multiple-choice questions suggesting that how we respond to a story depends on where the writer places narrative stress. The witty follow-up questions suggest that the true beauty of fiction is that it has no use for pat answers. For example: “What is the worst title for this story — the one that would reach the widest possible audience?” (Bill)
Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams: Williams is the sort of writer one “discovers” — which is to say the first time you read her, you can’t believe you’ve never read her before; and you know you must read more. Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a “slim volume,” according to Kirkus, at the same time it lives up to its name: each of the very-short stories (yes, there are 99 of them) features God and/or the divine — as idea, character, or presence. In the world of Joy Williams, we can expect to meet a God who is odd, whip-smart, exuberant, surprising, funny, sad, broken, perplexed, and mysterious. I look awfully forward. (Sonya)
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: The debut novel from The Millions’s own Gersen has one of the best jacket copy taglines ever: “The heart of Friday Night Lights meets the emotional resonance and nostalgia of My So-Called Life”…I mean, right? Its story bones are equally striking: the town’s perfect couple — high school football coach Dean and his beautiful sweetheart, Nicole — become fully, painfully human when Nicole commits suicide. Dean and his three children, ages eight to 18, must now forge ahead while also grappling with the past that led to the tragedy. Set in rural Maryland, it’s a story, says Kirkus, built upon “meticulous attention to the details of grief,” the characters of which are “so full, so gently flawed, and so deeply human.” (Sonya)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s last novel, A Cure for Suicide, wrestled with questions of memory’s permanence, existence, and beginning again — all subjects that, according to The New York Times, “in the hands of a less skilled writer…could be mistaken for science fiction cliché.” Ball’s newest novel, his sixth, is something of a departure. How to Set a Fire and Why takes place in a normal-enough town peopled by characters who have names like Lucia and Hal. Don’t worry, though, Ball the fabulist/moralist is still very much himself; the young narrator muses on the nature of wealth and waste as she gleefully joins an Arsonist’s Club, “for people who are fed up with wealth and property, and want to burn everything down.” (Brian)
Problems by Jade Sharma: Problems is the first print title from Emily Books, the subscription service that “publishes, publicizes, and celebrates the best work of transgressive writers of the past, present and future” and sends titles to readers each month. They’ll be publishing two original printed books a year in conjunction with Coffee House Press. Sharma’s debut is described as “Girls meets Trainspotting,” about a heroin addict struggling to keep her life together. Emily Books writes, “This book takes every tired trope about addiction and recovery, ‘likeable’ characters and redemption narratives, and blows them to pieces.” (Elizabeth)
The Unseen World by Liz Moore: Ada is the daughter of a brilliant computer scientist, the creator of ELIXIR, a program designed to “acquire language the way that human does,” through immersion and formal teaching. Ada too is the subject of an experiment of sorts, from a young age “immersed in mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, computer science,” cryptology and, most important, the art of the gin cocktail by her polymath father. His death leaves Ada with a tantalizing puzzle to solve in this smart, riddling novel. (Matt)
The Trap by Melanie Raabe: Translated from the German, the English version of this celebrated debut was snaffled up by Sony at the Frankfurt Book Fair and is now on its way to a big-screen debut as well. A thriller, The Trap describes a novelist attempting to find her sister’s killer using her novel-in-progress as bait (this always works). (Lydia)
Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon: The Pushcart-winning author received a lot of praise for her debut, The Little Bride, and accolades are already flowing in for her latest, with J. Courtney Sullivan calling Lucy Pear, “a gorgeous and engrossing meditation on motherhood, womanhood, and the sacrifices we make for love.” It opens with an unwed Jewish mother named Bea leaving her baby beneath a Massachusetts pear tree in 1917 to pursue her dreams of being a pianist. A decade later, a disenchanted Bea returns to find her daughter being taken care of by a strong Irish Catholic woman named Emma, and the two woman must grapple with what it means to raise a child in a rapidly changing post-war America in the middle of the Prohibition. With poetic prose but a larger understanding of the precarious world of 1920s New England, Solomon proves herself as one of the most striking novelists of the day. (Tess)
Bad Faith by Theodore Wheeler: Kings of Broken Things, Wheeler’s debut novel about young immigrants set during the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, is coming in 2017 from Little A. The riot followed the horrific lynching of Will Brown. A legal reporter covering the Nebraska civil courts, Wheeler brings much authenticity to the tale. For now, readers can enjoy Bad Faith, his first story collection. (Nick R.)
Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan: Described in promotional materials as both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Emma set in Singapore, Tan’s first novel explores “the contentious gender politics and class tensions thrumming beneath the shiny exterior of Singapore’s glamorous nightclubs and busy streets.” It is also the first novel written entirely in “Singlish” (the local patois of Singapore) to be published in America. The long-time journalist — Tan has been a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, In Style, and The Baltimore Sun — previously published a memoir called A Tiger in The Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family, which was praised as “a literary treat.” (Elizabeth)
Pond by Claire Louise-Bennett: Published in Ireland last year, a linked series of vignettes and meditations by a hermitess. The Guardian called it a “stunning debut;” The Awl’s Alex Balk offers this rare encomium: “the level of self-importance the book attaches to itself is so low that you are never even once tempted to make the ‘jerking off’ motion that seems to be the only reasonable response to most of the novels being published today.” (Lydia)
An Innocent Fashion by R.J. Hernández: Ethan St. James was born Elián San Jamar, the son of multiracial, working-class parents in Texas. At Yale, he befriends two wealthy classmates, who help him reinvent himself as he moves to New York to work for the fashion magazine Régine. But once he’s there, things begin to crumble. It’s described as “the saga of a true millennial — naïve, idealistic, struggling with his identity and sexuality,” and an early review says that Hernández writes in “a fervently literary style that flirts openly with the traditions of Salinger, Plath, and Fitzgerald.” (Elizabeth)
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Following up The Fates Will Find Their Way and Reunion, two-time Year in Reading alum Pittard hits us with a “modern gothic” novel about a faltering marriage and an ill-fated road trip. (Lydia)
My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal: A former magistrate who has spent years doing family law and social work in England, de Waal publishes her debut novel at the respectable age of 55, bringing experiences from a long career working with adoption services to a novel about a mixed family navigating the foster care system in the 1980s. (Lydia)
Night of the Animals by Bill Broun: A strangely prophetic novel set in London, Night of the Animals takes place in a very near, very grim future — a class-divided surveillance state that looks a little too much like our own. A homeless drug addict named Cuthbert hears the voices of animals who convince him to liberate them from the London Zoo, joining with a rag-tag group of supporters to usher in a sort of momentary peaceable kingdom in dystopian London. The book is difficult to describe and difficult to put down. (Lydia)
Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter: The fiction debut of Slate editor Winter, a seriocomic look at a woman trying to do what used to be called “having it all,” dealing with a job that sucks — a send-up of a celebrity non-profit — and uncooperative fertility. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “biting lampoon of workplace politics and a heartfelt search for meaning in modern life.” (Lydia)
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: This is one of those debuts that comes freighted with hype, expectation, and the poisonous envy of writers who didn’t receive seven-figure advances, but sometimes hype is justified: Kirkus, in a starred review, called this novel “a special book.” Mbue’s debut, which is set in New York City at the outset of the economic collapse, concerns a husband and wife from Cameroon, Jende and Nemi, and their increasingly complex relationship with their employers, a Lehman Brothers executive and his fragile wife. (Emily)
The Nix by Nathan Hill: Eccentricity, breadth, and length are three adjectives that often earn writers comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. Hill tackles politics more headlong than Pynchon in this well-timed release. The writing life of college professor Samuel Andresen-Andersen is stalled. His publisher doesn’t want his new book, but he’s in for a surprise: he sees his long-estranged mother on the news after she throws rocks at a right-wing demagogue presidential candidate. The candidate holds press conferences at his ranch and “perfected a sort of preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and an anti-elitist populism” and his candidacy is an unlikely reason for son and mother to seek reunion. (Nick R.)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson: Although the National Book Award winner’s Brown Girl Dreaming was a young adult book, everyone flocked to lyrical writing that honed in on what it means to be a black girl in America. Now Woodson has written her first adult novel in two decades, a coming-of-age tale set in 1970s Bushwick, where four girls discover the boundaries of their friendship when faced with the dark realities of growing up. As Tracy K. Smith lauds, “Another Brooklyn is heartbreaking and restorative, a gorgeous and generous paean to all we must leave behind on the path to becoming ourselves.” (Tess)
Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: This is the third of three McInerney novels following the lives of New York book editor Russell Calloway and his wife Corinne. The first Calloway book, Brightness Falls (1992), set during leveraged buyout craze of the late-1980s, is arguably McInerney’s last truly good novel, while the second, The Good Life (2006), set on and around 9/11, is pretty inarguably a sentimental mess. This new volume, set in 2008 with the financial system in crisis and the country about to elect its first black president, follows a now-familiar pattern of asking how world-historical events will affect the marriage of McInerney’s favorite cosseted and angst-ridden New Yorkers. (Michael)
Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.: Each unhappy mortgage is unhappy in its own way. A man and his beautiful wife (“a face that deserves granite countertops and recessed lighting”) try to flip a house in a California development at the wrong time. Now “it’s underwater, sinking fast, has…them by the ankles, and isn’t letting go.” This is the bleak but gripping setup for McGinniss’s second novel (coming 10 years after The Delivery Man), a portrait of a marriage as volatile as the economy. (Matt)
Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi: Korkeakivi’s second novel — her first was 2012’s An Unexpected Guest — opens with the death of a 43-year-old WWII veteran, and follows the lives of his widow and children in the years and decades that follow. A meditation on family, the long shadow of war over generations, and myth-making. (Emily)
How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee: Lee’s debut novel (following her praised short story collection, Drifting House), is set in and adjacent to North Korea. The novel follows three characters who meet across the border in China: two North Koreans, one from a prominent and privileged family, the other raised in poverty, and a Chinese-American teen who is an outcast at school. Together the three struggle to survive in, in the publisher’s words, “one of the least-known and most threatening environments in the world.” (Elizabeth)
Moonstone by Sjón: “One thing I will not do is write a thick book,” asserts Icelandic author Sjón, who seems to have done just about everything else but, including writing librettos and penning lyrics with Lars von Trier for Björk’s Dancer in the Dark soundtrack. Sjón’s novels often dwell in mytho-poetic realms, but Moonstone, his fourth, is set firmly in recent history: 1918 Reykjavik, a city newly awash with foreign influence: cinema, the Spanish flu, the threat of WWI. Moonstone deals with ideas of isolation versus openness both nationally and on a personal scale, as Máni navigates his then-taboo desire for men, his cinematic fantasies, the spreading contagion, and the dangers imposed. (Anne)
Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott: The fictional town of Cross River, Md., founded after our nation’s only successful slave revolt, serves as the setting for the 13 stories in Scott’s latest collection. Here, readers track the daily struggles of ordinary residents trying to get ahead — or just to get by. By turns heartbreaking, darkly funny, and overall compelling, Insurrections delivers a panorama of modern life within a close-knit community, and the way the present day can be influenced by past histories, past generations. Scott, a lecturer at Bowie State, is a writer you should be reading, and this book serves as a nice entry point for first-timers. Meanwhile, longtime fans who follow the author on Twitter are in no way surprised to hear Scott’s writing described as “intense and unapologetically current” in the pre-press copy. (Nick M.)
White Nights in Split Town City by Annie DeWitt: DeWitt’s first “slender storm of a novel” White Nights in Split Town City lands on the scene with a fury worthy of a cowboy western. To wit, Ben Marcus calls the book a “bold word-drunk novel,” that deals a good dose of swagger, seduction, and “muscular” prose (as corroborated by Tin House’s Open Bar). It’s a coming-of-age tale where a young girl’s mother leaves, her home life disintegrates, and she and her friend build a fort from which they can survey the rumors of the town. Laura van den Berg calls it a “ferocious tumble of a book” that asserts DeWitt as a “daring and spectacular new talent.” (Anne)
A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi: Hashimi, part-time pediatrician and part-time novelist (The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, When the Moon Is Low), offers readers an emotional heavyweight in her latest story, A House Without Windows. An Afghan woman named Zeba’s life changes when her husband of 20 years, Kamal, is murdered in their home. Her village and her in-laws turn against her, accusing her of the crime. Overcome with shock, she cannot remember her whereabouts when her husband was killed, and the police imprison her. Both the audience and Zeba’s community must discover who she is. (Cara)
Still Here by Lara Vapnyar: In her new novel, Russian-born writer Vapnyar dissects the lives of four Russian émigrés in New York City as they tussle with love, tumult, and the absurdities of our digital age. Each has technology-based reasons for being disappointed with the person they’ve become. One of the four, Sergey, seeks to turn this shared disappointment upside down by developing an app called Virtual Grave, designed to preserve a person’s online presence after death, a sort of digitized cryogenics. It could make a fortune, but is there anyone — other than Ted Williams or an inventive novelist – who could seriously believe that Virtual Grave is a good idea? (Bill)
Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné: For his third novel (and first published in the U.S.), Spanish writer Torné gives us a man we can love to hate. Joan-Marc is out of work and alone as he sets out to make things right by coming clean with his estranged second wife, giving her a detailed account of his misspent life — from childhood scenes to early sexual encounters, his father’s suicide and his mother’s mental illness, and on through a life full of appetites indulged, women mistreated, and the many ways his first wife ruined him. The novel, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, becomes an unapologetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, and how love ends. (Bill)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: In 1998, Whitehead appeared out of nowhere with The Intuitionist, a brilliant and deliciously strange racial allegory about, of all things, elevator repair. Since then, he’s written about junketing journalists, poker, rich black kids in the Hamptons, and flesh-eating zombies, but he’s struggled to tap the winning mix of sharp social satire and emotional acuity he achieved in his first novel. Early word is that he has recaptured that elusive magic in The Underground Railroad, in which the Underground Railroad slaves used to escape is not a metaphor, but a secret network of actual tracks and stations under the Southern landscape. (Michael)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: It’s tempting to play armchair psychiatrist with the fact that it’s taken JSF 11 years to produce his third novel. His first two — both emotional, brilliant, and, I have to say it, quirky — established him as a literary wunderkind that some loved, and others loved to hate. (I love him, FWIW.) Here I Am follows five members of a nuclear family through four weeks of personal and political crisis in Washington D.C. At 600 pages, and noticeably divested of a cutesy McSweeney’s-era title, this just may be the beginning of second, more mature phase of a great writer’s career. (Janet)
Nutshell by Ian McEwan: “Love and betrayal, life and death come together in the most unexpected ways,” says Michal Shavit, publisher of the Booker Prize-winner’s new novel. It’s an apt description for much of his work and McEwan is at his best when combining elegant, suspenseful prose with surprising twists, though this novel is set apart by perspective. Trudy has betrayed her husband, John, and is hatching a plan with his brother. There is a witness to a wife’s betrayal, the nine-month-old baby in Trudy’s womb. As McEwan puts it, he was inspired to write by, “the possibilities of an articulate, thoughtful presence with a limited but interesting perspective.” (Claire)
Jerusalem by Alan Moore: For anyone who fears that Watchmen and V for Vendetta writer Moore is becoming one of his own obsessed, isolated characters — lately more known for withdrawing from public life and disavowing comic books than his actual work — Jerusalem is unlikely to reassure. The novel is a 1,280-page mythology in which, in its publisher’s words, “a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them.” Also: it features “an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters.” Something for everyone! (Jacob)
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: A new novel by the bestselling author of gems like Bel Canto and State of Wonder is certainly a noteworthy publishing event. This time, Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., takes on a more personal subject, mapping multiple generations of a family broken up by divorce and patched together, in new forms, by remarriage. Commonwealth begins in the 1960s, in California, and moves to Virginia and beyond, spanning many decades. Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, remarking, “Patchett elegantly manages a varied cast of characters as alliances and animosities ebb and flow, cross-country and over time.” (Edan)
Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: A one-time staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who filed stories from around the world while winning prizes for her fiction (including The Atlantic’s student fiction prize), Hua makes her publishing debut with this collection of short stories. Featuring characters ranging from a Hong Kong movie star fleeing scandal to a Korean-American pastor who isn’t all he seems, these 10 stories follow immigrants to a new America who straddle the uncomfortable line between past and present, allegiances old and new. (Kaulie)
The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai: To get a sense of what Booker Prize-winning author Krasznahorkai is all about, all you need to do is look at the hero image his publishers are using on his author page. Now consider the fact that The Last Wolf & Herman, his latest short fictions to be translated into English, is being described by that same publisher as “maddeningly complex.” The former, about a bar patron recounting his life story, is written as a single, incredibly long sentence. The latter is a two-part novella about a game warden tasked with clearing “noxious beasts” from a forest — a forest frequented by “hyper-sexualized aristocratic officers.” All hope abandon ye who enter here. Beach readers beware; gloom lies ahead. (Nick M.)
Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, earned her comparisons to such postmodern paranoiacs as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Her second book, Intimations, is a collection of 12 stories sure to please any reader who reveled in the heady strangeness of her novel. These stories examine the course life in stages, from the initial shock of birth into a pre-formed world on through to the existential confusion of the life in the middle and ending with the hesitant resignation of a death that we barely understand. With this collection, Kleeman continues to establish herself as one of the most brilliant chroniclers of our 21st-century anxieties. (Brian)
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch: The author of the international bestseller The Dinner, will publish Dear Mr. M — his eighth novel to date, but just the third to be translated into English. A writer, M, has had much critical success, but only one bestseller, and his career seems to be fading. When a mysterious letter writer moves into the apartment below, he seems to be stalking M. Through shifting perspectives, we slowly learn how a troubled teacher, a pair of young lovers, their classmates, and M himself are intertwined. With a classic whodunit as its spine, the novel is elevated by Koch’s elegant handling of structure, willingness to cross-examine the Dutch liberal sensibility, and skewering of the writer’s life. This is a page turner with a smart head on its shoulders and a mouth that’s willing to ask uncomfortable questions. (Claire)
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: Set in 1850s rural Ireland, The Wonder tells the story of Anna, a girl who claims to have stopped eating, and Lib, a nurse who must determine whether or not Anna is a fraud. Having sold over two million copies, Donoghue is known for her bestselling novel, Room, which she also adapted for the screen to critical acclaim. But as a read of her previous work, and her recent novel Frog Music shows, she is also well versed in historical fiction. The Wonder brings together the best of all, combining a gracefully tense, young voice with a richly detailed historical setting. (Claire)
Black Wave by Michelle Tea: Expanding her diverse body of work — including five memoirs, a young adult fantasy series, and a novel — Tea now offers her audience a “dystopic memoir-fiction hybrid.” Black Wave follows Tea’s 1999 trek from San Francisco to L.A. in what Kirkus calls “a biting, sagacious, and delightfully dark metaliterary novel about finding your way in a world on fire.” The piece has received rave reviews from the likes of Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson, which promise something for readers to look forward to this September. (Cara)
The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano: Modiano, a Nobel Prize winner, used a setting that shows up often in his work to give atmosphere to his 2012 novel L’herbe du nuit (appearing in English for the first time as The Black Notebook): the underdeveloped, unkempt suburbs of Paris in the 1960s. The book follows a man named Jean as he begins an affair with Dannie, a woman who may or may not be implicated in a local murder. As their relationship progresses, Jean begins to keep a diary, which he then uses decades later in a quest to piece together her story. (Thom)
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy: Released last year in the U.K., Sleeping on Jupiter will hit the shelves in the U.S. this October. Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and winner of the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Roy’s latest novel follows the story of Nomita, a filmmaker’s assistant who experiences great trauma as young girl. When Nomita returns to her temple town, Jarmuli, after growing up in Norway, she finds that Jarmuli has “a long, dark past that transforms all who encounter it.” (Cara)
Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Discussing The Sound of Things Falling, his atmospheric meditation on violence and trauma, with The Washington Post several years back, the Columbian writer Vásquez described turning away from Gabriel García Márquez and toward Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo: “All these people do what I like to do, which is try to explore the crossroads between the public world — history and politics — and the private individual.” That exploration continues in Reputations, which features an influential cartoonist reassessing his life and work as a political scourge. (Matt)
Umami by Laia Jufresa: A shared courtyard between five homes in Mexico City is frequently visited by a 12-year-old girl, Ana. In the summer, she passes time reading mystery novels, trying to forget the mysterious death of her sister several years earlier. As it turns out, Ana’s not the only neighbor haunted by the past. In Umami, Jufresa, an extremely talented young writer, deploys multiple narrators, giving each a chance to recount their personal histories, and the questions they’re still asking. Panoramic, affecting, and funny, these narratives entwine to weave a unique portrait of present-day Mexico. (Nick M.)
The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies: Davies, the author of The Welsh Girl and a professor at University of Michigan’s esteemed MFA program, returns with a big book about American history seen through the lens of four stories about Chinese Americans. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it “a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece,” and said it can be read as four novellas: the first is about a 19th-century organizer of railroad workers, for instance, and the last is about a modern-day writer going to China with his white wife to adopt a child. Celeste Ng says, “Panoramic in scope yet intimate in detail, The Fortunes might be the most honest, unflinching, cathartically biting novel I’ve read about the Chinese American experience. It asks the big questions about identity and history that every American needs to ask in the 21st century.” (Edan)
Loner by Teddy Wayne: David Federman, a nebbishy kid from the New Jersey suburbs, gets into Harvard where he meets a beautiful, glamorous girl from New York City and falls in love. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, apparently. Wayne, himself a Harvardian, scored a success channeling his inner Justin Bieber in his 2013 novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This book, too, has its ripped-from-the-headlines plot elements, which caused an early reviewer at Kirkus to call Loner “a startlingly sharp study of not just collegiate culture, but of social forces at large.” (Michael)
Little Nothing by Marisa Silver: From its description, Little Nothing sounds like a departure for Silver, the author of the novels The God of War and Mary Coin. The book, which takes place at the turn of the 20th century in an unnamed country, centers on a girl named Pavla, a dwarf who is rejected by her family. Silver also weaves in the story of Danilo, a young man in love with Pavla. According to the jacket copy, Little Nothing is, “Part allegory about the shifting nature of being, part subversive fairy tale of love in all its uncanny guise.” To whet your appetite, read Silver’s short story “Creatures” from this 2012 issue of The New Yorker, or check out my Millions interview with her about Mary Coin. (Edan)
After Disasters by Viet Dinh: Four protagonists, one natural disaster: Ted and Piotr are disaster relief workers, Andy is a firefighter, and Dev is a doctor — all of them do-gooders navigating the after-effects of a major earthquake in India. Their journeys begin as outward ones — saving others in a ravaged and dangerous place — but inevitably become internal and self-transforming more than anything. Dinh’s stories have been widely published, and he’s won an O. Henry Prize; his novel debut marks, according to Amber Dermont, “the debut of a brilliant career.” (Sonya)
The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas: Cardenas’s first novel The Revolutionaries Try Again has the trappings of a ravishing debut: smart blurbs, a brilliant cover, a modernist narrative set amongst political turmoil in South America, and a flurry of pre-pub excitement on Twitter. Trappings don’t always deliver, but further research confirms Cardenas’s novel promises to deliver. Having garnered comparisons to works by Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar, The Revolutionaries Try Again has been called “fiercely subversive” while pulling off feats of “double-black-diamond high modernism.” (Anne)
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler: Butler, who won the Pulitzer in 1993, is still most well-known for the book that won him the prize, the Vietnam War-inspired A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. In his latest, a novel, he goes back to that collection’s fertile territory, exploring the relationship of a couple — both tenured professors at Florida State — who can trace their history to the days of anti-war protests. When the husband, Robert, finds out that his father is dying, he gets a chance to confront the mistakes of his past. (Thom)
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: McBride’s first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, unleashed a torrent of language and transgression in the mode of high modernism — think William Faulkner, think James Joyce, think Samuel Beckett. James Wood described its prose as a “visceral throb” whose “sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words…seem to want to merge with one another.” McBride’s follow-up, The Lesser Bohemians, is similar in voice, though softer, more playful, “an evolution,” according to McBride. Again the novel concerns a young woman, an actress who moves to London to launch her career, and who falls in with an older, troubled actor. (Anne)
Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello: Each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way, but the families in Frangello’s latest novel are truly in a category all their own. Every Kind of Wanting maps the intersection of four Chicago couples as they fall into an impressively ambitious fertility scheme in the hopes of raising a “community baby.” But first there are family secrets to reveal, abusive pasts to decipher, and dangerous decisions to make. If it sounds complicated, well, it is, but behind all the potential melodrama is a story that takes a serious look at race, class, sexuality, and loyalty — in short, at the new American family. (Kaulie)
A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem’s first novel since 2013’s Dissident Gardens has the everything-in-the-stewpot quality that his readers have come to expect: the plot follows a telepathic backgammon hustler through various international intrigues before forcing him to confront a deadly tumor — as well as his patchouli-scented Berkeley past. Though it remains to be seen if A Gambler’s Anatomy can hit the emotional heights of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, it will be, if nothing else, unmistakably Lethem. (Jacob)
The Mothers by Brit Bennett: The Mothers begins when a grief-stricken 17-year-old girl becomes pregnant with the local pastor’s son, and shows how their ensuing decisions affect the life of a tight-knit black community in Southern California for years to come. The church’s devoted matriarchs — “the mothers” — act as a Greek chorus to this story of friendship, secrets, guilt, and hope. (Janet)
Nicotine by Nell Zink: Zink now enters the post-New Yorker profile, post-Jonathan-Franzen-pen-pal phase of her career with Nicotine, a novel that seems as idiosyncratic and — the term has probably already been coined — Zinkian as Mislaid and The Wallcreeper. Nicotine follows the struggle between the ordinary Penny Baker and her aging hippie parents — a family drama that crescendos when Penny inherits her father’s squatter-infested childhood home and must choose “between her old family and her new one.” Few writers have experienced Zink’s remarkable arc, and by all appearances, Nicotine seems unlikely to slow her winning streak. (Jacob)
The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine: I love a novel the plot of which dares to take place over the course of one night: in The Angel of History, it’s the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, and Yemeni-born poet Jacob, who is gay, sits in the waiting room of a psych clinic in San Francisco. He waits actively, as they say — recalling his varied past in Cairo, Beirut, Sana’a, and Stockholm. Other present-time characters include Satan and Death, and herein perhaps lies what Michael Chabon described as Alameddine’s “daring” sensibility…“not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.” (Sonya)
The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung: Her second novel, this ambitious story is a multigenerational saga about family, race, difference, and what it means to be a lost child in a big world. Charles Lee, the African-American patriarch of a biracial family, searches for meaning after a fatherless childhood. His connection with a caregiver, Hannah, uncovers her Korean immigrant family’s past flight from tradition and war. Chung is a staff writer at The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and her work has appeared in Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and BOMB. Early praise from Nayomi Munaweera compares Chung’s prose to Elena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector, “elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking.” (Claire)
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky: Dermansky’s Bad Marie featured an ex-con nanny obsessed with her employer and with a tendency to tipple on the job. The protagonist of her latest is a less colorful type: a struggling novelist suffocated by her husband, also a struggling novelist. When her former boss dies in a crash, Leah is willed the red sports car in which her nurturing friend met her end: “I knew when I bought that car that I might die in it. I have never really loved anything as much as that red car.” What is the idling heroine to make of the inheritance and the ambiguous message it contains? (Matt)
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Margaret Atwood joins authors Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, and Anne Tyler in the Hogarth Shakespeare series — crafting modern spins on William Shakespeare’s classics. Hag-Seed, a prose adaptation of The Tempest, follows the story of Felix, a stage director who puts on a production of The Tempest in a prison. If Felix finds success in his show, he will get his job back as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. The Tempest is one of Atwood’s favorites (and mine, too), and Hag-Seed should be an exciting addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Cara)
The Mortifications by Derek Palacio: Palacio’s debut novel follows his excellent, tense novella, How to Shake the Other Man. Palacio shifts from boxing and New York City to the aftermath of the Mariel boatlift, set in Miami and Hartford, Conn. Here Palacio’s examination of the Cuban immigrant experience and family strife gets full breadth in a work reminiscent of H.G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish. (Nick R.)
The Fall Guy by James Lasdun: Lasdun is a writer’s writer (James Wood called him “one of the secret gardens of English writing;” Porochista Khakpour called him “one of those remarkably flexible little-bit-of-everything renaissance men of letters”). Now, the British writer adds to his published novels, stories, poems, travelogue, memoir, and film (!) with a new novel, a spicy thriller about a troubled houseguest at a married couple’s country home. (Lydia)
The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin: It’s not without good reason that Jin has won practically every literary prize the United States has to offer, despite his being a non-native English speaker — he is something of a technical wizard who, according to the novelist Gish Jen, “has chosen mastery over genius.” Steeped in the terse, exact prose tradition of such writers as Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy, Jin’s work is immediately recognizable. His newest novel, The Boat Rocker, follows in the same vein. It finds Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin, a fiercely principled reporter whose exposés of governmental corruption have made him well-known in certain circles, wrestling with his newest assignment: an investigation into the affairs of his ex-wife, an unscrupulous novelist, and unwitting pawn of the Chinese government. (Brian)
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Semple, formerly a writer for Arrested Development and Mad About You, broke into the less glamorous, less lucrative literary world with 2013’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (her second novel), which this reviewer called “funny.” In this novel she sets her bittersweet, hilarious, perceptive gaze on Eleanor, a woman who vows that for just one day she will be the ideal wife, mother, and career woman she’s always known she could be. And it goes great! Just kidding. (Janet)
No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa: This novel, Khalifa’s fourth, illuminates the prelude to Syria’s civil war, and humanizes a conflict too often met with an international shrug. Tracking a single family’s journey from the 1960s through the present day, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City closely examines the myriad traumas — both instantaneous and slow-burning — accompanying a society’s collapse. As of this year, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates there to be 65.3 million refugees or internally displaced persons around the world, and more than 4.9 million of those are Syrian. For those hoping to understand how this came to pass, Khalifa’s book should be required reading. (Nick M.)
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose: Widely known and respected for her best-selling fiction, Prose has had novels adapted for the stage and the screen. It’s impossible to say (but fun to imagine) that these experiences informed her latest novel, Mister Monkey, about an off-off-off-off Broadway children’s play in crisis. Told from the perspective of the actress who plays the monkey’s lawyer, the adolescent who plays the monkey himself, and a variety of others attached to the production in one way or another, this novel promises to be madcap and profound in equal measure. (Kaulie)
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa: This debut novel, set in the 1930s, follows a young Jewish family as it tries to flee Germany for Cuba. When they manage to get a place on the ocean liner St. Louis, the Rosenthals prepare themselves for a comfortable life in the New World, but then word comes in of a change to Cuba’s immigration policy. The passengers, who are now a liability, get their visas revoked by the government, which forces the Rosenthals to quickly abandon ship. For those of you who thought the boat’s name sounded familiar, it’s based on a real-life tragedy. (Thom)
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke: A decade ago, The Guardian described Lianke as “one of China’s greatest living authors and fiercest satirists.” His most recent novel, The Four Books, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. The Explosion Chronicles was first published in 2013, and will be published in translation (by Duke professor Carlos Rojas) this fall. The novel centers on a town’s “excessive” expansion from small village to an “urban superpower,” with a focus on members of the town’s three major families. (Elizabeth)
The Trespasser by Tana French: In her five previous novels about the squabbling detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, French has classed up the old-school police procedural with smart, lush prose and a willingness to explore the darkest recesses of her characters’ emotional lives. In The Trespasser, tough-minded detective Antoinette Conway battles scabrous office politics as she tries to close the case of a beautiful young woman murdered as she sat down to a table set for a romantic dinner. On Goodreads, the Tanamaniacs are doing backflips for French’s latest venture into murder Dublin-style. (Michael)
The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: Entertainment Weekly has already expressed excitement about former journalist Chang’s novel, calling it “uproarious,” and in her blurb, Jami Attenberg deemed The Wangs vs. the World her “favorite debut of the year.” Charles Wang, patriarch and business man, has lost his money in the financial crisis and wants to return to China to reclaim family land. Before that, he takes his adult son and daughter and their stepmother on a journey across America to his eldest daughter’s upstate New York hideout. Charles Yu says the book is, “Funny, brash, honest, full of wit and heart and smarts,” and Library Journal named it one of the fall’s 5 Big Debuts. (Edan)
Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria: A new English translation of a work that the journal El Cultural has suggested “could well be considered the highest summit of Basque-language novels.” The novel follows the interlinked lives of a group of friends in the contemporary Basque country, and the young American sociologist who’s recently arrived in their midst. (Emily)
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar: Jarrar, whose novel A Map of Home won a Hopwood Award in 2008, comes out with her first collection of short stories old and new. In the title story (originally published in Guernica in 2010), a woman whose father has recently died goes to Cairo to scatter his ashes. In accompanying stories, we meet an ibex-human hybrid named Zelwa, as well as an Egyptian feminist and the women of a matriarchal society. In keeping with the collection’s broad focus on “accidental transients,” most of the stories take place all over the world. (Thom)
The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle: In 1994, a group of eight scientists move into EC2, a bio-dome-like enclosure meant to serve as a prototype for a space colony. Not much time passes before things begin to go wrong, which forces the crew to ask themselves a difficult, all-important question — can they really survive without help from the outside world? Part environmental allegory, part thriller, The Terranauts reinforces Boyle’s reputation for tight plotlines, bringing his talents to bear on the existential problem of climate change. For those who are counting, this is the author’s 16th (!) novel. (Thom)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith: The Orange Prize-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty returns with a masterful new novel. Set in North West London and West Africa, the book is about two girls who dream of being dancers, the meaning of talent, and blackness. (Bruna)
Moonglow by Michael Chabon: We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date. (Tess)
Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao: A staggering tale of the death of a child, this novel is a poetic meditation on loss, the fluidity of boundaries, and feeling like a fish out of water. Viet Thanh Nguyen has described it as a “jagged and unforgettable work [that] takes on a domestic story of losing one’s children and elevates it to Greek tragedy.” (Bruna)
Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson: Lawson’s magazine debut was in the Paris Review with the title story of the collection. Other stories like “Three Friends in a Hammock” have appeared in the Oxford American. Fans of Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More will be drawn to Lawson’s lyric, expansive dramatizations of Southern evangelical Christians, as she straddles the intersection of sexuality and faith. Her sentences, so sharp, are meant to linger: “The problem with marrying a virgin, he realized now, was that you were marrying a girl who would become a woman only after the marriage.” (Nick R.)
Valiant Gentleman by Sabina Murray: PEN/Faulkner Award-winner (The Caprices) Murray returns with her latest novel Valiant Gentlemen. Murray’s first novel, Slow Burn, was published when she was just 20 years old. Currently the chair of the creative writing department at UMass Amherst, Murray has also received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her sixth book (seventh, including her screenplay), Valiant Gentlemen follows a friendship across four decades and four continents. Alexander Chee writes, “This novel is made out of history but is every bit a modern marvel.” (Cara)
Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Written between the 1960s to the early years of this century, the 15 stories in this collection were selected, revised, and placed in order by the masterly Doctorow shortly before he died in 2015 at age 84. The stories feature a mother whose plan for financial independence might include murder; a teenager who escapes home for Hollywood; a man who starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction; and the denizens of the underbelly of 1870s New York City, which grew into the novel The Waterworks. They are the geniuses, mystics, and charlatans who offer both false hope and glimpses of Doctorow’s abiding subject, that untouchable myth known as the American dream. (Bill)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías, one of Spain’s contemporary greats, is nothing if not prolific. In this, his 14th novel, personal assistant Juan de Vere watches helplessly as his life becomes tangled in the affairs of his boss, a producer of B-movies and general sleaze. Set in a 1980’s Madrid in the throes of the post-Francisco Franco hedonism of La Movida, a period in which social conservatism began to crumble in the face of a wave of creativity and experiment, the novel calls to mind Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and the paranoid decadence of Weimar Germany. Spying and the intersection of the domestic with the historical/political isn’t new territory for Marías, and fans of of his earlier work will be as pleased as Hari Kunzru at The Guardian, who called Thus Bad Begins a “demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve.” (Brian)
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins: Collins is described as “a brilliant yet little known African American artist and filmmaker — a contemporary of revered writers including Toni Cade Bambara, Laurie Colwin, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Grace Paley.” The stories in this collection, which center on race in the ’60s, explore the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in ways that “masterfully blend the quotidian and the profound.” (Elizabeth)
The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur: Kapur’s first novel, Overwinter, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. This, her second, chronicles a changing India in which the titular Mrs. Sharma, a traditional wife and mother living in Delhi, has a conversation with a stranger that will shift her worldview. Described as a “sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity,” Asian and European critics have described it as quietly powerful. The writer Mohammed Hanif wrote that it “really gets under your skin, a devastating little book.” (Elizabeth)
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: Recent reports of the author’s death have been greatly exaggerated, but unfortunately reports of delays for his forthcoming science fiction book have not. Longtime fans will need to wait even longer than they’d initially suspected, as The Passenger’s release date was bumped way past August 2016 — as reported by Newsweek in 2015 — and now looks more like December 2017. (Nick M.)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
And So On by Kiese Laymon: Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those “best books you’ve never heard of” lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s “going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.” (Janet)
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: If this were Twitter, I’d use the little siren emoji and the words ALERT: NEW ROXANE GAY BOOK. Her new story collection was recently announced (along with an announcement about the delay on the memoir Hunger, which was slated to be her next title and will now be published after this one). The collection’s product description offers up comparisons to Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July, with stories of “privilege and poverty,” from sisters who were abducted together as children, to a black engineer’s alienation upon moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to a wealthy Florida subdivision “where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other.” (Elizabeth)
Transit by Rachel Cusk: In this second novel of the trilogy that began with Outline, a woman and her two sons move to London in search of a new reality. Taut and lucid, the book delves into the anxieties of responsibility, childhood, and fate. “There is nothing blurry or muted about Cusk’s literary vision or her prose,” enthuses Heidi Julavits. (Bruna)
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: This first collection of stories from Moshfegh, author of the noir novel Eileen, centers around unsteady characters who yearn for things they cannot have. Jeffrey Eugenides offers high praise: “What distinguishes Moshfegh’s writing is that unnamable quality that makes a new writer’s voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique.” You can read her stories in The New Yorker and the Paris Review. (Bruna)
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Long-time Millions writer and contributing editor Lepucki follows up her New York Times-bestselling novel California (you may have seen her talking about it on a little show called The Colbert Report) with Woman No. 17, a complicated, disturbing, sexy look at female friendship, motherhood, and art. (Lydia)
Enigma Variations by André Aciman: New York magazine called CUNY Professor and author of Harvard Square “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century). Aciman follows up with Enigma Variations, a sort of sentimental education of a young man across time and borders. (Lydia)
Around the time Charles Bock’s first novel emerged in 2008, life looked pretty great. Beautiful Children, a novel of youth and Las Vegas, was released to great fanfare, including a rave review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Charles and I had become friends during our time as residents at the Vermont Studio Center; I had the privilege of seeing very early drafts of Beautiful Children and beholding its evolution over the course of 10 years. To writers like myself, Beautiful Children was a bright example of what a writer’s perseverance could achieve. Charles was married to Diana Colbert; they were happy and in love, and they soon had a doted-upon baby girl. For a while the most obvious challenge he faced was how to follow up Beautiful Children.
Then one day Diana wasn’t feeling well, and thinking it was a bug, she went to the doctor. Within hours their lives were upended. Diana was diagnosed with leukemia. Chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, and insurance battles followed. Two years after her diagnosis, Diana passed away, their daughter just shy of three.
What does a writer do when confronted with such wrenching tragedy? When the writer is Charles Bock, he writes a book. Alice & Oliver embraces both the pain of loss and the reality that life chugs forward even when the worst has happened. While Bock speaks openly about the fact that Alice & Oliver is rooted in his own experience, he is nonetheless a writer preoccupied with style and language and the function of narrative — Bock is “good with structure,” as Garth Risk Hallberg wrote here in 2008; the result of his efforts here is not exactly an autobiographical novel.
I corresponded with Bock via email about the writing of Alice & Oliver and how the book and his personal life have been woven together.
The Millions: Charles, let’s assume that any reader who makes it past the front cover of Alice & Oliver knows your story, and knows that this novel was inspired by events from your life: your first wife, Diana, receiving her cancer diagnosis when your daughter was an infant, and the horror of losing her so early in your lives together and with a young child. Alice & Oliver was a book you obviously needed to write. What would have happened if you hadn’t written this book?
Charles Bock: It’s an interesting hypothetical. Let’s go with the assumption that I would have written some other book, or had some other writing project. My guess is that all the emotions would have been channeled and translated into whatever other project I was working on. Now, how that might have worked out, I can’t say. We’ve both taught students, or known talented writers, who might not have been working on the right thing. The student whose escape from his/her homeland and childhood memories are obviously the story for her to write, but who can’t take it on just yet and is writing a coming-of-age romance. With any luck, a writer does connect with that internal imperative, the thing they must work on. George Saunders’s short stories being an example in that no matter how fantastic the world he creates, or how bizarre the terrain might be, certain ideas about selflessness get through. So even if I had been writing some kind of caper novel about art forgery in the 1800s, my guess is that all the larger emotions and ideas — love, selflessness, care-giving, generosity — that dominate Alice & Oliver would have seeped through. Fairly early on during Diana’s illness, I knew I had to write about it. So this never really came up.
TM: Diana was a truly lovely person. The first time I met her, not five minutes had gone by before I thought to myself, “Charles is very lucky.” And I remember when I learned of her diagnosis, and especially considering you two had such a young child, my reaction to her diagnosis was that it seemed shockingly unfair. “This is not fair” is something one of your characters utters, while drinking with Oliver early in the book, but the novel manages not to dwell on the unfairness of Alice’s cancer. How did your characters manage to so gracefully avoid feeling stuck in the unfairness of their situation? How might knowing them help readers get through similar situations?
CB: The thing, of course, is that it all is unfair. In terms of real life events, I was angry, I did wallow, quite a bit. I put up the best front I could, but of course my anger and fear came out in all sorts of ways. The truth is, we were all under ungodly amounts of stress. I fought a ton with hospitals and doctors, new-age types who wanted to help, and even could get into it with random people who might look at me on the street. For long stretches in the years afterwards, I had weird mood swings. In the middle of teaching my writing workshops, reading this or that emotive sentence out loud from a story could send me into tears. A lot has happened in the years since. But I’m still not over how unfair it is that Diana does not get to watch her daughter grow up, that her daughter does not get to know or remember her birth mother. Often, at bedtime my daughter will tell me that she misses her birth mommy, that it’s not fair. What can I do but answer, you are right, it’s not fair, you get to be unhappy about that, you have every right to be unhappy.
But that’s not all that we get to be. Her, me. Or the characters in the book.
Does yelling about how unfair it is help make anything fair? When you’re done acknowledging cosmic injustices, does self-pity solve one stupid thing? The facts on the ground are still the facts. Very early on in the novel, Oliver helps center his wife. He says something to the effect of, Let’s not worry about hypotheticals. Let’s focus on the tasks in front of us, the day ahead, we’re going to get through this thing, so what do we have to do right now to do that? Alice dabbles in Eastern ideas, which very much focus on the moment. Doing this helped prevent any wallowing from the characters. I didn’t want to have characters feeling sorry for themselves. Very early on I also made the conscious decision that I didn’t want an angry book. Characters could feel anger, but I didn’t want anger, or self-pity, or what have you, to derail plot, momentum, development, really anything. My goal was always the larger, better struggles. It is unfair, yes, so what do we do? What is there that we can do?
Once this turn gets made, then characters — or people — can start to concentrate on what truly matters: the moments we have, the people we care about.
TM: Beautiful Children, your first novel, took you a decade and eight drafts to complete. What did you learn from that experience that influenced the writing of your second novel?
CB: This is going to sound hokey, but it’s true anyway. I learned to trust in the experience of writing, the larger, long-term process. That dyad of trust and process just keeps appearing in the world, you know? Whether a person come to them through Eastern ideas of selflessness to the larger good, through a basketball coach screaming the main thing has to be the main thing, through the example of your parents showing up to work every day for 40 years to unlock their store and get to work, through the 12 steps of a recovery program, or the simple belief in your feelings for another person, all sorts of different roads lead to trust and to process, and these two things play a huge role in my writing. During a long-term project like writing a novel, you don’t necessarily need, at every moment, to have huge amounts of faith in the wide-angle vision of how that novel is going. You just need to take care of shit in that moment. Wash the food, eat the food, wash the bowl.
An example. While organizing the outline to Alice & Oliver, figuring out some signposts to guide my way, a truth became obvious: the back third of the book — which deals with the born marrow transplant and its difficulties — was going to be really emotionally difficult for me. Now, at whatever point — probably gradually but then all at once — I also realized that this rear section also was going to require a structural switch, one that, with any luck, would make the novel more dramatic and direct and even more intense. So, organization gets to a decent point; I’m starting to write; however good I think that rear section can be, there’s still no way in hell I’m put back together enough to take on writing through that bone marrow transplant, and all of its emotional complications. I didn’t have distance from Diana’s second transplant, let alone from her passing. But I also didn’t need to have it. I wasn’t going to write that part of the book anytime soon. Time was going to pass, I knew this. I knew its passage would provide me with a little protection. I also trusted that the aesthetic imperatives and character demands inside the book would grow as I worked, they’d come to occupy whatever place in my psyche. Certain immediate emotions or connections from real events were also going to recede, some, into my subconscious. It was unavoidable, just as my present life also was going to have its own immersive, daily demands. All this had to happen, I told myself as much, even if there was no way to be prepared for it.
It still was emotionally taxing. And I certainly wasn’t ready for how the experience would turn. Because time would work the other way as well. Looking at my notes for the transplant would still bring so much pain; but there would be a large part of me that needed to remember and wanted to be put through that wringer. The memories, no matter how hard, were still better than the forgetting, because forgetting wiped away the details, the love, the bad meals, the quarrels, the humor and tenderness, the true marrow of it all.
Being able to trust in the large process — over and over again, in different iterations (edits, rewrites, etc.), in so many areas of the novel — was hugely helpful. So I was indeed fortunate that I’d been through this during the 100 years and 50,000 drafts it took to get Beautiful Children done.
Honestly, I can’t imagine trying to write Alice & Oliver as a first novel, without the experience of the first book behind me.
TM: Readers who remember the Manhattan of a few decades ago are likely to experience a delightful nostalgia when reading Alice & Oliver. Tell me a little bit about the decision to set the novel in the Manhattan of the ’90s, and situating Alice and Oliver specifically in the Meatpacking District.
CB: It’s really gratifying that you say it was delightful to read, because that was a big part of what I wanted to do. Back during the ’80s, when I was a teenager in Vegas, I used to go to the local grocery store and read Spy magazine and Details and Andy Warhol’s Interview. Those gave me a vision of a certain kind of Manhattan, one where freaks and stockbrokers did lines together at Danceteria and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay McInerney and Jama Tamowitz (not her name, should have been) commandeered the back table at Nell’s. I wasn’t part of that downtown scene, but it was fun to imagine Alice coming to the city back then and maybe on the scene’s margins. I ended up moving the novel back 15 or so years from real events, having it take place during the ’90s, specifically 1993 to 1994, in New York City. This is on the other side of the famed downtown ’80s scene, on the cusp of a new era, I think. The first Web browser is about to become commercially available. Forty Second Street is all porno and weirdness, but Disney is moving a store into Times Square.
It’s a time and place that in my mind is still close enough to reach back and touch, although honestly it’s not that close any more. There are organizational and macro reasons why putting the book in this period made sense to me — the change gave me some more distance from the real events of my life, which gave me more license and creative room with the characters, for instance. It also tied in with the book’s ending and the impermanence of time, its effect on all of us. Just for that reason, putting Alice and Oliver in an illegal loft in the Meatpacking District makes for a great backdrop. The Meatpacking District back then was a place where big slabs of meat actually got packed and shipped, Hogs & Heifers was just a shitty bar where the owner and his biker pals really did used to ride their Harleys around inside. Sex workers and after-hour clubs pretty much ruled the night. Now that district is gone, it’s the High Line and shopping and big glass towers. Manhattan itself has more than followed suit.
I wanted to have fun with the weird gritty absurdity of that period, but wanted to do it with the right touch, a backdrop tinted with that gorgeous patina of nostalgia, kind of the same way that nostalgia for a different version of the city suffuses Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Honestly, the nature of the project, a young mother with cancer, is naturally so emotional, my own personal connection and investment is so high. So I knew this was going to deal with the biggest ticket items. I wanted some breathing room, some joy — for me, for the characters, for the readers. Stuff that would hit pleasure notes. Simple things like references to early chat rooms and the nascent Web and the CD-ROM-loaded magazines that used to stuff mailboxes. By my thinking, they added to the book, helped to form this fascinating and fun backdrop. And so far, it’s been gratifying: early readers who happened to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn back then have always made sure to tell me about the references that hit them right — the crowd at Florent or the line for the Village Voice classifieds on Tuesday afternoon at Astor Place, or maybe inside references from college radio culture, like “Shut up, little man!” (Those who recognize the story behind the story get a thrill and a treat. If not, that’s fine, you’re in the story, all good).
I also got to do some cool and more serious things with that time frame. It’s right after the great ACT UP wars on AIDS, in the aftermath, and I wanted that in the novel. I also wanted to acknowledge the racial tension that Rudy Giuliani had used to get elected mayor (at the time he had a lot of support, New York magazine’s political coverage was pretty fawning for a while). It was a subtle way of getting in just how far we’d come in some ways, and how little progress we’d made in others.
TM: Well, as someone who lived in lower Manhattan in the ’90s, I smiled at so many of these references, and there was real pleasure in that. Structurally, you made an interesting choice to begin the novel more or less at the moment of Alice’s cancer diagnosis. It seemed there would be nowhere to go but down. But there was also the spunkiness of the characters as we get to know them, and that buoyed this reader throughout the reading of the book. Did it feel risky to begin the book at this point in the story?
CB: Yeah. It’s a gamble. But that’s fine. The diagnosis was such an odd an immersive experience, one second a woman’s feeling a bit under the weather and assuming she has a bug, the next she’s being told she has to be rushed to a hospital and admitted and tested for cancer. It’s impossible to believe. I made a connection to thriller page-turners and wondered if I could try to recreate that immersive rush, where a reader couldn’t put the book down. So it did begin the novel at a high point and a breakneck pace. But even as I was doing that, I kept thinking of the beautiful passage that starts The Known World, where Edward P. Jones describes the rain beginning and falling on the trees, and the character Moses’s reaction, and his grief about his wife. It doesn’t take place four pages in probably, and it’s so gorgeous that pretty much any reader has to be addicted and hooked. I just love that book and that passage. So hey, were there spaces in the early pages of chaos where I might have moments like that? Was it similarly possible to drop in the seeds and clues that would grow into character traits? The stakes are so high, the level of suspense is so high, that it seemed to me possible to create some bonds with the reader. Then I could expand on those bonds and have the book open up. If that happens, then like you said, all the character traits have been set and we’re ready to follow these characters, to expand their worlds some.
These are some of the formal questions of how you open a novel, how do you ask artistic questions and come up with strategies that can keep a person engaged. It’s not enough to write a pretty sentence, although, yes, we all love pretty sentences. I tell my students that there’s checkers, and there’s chess, and then there’s three-dimensional Star Wars chess. Why not play the game at the highest possible levels? That doesn’t mean bluster and showing off. Rather, it means connecting with the best possible way to tell your story. In Alice & Oliver the connection between the suspense of that diagnosis day and the idea of a thriller was the key, it was organic, and there was a logic to what could happen, how the book could expand, from there. Again, I don’t know that something being risky is a reason not to do it. It’s a reason to figure out the risks and to react the best you can.
TM: It’s almost impossible to discuss this book without focusing on events from your life. Do you kind of wish people like me would quit asking you personal questions?
CB: Let’s be honest, it’s really hard to get attention for a novel. You work years on it and then there’s a cycle of a week — a month if you are extremely lucky — when there’s any attention on it, and even then you start to worry that anyone who consumes those pieces is going to decide that the interview, feature, or review is enough, they know about that book, they don’t need to read it. So it creates a weird place. I’m very thankful that anyone is asking any questions about this book, and that it’s getting any interest. That itself is seen as a form of currency in this business. I also want to be professional and answer questions. In my case there’s a hugely personal aspect to this book, so it logically follows, who wouldn’t ask personal questions. I understand as much. Being asked personal questions is part of this gig. I also know it is up to me to decide how to respond. The fact is, I didn’t write a memoir, and the reasons for this are concrete. Still, I do want to answer you, and to charm, and entertain, and intrigue, and impress, enough that you — and readers — will be interested, will want to check out my book. So, what happens in response to a personal question, or at least what happens today: I write an answer that deconstructs and, essentially, deflects the question.
TM: In that case — one more personal question! Surrounding the release of Alice & Oliver, you’ve been rehashing your first marriage in a very public way. But you are recently remarried, and the experience of writing about one relationship while beginning another must be fraught. Can you talk about that?
CB: Two years after Diana passed away, I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with the writer Leslie Jamison. I don’t know how or why she fell in love with me, let alone agreed to take on so much (grief, widower, five-year-old daughter), but she did. And every day I sacrifice a live goat in thanks. We’ve married, and she’s given my daughter an amazing maternal figure. My daughter calls her mommy (now she has two mommies, Mommy Diana in heaven and Mommy Leslie here). We all have the best time together, we’re building our family. I feel very lucky and very happy. We have a loving home. Leslie happens to be a genius and a superstar in her own right; if she walks into a room full of Nobel Prize winners, she’s still going to be the smartest person in the room. She’s also hugely generous and decent, and she helped immensely with this novel, reading and editing and chopping down various drafts. My feeling is that she and Diana have a ton in common, and would have gotten along tremendously well. And each woman is different, each relationship is different. More than once I’ve been asked about what it’s like writing about Diana while building a new, loving relationship. What I’ve found is that all I can do is to try and apply my appreciation for life and for the love I had, as well as lessons I learned during that time (mistakes I made, things I wish I could have done over, all of it) to my current day. So I do. But I also am in something new that has its own momentum and fun and energy and challenges as well. After Diana passed, I never would have guessed this could happen. But Leslie really helped put me back together and make me whole again. So every day I try to honor Diana’s memory and also to do right by Leslie. I try to be a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good teacher and writer, doing good work. I’m lucky that I got to fall in love twice, with two amazing women. The fact is, time does move forward and there’s no choice about this. You do what you can.
With the arrival of both my first novel and my firstborn this year, my available time for reading evaporated right alongside time for other basic human requirements such as sleeping and breathing. When my nose found its way between pages, it was likely to be advice about how to raise the Happiest Bébé in my Arrondissement so that I might someday again do something other than swaddle, swoop, and shush my son.
Research for my next novel (out in 2015!) took top priority, so I dove deep into both Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill’s moving biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, and re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s portrait of them in Tender is the Night. But what novel about Lost Generation types would be complete without some theoretical physics? So I’ve been going back over Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe and Fabric of the Cosmos and, on somewhat of the other end of the spectrum, my Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Because one central character is an artist, and most art from Warhol to present leaves me eye rolling and/or giggling, an artist friend of mine recommended his favorite book on contemporary art, David Hickey’s Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy – which has finally helped me to understand the contents of the Whitney Museum as more than bad practical jokes.
Outside of book research, the rest of my yearly reading has been mostly focused on my students at SUNY Purchase College. In addition to their (often) impressive work in class, I’ve been pushing myself to expose them to the kinds of great books and stories that they wouldn’t normally see in a classroom. Last Spring in a course on The Art of the Novella, we read classics like The Dead and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also mind & form-bending works like Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03. (If that sounds exciting, I apologize – registration for Spring 2014 was last month and the class is now full).
This fall, my Advanced Fiction students have been knocking me out, and I’m doing my best to keep up with them as we work our way through James Wood’s How Fiction Works. (Wood came to campus in September to deliver an incredible lecture on the question of “Why?” in Fiction, which we’ve been grappling with ever since.) We’ve now been focusing on short fiction, from classic masterpieces like Chekov’s “Rothschild’s Fiddle” and Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” to contemporary writers like David Foster Wallace, Ben Loory, Karen Russell, Jessica Francis Kane, George Saunders, and Wells Tower. Most of the time I can’t tell who is learning more, me or the students, but I’m glad to be there either way.
When the semester winds to a close, I’ve got a huge pile waiting for me. If all goes well I might get to the first two on the pile – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending – before January, when I have to start reading for my Creative Nonfiction seminar in the spring.
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By far the book I found most memorable this year was Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. The writing was so deliberate and satisfying, and I love when a writer fully commits to a premise. To wit: early in the book, Celeste Price marks her classroom with her vaginal juices, so she might better seduce one of the unsuspecting boys in her eighth grade class. As I read this scene, I literally gasped because I had never seen anything like it. The premise of Tampa, this chronicle of a relentless predator, is appalling but Nutting makes it possible to be appalled and entertained. Celeste is so consumed by her desire. She is so unapologetic. It’s freeing, as a reader, to engage with a character who does what she must to satisfy her needs. I found myself judging Celeste as much as I was intrigued by what she would do next. I was also impressed by the sly cultural critique Nutting offers throughout the novel, about the pressures and expectations women shoulder. Tampa is just amazing.
Meaty by Samantha Irby, was an outstanding essay collection. The essays are a winning combination of hilarious and tender and sad. Irby is not afraid to show the reader where she hurts and how but she does so with such energy and wit. The writing explores dating, living with Crohn’s Disease, losing both parents at a young age, race and class, and a great deal more, but each of these topics is approached uniquely and without self-pity or aimless recrimination. Irby is one hell of a writer.
I was also enamored by Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. At first, I wasn’t quite sure where the novel was going. The first third is strangely given over to a man and his slippers. More is going on, of course, but it doesn’t make sense until you get much farther into the book. A man has died and his family must return to Ghana to mourn and to reconnect. Along the way, we learn how the family fell apart in the first place, and the price that is paid in leaving one country for another. The power of this novel lies in its completeness and the sweeping energy of the story being told. In the final pages, I found myself crying into the book as I turned each page and when I finished, I simply held the book to my chest.
Kiese Laymon had one hell of a year with two books — Long Division and How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was such a strange book, but I couldn’t stop reading! Laymon has an audacious imagination and I admire the ambition of his novel and everything he tried to do. There’s so much cleverness, it could make you jealous if the book weren’t so good. His essay collection is hard but necessary reading because he tells the truth about race in America.
Other books I enjoyed include The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, Alone with Other People by Gabby Bess, Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank, The Book of My Lives by Aleksandr Hemon, Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The Name of the Nearest River by Alex Taylor, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I’m a bit mad about reading Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger because the plot was so ludicrous. The more I read, the angrier I got and by the end, I was, frankly, ready to write a letter. Andi would not make such choices! She just wouldn’t. What can I say? I get attached.
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This month’s David and Goliath championship bout between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito may have brought boxing some new fans. Watching Pacquiao, outweighed some sixteen pounds, dazzlingly wallop the villainous but courageous Margarito, was nothing short of spectacular if not epic. Margarito, who had mocked Pacquiao trainer’s Parkinsons just before the match, met poetic justice for the first time in Cowboys Stadium.
It’s no wonder boxing has fascinated so many writers. The late Budd Schulberg, author of the novel and screenplay On the Waterfront, traces literature’s affair with pugilism back to Epeius and Euryalus’ fist-fight during the siege of Troy in The Iliad. He also describes Lord Byron fancying the sixty-round bare-knuckled fighting popular in his day. In the 20th century, A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker famously set the bar high for boxing journalism, employing obscured latinate words between steak and whiskey dinners in West Side dives. In fact, his haughty tones and smart aleck descriptions can even sound condescending to the world he described. (Joyce Carol Oates has gone as far as to say his boxing writing is racist.) Boxing was clearly a serious matter for manly men, a tradition followed by the new journalists, who seemed to have viewed the boxing piece as a rite of passage. Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese, all wrote extensively about pugilism, but none of these portrayals of real life boxers nurse a bookworm’s dream of being a toughened fighter like fiction.
Ernest Hemingway was a master of fiction and a master of fictional boxing, a self-proclaimed boxing expert in Paris, who despite his lack of experience, trained poet Ezra Pound and coached the Spanish painter Juan Miro on his jab; unfortunately, his sparring matches with real boxers like Canadian Morley Callaghan got Hemingway pummeled. And yet despite his lack of talent, Hemingway continued following and writing about boxing. His stories “Fifty Grand” and “The Battler” are both based on pugilists, as is Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises.
There is plenty of bad boxing fiction, mostly old, mostly clichéd, mostly rotting away in used bins, or library sales racks, but then there are the gems, the ones that endure. In the last couple of years I’ve come across a few that are not just good boxing fiction but good fiction. They all inexplicably take place in California (where both Pacquiao and Margarito both trained before their match).
Fat City by Leonard Gardner is one of the best novellas I’ve read this year. It’s a noir novel without really trying to be one. No detectives, city nights, or hyperbolically dark dialogue, instead we have subtle descriptions, hazy characters; some of its patiently rendered urban landscape descriptions almost slip by, as the reader enters 1950s Stockton, on the beat street motels, between hot pans and dirty sheets. When not working odd jobs, the book’s protagonist Billy Tulley (a name vaguely reminiscent of late champ Gene Tunney) is boxing or being an alcoholic, a combination which you can imagine must be horribly painful, not to mention high unlikely. Still, Tulley sweats out his shakes at Ludo’s Gym where a sign reads: “PLEASE DON’T SPIT ON THE FLOOR GET UP AND SPIT IN THE TOILET BOWL” and where dialogue like this can be overheard in the changing room:
“You want to know what (sic) make a good fighter?”
“It’s believing in yourself. That the will to win. The rest condition. You want to kick ass, you kick ass.”
When not training, Tulley is sopping up booze into bars, where sometimes people even recognize him as the promising fighter he once was. But then, he gets into a tangle with a malevolent female — a must in any noir novel — something like a trashier version of Holy Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Somehow, despite the archetypal characters, the story, thanks to its effortlessly sleek story, manages to move. Tulley’s struggle to make himself ¨kick ass¨ in the face of alcoholism and loneliness is tragic, and perhaps tragically outdated in this era of athletic competitiveness, but is told in such a way that the reader can’t help but want to save Tulley from one punishment or another. I was only disappointed when I found out Gardner hadn’t written any other novels.
Gardners‘s gruesome tell-it-like-it-is portrait of working class in California reminded me of another book that brims with fisticuffs, Ham on Rye. I should preface my description of the novel by saying that I’ve never been a Bukowksi lover. Since high school I thought his old man alcoholic misogyny was kind of boring, but this book is different from his others: his fictional self is only a pre-teen , plagued by acne, no chance at being cool, but angry enough so he isn’t the catch of the day for his belligerent friends who endlessly pull at their crotches, compare wieners, and fantasize about every female near them. Bukwoski writes:
Each afternoon after school there would be a fight between two of the older boys. It was always out by the back fence were there was never a teacher about. And the fights were never even; it was always a large boy against a smaller boy and the larger boy would beat the smaller boy with his fists, backing him into the fence. The smaller boy would attempt to fight back but it was useless. Soon his face was bloody, the blood running down into his shirt.
What I think makes this particular pointdexter protagonist so interesting is that he’s tougher than a stale piece of jerky, as are all the other kids. In this world, “even the sissies took their beatings quietly.” Zealously narrated kiddy fight scenes run like well told bar stories:
They squared off. Wagner had some good moves. He bobbed, he weaved, he shuffled his feet, he moved in and out, and he made little hissing sounds. He was impressive. He caught Moscowitz with three straight left jabs. Moscowitz just stood there with his hands at his sides. He didn’t know anything about boxing. Then Wagner cracked Moscowitz with a right on the jaw.
The interchange continues until Moscowitz turns the fight around:
Moscowitz was a puncher. He dug a left to that pot belly. Wagner grasped and dropped. He fell to both knees. His face was cut and bleeding. His chin was on his chest and he looked sick.
Paradoxically these school fights, although bloody, are nothing compared to the beatings Bukowski gets from his dad. In fact, these fights seem almost cathartic, a good thing in comparison to the much more serious and scary adult world that surrounds them.
Nearly everyone’s seen the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby starring Hillary Swank as a female boxer from the sticks, but not everyone knows it’s based on a short story by F.X. Toole. A fledgling writer most of his life, Toole was a cut man by trade, the guy in the corner who swabs and smears Vaseline on a fighter’s face, after having been told he was too old for a career in boxing. Although the stories in Rope Burns can be a bit repetitive (how many more down and out kids do we have to hear about) and sometimes cliché (see previous parenthetical remark), they have a lot of heart.
“Fightin Philly” describes a manager and his talented but injured light heavyweight fighter Mookie facing a title fight against a hardened Ugandan fighter in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Mookie has a leg injury. Like Yuri Foreman’s bout against Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium earlier this year — Foreman bravely, perhaps foolishly fought through two rounds wobbling — Mookie must fight his injury as much as his opponent. The match ends up even by the tenth round, or at least his corner man Con thinks. So, late in the fight – thanks to Con’s advice – Mookie manages to frazzle his opponent with a flurry attack that includes a low blow to frighten him. Afterward “he nailed him with big left hands and combinations to the head, which began to swell and make [the Ugandan] looked like a zombie.” Sadly, it isn’t enough and Mookie’s courage, training, and will aren’t enough. Maybe this story gets at me because I know someone like Mookie with 10-10 a professional record who insists on continuing to fight professionally.
Writers and boxers actually have something in common: nearly impossible odds at ever making it big; of course, it goes without saying that boxers get real bruises rather than just bruised egos. Toole definitely got this about boxing and literature, which is perhaps why he kept it up for so long. Unfortunately, he died before the movie adaptation of his book ever came out. Since his death, a posthumous novel Pound for Pound was published. I guess some guys just never go down.