One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes.
Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm.
Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel.
Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie.
All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky. He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books. A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too.
The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook:
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action.
If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading.
The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah
An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room.
It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right?
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it “genocide.” He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.
A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s: “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.”
This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read.
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself. But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.” The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while.
And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter.
The Given World by Marian Palaia
The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut.
The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more. Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface.
Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one.
Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh.
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart.
Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding.
But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy?
Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe.
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education.
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes!
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.”
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one.
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Books I Read in One Day (or in One or Two Multi-Hundred Page Chunks)
Best Depiction of Rural Indiana
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
Joe Meno’s latest novel is an incredible modern myth involving horses, a dying agrarian economy, and the idea of American masculinity, and it also happens to be the most spot-on depiction of north central Indiana in the mid-’90s I’ve ever read. See, I myself grew up in north central Indiana in the mid-’90s, and it’s not like I’ve spent the intervening years clamoring for its place in literature. “Will no one plumb the depths of Steuben County during the Clinton years?” was never the cry of my heart. But when I found it in the pages of this book, I was surprised by how deeply it affected me. Is this how New Yorkers feel every day of their lives? I met Joe Meno at a reading and we talked about Indiana, found out where the other person was from, and then said nice things to each other for five minutes because Hoosiers are raised to be pleasant.
Favorite Learned Tidbit of Presidential History
Woodrow Wilson had chronic digestive problems, which he referred to as “trouble in Central America.”
Convincing Proof that I’m the Center of the Universe
Sarah Vowell and David Mitchell are my two favorite living authors. Guns N’ Roses are my favorite band. Both Vowell and Mitchell published new books in October 2015. Both of those books mention Guns N’ Roses.
Annual Reminder that Geoff Dyer Is a Genius
It’s no secret around these parts that I love Geoff Dyer. Here’s a passage from But Beautiful that provided my most breathless two minutes of reading in 2015:
The city quiet as a beach, the noise of traffic like a tide. Neon sleeping in puddles. Places shutting and staying open. People saying goodbye outside bars, walking home alone. Work till going on, the city repairing itself.
At some time all cities have this feel: in London it’s at five or six on a winter evening. Paris has it too, late, when the cafes are closing up. In New York it can happen anytime: early in the morning as the light climbs over the canyon streets and the avenues stretch so far into the distance that it seems the whole world is city; or now, as the chimes of midnight hang in the rain and all the city’s longings acquire the clarity and certainty of sudden understanding. The day coming to an end and people unable to evade any longer the nagging sense of futility that has been growing stronger through the day, knowing that they will feel better when they wake up and it is daylight again but knowing also that each day leads to this sense of quiet isolation.
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Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet discusses a book about jazz. As the great Louis Armstrong once said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know. Ha ha ha ha ha! I’m just kidding. Jazz is a performance-based musical genre that originated in the African-American communities of the early 20th century, and is marked by syncopated beats and, frequently, improvisation.”
Discussed in this episode: But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz by Geoff Dyer, confusion, cross-genre literature, the meaning of life, fancy
writer switches, aircraft carriers, flying at night, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, sadness, pain, and heroin. Oh, and jazz!
Rejected as a musical accompaniment for this episode: Mike’s original jazz composition, “In a Bookish Mood,” performed entirely on the kazoo and theremin, two instruments Mike does not know how to play.
I was recently reading Paper Towns by John Green, and the young characters happened upon John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on vinyl. One of them was unfamiliar with Coltrane, which prompted his friend to say, “Trane’s playing is literally the most convincing proof of God’s existence I’ve ever come across.” The next day I was listening to A Love Supreme at my desk over and over for hours.
It’s not the first time a work of art had steered me towards something new. After I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I went to the Art Institute to see a Renoir that one of the book’s (real-life) characters had owned. And I somewhat blame my penchant for living on a dime in small, urban apartments by how taken I was, as a 14-year-old living in Indiana, by that enchanting 90-second opening of An American in Paris.
So I put the question out to my Millions colleagues: What works of art have you been introduced to by other works of art? The books, music, and films we love can be like trusted friends, recommending new authors or introducing us to kimchi. We all know that art changes lives in major ways, but how has it changed your life in minor ways?
— Janet Potter
Edan Lepucki: Literature doesn’t often lure me to other art, though I am comfortable blaming The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats for stoking my childhood dream to live in an apartment building. How exotic and mysterious! (Because I grew up in L.A., snow seemed downright impossible, and I didn’t even think to long for it.) I once (er, twice) put ice cream in my coffee after reading Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love; in it, the coffee shop owner Bradley talks about how the sweet concoction brightens your day — it does. I have made tacos after reading Kate Christensen’s Trouble, and I’m looking forward to following recipes from her forthcoming book, which is, fittingly, a food memoir called Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. If I ever have a real down-and-out nervous breakdown,I plan to spend my nights sleeping on a chaise lounge by my swimming pool (which I shall also procure), a la Maria in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.
Sonya Chung: My excuse is that I went to boarding school. We lived in a small New England town, and we had no television. This was during the late 80s, and pop culture essentially passed me by, especially music (I have not, to this day, seen MTV). Ever since, it’s been a kind of effort to connect with music, to organically happen upon what I like and want to listen to.
More often than not, it’s happened through film. I found Bonnie “Prince” Billy through the film Old Joy, The Cranberries via Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Aimee Mann via Magnolia, John Legend and The Fugees via Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Cat Stevens via Harold and Maude, Dianne Reeves via Good Night and Good Luck. I started listening to Eminem after 8 Mile, Pearl Jam after seeing Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, JT after The Social Network, more Bob Marley after seeing Marley, Bill Withers after Still Bill. It’s weird, I know — late to the party, possibly diluted, like reading the book after the movie comes out (and I haven’t even mentioned all of the music that I heard first on Glee). I suppose it’s my later-life version of that contextual thing that happens in youth: every song reminds you of a memorable night, or person, or emotion, and the music becomes a part of you, because you didn’t just listen to it, you experienced it; which is just how music, or a musician, sparks something for me through the medium of film — as an experience, a sense of interest or connection, that bears exploring. With good music, I figure, the party goes on; better late than never.
Nick Moran: Maybe I’m too suggestible, but I’ve a habit of absorbing bits of books I read. I used to think it was like literary osmosis — natural, spontaneous — but I’ve since noticed a primary trigger: food. In this respect, perhaps it’s more like literary Inception — involuntary, unconscious. Food references grab my attention even when they’re wildly inappropriate. I bought a doughnut right as I started reading Skippy Dies. I ordered fugu twice in Japan because I read People Who Eat Darkness on the plane over. I’ve tried to read on a full stomach, but it does me no good. Months later, these references might come back to me. It’s been over two years since I read Origins, but I’m still near-manic when I see pregnant women in public. Eat more salmon! I wish I could scream. (I’ve since disbarred myself from reading about childbirth.) The other day I finished reading The Westies, T.J. English’s salacious overview of Manhattan’s Irish mafia, and now I’m trying to eat a meal at all of the bars mentioned. Sometimes I reflect on this development shamefully. I really want to eat a meal where Mickey Featherstone shot a guy? And yet there’s nothing I can do. I am too easily swayed. I am biddable. One thing I know: it’ll get worse before it gets better. Next I’m reading The Master and Margarita. I’m told there are pickles. I’m told there are sausages.
Hannah Gersen: Several years ago, I fell under the spell of the poet Forrest Gander’s novel, As A Friend, which tells the story of an intense and ultimately tragic friendship between two men. At the center of the story is a charismatic young poet, Les, who everyone in the novel falls in love with, and who I quickly fell in love with, too. Some reviewers suggested that Les was based on the poet Frank Stanford, so I decided to track down some of his poems — it was my way of getting more of the Les character. His poems are intense and cinematic, full of dialogue and dialect, quick cuts and sneaky images. Death lurks at the edge of everything Stanford writes, but in his poems death is like a movie villain — you get a little thrill from seeing him.
Before reading As A Friend, I’d never heard of Stanford, but I soon learned that he was a favorite among poets, a cult figure who produced seven volumes of poetry before killing himself a few days before his 30th birthday. He grew up in Memphis and the Ozarks of Arkansas, an isolated mountain region, and his poems seem to come from a secret pocket of America. Stanford’s strangest and possibly most famous work is a long, messy epic called The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. I bought a copy of it, but admit I have never sat down and tried to read the whole thing in earnest, partially because it is so long (over 15,000 lines), but also because I think it might induce delirium. One day I’ll read it — actually, probably one night — but until then I am happy to reread Stanford’s shorter poems, as well as Gander’s As A Friend.
Elizabeth Minkel: I was eighteen. I suppose that’s as good an excuse as any. But I found myself, just before Christmas my freshman year, making plans to leave a cloistered liberal arts college in New England and head to New York. To study jazz. Jazz. There might have been a guy involved. But by then, my obsession with the music had overshadowed any of that — I was listening to it constantly, reading about it and puzzling over it and romanticizing it, wasting all of my money at the used CD shop in town, until one day, I popped into the used bookstore across the street and found the book. I’d never heard of Geoff Dyer, funny to think of that now, but the title was enough: But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.
I read it without stopping; I took it all in one breath. It’s as uncategorizable as anything Dyer’s ever written, but the back cover bills it as a series of vignettes, and that’s good enough: the stories are meant as echoes of their subjects’ music: Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. It was the first one, about Lester Young — “He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left” — that got me. By the end, I was gone. But that was the funny thing: this book did the exact opposite of what I’d meant it to do when I’d picked it up. But Beautiful knocked my world back into orbit: it reminded me that I’d spent most of my life deeply enamored of books. This is the book that made me want to write — write anything at all. By the spring, I was an English major.
In the comments: Tell us about works of art that introduced you to other works of art.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.
As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.
Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)
Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.
The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.
The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.
I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.
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Geoff Dyer is known as a writer who likes to wander all over the map. He has traveled from his native England to Italy, Algeria, Libya, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Nevada desert. Along the way he has written novels, reviews, criticism, essays, and reportage about whatever happened to interest him, which is to say just about everything. His subjects have included photography, jazz, writers and their writings, comics, haute couture, donuts, movies, and flying a MiG-29, getting fired, being an only child, living on the dole, and having sex in expensive hotels.
In the United States, Vintage has just brought out The Missing of the Somme, which was originally published in England back in 1994. On the surface the book is an examination of monuments to the millions who died in the First World War, but in essence it’s a meditation on the mechanisms and functions of memory. It has all the virtues Dyer’s fans have come to expect: it’s wildly original, richly researched, eccentric and funny and sad and brainy from beginning to end. Dyer spoke with The Millions recently by telephone from his home in London.
The Millions: Before we talk about your Somme book, let me ask you about the recent riots in London. Was your neighborhood affected?
Geoff Dyer: We were on vacation in Ibiza when it happened… We live in Notting Hill. It’s a very, very mixed neighborhood. There’s a combination of fantastically wealthy houses and all sorts of projects. A number of shop windows got smashed, a gang of forty hoodies stormed a fancy restaurant near here and were robbing everybody in the restaurant until they were fought off by the kitchen staff. So it was really nearby, and it’s possible it seemed even scarier at a distance than it might have done if we were here.
TM: I was a teenager in Detroit in 1967, when that city exploded and 43 people got killed. It was the worst riot in American history and its cause is pretty clear, at least to me: Black people were tired of being ignored by politicians and mistreated by the cops. Do you think that was the case in London too – or was it more complicated than that, more difficult to understand?
GD: There are signs of a degree of racial integration here, actually. Apart from that incident in Birmingham, where the three Asian guys were run over by a car driven by black guys, it’s been a long while since we’ve had anything in Britain that resembles a race riot. You could say this was a riot of the disenfranchised or the underclass, but certainly not a race riot. I think race here is nothing like the problem it is in the States.
TM: Let’s talk about your book. I’m curious what drove you to write a book that, on the surface at least, is about monuments to people who died in First World War. It doesn’t seem like your kind of subject. What led you to write this book?
GD: First of all, I would say I’ll give you ten dollars if you can tell me what a Geoff Dyer subject is [laughs].
TM: You got me there. That’s fair enough.
GD: I’ve written about so many different things, and there’s no telling what I’m going to write about next. In a way, this was one of the least surprising things for me to turn to, if only because the First World War occupies such a central position in the collective memory of all British people. And although it’s very much about my particular experience of the memory of it – which overlaps not only with people my age, but people of all ages – the shadow cast by the First World War is really huge. For many people in Britain, their first introduction to poetry is the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen.
TM: You write in the book, “The issue, in short, is not simply the way the war generates memory, but the way memory has determined – and continues to determine – the meaning of the war.” Can you describe the meaning of the war?
GD: Always in the book I’m just trying to articulate impressions of it. It’s certainly not a history book. I always have faith in this idea that if I remain honest and open about my own confusion, the blurriness of my impressions – it’s not because I’m short-witted or stupid – the chances are those feelings will be shared by other people. And I just had this very distinct sense of the First World War as being something rather buried in its own memory. There’s so much discussion, as the war is going on, about how it will be remembered, or if it will be forgotten. So right from the start it just seems preoccupied with how it will be remembered. The other crucial thing is that distinction I make with the Robert Capa pictures of D-Day, where it all seems to hang in the balance and there’s a great sense of immediacy. With the First World War there’s no immediacy to it. It comes buried in so many layers of myth and memory.
TM: Speaking of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Capa, I think of the First World War as a very literary war, much like the American Civil War. Whereas the Second World War was much more photographic.
GD: Yes, I agree.
TM: You end your book with a visit to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, designed by Edwin Lutyens. You call it a memorial to “the superfluousness of God” and you add that it’s “not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy, of birth as well as of death: a memorial to the future.” This seems to touch the heart of this book. Tell me about this link between memory and prophecy, past and future, people remembering something even before it has happened.
GD: I guess in many ways you could see the First World War as the beginning of the twentieth century proper. That’s the war that breaks the continuum. It’s when the old imperial orders start to break up. It’s a convenient cut-off point for the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Also this thing of commemoration and the memorials, in some ways there is a prophetic quality to it. Again, as I mentioned, the twentieth century was the century of disappearances on a huge scale, whether people disappear in the Holocaust, the famine in the Ukraine –
TM: The gulags.
GD: Exactly, the gulags, all of this kind of stuff. In that respect, and in its peculiarly atheistic style – which was the product of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the predisposition of Lutyens himself – the monument at Thiepval seems prophetic.
TM: Lutyens made the monument to the Missing of the Somme very religion-free, didn’t he?
GD: Yes. There were people who wanted a bit more religion in it, but I think it works very effectively. I make this contrast between the aspiring nature of, say, a cathedral and its endlessly upward-reaching quality, and the stubborn, land-locked, defiant, earth-bound kind of construction that Lutyens came up with.
TM: It’s immobile, and certainly the opposite of ethereal.
GD: Indeed, yes.
TM: To go back to the idea of memory and prophecy. In your recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there’s an essay about Oradour-sur-Glane, the French town where the Germans massacred the citizens during the Second World War. You write about the untouched ruins of the town: “Like all monuments, the ruins at Oradour were intended not simply to preserve the past but to address the future. To that extent they are like a bid at prophecy, an attempt to call into being. And what is called into being by these ruins is – in a final paradoxical resolution – the moment when this process of restoration is complete. Only then can they be forgotten.” Do you think, then, that forgetting the ultimate goal of remembering?
GD: Well, I can’t remember where it is, but there’s a Holocaust memorial which is designed in such a way that it’s going subside into the ground an inch or two every year. The idea being that by the time it physically disappears there will be no need for it because it will be permanently installed in everybody’s memory. The tricky thing with Oradour is that they had this nice idea of leaving everything as it was – and it’s a very intense and moving place – but time and nature have worked on it so it’s in danger of becoming too ruined. So now they’re faced with the question of should they take steps to artificially preserve it or just let it rot away?
TM: So they’re talking about sending a ruins-maintenance crew out there?
GD: Yes, exactly, there’ve been all sorts of discussions about it. This is something I’m consistently interested in – places where time has stood its ground. I like the particular charge of that. It’s something I address in my Yoga book (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It), where I talk both about the ruins in Rome and, of course, the much more recent ruins in Detroit.
TM: And certainly the monument to the Missing of the Somme is part of that thing, of time standing its ground.
GD: Yes. When you’re there you’re so conscious that you’re coming into a place where history is manifest as geography. The temporal manifests itself in terms of the spatial. I’m always drawn to places like that, whether they’re old places that have fallen into ruins or modern places like the ones I wrote about in the New Yorker recently, the Lightning Field and the Spiral Jetty.
TM: Elsewhere in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, you were reminiscing about your heady days of living on the dole in London back in the 1980s. You wrote, “I liked the idea of writing because that was a way of not having a career.” Now here we are, a quarter of a century has rolled by. Do you still feel that way, that writing is a way of not having a career?
GD: I suppose by now I am somewhat more conscious of it as a career. In some ways, I think I was quite lucky, looking back, that my early books had such a distinct lack of success. So I was able to write things without any sense of whether they had any commercial potential. The books were all sooooo unsuccessful, nobody had any expectations, and I was certainly under no pressure from publishers. Although that was a source of grievance to me and somewhat of a mystery – I was constantly amazed that the books were doing so badly [laughs] – I can see that was a liberation as well.
TM: The Missing of the Somme originally appeared in England in, what, 1994?
TM: Why the 17-year lag? Are American publishers just stupid? Why does it take so long for foreign books to make their way to America?
GD: In the case of this particular book, I hadn’t published anything in America at that point. I was still pretty well seething with indignation that But Beautiful, my jazz book, had not been published in America. That seemed so weird to me. And that was the fault of the British publisher, by the way. So anyway, this funny little essay on the missing of the Somme would have been a weird one to start with. Partly because, at that point, nobody knew who I was in America, and partly because the First World War was missing altogether from the bookshelves of American stores. It went straight from the American Civil War to the Spanish Civil War. Back in 2001, Vintage U.S. wanted to publish The Missing of the Somme, but I’d given away the American rights to the British publisher to distribute it in the U.S. So Vintage wanted something I no longer had. That was just awful, really. So Vintage acquired the rights, not from me, but from the British publisher, who were being such complete shits all the time, just hanging onto something that they didn’t even want. The bottom line is that it is out in America now, and I’m really glad it is even though it’s fifteen, sixteen years late. But I’m still around to enjoy it.
TM: That brings us, finally, to your new gig, writing for The New York Times Book Review. We started off talking about the fact that there’s no such thing as a typical Geoff Dyer subject. But I must tell you, it seems to me like a strange marriage – that guy with the bong on the roof, living on the dole in London, now he’s writing for the Gray Lady. What happened, did they make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
GD: To jump from the bong on the roof to now, that’s quite a fast-forward! The bong on the roof was me in my late twenties – and when you talk about the Gray Lady, well, I’m this gray-haired, middle-aged guy now. It would be awful if I was still under the delusion that I was in my late twenties. This seems quite an appropriate gig.
TM: How often will your column appear in the Times?
GD: For a while I did a weekly column for The Guardian, and the awful thing about a weekly column is that it seems to come around daily. This will be a monthly column, which for me is already starting to feel like it’s coming around weekly.
TM: What are you working on now? Do you have a new book in the works?
GD: I have a book coming out in January or February. It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film.
TM: Will it be coming out in the States too?
GD: Yes. I think at this point the subject of the books is less important in determining their fate than the fact that they’re by me. Let’s say early on, a publisher sees me as an unknown guy writing about the First World War, sort of an unattractive subject. But now we’ve got this guy who’s a bit better known in the States, who’s writing about a subject that’s not as appealing as, I don’t know, the rise of the Tea Party – but hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.
TM: Are you going to go back to writing fiction anytime soon?
GD: I wouldn’t rule it out, but I certainly feel that ultimately I’ll have a longer life as an essayist than I would as a fiction writer, even though the distinction means nothing to me. But I’m a rather limited kind of fiction writer, whereas there will be plenty of things I’ll want to continue to write about in the realm of the essay, or as a critic, or whatever.
TM: Best of luck with The Missing of the Somme in the States.
GD: Well, thank you. Been nice talking to you.
Image credit: Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme via WW1 Battlefields
“On Repetition” was delivered as a craft talk at the 2010 Tin House Writers Workshop.
Not long ago, James Wood wrote a review of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that struck me as a bit myopic. It wasn’t what Wood said about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that seemed short-sighted to me – it was what he said about the rest of Dyer’s career. Wood just didn’t get it, he admitted. None of Dyer’s books seemed to fit together – they were all about different things! And they’d all been executed in different ways too, almost as though they weren’t even by the same writer! What’s a critic supposed to do when a writer keeps on trying new things? Read it all? Sheesh! Who’s got time for that? Don’t you people understand deadlines?
I’m picking on James Wood here – and I like James Wood, I think the literary world is vastly richer for James Wood’s voice and presence in it – because he sort of duffed this one. There is a kind of common denominator in Dyer’s work, and tapping into it, I think, is central to coming to an understanding of at least one way to approach the craft of creative nonfiction, and it says something too about the state of literature today.
Also not long ago, Geoff Dyer wrote a review of Don Delillo’s Point Omega that was also myopic. Dyer complained that what Delillo had done in Point Omega had been done before and better, by Delillo himself. This is interesting not just because it’s the exact opposite of Wood’s criticism of Dyer. It’s interesting because it’s a crime – if it’s a crime – of which Geoff Dyer is also guilty. That guy whose books are a problem because they aren’t anything like one another has also made the mistake of saying the same thing over and over. I’m quite sure this accounts for Geoff Dyer’s wide-ranging popularity.
As I see it, Dyer has two modes as a writer. First he has a kind of rakish mode in which he serves himself up as a leaner, wimpier version of James Bond, that post-Empire Brit superspy who shuttles around the world bedding as many women as he can. Truth be told, Dyer’s travel writing can seem a bit like this at times. But of course while James Bond saves the planet again and again – reminding the rest of the world that, while the Empire might be over, and England has surely seen her best days, the world still needs her (which suggests in turn that James Bond is a kind of Frodo Baggins with a tuxedo and a Beretta) – Dyer, by contrast, in his rakish mode, just seems to limp around and hang out and say funny, foolish things and get girls anyway. But the Dyer/Bond parallel is there. Don’t get me wrong. I like Geoff Dyer, and I even like the rakish mode of Dyer. I like it even though it creates arguments every time my girlfriend and I take turns reading Dyer passages back and forth in the bathtub. But it’s also this Dyer mode that is susceptible to repetition. I’m not going to list examples here (and I guess I’m not surprised that Wood didn’t note them), because that’s not what this essay is trying to do, but suffice it to say that Dyer’s guilt over having hiked back across terrain his work had already mapped enabled him to recognize when Delillo was doing the same thing. One can imagine Dyer’s stream of thought: Ah-ha, Delillo, I see you! I see what you’re doing. I do it myself from time to time, though maybe I don’t recognize it until later, and even though I can acknowledge that there might be good reasons why a writer would repeat himself, I’m not, in a spirit of writerly camaraderie, going to let it pass this time. No! Instead, I will make a big fucking deal about it in the New York Times because that’s what James Fucking Wood just did to me.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention that I think the literary world is vastly richer for Geoff Dyer’s voice and presence in it.
All of which adds up to a kind of contradictory set of truths about books and publishing in the abstract: don’t repeat yourself, and don’t write books that are too different from one another. Other writers will pillory you for the first, and publishers will be more than happy to pigeonhole you from the moment you achieve anything like success. Blow out your advance? Great. Now write the same exact book again.
Thinking about books and publishing in the abstract was exactly what I was doing around about 1999, when I was a decade out from my degree at Iowa, had a dozen short stories but no collection published, and the pages of a failed novel sat scattered all over my crappy apartment as though to collect the droppings of a huge collection of homing pigeons that never came home. I was working then as a part-time casino dealer in Atlantic City, and though I’d once turned up my nose at nonfiction, I was now at least trying to turn up my nose at a career as a casino dealer in Atlantic City. After a not inconsiderable effort I had managed to sell an idea for a book of nonfiction. I say I’d been thinking in the abstract because it wasn’t really until I’d signed the contract – nonfiction tending to sell by way of book proposal (the writer is a kind of sub-contractor, perhaps like a plumber who shows up only occasionally and always late once he’s so underbid his competitors that he’s barely making enough to feed himself, let alone be on time) – not until then did it really occur to me that I’d actually have to write a book of nonfiction. This realization manifested itself physiologically as panic, a sudden peculiar sensation all across the body: it felt, instantaneously, as though every piece of myself was being worked on by some occult vibration, that every part of me had begun to jiggle with manic energy, and every cell, every nucleus, every mitochondria, seemed on the brink of imploding like a cathode-ray tube or a dwarf star going supernova. In other words, I fucking freaked out.
In a way, it was good that I lived in Atlantic City at this time. I’d had a number of writer friends, of course, from previous stints in graduate school, but after I went to Atlantic City these relationships had tended to fade, as is perhaps only natural. I say this is good because it meant that I had only one writer friend I could call and fucking freak out to. And I did. This friend had written several books by then, and what I did – working on the theory that previous experience writing books gives one insight as to how the process can and should be embarked upon – was call him and ask, well, so, how do you write a book? My friend didn’t know. My friend had no idea how to write a book. It turned out that he had managed to write several books without ever either acquiring the first thing one should know or formulating any general principle about writing books. Our conversation quickly became a discussion of how on earth he was going to figure out how to write his next book. When I hung up, I was left alone with my book contract and my panic in my empty roost in Atlantic City.
So here’s what I did: I invented the idea of the book.
The book was to be about chess – the game, chess. In Atlantic City, I’d gotten to know an African American chess master named Glenn Umstead, a kind of quirky guy with a difficult personality who was nevertheless one of just forty black men in the history of the world to have achieved chess’s master ranking. That’s sounds pretty straightforward, but saying you’re going to write a buddy story/subculture book – which is pretty much what I said in my book proposal – is a whole lot easier than coming up with a way of actually executing it. I’m exaggerating a bit when I say I invented the idea of the book, but that’s how it felt as I was doing it – it felt as though I was inventing literature wholesale. And that moment when I acquired my essential strategy was recorded in the book itself:
…I wanted to write something about the game. But I still didn’t know what it was.
My relationship with Glenn began to change. Now that I was a lay historian, our bond became a version of the classic conflict between player of the game and student of the game… We were an even odder couple now. He was black and I was white, and we were like chessmen opposed on a board that was the game itself.
From there, the book came not easily but possibly – it was possible now. What I’d learned was that the way to write a book was to let the subject matter tell you how it ought to be written about.
And it turns out that’s the common denominator of Geoff Dyer’s other mode as a writer: the mode when he stops trying to lay girls and gets down to the hard work of reading, writing, and thinking. A couple examples. Dyer’s book-length fret over D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, emphasizes on a number of occasions that its method is lifted from its subject: “If this book aspires to the condition of notes that is because, for me, Lawrence’s prose is at its best when it comes closest to notes.” And in introducing the partially imagined narratives of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer again lets the subject inspire the form he’ll use to examine it:
These episodes are part of a common repertory of anecdote and information – “standards” in other words, and I do my own versions of them, stating the identifying facts more or less briefly and then improvising around them, departing from them completely in some cases. This may mean being less than faithful to the truth but, once again, it keeps faith with the improvisational prerogatives of the form.
There are many examples of this outside of Dyer. One is Andrei Codrescu’s recent The Post Human Dada Guide, which executes a Dadaist encyclopedia of Dada. Another is Jay Kirk’s soon to be released Kingdom Under Glass, which reassambles the facts of the biography of taxidermist Carl Akeley so as to create an Akeley-inspired diorama of his life. But what’s already apparent is that this divining of one’s method from one’s subject is not only a way to make a book seem possible as you approach it, it’s also a way to avoid repetition, to bring to every work the excitement of invention while retaining some essential version of the self: the common denominator of one’s books being not their subject matter, but their organizing intellect, their animating spirit – their author, after all.
Not long after my book about chess appeared and chalked up a handful of prominent, promising reviews, my editor asked me to come to New York. She bought me lunch, chatted me up. We talked about the future. She wanted me to write another book about chess. “Maybe a chess mystery,” she said, jiggling her shoulders in what was either a fair imitation of a stripper twirling her pasties or a hopeful anticipation of the reaction readers might have to the book she proposed. I actually considered this offer for a moment. There is a true story about a famous chess player being called in to assist with a serial killer investigation. But that moment didn’t last long. I realized almost at once that I would simply be repeating myself.
And the truth is, I don’t want to be a writer like that: a writer so imprisoned by their subject matter – chess writer, food writer, religion writer, etc. – that if they ever depart from it, if their publishers ever let them depart from it, you can be pretty sure that their departures will have only that level of appeal, the appeal of something attempting, straining, struggling and probably failing to branch out. I don’t think that’s the ideal literary life. And yet, to reiterate, this is something writers are more or less forever doing – repeating themselves, writing figurative if not literal sequels, trying to please again and again the same readers they pleased once – and other writers who are guilty of the same thing admonish them for it, again and again.
So I have tried to be a little different. I went on to write a Jamesian biography of William James, and I cringed anew when my (new) editor told me that he wished the book had been a bit more like my first. Whatever, dude. From there, I set out to write a history of utopian thought and literature that would stylistically emulate Thomas More’s original Utopia, which blended a kind of analytical discourse with what scholars called “speaking pictures” – narrative.
There were two basic problems with this. First, I had already written about utopian concepts. I had grown up on a street called Utopia Road in a master-planned community, “Utopia Road” was the title of both my MFA thesis and one of my early short stories, and, to be fully honest, there was palpable utopian fascination in both my chess and James books. In other words, I was repeating myself. No, no – worse than that! I was repeating the shit out of myself! The second problem was that Thomas More had been repeating, too. He was repeating Lucian and Plato and Erasmus and Machiavelli. And soon enough, others were repeating More, repeating Utopia. In fact, others repeated Utopia so often that it became its own genre of literature – a genre so powerful that “utopia” not only became a word, it completed the demigod leap from noun to adjective. You’ll probably better appreciate Thomas More’s Utopia if I tell you not that it’s the most influential novel in the history of mankind, but that it’s the only book whose author is known that has its own index entry in the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s pretty damn impressive – and it’s all a function of repetition. Sort of.
And there’s another problem too – a third problem – because thinking about these two modes of Utopia, discourse and narrative, makes it pretty clear that I’ve been unfair to Geoff Dyer, that his two modes, critic and rake, basically fall under this same description. Indeed, it seems to me now that Dyer’s entire career can be understood as a Utopia-like toggling back and forth – sometimes within a single book, sometimes from book to book – between narrative and analytic modes, and this is what James Wood couldn’t see, couldn’t appreciate, and which I came to appreciate only as a function of the panic that set in when I had to stop thinking about books in the abstract and actually write one.
In 1936, James Agee, two years out from a book of poems and “on loan from the Federal Government,” was assigned to write a series of documentary articles about Alabama tenant farmers for Fortune magazine. One can be pretty sure that Agee’s editor had some ideas about what he wanted to print – his readers had certain expectations based on what they’d read in the magazine before, and Agee’s assignment was to repeat that formula. That’s not what he did. Instead, he produced hundreds of pages of wildly poetic, passionate description of a few families from which he had strived to maintain no objective distance at all. The series of articles was promptly canceled; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was not published until 1941; sales remained dismal until the book was rediscovered in 1960.
What’s relevant about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for us, in this essay, is that right in the middle of it Agee pauses in his narrative and delivers a lengthy discussion of what he’s trying to do. It is the bit of analytical discourse to which he has toggled from his narrative descriptions of tenant farmer life. As a kind of set piece, this section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written long before Truman Capote and John McPhee and Geoff Dyer, serves as almost a post-facto manifesto of “creative nonfiction.” This manifesto insists on a stark distinction between creative prose and journalism, and in discussing an attempt to describe a hypothetical street it distinguishes Agee’s methodology from “naturalism:”
As nearly as possible in words (which, even by grace of genius, would not be very near) you try to give the street in its own terms: that is to say, either in the terms in which you…see it, or in a reduction and depersonalization into terms which will as nearly as possible be the “private,” singular terms of that asphalt, those neon letters, those and all other items combined, in that alternation, that simultaneity, of flat blank tremendously constructed chords and of immensely elaborate counterpoint which is the street itself.
I take Agee to mean that subjects ought to reveal themselves to you, that the writer’s job, the writer’s craft, is to be attentive to that which shall be rendered. A street will reveal to you the terms, the vocabulary, with which it ought to described just as surely as an abstract concept like William James or taxidermy or chess will proffer its proper strategy after some lengthy period of measured, painful, and above all, literary, meditation. Agee goes on to argue that words necessarily fail, and in so doing he echoes – or rather, anticipates – Dyer’s hope for what a creative use of language and form can bring to a consideration of jazz:
Words cannot embody; they can only describe. But a certain kind of artist, whom we will distinguish from others as a poet rather than a prose writer, despises this fact about words or his medium, and continually brings words as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment. In doing so he accepts a falsehood but makes, of a sort in any case, better art.
Ostensibly, this is an essay about the craft of creative nonfiction. But I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that it’s dangerous to say too much too definitively about craft in the abstract. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed by a project – that’s good. If you have absolutely no idea how or where to begin – that’s good too. No matter where one is in one’s career, a writer, it seems to me, ought to feel more or less completely at sea as they begin to approach the question or the subject they hope to address. There are two kinds of repetition. There is the kind we find inside our work, the themes that burble up lava-like from our subconscious again and again, and which we cannot resist and should not, I think, criticize in others. And then there is the repetition that ought to be resisted, that which gives us a program, a strategy that can be applied to any subject. This we should criticize in others. Art should never be the result of habit, it should strive eternally for the fresh and the new even when we work in forms we did not invent. Craft, we should vigilantly remind ourselves, means to make something absolutely new where before there was nothing at all.