There is a long-standing debate about a critical aspect of the novel-writing process. Currently and colloquially in some annexes of the writing community it’s been playfully termed the “pantsing vs. plotting/outlining/planning” debate. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants: they write and see where it takes them. Planners, well, plan before they write.
Precedent and vehement feeling may be marshaled in favor of both approaches.
Virginia Woolf took copious notes before she wrote her novels, as did Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov (his notes on index cards). William Faulkner scribbled his outline for A Fable on a wall which his wife tried to paint over. Joseph Heller created an extensive spreadsheet for the correspondences between various plots in Catch-22.
James Joyce, though, thought “a book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.” Mark Twain too, insisted that a book “write itself” and that “the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations…I put it away…The reason was very simple — my tank had run dry; it was empty…the story could not go on without materials; it could not be wrought out of nothing.” Ernest Hemingway said much the same, and believed in simply pouring out what was within, stopping each day before he was completely empty, and resuming the next.
And of course there are many other points along the continuum. Italo Calvino started from an image and then expanded it. “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it,” says Katherine Anne Porter. And writers’ processes may be regarded differently by themselves than by others. George Eliot may have been prompted by the serial format of Middlemarch to unify her novel more than it otherwise would have been, but she nevertheless considered her work more as “experiments in life” than “moralized fables, the last word of a philosophy endeavoring to teach by example,” as Henry James remarked of her work.
The divide exists with equal prominence in more mass market or “genre” schools. There the archetypal planner might be someone like J.K. Rowling, who extensively outlined the Harry Potter series, or John Grisham, who reportedly outlines each of his books prior to writing them. Stephen King, on the other hand, thinks it’s “dishonest” to pre-determine a plot, and William Gibson dislikes planned writing, which he considers to smack of “homework.” Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem likened his writing process to “dipping a thread in a liquid solution of sugar; after a while crystals of sugar begin to settle on the thread, and it grows thicker and thicker, it puts on flesh, so to speak,” and this is reminiscent of what fantasy author Neil Gaiman says of his novels: that they “accrete.” Lem’s description is reminiscent of what Stendhal says in his deliciously acute Love of the idealization involved in passionate love. When a twig is left in the salt mines, Stendhal writes, it eventually emerges utterly sheathed in delicate, interlacing crystals. In the same way, a person in love encloses their beloved in a seamless vestment of imagined perfections (never, however, with less ground in reality than the shape of the crystals have in the topography of the underlying twig). Perhaps writers like Lem need to idealize their work before writing it.
Authors like Raymond Chandler and George R.R. Martin claim that if they planned, they would lose all motivation to write. The latter makes a distinction between “architects” and “gardeners.” Architects plan rigorously and then construct; gardeners plant seeds and water them, and that creates the novel over time.
These divisions are not to deny the facts that writing itself constitutes a kind of planning, if only in retrospect, and that the lines between glimmering visions, developed thoughts, preparatory notes, preliminary sketches, and first drafts blur. Planners certainly do not and cannot plan everything, and even the incorrigibly spontaneous no doubt fall into certain involuntary spasms of planning.
One distinction by which the controversy might be clarified is the mental state involved in the writing process. Many pantsers view the ideal state of writing as akin to a waking dream. Stephen King claims to pass into reverie when he writes, and Ray Bradbury said much the same, cautioning writers to be driven by emotion and not intellect if they wish to experience that state (“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”), which he associates with intense joy.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, love, lunacy and poetry are all related, and so of course Delphic prophecy of old is practically the picture of divine inspiration. The idea of divine madness possessing poets and prophets (and I include novelists under these grand rubrics) is an old one. Kalidasa, the Indian poet, is said to have had the sigil of inspiration painted on his tongue by the goddess, after which the waters of creativity simply poured forth. Madness and divine inspiration here are opposed to calm, clear, intellectual rationality and planning.
There seems to be a separation, then, between the novel whose genesis arises from its creator’s excitement, which, channeled into a dream-like state, throws off what comes to mind in an almost automatic process, and the novel which has its development in a more intentional, cerebral decision, one in which feeling and thought are more nearly equal partners, and which conceives what it wants before it deliberately strives to fulfill that conception.
Planning in a sense takes place in both models. In the case of the planners, it’s a more explicit, thinking kind of planning, whereas in the case of the pantsers it’s an unthinking planning that takes place by way of that first draft.
And that distinction may well mean different parts of the brain or mind function to conceptualize the basic structure of the novel. In everyday social interaction, we understand what another person means by their actions and words by putting ourselves in their place and simulating what we would do in their place. This is not usually a conscious process. There is evidence that when readers read stories, they identify with the characters and do much the same thing.
It may be the case that pantsers engage in this kind of imaginative and empathic recreation when they tell stories, which is precisely why they cannot plan. They have to tell the story in order to know its contours and structure. They have to place themselves in the minds of the characters and then simulate what the characters do. This may be why Hilary Mantel calls writing her fiction an activity akin to acting.
These writers work by faith that their emotions channel into words a latent object which will later prove to possess a structure. The act by which one constructs characters, subjects them to some shock or hinders their desire by some obstacle, and then simply follows them in one’s imagination as they respond, is the empathic creative process.
This empathic process relates, too, to the possibility of characters which somehow take control and even surprise their creator.
That this could even happen is a matter of controversy. Jorge Luis Borges, admittedly not a novelist, is skeptical that such a thing is not merely authorial self-deception. He found preposterous the idea that characters could truly buck their author.
Yet Leo Tolstoy claimed surprise at what his characters did, in particular expressing shock at one of Anna Karenina’s most infamous acts.
Indeed, a reverie-writer like Stephen King considers it dishonest when a writer pre-determines a plot instead of simply giving the characters the situation and following what they do. J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that he had long ago learned not to determine by fiat what characters would do, and to let them determine their own actions instead, and Bradbury says that the plot is simply the footprints of the characters sprinting toward their desires.
And yet here too there are strong crossovers.
The planner William Faulkner said, after all, that this is precisely what he did with As I Lay Dying: “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress.” And it was a book for which he claimed to know practically every word prior to writing anything down. More broadly he claimed of each of his books that “there is always a point…where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job — say somewhere about page 275.”
And Henry James thought through a situation and then expanded in his mind the ramifications of that situation. It started for him with a little “seed” or “virus” which then he then expanded into its inevitable implications, structured into a novel, and then wrote. He took distinct pleasure in rendering visible the intricate organism into which the situational seed blossomed — an empathic approach, yet filtered through a powerful planning intellect.
Planning is often connected to a desire to use fiction to explicate an idea. That makes sense, since such a desire requires intellectual foresight and control.
Dostoevsky wrote his extensive notes no doubt because his works had to illustrate complex philosophical ideas like the “positive idea of beauty” in The Idiot, or the possibility of acting beyond morality in Crime and Punishment.
Marcel Proust famously wrote that he was overjoyed when one of his readers realized that his work was in fact a “dogmatic work and a construction,” that is — that it had been fashioned according to a plan to demonstrate certain principles. Proust was not, contrary to popular opinion, merely trying to recreate old memories. He was trying to demonstrate certain philosophical, psychological, and literary ideas, and these manifested in his work. He admired the idea of Gothic cathedrals and thought of his work architecturally, or with the unity of painting or a great symphony, and drew his characters and situations from memory accordingly. He claims, indeed, to have possessed no imagination at all, though this remark likely ought to be taken about as seriously as Montaigne’s claims to a poor memory and and dull storytelling ability.
And yet even here there are complications. Ray Bradbury mentions that when he writes, a second self arises and does all the writing; his muse does all the work. In strange analogy with that view is Proust’s strongly-held position that the real life of the writer cannot tell us anything important about the authorial self, which be known only in the artistic creation. Yet this in itself does not tell us much about the planning debate, because that second self, that other self, may be precisely the self of reflection rather than the automatic, unconscious self which manifests when the intellect suspends itself in a reverie. On the other hand, Proust himself firmly holds that for an artist, “instinct” is king, and that intellect, by its own lights, bows in acknowledgement of this fact. Unfortunately, he never defines just what instinct is or how it is to be accessed in the writing process, excusing himself with an idea that Faulkner independently and no less staunchly adumbrates: that finally, there are no rules to writing.
Perhaps, as Henry James put it, “the general considerations fail or mislead, and…even the fondest of artists need ask no wider range than the logic of the particular case.”
Last week, we previewed 93 works of fiction due out in the second half of 2016. Today, we follow up with 44 nonfiction titles coming out in the next six months, ranging from a new rock memoir by Bruce Springsteen to a biography of one our country’s most underrated writers, Shirley Jackson, by critic Ruth Franklin. Along the way, we profile hotly anticipated titles by Jesmyn Ward, Tom Wolfe, Teju Cole, Jennifer Weiner, Michael Lewis, our own Mark O’Connell, and many more.
Break out the beach umbrellas and the sun block. It’s shaping up to be a very hot summer (and fall!) for new nonfiction.
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky: Advice from “Polly,” New York magazine’s online column for the lovelorn, career-confused, adulthood-challenged, and generally angsty. Havrilesky pours her heart into her answers, offering guidance that is equal parts tough love, “I’ve been there,” and curveball. This collection includes new material as well as previously published fan favorites. (Hannah)
Trump: A Graphic Biography by Ted Rall: Just in time for the Republican convention, cartoonist Rall follows his recent graphic bios of Sen. Bernie Sanders and CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden with a comic book peek into the life and times of America’s favorite short-fingered vulgarian. Given that Rall once called on Barack Obama to resign, saying the 44th president made “Bill Clinton look like a paragon of integrity and follow-through,” it’s a safe bet that Trump won’t be flogging this one on his campaign website. (Michael)
Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey: A biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the founder and creator of Cosmopolitan magazine, following Brown from her upbringing in the Ozarks to her freewheeling single years in L.A. to her rise in the New York advertising and magazine world. The “fun, fearless” editor lived large and worked hard, embracing new sexual and economic freedoms and teaching other women to do the same by offering candid advice on sex, love, money, career, and friendship. (Hannah)
Bush by Jean Edward Smith: He did it his way. According to Smith, author of previous bios of Dwight D. Eisenhower and F.D.R., President George W. Bush relied on his religious faith and gut instinct to make key decisions of his presidency, including the fateful order to invade Iraq a year and a half after the 9/11 attacks. Only in the final months of his second term, with the banking system nearing collapse, did the “Decider-in-Chief” pay closer attention to expert advice and take actions that pulled the world economy back from the brink. (Michael)
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman: Fans of This American Life might recognize Braverman from Episode 558, “Game Face”, in which Braverman, working as a dog musher, got stuck in a storm on an Alaskan glacier with a group of tourists who had no idea of the danger they were in. Her memoir describes her tendency to court danger as she ventures into the arctic, a landscape that is not only physically exhausting but also a man’s world that doesn’t have much room for a young woman. (Hannah)
The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese: Some questioned Talese’s journalistic ethics when an excerpt from this book was published in The New Yorker in April. Others admired it as an endurance feat of reporting. Talese spent decades corresponding and visiting a voyeuristic motel owner, Gerald Foos, who constructed a motel that allowed him to secretly spy on his guests. After 35 years, Foos agreed to let Talese reveal his identity and lifelong obsession with voyeurism. In the weeks leading up to publication, Talese has admitted that some of the facts in the book are wrong and told The Washington Post that he won’t be promoting it. Then he told the The New York Times he would be promoting it. We don’t know what to make of it all, either. You’ll just have to read the book and decide for yourself. (Hannah)
Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye: Drawing on interviews, unpublished memoirs, newly released government files, “and fifty-eight boxes of papers that had been under lock and key for the past forty years,” Tye traces Bobby Kennedy’s journey from 1950s cold warrior to 1960s liberal icon following the assassination of his older brother, John, in 1963. In an era when presidential candidates are routinely excoriated for decades-old policy positions, it can be instructive to recall that the would-be savior of the urban poor began his public life just 15 years earlier as counsel to red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (Michael)
The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward: Fifty-three years after James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, and one year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s scalding book-length meditation on race, Between the World and Me, Ward has collected 18 essays by some of the country’s foremost thinkers on race in America, including Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. “To Baldwin’s call we now have a choral response — one that should be read by every one of us committed to the cause of equality and freedom,” says historian Jelani Cobb.
The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik: This parenting book takes issue with the culture of “parenting,” a hyper-vigilant, goal-oriented style of childcare that leaves children and caregivers exhausted. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, and the author of The Philosophical Baby, argues that parents should adopt a looser style, one that is more akin to gardening than building a particular structure. Her metaphor is backed up by years of research and observation. (Hannah)
Scream by Tama Janowitz: A memoir from the author of Slaves of New York, the acclaimed short story collection about young people trying to make it in downtown Manhattan in the 1980s. Following the publication of Slaves, Janowitz was grouped with the “Brat Pack” writers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney famed for their deadpan minimalist style. Scream reflects on that time, as well as the more universal life experiences that followed as Janowitz became a wife, mother, and caregiver to her aging mother. (Hannah)
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin: As the author of The Run of His Life, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and A Vast Conspiracy, about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, Toobin is no stranger to tabloid-drenched legal sagas, which makes him an ideal guide to the media circus surrounding Patty Hearst’s 1974 kidnapping and later trial for bank robbery. Drawing on interviews and a trove of previously unreleased records, Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer, tries to make sense of one of the weirdest and most violent episodes in recent American history. (Michael)
The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe: The maximalist novelist returns to his nonfiction roots with a book that argues speech is what divides humans from animals, above all else. (Tell that to Dr. Dolittle!) Wolfe delves into controversial debates about what role speech has played in our evolution as a technological species. For a sneak preview of his arguments, check out his 2006 NEA lecture, “The Human Beast”. (Hannah)
Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson: Anyone needing to be reminded that the problems in America’s prison system date back to long before the War on Drugs may want to pick up Thompson’s history of the infamous 1971 Attica prison uprising. After 1,300 prisoners seized control of the upstate New York prison, holding guards and other employees hostage for four days, the state sent in troopers to take the prison back by force, leaving 39 people dead and 100 more severely injured. Thompson has drawn on newly unearthed documents and interviews with participants from all sides of the debacle to create what is being billed the “first definitive account” of the uprising 45 years ago. (Michael)
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole: This first work of nonfiction by the Nigerian-American novelist best known for Open City collects more than 50 short essays touching on topics from Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare to Instagram and the Black Lives Matter movement. In one essay, Cole, an art historian and photographer, looks at how African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, forced to shoot with film designed for white skin tones, depicted his black subjects. In another essay, Cole dissects “the White Savior Industrial Complex” that he says guides much of Western aid to African nations. (Michael)
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: After performing at halftime for the 2009 Super Bowl, the bard of New Jersey decided it was time to write his memoirs. This 500-page doorstopper covers Springsteen’s Catholic childhood, his early ambition to become a musician, his inspirations, and the formation of the E Street Band. Springsteen’s lyrics have always shown a gift for storytelling, so we’re guessing this is going to be a good read. (Hannah)
Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil: Big Data is everywhere, setting our insurance premiums, evaluating our job performance, and deciding whether we qualify for that special interest rate on our home loan. In theory, this should eliminate bias and make ours a better, fairer world, but in fact, says O’Neil, a former Wall Street data analyst, the algorithms that rule our lives can reinforce discrimination if they’re sloppily designed or improperly applied. O’Neil has a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, and runs the blog, mathbabe.org, where you can find answers to questions like “Why did the Brexit polls get it so wrong?” and why the data-driven policing program “Broken Windows” doesn’t work. (Michael)
Words on the Move by John McWhorter: Does the way some people use the word “literally” drive you up the (metaphorical) wall? Before you, like, blow a gasket, try this book by a Columbia University professor who argues that we should embrace rather than condemn the natural evolution of the English language, whether it’s the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” or the advent of business jargon like “What’s the ask?” If that’s not enough bracing talk about how we talk, in January 2017 McWhorter is releasing a second book, Talking Back, Talking Black, about African American Vernacular English. (Michael)
The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré: The British intelligence officer turned bestselling spy novelist has written his first memoir, regaling readers with stories from his extraordinary writing career. A witness to great historical change in Europe and abroad, le Carré visited Russia before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and met many fascinating characters in his travels, including KGB officers, an imprisoned German terrorist, and a female aid worker who was the inspiration for the main character in The Constant Gardner. Le Carré also writes about watching Alec Guinness take on his most famous character, George Smiley. (Hannah)
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb: Legendary editor and dance aficionado Gottlieb has had a career that could fill several memoirs. He began at Simon & Schuster, where he quickly rose to the top, discovering American classics like Catch-22 along the way. He left Simon & Schuster to run Alfred A. Knopf, and later, to succeed William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker. Gottlieb has worked with some of the country’s most celebrated writers, including John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Caro. (Hannah)
This Vast Southern Empire by Matthew Karp: In the contemporary American mind, the Confederacy is recalled as a rump government of Southern plutocrats bent on protecting an increasingly outmoded form of chattel slavery, but as this new history reminds us, before the Civil War, many of the men who guided America’s foreign policy and territorial expansion were Southern slave owners. At the height of their power in antebellum Washington, Southern politicians like Vice President John C. Calhoun and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis modernized the U.S. military and protected slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas. (Michael)
Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson, best known for her bone-chilling and classic short story, “The Lottery,” has to be one of our most underrated novelists. Franklin describes Jackson’s fiction as “domestic horror,” a pioneering genre that explored women’s isolation in marriage and family life through the occult. Franklin’s biography has already been praised by Neil Gaiman, who wrote that it provides “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly.” (Hannah)
When in French by Lauren Collins: New Yorker staffer Collins moved to London only to fall in love with a Frenchman. For years, the couple spoke to each another in English but Collins always wondered what she was missing by not communicating in her partner’s native tongue. When she and her husband moved to Geneva, Collins decided to learn French from the Swiss. When in French details Collins’s struggles to learn a new language in her 30s, as well as the joy of attaining a deeper understanding of French culture and people. (Hannah)
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly: During the early Space Race years, female mathematicians known as “human computers” used slide rules and adding machines to make the calculations that launched rockets, and later astronauts, into space. Many of these women were black math teachers recruited from segregated schools in the South to fill spots in the aeronautics industry created by wartime labor shortages. Not surprisingly, Hidden Figures, which focuses on the all-black “West Computing” group at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, is being made into a movie starring Taraji Henson and Kevin Costner. (Michael)
American Prophets by Albert J. Raboteau: This fascinating social history profiles seven religious leaders whose collective efforts helped to fight war, racism, and poverty and bring about massive social change in midcentury America. It’s a list that includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Abraham Joshua Heschel, A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Thomas Merton, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Raboteau finds new connections between these figures and delves into the ideas and theologies that inspired them. (Hannah)
The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs: The title of this essay collection comes from Boggs’s much-shared Orion essay, which frankly depicted her despair as she realized that she might never conceive a child. What made the essay special was Boggs’s eye to the natural world, as she observed fertility and birth in the birds and animals near her rural home. Boggs continues to focus her gaze outward in these essays as she reports on families who have chosen to adopt, LBGT couples considering surrogacy and assisted reproduction, and the financial and legal complications accompanying these alternative means of fertility. (Hannah)
Time Travel: A History by James Gleick: The tech-savvy author of The Information and Chaos shows how time travel as a literary conceit is intimately intertwined with the modern understanding of time that arose from technological innovations like the telegraph, train travel, and advances in clock-making. Beginning with H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Gleick tracks the evolution of time travel as a cultural construct from the novels of Marcel Proust to the cult British TV show Doctor Who. (Michael)
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild: Perfectly timed for the start of the last lap of the presidential campaign, this book endeavors to see red-state voters as they see themselves — not as dupes of right-wing media, but as ordinary, patriotic Americans trying to do the best for their families and themselves. A renowned sociologist and author of The Second Shift, a classic 1989 study of women’s roles in working families, Hochschild ventures far from her home in uber-liberal Berkeley, Calif., to meet hardcore conservatives in southern Louisiana. There, as in so much of working-class America, she finds lives riven by stagnant wages, the loss of homes, and an exhausting chase after an ever-elusive American dream. (Michael)
Eyes on the Street by Robert Kanigel: Anyone who has window-shopped in SoHo or marveled at the walkability of their neighborhood can thank activist Jane Jacobs who forever changed how planners thought about and designed urban spaces with her landmark 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Kanigel, author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, traces the roots of the great urban pioneer who wrote seven books and stopped New York’s all-powerful planning czar Robert Moses from running a major highway through Lower Manhattan, all without a college degree. (Michael)
Love for Sale by David Hajdu: In his previous books, Hajdu has written about jazz and folk music; in Love for Sale he tells the story of American popular music from its vaudeville beginnings to Blondie at CBGB to today’s electronic dance music. Hajdu highlights overlooked performers like blues singer Bessie Smith and Jimmie Rodgers, a country singer who incorporated yodeling into his music. (Hannah)
Future Sex by Emily Witt: In her first book, journalist and critic Witt writes about the intersection between sex and technology, otherwise known as online dating. Witt reports on internet pornography, polyamory, and other sexual subcultures, giving an honest and open-minded account of how people pursue pleasure and connection in a changing sexual landscape. (Hannah)
Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner: No, it’s not the second volume of Springsteen’s memoirs — instead, it’s an essay collection from a bestselling author who may be as famous for her defense of chick-lit as she is for her own female-centric novels. This is Weiner’s first volume of nonfiction, and she has a lifetime of topics to cover: growing up as an outsider in her picture-perfect town, her early years as a newspaper reporter, finding her voice as a novelist, becoming a mother, the death of her estranged father, and what it felt like to hear her daughter use the “f-word” — “fat” — for the first time. (Hannah)
Truevine by Beth Macy: One day in 1899, a white man offered a piece of candy to George and Willie Muse, the children of black sharecroppers in Truevine, Va., setting off a chain of events that led to the boys being kidnapped into a circus, which billed them as cannibals and “Ambassadors from Mars” in tours that played for royalty at Buckingham Palace and in sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Like Macy’s last book, Factory Man, about a good-old-boy owner of a local furniture factory in Virginia who took on low-cost Chinese exporters and won, Truevine promises a mix of quirky characters, propulsive narrative, and an insider’s look at a neglected corner of American history. (Michael)
Upstream by Mary Oliver: Essays from one of America’s most beloved poets. As always, Oliver’s draws inspiration from the natural world, and Provincetown, Mass., her home and life-long muse. Oliver also writes about her early love of Walt Whitman, the labor of poetry, and the continuing influence of classic American writers such as Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Hannah)
Black Elk by Joe Jackson: A biography of a Native American holy man whose epic life spanned a dramatic era in the history of the American West. In his youth, Black Elk fought in Little Big Horn, witnessed the death of his second cousin, Crazy Horse, and traveled to Europe to perform in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In later years, he fought in Wounded Knee, became an activist for the Lakota people, and converted to Catholicism. Known to many through his spiritual testimony, Black Elk Speaks, this biography brings the man to life, as well as the turbulent times he lived through. (Hannah)
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah: As the child of a white Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother who had to pretend she was her own child’s nanny on the rare occasions the family was together, comedian Noah’s very existence was evidence of a crime under the apartheid laws of his native South Africa. In his memoir, Noah recalls eating caterpillars to stave off hunger and being thrown by his eccentric mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters. If you survived a childhood like that, you might not be so intimated at the prospect of replacing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, either. (Michael)
My Lost Poets by Philip Levine: In this posthumous essay collection from one of our pre-eminent poets, Levine writes about composing poems as a child, studying with John Berryman, the influence of Spanish poets on his work, his idols and mentors, and his many inspirations: jazz, Spain, Detroit, and masters of the form like William Wordsworth and John Keats. (Hannah)
Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman: Ten years before Emmett Till was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, his father Louis was executed by the U.S. army for rape and murder. Wideman, who was the same age as Emmett Till, just 14, the year he was murdered, mixes memoir and historical research in his exploration of the eerily twinned executions of the two Till men. A Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, Wideman knows all too well what it means to have a close relative accused of a violent crime: his son, Jacob, and his brother, Robert, were both convicted of murder. (Michael)
Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond: Diamond has established himself as an authority on/gently obsessive superfan of John Hughes with pieces on the filmmaker for Buzzfeed and The Atlantic (from where I learned the shameful fact that John Hughes was responsible for the movie Flubber in addition to his suite of beloved suburban-white-kid films). Diamond’s Hughes interest stretches back to his time as an aspiring, and doomed, Hughes biographer. Diamond commemorates this journey through a memoir and cultural history of a brief, vanished moment in the Chicagoland suburbs. (Lydia)
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis: Why do people go with their guts, even when their guts so often steer them wrong? Lewis stumbled onto this fundamental human question in his bestselling 2003 book Moneyball, about how the Oakland A’s, a cash-strapped major league team, used data analysis to beat wealthier teams. A brief reference in a review of Moneyball in The New Republic led Lewis to two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work explores why humans follow their intuition. If Kahneman’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s a Nobel laureate and author of the 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. That’s a lot of bestseller cred in one book. (Michael)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: In his first full-length book, due out in March 2017, longtime Millions staff writer O’Connell offers an inside look at the “transhumanism movement,” the adherents of which hope to one day “solve” the problem of death and use technology to propel human evolution. If O’Connell’s pieces for this site and his ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, published by The Millions in 2013, are any guide, To Be a Machine will be smart and odd and very, very funny. (Michael)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos: Following on the success of her debut memoir, Whip Smart, about her years as a professional dominatrix and junkie, Febos turns back the clock to examine her relationship with her birth father, whose legacy includes his Native American heritage and a tendency toward addiction. Interwoven with these family investigations is the story of Febos’s passionate long-distance love affair with another woman. Abandon Me is slated for February 2017. (Michael)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A much-needed examination of the recent expansion of for-profit universities, which have put millions of young people into serious debt at the beginning of their careers. Cottom links the rise of for-profit universities to rising inequality, drawing on her own experience as an admissions counselor at two for-profit universities, and interviewing students, activists, and senior executives in the industry. (Hannah)
Hunger by Roxane Gay: In our spring nonfiction preview, we looked forward to Gay’s memoir Hunger, which was slated to be published in June 2016, but her publishing date has been pushed back to June 2017. According to reporting from EW, and Gay’s own tweets, the book simply took longer than Gay expected. She also wanted its release to follow a book of short stories, Difficult Women, which will be published in January 2017. (Hannah)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
The enemy knew he could not defeat us on our own terms. The conventional battlefield was ours, the sky as well. So they made us bleed one body at a time — limb by limb — through the use of handmade bombs. If there is one tribe of the military that knows this tactic best, it is the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians charged with combatting it. Brian Castner spent eight years leading EOD teams, including two tours in Iraq. The harrowing aftermath of that period of his life was well-told in his memoir The Long Walk; his latest work of nonfiction, All the Ways We Kill and Die, continues the memoir’s narrative while displaying Castner’s considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms.
Castner opens the book with a prologue that imagines the detonation of an IED in Afghanistan from the Taliban perspective — a detonation, we learn a few pages later, that takes the life of his friend and EOD comrade Matt Schwartz. Castner, five years out of uniform and now a writer and freelance journalist, asks the question the book seeks to answer: “Who killed Matt Schwartz?” From there, the narrative loops in ever-widening arcs through a structure that roughly mirrors an EOD team’s post-blast actions. Collect the dead. Tend the wounded. Gather evidence. Hunt. Remember.
If there is risk inherent to the structure of All the Ways We Kill and Die, it is that its polygamous marriage of imagination, memoir, and reportage runs the risk of throwing off a genre-monogamous reader. There’s as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner’s exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction. The early chapters are fairly traditional narratives, Castner retracing the impacts of personal losses ranging from his dead friend to maimed comrades. But by Part III of the book, Castner must link disparate narratives from both Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping an eye on how he imagines a kind of IED archetype, this “Engineer” he suspects took Matt Schwartz’s life. The surreal rhythms of a drone pilot, a firefight documented through passages of military Internet relay chat — these are the disorienting signs of a disappearing center, as Part IV reveals how we hunt and kill.
The book is not a cut-and-dried war story; its conclusion is appropriately ambiguous considering the open-ended nature of the wars my generation has fought. Novels and memoirs by service members that address their time in Afghanistan or Iraq have not benefitted from the sense of closure granted veteran writers of World War Two, or even Vietnam. Where writers like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed), Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato) and Phil Caputo (A Rumour of War) could look back at the U.S.S. Missouri and the Fall of Saigon with respective clarity; novelists Matt Gallagher (Iraq, Youngblood) and Elliot Ackerman (Afghanistan, Green on Blue) need only peruse the Internet for unnecessary reminders that both wars drag on today. Memoirists have fared similarly. Both Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country and even Castner’s The Long Walk could only conclude by narrowing the lens to a hyper-personal focus. A former soldier lies in bed. A former EOD officer performs therapeutic yoga. There is no definitive ending when the events that shaped your story are still unfolding.
“Long and Messy and Gray” is the book’s narrative climax, and details the lifeline of an EOD troop turned lethal contractor whose name Castner redacts to “M_____.” Highly fragmented, but crafted so as not to bewilder, its nearest cousin is that brilliant piece of Vietnam writing, “Illumination Rounds” from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And it is the perfect final lift to a bracing narrative. George Packer noted in his New Yorker essay “Home Fires” that “fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.” I contest the efficacy of a word like “honest” in this context; had Packer applied the word “effective,” the statement would prove more meaningful. “Long and Messy and Gray” might watershed the most effective personal war narrative structure I’ve encountered; the denouement that comes in Part V is necessary, but it’s this chapter that is most compelling.
All investigations, war-related or not, begin with a simple question and best of intent. But as Serial showed us last year, building a complete picture is about sorting through the puzzle pieces and assembling the mosaic as the meaning of each fragment appears. If, like M____, one returns to war dozens of times, the narrative must necessarily shatter each time. Within this frame, Castner shares the same creative space as Serial’s producer, Sarah Koenig. Certain pieces belong together, neatly assembled for the reader to observe. Other pieces, however, belong in a pile, appearing as they are overturned. There’s an art to this type of transient work, a sense of structural mastery just beyond the page that is all the more inspiring when you consider that both Castner and Koenig began with just one question: “Who?” The best writers fully admit that the best stories reveal themselves along the way. The best stories, as it turns out, might end up answering a different question altogether.
“Who killed Matt Schwartz” is the least of the questions answered within the pages of All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner captures the complex push and pull; the cost and reward; and a fully formed image of what it’s been like to be both in the middle, and on the periphery, of The Forever War. Despite this wide lens, however, Castner’s real task is to tell an intensely personal story. In the closing chapter, we find him walking the forest with his children, pointing out roots, ruts, and creeping vines that threaten their peaceful stroll. I imagine him pausing, pushing a knee into the rich brown earth and pointing ahead once more: danger there.
I recently found myself compelled to revisit Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for lots of reasons, not the least of which was reading Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s remarkable new collection of war stories, Brief Encounters with the Enemy. I wanted some context for the experience. In fact, after reading Brief Encounters…, I asked several friends and colleagues if they were asked to suggest a work of war literature, what would it be? The responses were what you’d expect: The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, some recent examples, like The Yellow Birds, or Tree of Smoke, but overwhelmingly the book suggested was O’Brien’s. It was the first book I’d thought of, too, and so I dug around for my copy.
The first thing that struck me was the epigraph, taken from John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary:
This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.
What struck me was how this epigraph could just as well work for Sayrafiezadeh’s book, for very different but no less relevant reasons.
And it is.
The Things They Carried wants to convey viscerally and poetically what it was really like, over there. Which for O’Brien means disorientation, confusion, fractured sensory experienced, amorality, and a memory that cannot be trusted. Truth is entirely up for grabs. Probably my favorite story in the bunch is the often quoted and practically protean “How to Tell a True War Story,” which opens with a short, sly, and pretty bold statement: “This is true.” O’Brien then proceeds to dismantle a few presumptions regarding truth: “A true war story is never moral;” “If a war story seems moral, do not believe it;” “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it be skeptical;” “Often in a true war story there is not even a point;” there’s plenty more. Prior to O’Brien, the mission of the war story was mostly to tell civilian readers what it was like over there, “there” being a main point. In fact, think of the mythic narrative that surrounds the “thereness” of war: from the seminal American anthem, “Over There” (here’s a colorized clip of Jimmy Cagney singing it from Yankee Doodle Dandy), to Dalton Trumbo’s award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun, inspired by the anthem’s opening line (“Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun”), to Metallica’s video for “One,” a song inspired by Trumbo’s novel, the video cut with clips from the novel’s infamous film adaptation. But O’Brien’s story decries these three versions of truth. In fact, the story closes with: “in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.” Which brings us back to Sayrafiezadeh’s book, a dynamite collection of war stories, with hardly any war in them at all.
Sayrafiezadeh is no stranger to writing books that artfully navigate contemporary politics. His 2009 memoir <i>When Skateboards will be Free is basically the story of a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, and his strained adult relationship with his father. But it also happens to be the engrossing story of a youth spent in the Socialist Worker Party, and the best firsthand account of American fundamentalist ideological indoctrination I’ve ever read (I’ve read quite a few, I have my reasons…). What makes Brief Encounters with the Enemy such a singular book is not so much Sayrafiezadeh’s attempt at conveying what war feels like right now, but his choice of location. This is not a book about there. It’s about here, what America feels like, here, and now, while at war.
The stories are linked by way of subject and space, set in what feels eerily like your average and somewhat depressed American city (Wal-Marts and convenience stores, suburbs, city blocks, and bus routes), sometimes hilariously referred to as an “Emerging International City,” but one that refuses to name itself. That refusal lends the collection a strange sort of intimacy from its opening pages, a dreamlike déjà vu. And Sayrafiezadeh’s subject: how does a nation go about its daily business while its young men and women kill and die at war for more than a decade already? There are parades, yes, of course, like in “Paranoia,” when the narrator and his friend Roberto drive to downtown to see the 4th of July Parade: “The turnout was extraordinary,” and “[p]eople applauded, but the applause seemed to disorient the veterans.” But parades can’t happen everyday, and so for the remainder of each year, we lose our jobs, and get new jobs, house-watch for friends, and fall in love on the coffee line. All of which happens in Brief Encounters… Which is to say, we are at war and we simply go about our business. But such a state of schizophrenic complacency does have its price.
The entire collection is marked by a mix of malaise and foreboding that feels uncannily like American life right now. Uncertainty about weather and “the war” pervade these stories: “It was winter now and it was cold and the bus drivers were on strike. And the war was coming, everybody said so,” says the narrator of “Cartography;” “When April arrived, it started to get warm and everyone said that the war was definitely going to happen soon and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it,” from “Paranoia.” The sense throughout is of an anxious culture, a culture in which war looms, almost naturally, cyclically. And one that shares a kind of secondhand collective (mis)understanding, “everybody said so.” A culture in which military imagery and heroic language is appropriated by daily routine and has no meaningful corresponding relationship to its real world referent: a bus rider on a cramped bus describes sweating heavily, “rivulets ran from my armpits down my sides and collected in the elastic of my underwear. This is what it must feel like for soldiers on the transport heading to battle;” line cooks “come to the aid of another who has fallen far behind, as if in battle,” and they scald themselves with boiling water like “grenades had gone off” in their hands, and still they “continue marching onward up the hill.” In “Operators,” Wally comes back from the war “to great fanfare, that I felt undeserved,” says the narrator. “He had departed to great fanfare too — which was also undeserved.” What follows is a totally uncomfortable, and poignant, and just plain funny tug-of-war between two co-workers for the attention of the pretty office girls. Now seems like a good time to say how funny all of these stories are, and I don’t mean punch line funny, I mean tragicomedy along the lines of Bellow and DeLillo.
There is one honest to goodness story here about a young soldier at war, the title story, in which the soldier finds himself mostly getting bored: “Instead of getting in shape, I started to get fatter.” He does have a cool gun, however, so cool and creepily like a sort of militarized iPhone, that it not only shoots bullets, but tells the time and temperature too.
Plus it could kill a man from a mile away. You hardly even had to pull the trigger. If you put your finger in the proximity of the trigger, it sensed what you wanted to do and it pulled itself. Poof went the bullet, and the gun would vibrate gently, as if you were getting a call on your cell phone.
Among all the things this soldier carries — “it was the lightest thing on me.”
Brief Encounters with the Enemy does something rare in that it contributes something new and “essentially different” to the literature of war — our stories, about what it’s like over here. It’s discomfiting, and surprising, and illuminating to say the least. I’ve not read anything like it before.
When I graduated with my MFA earlier this year, I routinely fielded the various versions of What are you doing next? Of course, what people really wanted to know was what I was going to do for a job. Frankly, I’d never considered doing anything other than what I had been doing — planning and creating communication packages at the creative agency where I’ve worked for the last decade. The guys in Mad Men did it. So could I.
High school teacher and poet Nick Ripatrazone recently wrote an article encouraging MFA graduates to consider careers outside the traditional adjunct faculty route — for better pay, better benefits, and better peace of mind. He made a great case for teaching high school. “You have,” he writes, “other options.”
You absolutely do. Teaching high school is just one of them. Working at a creative agency is another.
Agency employees have long been known to write stories and novels on the side. In fact, it used to be a kind of trend — at least in the middle of the 2oth century. Familiars like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) worked at agencies and then wrote in their spare hours. Heller continued to work after Catch-22 was published. Even more recently, writers like Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) and Rosecrans Baldwin (Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down) have used the agency experience as the basis for books. Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) wrote his first book while still in the ad agency world. Suzanne Finnamore did the same (Split).
Today’s creative agencies do a lot of different things: advertising (the Mad Men kind), publications, websites, branding, or communication strategies. Usually, an agency has a niche, but some choose to combine it all. Mine happens to do a little bit of everything so I’ve been able to interview illustrators at Disney, write copy for major fundraising campaigns, and research Africa’s best new authors.
Though agency outputs are different from literary outputs, there’s quite a bit that can be gleaned from the industry. And not just how to drink multiple Old Fashioneds. You don’t even have to be like me, who was somewhat established before I took some time off for my MFA. You can be freshly diploma’ed and still a strong candidate:
You know how to write a sentence. A really good sentence. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that. Clients are constantly telling us they’ll handle the writing for a specific project. More often than not, it’s wordy and dry and confusing and they’ll come back and ask us for help.
You can articulate why certain ideas work and others don’t. Writing workshops have provided great training with this. You can’t get away with saying: Oh, I just don’t like that. You have to figure out why and then communicate it to your fellow writer. That’s hard work and an extremely valuable resource for employers.
You can think outside of a box. You may take this skill for granted, but how often do you have a character stuck in a corner that you must reconcile? Or you’ve got a line in a poem that you really love, you’re just not sure where to go next? It’s uncomfortable but somewhat familiar terrain for writers — figuring out solutions to complicated situations.
With those skills in-hand and a few others, here’s what could be in it for you should you decide to look into agency work — for more than just paid vacations and health insurance.
Jobs: Depending on what you are willing to do, a look at job listings sites shows there are lots of opportunities. Salaries will vary depending on locations, but the median for entry-level jobs is $30,000-$40,000.
Editing skills: Salman Rushdie learned to say a lot in a little from writing ad copy: “You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images and you haven’t much time. All of that is, I feel, very, very useful.”
Nerve: Stephanie Bane has an MFA and is working on a memoir of her time in the Peace Corps. She also works at an ad agency in Pittsburgh. “I’m impervious to insult,” she says. “Advertising is a team sport. Somebody — or several somebodies — weigh in on every word I write. My ideas are edited, altered or outright rejected on a daily basis. When it comes to seeking publication, rejection letters still sting, but my day job makes it easy for me to treat them as a routine part of the business.
Imagination: Joseph Heller felt he’d been trained by the limitations he learned in his copywriting work. “They [ideas] come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination. There’s an essay of T. S. Eliot’s in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.”
Publishing: Most likely, you’ll get something published in the agency world far sooner than you will in book publishing. Even if it’s just the Dental Association of America reading it, it’s still out there. (And when you come home to yet another rejection from The New Yorker, that’ll matter. A little.)
Discipline: Balancing a 40-hour work week and a writing life takes dedication. Another thing Rushdie tucked under his belt from the advertising world: “…it taught me to write like a job…. You can’t afford temperament, you can’t afford days of creative anguish; you have to sit there and do your job and you have to do it like a job, get it done on time and well. I now write exactly like that. I write like a job. I sit down in the morning and I do it. And I don’t miss deadlines.” Anastasia Edel is a producer at Frog Design in San Francisco. She’s also finishing up her MFA in fiction, which makes for a very busy life. “When you really want something you find the time,” she says. She writes between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Exposure: You’ll likely interact with a lot of different artists — other kinds of writers; designers who will show you a whole new way of looking at the world and will likely give you expensive taste in almost everything; photographers who can argue that a picture may very well be worth 1,000 words (and you might be compelled, at times, to agree). There’s an energy that can come from this kind of community. Edel recently collaborated with a colleague to lead a creative meeting that explored the heart of the creative process. “If there is a way you can leverage what you’re studying with your lifestyle,” she says, “you’ll get energy from that.”
The agency atmosphere isn’t for everyone. There are bad days and good days, as with any job. You have to set boundaries. You have to work hard. You have to play well with others. And in order to write you have to say no to some things (like going out with your new colleagues for drinks after work) and yes to others (like getting up several hours before work to write). But you just might find that the skills you honed while pursuing your MFA have a much wider range than you ever imagined.
Image Credit: Flickr/photologue_np
Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.
Walker Percy, author of the 1962 National Book Award-winning novel The Moviegoer, believed in the power of film on many levels — as a means of escape, as the unifier of cultural experience, as a metaphor for all the ways we tell each other stories. And in fact his own life story had the kind of arc that could have been pulled straight from a movie of just about any era. Perhaps that’s why he identified with the medium, perhaps that’s why he found both hope and despair in it.
Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1916, the oldest of three boys. When he was 14 his father, LeRoy Walker Percy, shot himself — as had his grandfather the year after he was born. His mother took the boys to spend a year with their grandmother before moving on to Greenville, Mississippi, where they all moved in with LeRoy Percy’s cousin, William Alexander Percy. Two years later Martha Percy was killed when her car plunged into a creek, and Uncle Will, as he was known to the boys, adopted all three brothers: Walker, Leroy, and Phinizy.
Will Percy was something of a Renaissance man; a lawyer, poet, plantation heir, and progressive activist, he was by all reports devoted to the boys and their education. He had an enormous library, which he encouraged them to explore, and it was in Greenville that Walker Percy developed the habit of inquisitive, investigative reading that would shape a lifetime of work. Uncle Will also introduced Walker to Shelby Foote, a neighborhood boy his own age, and the two hit it off immediately. (Foote went on to become a successful writer and historian himself; his trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative was the basis for Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary.) Their deep friendship and mutual encouragement sustained both writers’ careers and lasted until Walker’s death.
Walker attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as did Foote, two years behind him. He then went on to New York, to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, to study pathology. There he began to feel the first pricklings — a term he would use often in his fiction — of the melancholia that was the ruin of his father and grandfather. He responded by initiating several years of psychotherapy and the escapist moviegoing habit that would last a lifetime. Years later, describing his love of the movies to Robert Coles in the New Yorker, he pinpointed those days as the beginning of his consciousness as a novelist, even though he had no desire, at the time, to write:
I think at the movies I was getting to know how people looked at the world, what they thought — the way a doctor does. The movies are not just fantasies; for a lot of people they provide important moments, maybe the only point in the day, or even the week, when someone — a cowboy, a detective, a crook — is heard asking what life is all about, asking what is worth fighting for, or asking if anything is worth fighting for.
Percy’s medical career was cut short in 1942, when he contracted tuberculosis six months into an internship at Bellevue Hospital. He spent the next two years recovering in a sanatorium in the Adirondacks, observant and restless as ever but largely confined to bed. While both his brothers and his best friend were serving their country honorably, he was flat on his back, dramatically detached from action of any kind. Percy had always been somewhat reserved — unsurprising for a boy who had sustained such huge losses so early. In the hospital, cut off from friends and family and any feeling of connection to world events, he turned further inward, and, as always, found escape in books. Rather than medical texts, though, Percy picked up Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, and then Camus, Sartre, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and Tolstoy. The answers he was seeking, he realized, were not necessarily to be found in science, and the questions he was forming were new as well. As he would later explain in an essay titled “From Facts to Fiction” in his collection Signposts in a Strange Land,
What began to interest me was not so much a different question as a larger question, not the physiological and pathological processes within man’s body but the problem of man himself, the nature and destiny of man; specifically and more immediately, the predicament of man in a modern technological society.
Percy returned to Columbia in 1944 as an instructor, but relapsed within a couple of months, this time ending up at a sanatorium in Connecticut. He went home to Greenville a year later and looked for a place to settle down, driving out to Santa Fe with Shelby Foote but returning a few months later. In 1946 he married Mary Bernice Townshend, whom he had met five years earlier while working over the summer at a Greenville clinic, and the two moved to a summer place of Uncle Will’s in Sewanee, Tennessee. Percy had grown up nominally Presbyterian, but for some time had been feeling the need to solidify and centralize his faith. Six months after their marriage, he and his wife converted to Catholicism, a decision that would deeply inform his writing and thinking for the rest of his life. In 1947, when Percy was 31 years old, they moved to a furnished house in New Orleans. Its owner, the philosopher Julius Friend, had amassed a large library, and again, Percy was able to further his autodidactic ethical education. He never returned to the practice of medicine, and instead devoted himself to reading: philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, and semiotics.
Percy immersed himself deeply in his studies. A modest inheritance enabled him to spend his days reading widely and methodically, living the life of a gentleman scholar. In the fall of 1954, he published his first essay in Thought, the Fordham University quarterly, titled “Symbol as Need.” It posited semiotics as a discipline more dependent on the spiritual than the scientific; that symbolization is not a biological need, but a social activity. He followed it two years later with the dense, technical, “Symbol as Hermeneutic in Existentialism: A Possible Bridge from Empiricism” in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research. Percy was 40 years old, fascinated by states of consciousness, existential anxiety, ontology and its relation to his faith, and the mystery of what he called “the zone of the other.” He began publishing scholarly articles regularly, but all the while considering other, more accessible ways to frame his thoughts.
Shelby Foote had published his first novel, Tournament, in 1949, and in the course of their lively correspondence he never stopped encouraging — and goading — Percy to move on to fiction. Percy did, in fact, complete two novels that would never see print; the first collected a series of rejections, and the second he never bothered sending out. In the meantime he published philosophical essays, book reviews, and articles. But then in 1958, at age 44, he started work on what would become The Moviegoer, and suddenly everything fell into place. As Percy describes it:
I can only report that something did happen and it happened all of a sudden. Other writers have reported a similar experience. It is not like learning a skill or a game at which, with practice, one gradually improves. One works hard all right, but what comes, comes all of a sudden and as a breakthrough. One hits on something… It is almost as if the discouragement were necessary, that one has first to encounter despair before one is entitled to hope.
The Moviegoer narrates a few days in the life of Binx Bolling, a disaffected young New Orleans man on the eve of his 30th birthday and on the brink of growing up. Describing it in a few words is an empty exercise — this is a novel of nuance and inference, about unarticulated feelings, the fear of malaise, and the life force that simply will not be denied. Percy was thinking hard about Kierkegaard, especially his postulation in Either/Or that “Boredom is the root of all evil… The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” His exploration of the fault lines between alienation and engagement in The Moviegoer is both strange and exhilarating, with moments of stunning beauty. Percy sets his readers up to refute the assumptions he’s handed them: Bolling is a self-identified outsider yet he’s very much in the world, and while he goes to the movies to escape, at the same time they bring him to life. There is a moment at a drive-in when Binx is watching a Western — sitting on the warm hood of a car in the company of a new girlfriend and his beloved, disabled half-brother Lonnie — that made me feel as alive as any words on a page ever have:
A good night. Lonnie happy (he looks around at me with the liveliest sense of the secret between us; the secret is that Sharon is not and never will be onto the little touches we see in the movie and, in the seeing, know that the other sees — as when Clint Walker tells the saddle tramp in the softest easiest old Virginian voice: “Mister, I don’t believe I’d do that if I was you” — Lonnie is beside himself, doesn’t know whether to watch Clint Walker or me), this ghost of a theater, a warm Southern night, the Western Desert and this fine big sweet piece, Sharon.
He was nearly 45 when the book was published. Sales were initially slow and reviews were scattered, but the following year it went on to win the National Book Award for fiction, beating out Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, and Revolutionary Road. Five years later he published his second novel, The Last Gentleman, which introduced Will Barrett, another of what Robert Coles referred to as Percy’s “anguished pilgrims.” Barrett is also Southern, also chronically detached — the novel’s opening finds him in New York’s Central Park, spying on people through a telescope — and he’s also prone to fugue states, although his are medical in nature, not cinematically induced. He too undertakes an odyssey in the process of connecting with the world, although his covers more physical and less emotional ground than Binx Bolling’s; it’s a good book, but The Moviegoer would have been a hard act to follow.
Still, Percy had become, irrevocably, a novelist. He took the job seriously, sitting down to write in his office over his daughter’s bookstore every day without fail, and when Foote, his original cheerleader, was floundering with his last novel, Percy cheerfully dispensed advice and encouragement. He never stopped writing, going on to publish four more novels — Love in the Ruins (1971), Lancelot (1977), The Second Coming (1980), and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), and several collections of his essays, including The Message in the Bottle (1975), Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (1983), and the posthumous Signposts in a Strange Land (1991). All his work, fiction and nonfiction, was about seeking in one form or another — seeking connection, seeking involvement, seeking God in the everyday. While he never had another hit like The Moviegoer turned out to be, he was unwavering in his regard for the truth. While he complained to Foote that he had been pigeonholed as a “Christian Existentialist,” it also seemed to please him at least a little.
As the real-life version of an orphan boy from some kind of dark fairy tale, Percy must have loved the promise held by the narrative arc of the movies. You entered the dark theater and two hours later all would be revealed, all would be redeemed, and the lights would go up. In fact, his life did turn out well. He discovered what he loved to do when he was old enough to do it well and realized enough success to keep at it, and was able to stay true to his precepts throughout. Nobody else important left him: he married well, his daughters and grandchildren stayed close by, Foote remained a treasured friend — and was with his family at his bedside when he died — and he seemed to remain on fine terms with his God throughout. Walker Percy’s was a good tale, well told. As he wrote in 1966,
Perhaps the only moral to the story is that a serious writer, or any other artist for that matter, is a peculiar bird who has to find his own way in his own time and who had better be left alone to do so.
Bonus Link: Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer Turns Fifty
2012 is shaping up to be another exciting year for readers. While last year boasted long-awaited novels from David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Jeffrey Eugenides, readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer. Riches that we have tried to capture in another of our big book previews.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 8,400 words strong and encompassing 81 titles, this is the only 2012 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life. (Anne)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson: One of our most prescient and tuned-in writers of science fiction is coming out with his first collection of non-fiction. Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers together articles and essays William Gibson wrote, beginning in the 1980s, for Rolling Stone, Wired, Time, The Whole Earth Catalog, The New York Times and other publications and websites. There are also forewords, introductions and speeches, even an autobiographical sketch. While these pieces offer fascinating glimpses inside the machinery of Gibson’s fiction writing, their central concern is technology and how it is shaping our future, and us. “What we used to call ‘future shock,'” Gibson writes, “is now simply the one constant in all our lives.” (Bill)
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: With starred reviews from both Booklist and Library Journal, Ellis Avery’s second novel The Last Nude imagines the brief love affair between the glamorous Art-Deco Painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young muse for her most iconic painting The Beautiful Rafaela. Set in 1920s Paris, among the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and a fictional American journalist named Anson Hall (a sort of Ernest Hemingway type), Avery explores the costs of ambition, the erotics of sexual awakening, and the devastation that ensues when these two converge. Critics have praised The Last Nude as riveting, elegant, seductive, and breathtaking. (Sonya)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: Auslander has made a name for himself with side-splitting appearances on This American Life and his equally funny memoir Foreskin’s Lament that have marking out a fruitful career as a Jewish humorist. Auslander’s new book is his first novel, which New York says is “kind of about the lighter side of collective Holocaust guilt” Kirkus, meanwhile, has called the book, which explores the Holocaust as “an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew,” “Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.” (Max)
Smut by Alan Bennett: Given the existence of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a new book entitled Smut would seem to have a lot to live up to—at minimum, it should descend into dimensions so filthy and moist that they would cause Baker’s own thunderstick to droop in disgusted admiration. Instead, the absurdly prolific, versatile, and esteemed writer of The History Boys and The Madness of King George provides a pair of very English stories about the sexual adventures of two middle-aged, middle-class British women. So, rather than a lightspeed journey smack into a rigid “Malcolm Gladwell,” Smut is, in the words of the Guardian, a “comedy of false appearances.” And that’s probably not such a bad thing. (Jacob)
Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass: Random House will publish Gass’s latest collection of non-fiction this January. In Life Sentences, his tenth non-fiction book, Gass explores the work of a number of his own favorite writers, with essays on Kafka, Proust, Stein, Nietzsche, Henry James and Knut Hamsen. Gass, the author of Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, is a central figure in postmodern literature, and his critical essays have been hugely influential (he coined the term “metafiction” in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”). (Mark)
At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is probably neck-and-neck with Alan Hollinghurst for the title of “purest living English prose stylist.” However, where Hollinghurst traces a line of descent from the prodigious Henry James, St. Aubyn’s leaner style harkens back to the shorter comic novels of Waugh and Henry Green. For 20 years, he’s been producing a semiautobiographical series whose chief interest – one of them anyway – is seeing all that fineness applied to the coarsest of behaviors: abuse, addiction, abandonment. Booker nominations notwithstanding, readers on these shores have paid little attention. Then again, Hollinghurst took a while to find his audience, too, and with the publication of the final “Patrick Melrose novel,” At Last, St. Aubyn should finally get his due. Latecomers can prepare by immersing themselves in the new omnibus edition of the previous titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. (Garth)
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: In addition to being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Edugyan’s sophomore novel was and nominated for all three of the major Canadian literary prizes, and won the Scotiabank Giller award for best Canadian novel published this year, whose jury said “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Praised by The Independent for its “shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang,” Half-Blood Blues follows the dangerous exploits of an interracial jazz band in Berlin, Baltimore, and Nazi-occupied Paris. (Emily K.)
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Dalkey Archive Press reissues William Gaddis’s classic with a new introduction by William H. Gass. Gaddis’s mammoth work of early postmodernism (or very late modernism, depending on who you ask) is one of the key entries in the canon of American postwar fiction, and a major influence on the likes of David Foster Wallace. Set in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the novel is a thoroughly ruthless (and ruthlessly thorough) examination of fraudulence and authenticity in the arts. Given its influence on postmodern American fiction, Dalkey Archive Press seems a natural home for the novel.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Nathan Englander, 41, burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his widely praised collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This February he releases his second collection of stories, eight in all, that draw on themes from Jewish history and culture. The title story, about two married couples playing out the Holocaust as a parlor game, appeared in the December 12 edition of The New Yorker. The collection as a whole is suffused with violence and sexual desire. In a starred review Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Englander] brings a tremendous range and energy to his chosen topic. (Kevin)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes: What is it with Hungary? It may not have produced the highest number of Nobel Peace Prize candidates, but it almost certainly boasts the highest population-density of contenders for the Nobel in Literature. There are the two Péters, Nádas and Esterhazy. There’s Imre Kertesz, who deservedly took home the laurels in 2002. More recently, English-language monoglots have been discovering the work of László Krasznahorkai. Susan Sontag called The Melancholy of Resistance, “inexorable, visionary”…(of course, Susan Sontag once called a Salade Nicoise “the greatest light lunch of the postwar period.”) More recently, James Wood hailed War and War and Animalinside as “extraordinary.” Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first novel, from 1985, now reaches these shores, courtesy of the great translator George Szirtes. Concerning the dissolution of a collective farm, it was the basis for Bela Tarr’s 7-hour movie of the same name. (Garth)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an astute chronicler of America’s poor, turns to India for her first book, a work of narrative nonfiction exploring Annawadi, a shantytown settlement near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Flowers follows the lives of a trash sorter, a scrap metal thief, and other citizens of Annawadi, and delves into the daily life and culture of a slum in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Boo’s commanding ability to convey an interior world comes balanced by concern for the structural realities of India’s economic liberalization…and her account excels at integrating the party politics and policy strategies behind eruptions of deep-seated religious, caste, and gender divides.” (Patrick)
Varamo by Cesar Aira: With a new book out in translation seemingly every time you turn around, the Argentine genius Cesar Aira is fast achieving a Bolaño-like ubiquity. And with more than 80 books published in his native land, there’s more where that came from. Aira’s fascinating writing process, which involves never revisiting the previous day’s writing, means that his novels lack the consistency of Bolaño’s. Instead, you get an improvisatory wildness that, at its best – as in Ghosts – opens up possibilities where there had seemed to be brick walls. Varamo, recently reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation, features “a Panamanian civil servant [who] conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde.” The great Chris Andrews translates.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson: “But maybe Mom’s not the place to start…” So begins the fast, funny debut of Adam Wilson, who’s recently published fiction and criticism in The Paris Review and Bookforum. The story concerns the unlikely…er, friendship between ADHD adolescent Eli Schwartz and one Seymour J. Kahn, a horndog paraplegic and ex-TV star. In the channel-surfing argot that gives the prose much of its flavor: Think The Big Lebowski meets Catcher in the Rye meets that old cable series Dream On. (Garth)
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel: A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, Ramona Ausubel brings us a debut novel about a remote Jewish village in Romania. The year is 1939, and in an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching war, its residents—at the prompting of an eleven-year-old girl—decide to tell a different story, to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world. Last April, Ausubel published a strange and beautiful story called “Atria” in The New Yorker, and I’ve been anticipating her novel ever since. (Edan)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: Once called “a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness” (SF Chronicle), the author of Await Your Reply has slowly built a reputation as one of the most incisive writers of our time, specializing in characters who are dark, damaged, and perplexing, but making the reader feel protective of and connected to them. Populated with night terrors, impossible memories, ghosts, mysterious messages, and paranoia, Stay Awake heralds Chaon’s return to the short story with delicate unease. (Janet)
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It’s a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy. (Bill)
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal: A book in the form of a duel. In 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a young man who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel. The magazine that commissioned the story ultimately rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. Is there a difference between accuracy and truth? Is it ever appropriate to substitute one for the other in a work of non-fiction? The Lifespan of a Fact examines these questions in the form of a seven-year correspondence between D’Agata and his increasingly exasperated fact-checker, Jim Fingal; the book is composed of the essay itself, Fingal’s notes on the essay, D’Agata’s responses to the notes, Fingal’s responses to the responses. (Emily M.)
Dogma by Lars Iyer: Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious was published last year to considerable acclaim, and was short-listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Spurious concerned a narrator named Lars Iyer, also a writer, his friend W., their certainty that we’re living in the End of Times, their longing to think a truly original thought, the mold that’s taking over Lars’ apartment, their parallel searches for a) meaning and b) a leader and c) quality gin. Dogma—an altogether darker work, the second in a planned trilogy—picks up where Spurious left off. (Emily M.)
The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso: In this brief book, Manguso, who already has a memoir – the acclaimed Two Kinds of Decay – two poetry collections and two short story collections under her belt, offers a rumination on a friend named Harris who had spent time in a mental institution before killing himself by stepping onto the tracks in front of a commuter train. Kirkus says the book asks the question: “How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?” (Max)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature. (Janet)
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: In his new book, Alain de Botton argues for a middle ground in the debate between religious people and non-believers: rather than dismiss religion outright, he suggests, a better approach would be to steal from it. de Botton, himself a non-believer, suggests that “while the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false,” religious doctrines nonetheless contain helpful ideas that an atheist or agnostic might reasonably consider borrowing. (Emily M.)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Previewed in our July 2011 round-up of most anticipated books, Arcadia follows Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. The second half of the novel charts Bit’s life as an adult, showing how his upbringing influenced and shaped his identity. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says, “The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.” Hannah Tinti calls it “an extraordinary novel.” (Edan)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru: Hari Kunzru’s always had an interest in counterculture. His last novel, My Revolutions, concerned ’60s-era unrest and its consequences. That countercultural energy not only pervades the plot of his new novel; it explodes its form. Structured in short chapters ranging over three hundred years of history and several dozen different styles, Gods Without Men has already been likened to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – but with “more heart and more interest in characterization” (The Guardian.) And the centrifugal structure gives Kunzru license to tackle the Iraq War, Eighteenth Century explorers, hippie communes, and UFOs. (Garth)
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret’s choice of position while writing–facing a bathroom, his back to a window–reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he’s unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view. (Anne)
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: As a young writer, Harrison gained fame for her tales of incestuous love, which turned out to be based in part on her own liaison with her father, which she described in her controversial memoir, The Kiss. Now, Harrison tackles a different kind of troubled family in this tale of doomed love between Masha, the daughter of Rasputin, and sickly Aloysha, son of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, while the Romanovs are imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Palace in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution. (Michael)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: Nick Harkaway’s second novel—his first was the sprawling and wildly inventive The Gone-Away World—concerns a clockwork repairman by the name of Joe Spork, a quiet single man in his thirties who leads an uneventful life in an unfashionable corner of London, and a nearly-ninety-year-old former spy by the name of Edie Banister. Their worlds collide when Spork repairs an especially unusual clockwork mechanism that effectively blows his quiet life to pieces and immerses him in a world, Harkaway reports, of “mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe.” (Emily M.)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality. (Michael)
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: It’s been 14 years since Leyner’s last literary release, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, though he’s been busy co-authoring the series of ponderously quirky human anatomy readers that started with Why do Men Have Nipples: Hundreds of Questions you’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. With The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner returns to fiction, takes on the geographical and cultural contradictions of Dubai, and writes down the mythology of what he’s calling our “Modern Gods.” Also included: a cameo from the Mister Softee jingle, and a host of “drug addled bards.” (Emily K.)
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits: The fourth novel from Believer editor Julavits tells the story of an academy for psychics and the battle between two powerful women, the masterful Madame Ackermann and her most promising — and hence threatening — student Julia Severn. After Ackermann forces Julia to relive her mother’s suicide, Julia flees to Manhattan where she works a humdrum job in exile. Soon, her talents are needed to track down a missing artist who may have a connection to her mother. Powell’s Bookstore included a galley of the book as a pairing with Erin Morgenstern’s enormously popular The Night Circus, noting that The Vanishers “has magic, darkness, whimsy, and flat-out great writing.” (Patrick)
New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: This new translation, brought to us by Foer and Englander (with design work by the Israeli “typographic experimentalist” Oded Ezer), represents an unusual confluence of youthful, modern American Jewish thought. Featuring essays and commentary by an intriguingly diverse group (Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Lemony Snicket), the New American Haggadah should deliver an infusion of fresh intellectual energy into the traditional Seder narrative. (Jacob)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here. (Mark)
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard: For anyone who aspires to write book reviews – that orphaned form stranded halfway between Parnassus and Fleet Street – the late John Leonard was an inspiration. Tough-minded, passionate, at once erudite and street, he was something like the literary equivalent of Pauline Kael. I’m assuming here we’ll get a nice selection of his best work. (Garth)
The Cove by Ron Rash: For the poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, this could be the break-out novel that gives him the name recognition of such better-known Appalachian conjurers as Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell and Charles Frazier. The Cove, set in the North Carolina mountains during the First World War, is the story of Laurel Shelton and her war-damaged brother Hank, who live on land that the locals believe is cursed. Everything changes when Laurel comes upon a mysterious stranger in the woods, who she saves from a near-fatal accident. “Rash throws a big shadow now,” says Daniel Woodrell, “and it’s only going to get bigger and soon.” (Bill)
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen: From Franzen, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily in the last five years. The title essay generated considerable attention when it appeared in The New Yorker in April. In it, Franzen told of his escape to a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific following the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. Two pieces in the collection—“On Autobiographic Fiction” and “Comma-Then”—have never been published before. Others focus on environmental devastation in China, bird poachers in Cyprus, and the way technology has changed the way people express intimate feelings to each other. (Kevin)
Immobility by Brian Evenson: Genre-bender Evenson (Fugue State, Contagion) returns with an inventive mystery centering around a brilliant detective wasting away from an incurable disease and, consequently, frozen in suspended animation for years. Thawed out by a mysterious man, he must solve an important case with enormous stakes, and he must do it all in time to be frozen again before his disease kills him. There’s little information out there on this book, but he has described it as “another weird noir.” (Patrick)
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño: Published in 2007 as El Secreto del Mal, The Secret of Evil is a collection of short stories and essays culled posthumously from Roberto Bolaño’s archives. Due this April, the collection joins the steady torrent of Bolaño material that has been translated and published since his death. The stories revisit characters from The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and feature other members of Bolaño’s now familiar cast. Some have argued that the embarrassment of posthumous Bolaño riches has occasionally bordered on, well, the embarrassing, but Bolaño’s English-language readers hope for the best. (Lydia)
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag: Susan Sontag said that her books “are not a means of discovering who I am … I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.” Despite her dismissal of the personal in her own writing, Sontag’s life has become a subject of cultural obsession. The first volume of her journals captivated readers with tales of youthful cultivation, spiced with reading lists, trysts, and European adventures. In the interim since, we’ve fed on reflections like Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan and Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Sontag’s second volume of journals, picks up in 1964, the year of “Notes on Camp” (which also marked her debut in the Partisan Review) and follows as she establishes herself as an intellect to reckon with. (Anne)
HHhH by Laurent Binet: Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Laurent Binet’s first novel was recommended to me by a Frenchwoman as an alternative to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel. In fact, it sounds like a blend of the two. It concerns the assassination of Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich – and a writer’s attempt to navigate the straits of writing about the Holocaust. (Garth)
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald. This collection was published last November in the UK to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Translated and edited by Iain Galbraith, it brings together much of his previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Motion cautioned against seeing these poems as having been “written in the margins” of the novels. The collection, he wrote, “turns out to be a significant addition to Sebald’s main achievement–full of things that are beautiful and fascinating in themselves, and which cast a revealing light on the evolution and content of his prose.” (Mark)
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift: With promising reviews from The UK — “… an exemplary tour guide of unknown English lives, a penetrating thinker, a wonderful writer of dialogue and description, a nimble craftsman” (The Telegraph), “ quietly commanding… burns with a sombre, steady rather than a pyrotechnic flame” (The Independent) — Swift’s ninth novel signals a return to the themes of his 1996 Man Booker prize winning Last Orders: Wish You Were Here chronicles a man’s journey to Iraq, in 2006, to collect his estranged soldier brother’s body, and examines the resurfacing of a both personal and international history. (Emily K.)
Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin: In the grand expatriate tradition, Baldwin went to Paris looking for la vie en rose and found himself in a McDonald’s. The editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There moved his family to Paris for a copywriting job and soon learned that it’s not all croissants and cathedrals. Learning to live with constant construction, the oddities of a French office, the omnipresence of American culture, and his own inability to speak French, Baldwin loses his dream of Paris but finds a whole new reality to fall in love with. (Janet)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller: Nobel winner Herta Müller has written a novel about a young man in a Soviet labor camp in 1945. Müller’s own mother, a Romanian-born member of a German minority in the region, spent five years in a Soviet camp, although Müller’s novel is based upon the accounts of other subjects, particularly the poet Oskar Pastior. Despite its provenance and heavy subject matter, the novel, which is already out in German, has received middling reviews from German critics. (Lydia)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd: Out in April, Waiting for Sunrise, the newest novel from British author William Boyd will take readers to pre-WWI Vienna and on to the battlefields of Europe. The novel follows the fortunes of a British actor cum spy, as he visits the analyst’s couch, meets intriguing beauties, has coffee with Freud, and battles ze Germans. Exciting stuff from the author of Any Human Heart, a Whitbread winner and Booker shortlister. (Lydia)
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens: Perhaps because Christopher Hitchens was writing so honestly and movingly of his illness right up until his death, we were surprised when it came, even though it seemed clear all along that his cancer would be fatal. Hitchens’ essays, in his final year, helped humanize and soften a writer who welcomed conflict and whose prose so often took a combative stance. This memoir, planned before his death, is based on those last Vanity Fair essays. The UK edition is said to be coming out “early this year” and Amazon has it listed for April, while the timing of the US edition is unclear. (Max)
Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s latest is about a Korean War veteran named Frank Money who returns from war to confront racism in America, a family emergency (Money’s sister, in crisis, needs to be rescued and returned to their hometown in Georgia), and the after effects of his time on the front lines. Morrison, 80, has been reading excerpts from the novel at events since early 2011. At an event in Newark in April, she read a few pages and remarked, “Some of it is soooo good — and some of it needs editing.” (Kevin)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Those of us who gobbled up Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall eagerly await the release of its sequel, the ominously-titled Bring Up the Bodies. In Wolf Hall, we saw the operatic parallel rise of both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. In Bring Up the Bodies, Anne’s failure to produce a male heir, and Henry’s eternally wandering attentions, present Cromwell with the challenge of his career: protecting the King, eliminating Anne, and preserving his own power base. How we loved to hate Anne in Wolf Hall; will her destruction at the hands of the king and his chief minister win our sympathies? If anyone can effect such a complication of emotional investment, Mantel can. (Sonya)
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father’s Day. This volume, covering LBJ’s life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller. (Michael)
Canada by Richard Ford: Richard Ford fans rejoice! A new novel set in Saskatchewan is pending from the author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. The first of Ford’s novels to be set north of the border, Canada will be published in the U.S. by Ecco, with whom Ford signed a three-book deal after his much-publicized 2008 split from Knopf. The novel involves American fugitives living on the Saskatchewan plains, and according to Ford it is inspired structurally by The Sheltering Sky. Ford, who calls himself “a Canadian at heart” talked about the novel and read an excerpt on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program Writers and Company. (Lydia)
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger: Freudenberger is famous for taking a knockout author photo and for catching all the breaks (remember the term “Schadenfreudenberger”?), but she has turned out to be an interesting writer. The Newlyweds, which was excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, is loosely based on the story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger met on a plane. The woman, a middle-class Muslim, married an American man she’d met through the Internet, and the novel follows their early years of marriage in fictional form, marking Freudenberger step away from stories about young women and girls and toward those about grown women living with the choices they’ve made. (Michael)
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey: Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey returns in May with The Chemistry of Tears, his first novel since 2010’s much-loved Parrot and Olivier in America. As in Parrot, Carey again stokes a conversation between past and present, albeit more explicitly: in the wake of her lover’s passing, a present-day museum conservator throws herself into the construction of a Victorian-era automaton. If the parallel between the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth might seem a tad “on the nose,” expect Carey, as always, to swath the proceedings with sharp observation, expert stylistics, and a sense of genuine sorrow. (Jacob)
Railsea by China Mieville: The British fantasy writer China Mieville, as we noted in a recent career retrospective, is an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, everything from fellow fantasy writers to mythology, folklore, children’s literature, epics, comics, westerns, horror, Kafka and Melville. Never has his kinship with Melville been more apparent than in his new young adult novel, Railsea, in which a character named Sham Yes ap Soorap rides a diesel locomotive under the command of a captain obsessed with hunting down the giant ivory-colored mole, Mocker-Jack, that snatched off her arm years ago. Fans of Mieville’s previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, should brace themselves for another whiplash ride. (Bill)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava: Is self-publishing the new publishing? Not yet. Still, De La Pava’s audacious debut, called “one of the best and most original novels” of the last decade by Open Letters Monthly and subsequently heralded by the blogosphere, may upend some assumptions. This one began life as a self-publication, and though many self-published authors seem to feel they’ve written masterpieces, this might be the real thing. It’s simultaneously a Melvillean tour of the criminal justice system, a caper novel, and a postmodern tour de force. Now that University of Chicago press is reissuing it, heavy-hitting critics like Steven Moore are starting to take notice. (Garth)
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel: This spring brings a third, dazzling novel from our very own Emily St. John Mandel. It’s 2009, and disgraced journalist Gavin Sasaki, “former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends,” returns to his native Florida where he gets embroiled in the mystery of an ex-girlfriend and her missing daughter—who looks a lot like Gavin. The Lola Quartet has garnered high praise from booksellers like Joe Eichman of Tattered Cover, who says, “This sad, yet sublime, novel should bring Emily St. John Mandel a widespread readership.” (Edan)
The Lower River by Paul Theroux: Theroux’s latest is about sixty-year-old Ellis Hock who retreats to Malawi, where he spent four Edenic years in the Peace Corps, after his wife leaves him and his life unravels back home in Medford, Massachusetts. The book appeared first as a short story in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux returns to a theme he’s mined so successfully throughout his prolific career—the allure of ex-pat life, and the perils of living as an outsider in a foreign country. (Kevin)
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: In this follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award-winning short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Fountain delivers a satirical novel about a 19-year-old soldier from Texas, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, calls it “A Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Here’s a more in-depth description of the novel. (Edan)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif: Booker longlister Mohammed Hanif wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti on the heels of his celebrated debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His second novel, also set in Pakistan, tells the story of Alice Bhatti, a spirited crypto-Christian nurse of lowly origins who works at the Karachi Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments and endures all manner of indignities at the hands of her colleagues and compatriots. Part absurd and unfortunate love story (between the titular Alice and a body-builder ruffian), part searing social commentary from a promising writer. (Lydia)
In One Person by John Irving: Irving returns to first-person voice for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany to tell the story of a lonely bisexual man working hard to make his life “worthwhile.” The story is told retrospectively as the man, approaching 70, reflects on his life and his early years growing up in a small Vermont town in the 1950s. The novel is being described as Irving’s “most political novel” since The Cider House Rules. (Kevin)
The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: This historical novel by the Nobel Laureate “sits in the tradition of Vargas Llosa’s major novels […] in its preoccupation with political issues and its international scope,” according to Faber, who released it in Spanish this past fall. The Dream of the Celt explores the life of Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted by the British Crown in 1911, hanged five years later for treason, and disgraced as a sexual deviant during his trial. His crime: mobilizing public opinion against colonialism by exposing slavery and abuses in the Congo and Peru to the world. At a lecture, Vargas Llosa said that Casement made for a “fantastic character for a novel” — if for no other reason than the influence he had on the eponymous dark view that filled his friend Joseph Conrad’s own best-known novel. (Sonya)
The Red House by Mark Haddon: Early reviews tell us that Mark Haddon’s The Red House renders modern family life as a puzzling tragicomedy. Enough said for this reader, but here’s a little more to entice the rest of you: a brother invites his estranged sister and her family to spend a week with him, his new wife and stepdaughter, at a vacation home in the English countryside. Told through shifting points of view, The Red House is “a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires” with the stage set “for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.” Just what we all need (a little catharsis, anyone?) after the holidays. (Sonya)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: In spite of its name, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is neither etiquette book, self-help manual, nor philosophical tract. It’s a novel and yet it’s a novel in the way that reality TV shows are fictions, with Heti as the narrator and her friends as the cast of supporting characters (even some of their conversations have been transcribed). With the Toronto art scene as the backdrop, Heti ponders big questions by way of contemporary obsessions–genius, celebrity, blow jobs, what is the difference between brand and identity, how is a story told? Read an excerpt (via n+1) to whet your appetite. (Anne)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Jess Walter’ 2009 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of the funniest books ever written about the assisted suicide of the newspaper business. His sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, unfolds in 1962 when a young Italian innkeeper, gazing at the Ligurian Sea, has a vision: a gorgeous blonde woman is approaching in a boat. She’s an American movie starlet. And she’s dying. Fast forward to today, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a Hollywood studio’s back lot searching for the mystery woman he last saw at his seaside inn half a century ago. The publisher promises a “rollercoaster” of a novel, which is the only kind Jess Walter knows how to write. (Bill)
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín: Family has always been a presiding theme in Colm Tóibín’s fiction. With this forthcoming essay collection, he explores discusses its centrality in the lives and work of other writers. There are pieces on the relationship between W.B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, J.M. Synge and his mother, and Roddy Doyle and his parents. The collection also contains discussions of the importance of aunts in the nineteenth century English novel and the father-son relationship in the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama. (Mark)
Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson: Johnson is, of course, best known for beloved and award-winning fiction like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, but he also spent a decade (2000-2010) as the playwright in residence for the Campo Santo Theatre Company in San Francisco, a relationship that began when the theater staged two stories from Jesus’ Son. While there, he wrote six plays that premiered at the theater, two of which are collected here. Soul of a Whore is about the Cassandras, a classicly Johnson-esque family of misfits and outcasts, while Purvis is about the real FBI agent Melvin Purvis who went after John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. (Max)
Broken Harbor by Tana French: According to this goodreads interview with the author, Broken Harbor will be the fourth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; this time it’s Scorcher Kennedy–a minor character from Faithful Place–whose story takes center stage. On Irish writer Declan Burke’s blog, French summarizes the premise this way: “A family has been attacked and the father and two children are dead, the mother’s in intensive care and Scorcher, who is still not one hundred per cent back in everyone’s good books after making a mess of the case in Faithful Place, has been assigned this case with his rookie partner.” (Edan)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. Watched from afar by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel, Brandon’s collection of the downtrodden and the hopeful become a community. (Janet)
Office Girl by Joe Meno: At a glance, Joe Meno’s Office Girl might seem like something you’d want to skip: there’s the title, which calls to mind the picked-over genre of office dramedy, with its feeble gestures of protest beneath fluorescent lights. The doe-eyed specter of Zooey Deschanel somehow also looms. But you’d be wrong to dismiss anything by Meno, author of The Great Perhaps, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails. His latest promises to return us to a postcollegiate moment when a simple sideways glance can reveal the fallacy of our dreams—and how we stubbornly choose to focus instead on the narrowing path ahead. (Jacob)
Mother and Child by Carole Maso: Carole Maso houses beautiful American sentences in unusual, experimental structures – her masterwork, AVA, is an underground staple. The forthcoming Mother & Child is apparently a collection of linked short-shorts, whose two protagonists are, one has to figure, mother and child. (Garth)
You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell’s eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as “a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot.” Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill)
Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: A short story collection from the author of the highly praised debut novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, involving a computer-generated landscape, a zombie that appears—inconveniently—during a big-box store employee’s graveyard shift, a company that outsources grief for profit (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you”), and the difficulty of asking one’s coworker out on a date. (Emily M.)
Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: Martin Amis is dedicating his new novel to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December at 62 after a much-publicized battle with cancer. Amis’s title character is a skinhead lout who wins the lottery while in prison, and a publishing source tells the Independent on Sunday that the novel is “a return to form” that is by turns “cynical, witty, flippant, cruel and acutely observed.” Among the plump targets of this dark satirist are the British press and a society in thrall to sex and money. Sounds like we’re in for a straight shot of 100-proof Amis. (Bill)
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: Victor LaValle, the award-winning author of Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, as well as the ambitious and monster-fun Big Machine, returns this August with a new novel, The Devil In Silver. In 2009, LaValle told Hobart Literary Journal: “It’s the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one’s ever written a haunted house story quite like this.” Sounds like another genre-bending delight to me. (Edan)
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: In 2001, the acclaimed English novelist Rachel Cusk published a memoir called A Life’s Work, a highly praised – and vilified – examination of the pitfalls of becoming a mother. At the time she said, “I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like.” Now comes Cusk’s third work of non-fiction, which flows from A Life’s Work and examines marriage, separation, motherhood, work, money, domesticity and love. The British publisher says, “Aftermath is a kind of deferred sequel, a personal/political book that looks at a woman’s life after the defining experiences of femininity have passed, when one has to define oneself all over again.” (Bill)
Fall 2012 or Unknown:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: East Bay resident Michael Chabon has spent the past several years working on his novel of Berkeley and Oakland, titled Telegraph Avenue for the street that runs between the two communities. Chabon titillated readers with an essay on his adopted hometown for the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, which reveals nothing about the plotline but assures us that the new work will be, if nothing else, a carefully conceived novel of place. Chabon had previously been at work on an abortive miniseries of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley. (Lydia)
Ancient Light by John Banville: Having published a string of popular crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black over the last five years, John Banville returns again to serious literary fiction with Ancient Light. In the novel, the aging actor Alexander Cleave remembers his first sexual experiences as a teenager in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and tries to come to terms with the suicide of his daughter Cass ten years previously. With 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud, Ancient Light will form the third volume in a loose trilogy featuring Alexander and Cass. (Mark)
The Book of My Life by Aleksandar Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon (MacArthur Genius, PEN/Sebald winner) is reported to be working on his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces. The title, The Book of My Life, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name–a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon’s first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay “The Aquarium,” also for The New Yorker. (Lydia)
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: If you spent any time on the literary part of the internet in the past year, the name Emma Straub will ring out to you. She’s a regular contributor to Rookie Mag, among other places, and Flavorwire called her “The Nicest Person on Twitter” (Sorry, Bieber). Her debut novel is about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood. Straub’s story collection Other People We Married, originally published in 2011 by 5 Chapters Press, will also be rereleased by Riverhead Books early in 2012. (Patrick)
Alt-Country by Tom Drury: There isn’t much information on Drury’s fifth novel, but rumor has it that Alt-Country will be the third installment of tales about the residents of fictional Grouse County, Iowa, where The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams are set. The book is tentatively slated to come out in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope Drury revisits not only Tiny and Joan, but also Dan and Louise, as well as the many odd and memorable minor characters that people his fictional Iowan landscape. (Edan)
Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt with Ilya Gridneff: This long, compendious, delirious “novel” – co-authored with a rakish Australian journalist – should by all rights have been DeWitt’s follow-up to The Last Samurai, but publishers apparently balked at the novel’s enormous formal dare. So the enterprising Miss DeWitt simply began selling .pdfs on her website – a kind of late-capitalist samizdat. Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books wrote a long review of the novel a couple years back that makes it sound like absolutely essential reading. And N+1 ran an excerpt. Now Noemi Press has shouldered the considerable challenges of publishing the whole thing. And if you’re one of the lucky few who has the .pdf already, the money you PayPaled to Helen will be deducted from the cost of the printed book. There’s no telling how many complications are involved in getting there, but in the end, everybody wins! (Garth)
Like her contemporaries Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, Helen DeWitt went much of the last decade without publishing a novel, and in a just world, her new book, Lightning Rods, would be greeted with the same frenzy of publicity that attended Freedom last year, or The Marriage Plot just this month. I’m picturing editors from glossy magazines knife-fighting in alleys for a chance to feature DeWitt on the cover… Times Square billboards of DeWitt traversing some rustic byway, vest saucily aflap… A giant inflatable Helen DeWitt looming over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, nodding down at rapt throngs of skinny-jeaned teens…
Then again, a world more hospitable to minds like DeWitt’s would likely deprive her of the frustrations that give her writing its unique moral intensity. Her first novel, The Last Samurai (2000), was among other things a look at the fate of the imagination in a fin-de-siecle culture consecrated to the superficial, the gaseous, and the ephemeral. Your Name Here (2007), her unpublished and more or less unsummarizable follow-up, hinges on an exiled writer named “Helen DeWitt” and her struggles to wrest art from the lunacy of post-9/11 life.
At first blush, Lightning Rods looks like a departure. The Last Samurai fits into an erudite subgenre called the “anatomy” – the novel that wants to swallow the whole world. (This may be part of what the critic Marco Roth had in mind when he called DeWitt “Twenty-First-Century America’s finest Seventeenth-Century novelist.”) Lightning Rods, by contrast, is a tapered, tailored 280 pages. It confines itself largely to the willfully beige environs of the contemporary American office park. Moreover, it is a comedy. By this I mean not so much “a book with jokes in it” as that rarer thing, the laughing-so-hard-other-people-on-the-subway-are-starting-to-wonder-if-you-require-psychiatric-attention book. But fear not, Samurai lovers; DeWitt’s moral vision remains as sharp as ever. Which is to say, Lightning Rods belongs to another venerable literary tradition: the satire.
Satire’s a lot like haiku, or Marxism: there’s the loose version and there’s the strict version. In recent decades, American writers, being American writers, have preferred the former. You pick a subject, usually institutional (politics, the university, the news media), and you attack it with as many comic exaggerations and caustic jokes as possible. This technique has yielded some good novels, but it’s formally a fair piece from the canonical satire of, say, Jonathan Swift. This latter is an art of constraint, rather than of license. Its genius is to invent a single premise – the proposal of “A Modest Proposal,” the catch of Catch-22 – and to follow it without flinching to the most absurd ends. The excitement comes from watching the writer chain himself to the implacable machinery of his own logic. And as DeWitt’s idiosyncratic intellect has always gravitated toward the gap between messy reality and the logical Ideal, it’s no surprise to find her choosing the narrower path, and succeeding brilliantly.
The protagonist of Lightning Rods is a guy named Joe, whose surname, never given, might as well be Schmoe. He’s a particular sort of American Everyguy – a hapless door-to-door salesman who at age 33 has sacrificed the possibility of emotional or spiritual fulfillment on the altar of the most conventional sort of material success. Or, more accurately, has lost any ability to distinguish between the two. By day, Joe travels around failing to sell encyclopedias, and later vacuum cleaners. By night, he concocts baroque masturbation fantasies that fail to assuage his sense of failure. He should be out selling right now, he thinks. He should be a different and better person. “Which just goes to show,” DeWitt writes,
how blinkered we can be by our preconceptions. Because little though he knew it, it was the hours he spent trying to sell vacuum cleaners that were the waste of time, something he would remember with shame and self-loathing for the rest of his life. His well-meant efforts to develop an efficient masturbatory program, likewise, were completely misconceived. What he didn’t realize is that a genius is different from other people. A genius doesn’t waste time like other people. Even when he looks like he is wasting time he may in fact be making the most productive possible use of the time.
Joe’s particular insight is to take his favorite masturbation fantasy and not only bring it to life but monetize it. I wouldn’t want to spoil for you the pleasure of discovering that fantasy yourself. Nor would I want to give away exactly how – with the help of a future Supreme Court justice, an adjustable-height toilet, several pairs of PVC undergarments, and a dwarf named Ian – Joe manages to realize it. Suffice it to say, the genius is in the details. And, speaking of details, look again at the passage above. Notice the double entendre of “a genius doesn’t waste time like other people,” and the sly redundancy (i.e., time-waste) of the sentence that follows. Joe’s target demographic – office worker – gives DeWitt a chance to luxuriate in the eloquent dumbness of the corporate idiom. Her delight in nuggets like “orientated” and “product feature” and “bifunctionality” (and, come to think of it, “corporate culture”) is evident in every deceptively artless sentence.
She never condescends to her characters, however; like George Saunders, that other poet laureate of the management handbook, she’s too damn curious about the way they think. “In an ideal world,” Joe muses, in another typical moment,
he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with. Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal, sustainable client development was absolutely vital to the success of the business, and it was up to him to single-handedly pursue that goal for all their sakes.
We are too close to Joe’s thoughts here to comfortably condemn them, or even to be sure where they end and DeWitt’s begin. “Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal”: is that a banality contaminated by truth, or a truth contaminated by banality? And make no mistake about it: Joe is after truth, to exactly the extent that he’s able to frame the concept. He is a strangely moving figure, a devoted pilgrim in a world whose prophetic tradition consists of Dale Carnegie, George Gilder, and Napoleon Hill.
According to the publisher’s flap copy, Lightning Rods “take[s] on the complex issues surrounding sexual tension in the workplace.” To my ear, this betrays a questionable sense of salesmanship. I keep hearing a snatch from an old Monty Python routine: “Tonight on Who Cares: Sexual Tension in the Workplace.” (I would have gone with Remainder meets House of Holes, by way of Then We Came to the End.) More importantly, though, it’s a classic case of the slipperiness of satire. Lightning Rods is no more “about” sexual tension in the workplace than A Tale of a Tub is about the tub. But if Joe’s “Lightning Rods” are the vehicle, what is the tenor? What, exactly, is being skewered? By the end of the book, the answer, wonderfully, seems to be “everything”: bureaucracy, sexual politics, the objectification of the female body, the sanctification of same, political correctness, political incorrectness, etiquette, boorishness, ambition, laziness, late capitalism, and even logic itself. DeWitt brings to satire what Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 brought to the detective story: purity of means, ineffability of ends. This is not to say that Lightning Rods shares that novel’s epic sweep. It is, by design, a minor work. (DeWitt says she began writing it, and several other books, in 1998, “to pave the way for” The Last Samurai) But it so emphatically aces the tasks it sets for itself, and delivers such a jolt of pleasure along the way, that it reminds me of just how major a minor work can be. I wish the other leading American novelists would produce more books in this vein. Come to think of it, I wish Helen DeWitt would, too. At any rate, as one of her endearingly flummoxed characters might say, I literally cannot wait to see what she does next.
Image credit: New Directions
Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.
–Zadie Smith, “This is how it feels to me,” in The Guardian, October 13, 2001.
If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it.
We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough).
The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet.
None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far.
We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers?
Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature.
Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years.
1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance.
2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature.
As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow.
3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals.
4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel.
While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America.
When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it.
5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production.
It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place.
* * *
I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.
Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr
Catch-22 has been receiving a lot of press lately for its fiftieth anniversary, and why not? Joseph Heller’s masterpiece has permeated the culture in a way few novels do, its title becoming a catchphrase to readers and non-readers alike.
It also happens to be a very fine book. I certainly thought so when I read it at St. Louis University High, where it had become something of a rite of passage for juniors thanks to the efforts of Mr. Jim Raterman, whose energetic classes were known to include impersonations of B-25 bombers perfected by his upbringing near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. Heller’s genius for encasing a humanistic tale in absurdist farce made the book endlessly appealing to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds whose young intellects were fermenting in an all-male prep school environment that put a high valuation on the quick reply, the clever pun, and the high-minded non sequitur. Many of us also happened to be terribly earnest, and Catch-22, with its indictment of war and solicitude of the individual, spoke directly to the bits of Jesuit social teaching that we picked up in theology class. The book felt decidedly important to us.
Unnoticed in the shadow of Catch-22’s wings, another book is marking its golden anniversary this year, one that also felt and still feels terribly important to me. I don’t remember how I learned that Catch-22 — along with another favorite book of mine, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road — had lost its bid for the 1962 National Book Award to a slim volume by a man with the strange name of Walker Percy. Literary awards obviously don’t constitute the last word on merit, but I was curious to read the book judged superior to touchstones of my young reading life. I didn’t get around to The Moviegoer for two years after finishing Catch-22, but when I did, I knew that insofar as book awards have a power of ratification, the National Book Award committee had done its job in 1962. Still, when it comes to great literature, laurels like the NBA are paltry acknowledgments of a book’s real power; I found this to be especially true of Percy’s book. Catch-22 had been important to me as a student of literature, and Revolutionary Road had been important to my early development as a writer. But The Moviegoer was important to me as a human being. Like few other books I’ve ever read, it changed me.
F. Scott Fitzgerald thought “the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” Other than Fitzgerald’s own works, I’ve never read a novel whose power lies so fully not in the course of being read, but in the astral glow of having been read. When I completed The Moviegoer for the first time, I was at a loss to explain the significance of the 242 pages I’d just traversed, but I knew they had been important. I felt the novel working on me in strange ways, like a slow-release drug. That so much of The Moviegoer’s effect is felt when it’s not being read can be attributed not to some defect in Percy’s prose, but rather to the nature of the novel’s moral project.
That project is fixed in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Kierkegaard that Percy takes as his lodestar: “…[T]he specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” This is the condition that the narrator, Jack “Binx” Bolling, finds himself in at the novel’s opening, and it is the condition in which Percy keeps his narrator for most of the book; only upon the book’s completion does the reader realize just how mired Binx really is. Binx’s life is characterized by a vague, not altogether unpleasant sense of discontent; he’s unsure of his purpose in life, and his inability to discern it is both sweet and enervating. He devotes most of his energy to “the search,” an ill-defined quest for an ill-defined higher truth: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. …The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
In this formulation of Binx’s preoccupation, Percy sounds like a contemporary who was also explicitly in search of ultimate meaning: Saul Bellow. Unlike Bellow’s characters, however, Binx makes good on his threats to stiff-arm society. Bellovian heroes like Charlie Citrine and Moses Herzog see the everydayness of life as both working against and essential to their own searches; in the end, they can never foreswear community. Binx has no such qualms. He calls himself “a model citizen” because he enjoys paying his bills and renewing his licenses on time, but he uses his conscientiousness in these matters as an excuse to avoid any other form of civic activity. His formidable aunt, who urges him to enter medical school, asks, “Don’t you feel obliged to use your brain and to make a contribution?” To which Binx responds, “No’m.” He treats his brokerage job as a game, has serial affairs with secretaries he sees as interchangeable, and, in the novel’s climax, fails to recognize the precarious mental state of his cousin Kate. He floats around in a sort of dreamlike state, bemused and terrified by the world. Fittingly, he lives on a street called Elysian Fields; like the dim realm the Greeks imagined for their deceased heroes, Binx’s New Orleans is neither perdition nor paradise. In an indeterminate world, Binx is convinced only of the importance of his search. “[N]ot for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder,” he declares.
Such an assertion sounds off-putting in its solipsism, but in the context of the work as a whole, the reader is inclined to support Binx thanks to Percy’s refusal of irony. To revive the Bellow comparison: Bellow’s characters are comically solipsistic and hapless, and even a book as tightly locked within the first person as Herzog leaves room for the reader to laugh at the narrator’s overeducated lack of self-awareness. Percy wrestles this outlet away from the reader, forcing him to perform Kierkegaard’s insight along with Binx. Against his better instincts, the reader takes pleasure in sharing Binx’s aimlessness, though it quickly becomes clear that he ought not to. Early in the novel, Binx says, “Everything is upside-down for me,” but this is inaccurate. “Upside-down” describes a state of inverted order, yes, but a state of order nevertheless. Things aren’t reversed for Binx so much as they are polysemic, freighted with too much mysterious possibility, both beautiful and alienating. Even his confusion lacks order. Speaking enviously of his aunt, who is dismayed at the deterioration of Southern gentility, Binx says:
For her too the fabric is dissolving, but for her even the dissolving makes sense. …It seems so plain when I see it through her eyes. My duty in life is simple. I go to medical school. I live a long useful life serving my fellowman. What’s wrong with this? All I have to do is remember it.
But alas, Binx can only look through his aunt’s eyes for so long; when looking through his own, an action as simple as enrolling in medical school threatens the search — would pose a threat to the world’s beauty, while simultaneously risking meaninglessness amidst the vastness of the universe. “Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss,” Binx says. “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” Waking from the dream bears costs that Binx is unwilling to bear.
The reader, too, is reluctant to awaken. Who hasn’t yearned for a life free of banality’s demands? Realizing that the search itself is what poisons Binx is one of the book’s aforementioned after-effects. Percy works to make indolence alluring, reserving some of his most lyrical writing for Binx’s paralyzing reveries. Here’s Binx, recalling his college days:
…I had spent the four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the Spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.
It’s a lovely rendering of a feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another, and it’s also an appealing description of what sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon. What’s not so evident beneath Percy’s hushed, precise prose is that this passage points directly back to the epigraph. Here is despair, well hidden.
Appropriately, it is the source of so many American dreams, the movies, that provides ready fuel for Binx’s reveries. Movies limn his reality; he claims to have no memories of his own: “What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the ground dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” And he depends on films to confirm his existence, a phenomenon he dubs “certification”:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
To describe The Moviegoer’s style as “cinematic” in any conventional sense would be a stretch (unless one has the cinema of Godard in mind). But there is a way in which Percy’s novel is reminiscent of film. So tight is Percy’s control over our emotional response to his work, so closely does he make it hew to Binx’s, that reading The Moviegoer is not unlike seeing the world through the ruthless eye of the camera, the lens’s vision substituted for our own.
I would be remiss to discuss The Moviegoer without a word about the book’s theology; for better or for worse, Percy is first and foremost known as a Catholic writer. Here, autobiography may be helpful.
I read The Moviegoer during the spring break of my freshman year of college, two-thirds of the way through a difficult year. My dad and I traveled to Jupiter, Florida to watch the Cardinals in spring training. What was only a notion during childhood visits to Florida now blossomed into a fully formed realization: with the exception of the ballpark, Florida filled me with dread. The strip malls, the prevalence of faded pastel colors, the salt-laced air that lashed everything — these all inescapably suggested decay.
The crisis came on Saturday night, when we went to Mass. Unfamiliar churches are also anxiety-provoking environments for me, and Jupiter’s was worse than most: its garish white marble and overwhelmingly old congregation gave it the feel of a mausoleum for the living. Listening to the priest go on in English rendered incomprehensible by a thick accent, the brand of Catholic humanism I’d carefully crafted in the amniotic environs of high school gave way like a weak levee before a flood. Everything that could conceivably be called meaningful seemed suddenly contingent, including meaning itself. For the better part of an hour, I lost all my faith, Catholic and otherwise.
Back at the hotel, I took refuge in The Moviegoer. No longer did I see Binx as a “strange man,” as I called him in several margin notes; I saw a version of myself. In the Binx who spent his college days mooning about on the fraternity porch, I saw the young man who had thus far spent college standing against the wall at parties and walking home alone, wondering why he couldn’t make his new school feel like home. In the Binx who shunned all social obligations, I saw the kid who kept his classmates at a wary length, failing to see the necessity of relationships. And in the Binx who yearns to find his role in life, I saw the young writer who could no longer see the point of writing, because some day the sun would wink out, and all the words would disappear.
As melodramatic as it sounds, such was my state of mind that spring, and for most of my first two years of college. The Moviegoer didn’t heal me, but it did make me believe in healing once again, in large part because I was comforted by the fairly obvious truth that Walker Percy had traveled this lonely path before me. A Catholic convert, a medical doctor, and a devotee of Kierkegaard, Percy hardly lived by blind faith. When I wrote earlier that The Moviegoer achieves its powerful effect by shutting off all views of its offstage workings, I wasn’t being entirely precise: one senses the author’s intimate knowledge of the sort of bewilderment that Binx and the reader are made to feel. In 1987, Percy described his Christian existentialism for The Paris Review:
I suppose I would prefer to describe it as a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding — all of which he is, but not entirely. It is the “not entirely” I’m interested in — like the man Kierkegaard described who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day.
“The problem of living out the rest of the day” — it was exactly the problem I was facing in Florida, from the second we left the ballpark; and it was exactly the problem I was facing in Chicago, from the second I finished my daily reading in Adam Smith or Plato. Percy treated this problem seriously, and I was grateful to him for this. I wouldn’t have been able to stomach, for instance, Bellow’s thumbing his nose at the problem. For Bellow, laughter is crucial to living out the rest of the day; it is a form of resistance. At the end of The Adventures of Augie March, the titular character wonders, “Or is the laugh at nature — including eternity — that thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will.” But to Percy, laughter is a sad expression of our reluctance to go along with nature, too solemn to satirize. Thus, Binx’s wry description of his uncle is also in some ways a rueful description of himself: “He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.”
Binx is hardly an exemplary Catholic, but he desperately wants to believe in some higher power beyond the material world. And here is the trouble: his desire for the existence of a God figure is rooted not in any hope in an afterlife that would plug the hole of death, but in a need that this world, with its unsettling mixture of beauty and transience, have some ultimate meaning. Like most people, Binx only intermittently grasps death as a reality, and this failure lends Binx’s life its desultory quality: since he has all the time in the world, he can spend his days scanning the horizon for a signal from another world.
The Moviegoer didn’t shake me from my melancholy immediately, but it did help me to recognize that I was on the same terms with my depression as Binx is with his search; inhabiting it was comfortable in the way that staying in bed all day is comfortable. When I decided to transfer after my second year of college, I wrote about The Moviegoer in my application essay, not because the book had directly spurred my decision to leave Chicago, but because the memory of it, carried around for a year, pricked me as long as I was content to simply mark time. Transferring was for me not simply a change in schools; it was the first time I’d acted out of faith in years, and I wanted Walker Percy to get his due.