I received the call late on a Saturday night. I live in Europe, far from my home in the U.S., so receiving a call from my mother at 10 p.m. my time (1 p.m. her time) was never unusual. But when the tone of her voice on the other line was a distinct “Hi,” choking the usual sing-songy enthusiasm to follow, I felt a lump in my throat. “They found your dad,” she said, “He’s gone.” I then immediately collapsed into my wife’s arms.
After a night of sobbing and pacing, I managed to fall asleep. The next day, I found odd ways to cope: I rewatched funny YouTube videos in order to escape from reality. I watched old detective shows that would normally keep my mind occupied and soothe my anxieties. Following a few messy, stumbling phone calls from friends and family, I found myself unable to carry my own bones through this particular loss.
I don’t have a religion or god to fall back on. I turned my back on that as a teenager, and ever since, I’ve managed so far to find peace in music, poetry, and philosophy. Metaphors about death and grief are a dime a dozen; you’ll find plenty of words that are, as I discovered, virtually helpful to no one—“all that lives must die” (Shakespeare), or “death doesn’t change us more than life” (Dickens). Once I found myself confronting the complexity of grief, tepid words from my literary heroes didn’t seem to do the heavy lifting I originally hoped for.
Another famous literary phrase that comes to mind when we think of death is “So it goes.” This is, of course, the quasi-absurdist response found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, given after every instance of death in the novel (a novel about World War II, so you can imagine it happens quite a lot). Although this phrase is hardly a comfort, it bespeaks the way I had always approached death—sometimes scratching my head, sometimes with cynicism, and sometimes with a shrug.
What happened during the grieving period wasn’t so much answer-seeking. I wasn’t cursing the heavens, kneeling in the dust and beating my breast, asking, “Why, God, why?” Instead, I found myself wondering how I could simply exist comfortably anymore. How can I act kindly toward others, when I felt nothing but anger? How can I avoid blaming the world and the people around him for taking him away from me?
I then remembered what Vonnegut once said to a group of students at Case Western Reserve University. After asking what life is all about, he delivers the answer: “We are here to help each other get through this thing … whatever it is.” This short phrase seemed to solidify for me something I was missing: a philosophy of life that, in its lightness and simplicity, told me exactly what I ached for during the grieving period and epitomized the type of person I should aspire to be. This echoes, as well, the beautiful phrase Malachi Constant utters in The Sirens of Titan: “The true purpose of life, no matter who is in control, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”
It’s no secret that Vonnegut was not religious. A self-described humanist, Vonnegut became the American Humanist Association’s honorary president in the early ’90s, succeeding Isaac Asimov in what he described as a “completely functionless capacity.” In the short text God Bless You Doctor Kevorkian, originally read as a radio broadcast, he says, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” Vonnegut, though, didn’t seem to have the acute hostility toward religion that one expects from us atheists, especially today. I share, in fact, his fascination with and affinity for the anodyne symbols, imagery, and comforts that people find in religion.
This idea comes through full-force in his novel Cat’s Cradle. The novel depicts the story of Jonah, a writer whose growing fascination with the scientists involved in the atomic bomb leads him first to meeting the children of a famous physicist, then eventually to the fictional island San Lorenzo. The novel reflects a uniquely blended critique of both religion and science. “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be based on lies,” Jonah says in one of the beginning chapters, “will be unable to understand this book.” The significant part of this passage isn’t the “based on lies” part—rather the word “useful.” Useful things that make life bearable can nevertheless be based on lies. The name for this, according to Vonnegut in a later collection, is “Foma”—“harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls”.
Scientists, on the other hand, are not depicted favorably in the novel. While science as such might engender a curiosity with and concern for truth, often enough the human cost has been cast to the wayside. The same people who gave us efficient means to connect with one another also gave us efficient means to blow each other up. While Jonah is interviewing Dr. Asa Breed—the supervisor to the (fictional) Nobel Prize-winning physicist Felix Hoenikker—she defensively replies to his questions, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.” Jonah’s reply: “That’s putting it quite strongly.”
The point is that, while religions derive from fictions and lies, they nevertheless bring peace and comfort. They do make us perform silly rituals and spout meaningless mantras, imparting false assurances through fanciful stories. But these alone hardly harm anyone. Science, by contrast, with the hubristic pursuit for technological advancement, has a track record of grave human consequences—the expression of which we can find in such catastrophes as, say, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other such nuclear disasters.
When my father died, he was alone. At the time of his death, an illness which controlled much of his life ultimately led him to collapse on his bedroom floor. It wasn’t until his brother called for a welfare check that he was discovered in his house. Alone. Probably dead for a few days. So it goes.
Although I have some idea of what his last moments were like, I still don’t have clarity. What I do fear, and what causes me the most pain, is the realization that he must have been so afraid. He wasn’t ready to die. Not then.
Throughout his life, my father was a man of little complication. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Midwest. He came close to joining the Naval Academy, but then instead moved to New York in his early 20s to become an accountant. When I was growing up, my father had a light touch about him—an openness and willingness to laugh that was utterly contagious. My sister and I never had to be extraordinary, and it was almost impossible to disappoint him.
My parents divorced when I was a teenager. In the years since, I saw my father go through more divorces, setbacks, and job lay-offs. During my adolescence and into adulthood, I witnessed his losing battle with his body. I watched him sink even deeper into alcoholism while the cirrhosis slowly took his liver, his mind, and then his life.
At his memorial, my sister and I both read eulogies. She went first, and I followed. After telling a few stories about my dad and even making a few jokes at his expense, I read a passage from Cat’s Cradle.
In the novel, the people of San Lorenzo follow the fictional religion of Bokononism. And when their dictator, “Papa” Monzano, is on his deathbed, Dr. von Koenigswald arrives to deliver the last rites of Bokononism. It’s a prayer that beautifully expresses gratitude toward life and beauty, and to me, it stood as the perfect way to end a eulogy. Although it’s originally written with two voices, with “Papa” repeating each line, I cut out the second voice and read it more as if it’s a singular prayer:
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the
sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to
think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait…
To find out for certain what my wampeter was…
And who was in my karass…
And all the good things our karass did for you.
I concluded my eulogy with this, crying through the line, “thank you for the honor!” (I also skipped over the last three lines about “wampeter” and “karass”—other Vonnegut-isms for aspects of religiosity.) For weeks after my father died, I realized that these lines were helping me cope with his death. Because I don’t know what my father’s last words were—or if he even had any final words—I continue to read these lines as if my father said them to himself. I know full well that this is false (not least because, as far as I know, my father never read Vonnegut), and I don’t convince myself that it’s true.
Rather, imagining that my father loved everything he saw, and that he felt it such an honor to be alive, is consistent with the man he was and the life he wanted. As for me, reinterpreting his final moments with the Bokononist prayer may be a falsehood, may be a lie; in fact, it’s a foma—a harmless untruth meant to comfort my simple soul.
Imagine organizing a small get-together, a few friends and acquaintances at a neighborhood bar. It’s all very low-key. The day comes; friends arrive. You order cocktails. You chit-chat. In walks the President of the United States, with secret service, trailed by a herd of photographers. Suddenly, you are at a very different sort of party.
So it was with my journey into the world of nuclear weapons. I started researching and writing my book in 2008; we were not, then, living under threat of nuclear temper tantrum. The possibility that someone might actually use an atomic weapon again was a comfortably remote risk. I wasn’t dealing with current events; I was just interested in the people who made nuclear war a possibility—people who ended up with immense power not because they craved it but because of particular skills and talents they had. With this distance, I could do the research necessary to write about them without having nightmares.
A lot has been written about nuclear war. I have a shelf of history, biography, and popular science books about the weapons, their creators, and their evolution. From the newly re-popular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Cat’s Cradle, Red Alert (inspiration for Dr. Strangelove) to Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a rich fiction of the arms race and the post-apocalyptic landscape, heavily steeped in satire and speculation. Through all this, one can come to know an awful lot about the types of explosions humankind has learned to set off, and just how destructive they might be.
It is one thing to have that kind of knowledge when it’s all a thought experiment. It’s something else entirely when leading experts agree the chances are, once again, non-trivial. Now that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have arrived, I am at a very different sort of party.
This decade has seen some wonderful literary novels set after apocalyptic events. Think of Station Eleven (pandemic), and of Gold Fame Citrus (catastrophic drought). If we stretch the decade a little, we get the unspecified but possibly nuclear apocalypse of The Road. These books deal intimately with the aftermath of a dreaded event. There is very little room for comfort, and they don’t traffic in the will-it-or-won’t-it anxiety that we live with in the real world; in these books, it will. It did. And it’s every bit as bad as we thought. I can only imagine that writing that kind of book is like staring into the sun.
I don’t have the stomach for that. Instead, I wrote around the edges of disaster. My book is pre-apocalyptic; it is set in this world, not in the one that may come. The central question is not what it will be like when it arrives, but rather what does the mere possibility, the capability, do to us? It’s still a novel about the possible end of the world as we know it, but its approach to that topic is oblique. And my disaster of choice was one that seemed, unlike drought or pandemic, remote and unlikely. It was behind us, not ahead. It was a safe choice.
Now the world has taken that safety away. It has catapulted my comfortably distant topic into startling relevance. It has left me with more information than I really want, in this environment, about exactly what a nuclear war would entail. Those details I spent so long collecting are fodder for the nightmares I thought I was avoiding, triggered every couple of weeks by some fresh story on the news.
The first book I read, before this project was really underway, was Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe. In it, Dyson recalls time spent with the great physicist Richard Feynman, who had originally refused to work on the bomb and acquiesced only so Adolf Hitler wouldn’t get it first. He remembered Feynman sitting on the hood of his jeep in the desert, joyfully banging on a set of bongo drums to celebrate the success of the Trinity test, the first nuclear bomb ever exploded. Not long after, Feynman turned his back on military work, realizing that, in Dyson’s words, “he was too good at it and enjoyed it too much.”
Next, I dove into American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s gripping biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I had downloaded the audiobook; I listened to it walking around in bright sunshine on the campus of the University of Arizona, where I was getting a master’s degree. As his life went on, Oppenheimer was clearly haunted, and he, in turn, haunted me. I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head when I walk up the mall in the middle of the campus, among the palm trees and the oblivious undergraduates.
These were men who were responsible, in a startlingly direct way, for the fate of our world. They knew just exactly how much trouble we were in—because they helped put us there. They felt, evidently, that they had to. But did they? Clearly, both came to doubt that as their lives went on and they had to live with it. This is something, at least. My head might be full of kilotons, of radiation burns, of calculations about radius and wind speed, but at least I don’t have choices to make about any of this. Whether we survive this has nothing to do with me.
A few years later, deep into the writing process, I was living in Helena, Mont., where there wasn’t much to do in the winter if you don’t ski. One snowy Saturday I went to an estate sale, for something to do. It was largely picked over by the time I arrived, but I found, in a back room—it must have once been the study, though there was no furniture—a treasure trove. There was a whole wall of books with titles like Explaining the Atom (published 1947), Early Tales of the Atomic Age (1948) and The New Force (1953). I took home a paper grocery bag full for $5. Going through them that night, I noticed that inside the cover flap of Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards (1974), someone had underlined the following: “The design and manufacture of a crude weapon is no longer a difficult task,” and “The authors evaluate current methods of guarding materials and find them inadequate.”
The house had belonged to one of Helena’s wealthy old families, and the matriarch had lived there until the end. I have no way to know the nature of her obsession, if it was even hers, or if the collection had belonged to her husband who—you know these things when you live in a city of 40,000—had died a few years earlier. Maybe it had once been his; maybe she, in her last lonely years, had gone through each chilling volume, reading the passages he’d marked, to take some small comfort in the fear of something that, unlike the condition of the grand old house whose floors had started to rot, or her famously strained relationship with her daughter, or the idiots taking over the local city council, she couldn’t do a damn thing about.
Here, I found anxiety not just of the scientists, but of a fellow reader who had amassed this collection a generation before I was born, when the threat had also been real. A reader who must have found some comfort in this area of study, some pleasure. A reader who, given the context in which I had acquired her books, had lived and died in a world that, without regard to her worry, had survived every threat to its existence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
An “Any Soldier” care package was no curatorial feat. Rather, it was a cardboard box filled with good intention, a.k.a., Chef Boyardee and Dinty Moore cans, as had been skimmed from a pantry, or collected by a church drive. It seemed designed to make both recipient and provider feel precisely, lukewarmly O-K.
This was fine. It was lovely.
Still. No offense, but when a troop saw an open Any Soldier box, we generally moved on without a glance. We wagered that anything worth anything had been picked out or bartered, and we were just too spent for a letdown.
An unopened Any Soldier package, however, held value. Because no matter how hard you tried to murder hope — a mandate of the job — you couldn’t help but feel a flare of it ascend if you found an un-ravaged box. If you got to be the first and only Any Soldier.
This happened to me exactly once. The result: I learned about fiction from a box of Kurt Vonnegut books, Operation Desert Storm, 1991.
The scene was sand, and tent, and swelter, and blast concussion, and a small, unopened box, and me: a 19 year-old private in a camp in the desert void; a kid who’d gotten in enough trouble back home to risk his future, but who held enough privilege to get him out of said trouble; a kid whose father and grandfather had done tours in their respective wars. A white boy from the South who got into a state school based on base smarts and sub-base grades, the latter coupled to the asterisk* that he had joined the Army Reserve.
*He was a Good Kid who had found his way past setback c/o serving his country.
(At the time of my enlistment, the era of George H.W. Bush, the Army did not test for the chemicals I was fool enough to ingest.)
Point here was the Any Soldier box, unopened. No return address. I looked around as if to thwart a setup, then squatted on the sand floor of the tent and went at it. Ripping the tail of packing tape off of the top, I expected a reward of Spaghetti-O’s or Cheerios, or pray-God, Jolly Ranchers.
There was nothing there. Nothing but books. I read Slapstick out of obligation, and because it sat on top of the stack, and because its cover featured an illustrated clown. The titular allusion to clumsy, physical violence was wedded to the novel’s leitmotifs: “And so on” and “Hi ho.” Though employed as one-liner punchlines, these phrases also imported rhythmic, recurrent notes of social satire. “Hi ho” in particular addressed the futility of any given situation, including my own. It became a snare-pop to the ridiculous, We’re fucked, circumstance at camp, e.g., SCUD missile, Saddam, Sarin gas…Hi ho.
A few days later, when no one had rifled through the open box, I took it and stowed it in the sand under my cot. I then read Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano, before turning to the two texts I’d actually heard of, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. The former was a devastating, on-the-nose narrative about a veteran, Billy Pilgrim, whose life cycled back and forth through time, war to postwar, and again back to war.
Yet it was Breakfast of Champions that snared me, that made me think about the writing process itself. Specifically, I fell in love with Vonnegut’s “picture of an asshole” on page two, a description wed to an illustration like an asterisk:
Alongside crude scrawl, I’d been unaware that one could build a narrative out of nonlinear snippets, or wield language as declarative and disruptive as “Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.”
Christ, I thought, this is writing?
This was naïve. Breakfast had spent a year on best-seller lists before I turned three; there was a reason that even an applied non-reader like myself knew the name Vonnegut.
In fact, I realize now how puerile and/or unhip this reads. Whatever. Hi ho. Because in that desert, on the eve of the ground assault, as Warthog jets and tactical missiles slashed the sky, and as Republican Guard mobilized within striking distance of our compound, Breakfast’s complexity and humor, its polemic and timing and asterisk assholes were a revolution. Salvation, even.
Turns out the novel was the genesis text of “and so on,” having been published well before Slapstick. (I’d been reading the books in random order.) These three little syllables brought a gale force sandstorm. Importing both resignation and protest, and echoing the dehumanized, passive-aggressiveness of war, “and so on” represented everything my comrades and I were going through, and would go through.
Character-wise, I learned that Kilgore Trout could recur in additional works, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast and elsewhere; that his biography could alter, as could his physical appearance; that Trout’s very presence may or may not have anything to do with the narrator in Slaughterhouse — let alone Vonnegut himself. In other words, a character did not have to look, act, feel, or even exist the same way, let alone stay in the same story, or in any story whatsoever.
The Rules, to employ Slapstick, had the consistency of a “sparrow fart.”
Thus, reading Vonnegut in the desert, I was introduced to character, language, setting, satire, narrative structure, leitmotif, and an asterisk asshole. I vowed to get home alive, and to write.
Though my life did inch toward letters, it took another Iraq War for me to go all in. This time, the scene was grad school, Chicago, in the post-9/11 world. I was 32. Alongside workshops and lit theory, I scoured the public library for the primer texts I had avoided in high school and college. I read “Hills Like White Elephants,” and wrote a weeper about a couple whose clipped dialog hovers just above their anguish. After reading Jay Mac et al., I produced a pair of astonishingly poor novels featuring bruised young men. I signed letters to friends back home with “so it goes” — the Slaughterhouse-Five catchphrase, as is repeated over 100 times in the novel — and did not cite my source.
I was working to be a writer, working quite hard, actually, but I was still mostly a mimic. Which was fitting, perhaps, since what came next was the most Billy Pilgrim-esque sort of echo: the call for a new war in the old desert — Iraq — against the old enemy — Saddam Hussein — as waged by a new President Bush. I was 19 again — only I wasn’t. I was a bystander to my own memory.
This time, instead of mobilizing for deployment, I marched in the streets, hurling slogans and pamphlets. One afternoon, I stood at the back of a massive protest that featured an African-American state senator as keynote. (He was the only politician brave enough to oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and I loved him for that, and his wisdom helped him become President.)
Yet just like those Vonnegut stories, made absurd by their refrain, our efforts came to naught. The war launched anyway. I lost it; I lay on the floor of my tiny apartment for days, skipping school and work and meals and sleep, and watching the war on television. Hi ho. I also wrote, finally, furiously, my depression unspooling with every hour of embedded news coverage. A rerun, I concurrently watched and remembered the sand and soldiers, Saddam and Bush. I recalled the lessons learned as the Any Soldier who found Vonnegut, or, perhaps, who was found by him.
At some point, the news coverage flashed a photo of Shoshana Johnson, a young, African-American female soldier. Shot in the legs, she was one of the first troops captured by the Iraqis.
She went to war. I went on a search: through humor, pain, sarcasm, critique, polemic. Filth. Violence. Quirk. Only, I didn’t want to write about me. I wanted to write about soldiers whose war stories didn’t earn as much coverage (and/or our relationship to the coverage itself). What’s more, I needed to explore the culture of war, this Pilgrim-esque loop, this Vonnegut-esque recurrence, and how and why the hell we perpetuate it. I wanted to write my own version of an asterisk asshole. I wanted to pluck up the emotions of the faraway battlefield, and plop them right down in your kitchen, your office, your car wash. I wanted to bring the war home.
I sometimes regret that I have never sent those Vonnegut books to a new Any Soldier. Since 1992 I’ve only moved them from shelf to shelf, college to job, marriage to divorce, all over the country. Twice, they have spent a year in a pal’s garage while I traversed the planet. Slapstick and Slaughterhouse, talismans of sorts. My war story, my memory, as written by someone else — which is mostly the case with a war story, it seems. Billy Pilgrim cycles back, just as George Bush cycles back, as did my grandfather and my father and me. As did Shoshana Johnson, and the thousands of young troops on my television. Any Soldiers, all the time, locked inside a story.
When I found Jim Thompson’s The Transgressors at a recent used book sale, I became cartoonishly excited. Thompson is one of my favorite pulp novelists, and there was nothing to dislike about my find: its cover depicted an old coupe stuck in rutted mud, with someone rushing, I guessed, to check a captive in its trunk. The back-cover copy described a reliably sadistic tale; an old New Republic blurb promised “a tour of hell.” It was called The Transgressors, for Christ’s sake. I couldn’t have asked for more.
My excitement stemmed from The Nothing Man, a 1954 Thompson novel that I discovered a decade ago, having never before heard of the book or the author. It told the story of a sexually disfigured veteran who goes on a killing spree to cover up his secret — as if being a serial killer was the lesser shame. It was a bizarre, unsettling book, angry with energy, that seemed to have been written yesterday, not during the Dwight D. Eisenhower years.
Unfortunately, it’s been downhill from there. In the years since, I’ve returned to Thompson again and again, and I’ve never recaptured the feeling that jumped from The Nothing Man. The Getaway — made famous by Steve McQueen, and later, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger — came close, but was derailed by an outré epilogue that seemed imported from a different book. The Killer Inside Me, The Golden Gizmo, Pop. 1280 — all were fine, but none supplied the blast of that first discovery. The Transgressors turned out to be readable, but was the worst Thompson I’ve read — and it led me to ask myself a question common to fading relationships: Is it him or is it me?
I’ve experienced this pattern — manic love, followed by a futile attempt to regain said manic love — with others: I fell for T.C. Boyle after my brother slipped me The Tortilla Curtain, and despite Drop City, When the Killing’s Done, The Harder they Come, and others, it remains my favorite Boyle. Portnoy’s Complaint, The Sun Also Rises, and Billy Bathgate are my favorite Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, and E.L. Doctorow novels — and were the first of each I read. These are legendary figures, responsible for a raft of classics. Is it possible that out of all of their works, those three are the best? Did I just happen to choose each one’s greatest effort right out of the gate?
I would say that I didn’t. My experience with Thompson, and to a lesser degree with Boyle, has led me to believe that the discovery of a new style — Thompson’s turbo-charged dissolution; Boyle’s burbling streams of words — eclipses the storytelling that the style supports. Reading the stylistically unfamiliar — be it Evie Wyld or Lauren Groff or Patrick deWitt — can be so pleasingly disorienting that it leaves the reader giddy: This is incredible, we think as we flip on through. This is a totally new experience. As a reader, it’s the moment you seek — but that euphoria can also distort your inner Michiko Kakutani and set future expectations impossibly high.
Breakfast of Champions might not have been Kurt Vonnegut’s hands-down masterpiece, but I read it before any of his others — and for that, it’s elevated in my mind. With its drawings of sphincters and cows and general jokiness, it’s no Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five — but it doesn’t need to be, because the Vonnegut basics were there. And most importantly, for me, it came first. When you see a beautiful stranger across a crowded room, it doesn’t matter that he or she might not be having the most attractive day of his or her life. The spark fires either way, and you won’t forget the moment.
This isn’t to say that quality doesn’t matter. The first Danielle Steel novel you read will be as crummy as your last, and no matter when you read Tough Guys Don’t Dance, it won’t top The Naked and the Dead. But when a work is discovered can, at the very least, insert a welcome uncertainty to an overbearing consensus. In everything I’ve read about Jim Thompson, I haven’t seen much mention of The Nothing Man. This isn’t all that surprising, since he wrote more than 30 books. But critics consistently cite The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 as two of his best. Maybe they are. But maybe those critics would think differently if they’d read The Nothing Man first. As for me, I’ll keep trying: there are still a few unread Thompson novels sitting on my shelf.
Image Credit: Flickr/Steven Guzzardi
“To start with, look at all the books.”
This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”
Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?
So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence—after the book design, title, and epigraph—is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.
But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?
As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.
Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.
It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t—and shouldn’t—always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here—the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”—are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?
Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:
I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.
Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form—gender, power, identity, authenticity—and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”
I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closet-like room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.
A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows—subtly, maybe inexpressibly—that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.
In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.
Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing—suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur—a kind of historical importance—to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect—and the opening sentence reflects that.
Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale—no other word for it—with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress—frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill—they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway—deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.
Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.
Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.
Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.
Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is—you guessed it—swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales—religion and politics.
Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrowed her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)
Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.
But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.
And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor—if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions—billions, even—of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition—to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”—has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.
I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.
Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening—hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.
Image credit: Pexels/Plush Design Studio.
In the early ‘70s, Kurt Vonnegut helped produce a TV adaptation of his work, Between Time and Timbuktu, that aired on the public TV program NET Playhouse. The adaptation brought together elements from several of the author’s most famous works, including Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle and “Harrison Bergeron.” At Black Balloon Publishing’s blog, you can find YouTube clips and links to the printed script. (Related: our own Lydia Kiesling read Vonnegut’s Letters.) (h/t The Rumpus)
From the crucial moment in second grade when I discovered Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins, I became hooked on the intimate practice of grasping the world through words. Eventually moving on to the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series, I would carry around a book the way younger children would hold onto a beloved blanket. I read so much, and so often, that my parents considered taking me to a child psychologist, to find out why in the world I resisted getting a little fresh air every once in a while, for Pete’s sake!
My second crucial discovery came in seventh grade, when a lucky encounter with an abridged edition of War and Peace helped me take a giant step into the pleasures of reading adult literature. From then on, journeys into the internal worlds of characters rather than the quick thrill of external adventure fueled my reading habit.
As a life-long reader, I reveled in the pleasure of introducing books to my son Nathaniel from his earliest days: Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, the Spot books, the Berenstain Bears, the Little Miss and Mister Men series. Every night, first my wife, Alma, and then I would read to him, giving Nathaniel a combined bedtime reading of a good hour or more. Even after he learned how to read, he insisted on continuing our evening ritual, and so we marched through the Encyclopedia Brown detective series, the early Narnia books, even some of those old Hardy Boys mysteries.
When our daughter Hannah was born, Alma and I expanded our evening regimen to both our children. We created a kind of tag-team structure, reading to Hannah in her room, and to Nathaniel, then eight years old, in his. Inevitably, after a couple of years, our son grew less interested in what he had come to consider a babyish ritual, and he read on his own, mostly sci-fi adventures. By the time he reached 12, I worried that my son might be stuck in a literary rut, as I had once been — old enough to enjoy more challenging work but unaware of where to begin.
Maybe those days of curling up in bed with a story were long gone, but what if we read the same book together silently, side by side, in the living room? If I bought two copies of a novel, we could take on chapter-length chunks each evening and then discuss what we’d just read. Perhaps in this way I could gently lead my son to an appreciation of the deeper internal landscapes that literature offers.
Where to begin? I remembered a book I had loved in my teens, an obscure Jack London novel, Before Adam, about a modern man haunted by intense dreams of an earlier, ancestral existence as a proto-human named Big-Tooth. The book combined rollicking pre-historic escapades with serious issues of developing consciousness and what it means to be human. Though a bit skeptical at first, Nathaniel agreed to my proposal. And so one evening, as he sat on a chair by the fireplace and I settled on the couch across the room, my son and I read of Big-Tooth and his friend Lop-Ear, the implacable Red-Eye, the desirable Swift One, saber-toothed tigers, wild boars, packs of wolves and, lurking in the background, the dangerously advanced Men of Fire.
The pace of the plot kept us constantly engaged. Sometimes Nathaniel would draw in his breath, and I knew some surprise awaited me, or I’d pull ahead in the reading and laugh, and he’d ask, What?”
“Just wait, you’ll see,” I’d reply.
The novel also grew contemplative in unexpected ways. At one point in the story, as Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear played along the banks of a river, a log that Lop-Ear rested on drifted into deeper water, a danger the two friends realized too late: “Swimming was something of which we knew nothing. We were already too far removed from the lower life-forms to have the instinct for swimming, and we had not yet become sufficiently man-like to undertake it as the working out of a problem.”
I remember Nathaniel and I both paused in our reading at the idea that a character’s limited understanding might lead to disaster. But Lop-Ear was still stuck on that drifting log, so we returned to the story:
“And then, somehow, I know not how, Lop-Ear made the great discovery. He began paddling with his hands. At first his progress was slow and erratic. Then he straightened out and began laboriously to paddle nearer and nearer. I could not understand. I sat down and watched and waited until he gained the shore.”
Soon, Lop-Ear and Big-Tooth learned how to manipulate the logs in the water, even combining two together for better balance, but only up to a point: “And there our discoveries ended. We had invented the most primitive catamaran, and we did not have enough sense to know it. It never entered our heads to lash the logs together with tough vines or stringy roots. We were content to hold the logs together with our hands and feet.”
This passage occupied us for some time. Would the characters we’d come to care about be able to expand their minds enough to help them out of any future dilemmas? And what of our own limitations — what insights, what solutions to seemingly intractable problems were just beyond our understanding in our own lives?
The novel’s 18 chapters held us for nearly three weeks, and our discussions were so rewarding that I thought something quieter might not be too much of a reach: Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. The novel recounts Einstein’s dreams during the spring and summer of 1905, when he was living in Berne, Switzerland, and developing his theory of relativity. Each short dream chapter is ruled by a different law of time: in one version of Berne, time is discontinuous, creating minute, barely observable changes; in another, time has three dimensions, like space; and, in another Berne, time is visible. Nathaniel and I often spent many more minutes talking about how Lightman turned time into a kaleidoscope of possibilities than we had spent reading an individual chapter.
As with Jack London’s novel, we kept to the rule of only one chapter a day.
Normally, as a reader I plunge in, reading page after page after page, burrowing into a fictional world (my secret rule is that if I make it to page 30, I’m committed for the rest of the book). I can read a novel in a single day if the book’s imperative and my schedule permits. But pausing for a day after a single chapter? I’d never done this before, but both Nathaniel and I grew to enjoy the stately pace of our reading. We had 24 hours to reconsider or linger over particularly exciting or intriguing moments, and anticipate what would come next. A few years after our reading experiment, I came upon the poet James Richardson’s Vectors — a marvelous collection of “aphorisms and ten-second essays” — and found a gem that underlined the discovery Nathaniel and I had made: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?”
With our reading ritual well established, while we were in the middle of one book I’d already be considering what we might try next. When I read the Lightman chapter on how a lack of memory alters time — “Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first. A world without memory is a world of the present” — I thought we’d next try Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, an elegiac novel on the stresses that come to undermine a traditional African culture. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? When Nathaniel was six, he’d lived in a West African village one summer with his anthropologist mother and me, among the Beng people of Ivory Coast, and the daily rhythms of rural African life was a world he knew. It was while we lived in the village of Asagbé that Nathaniel had taught himself how to read, following my finger pointing out the word bubbles of the Tintin books I read to him. But his African experience couldn’t easily be expressed or shared with any of his friends in America. Now, I thought, Achebe’s novel might help Nathaniel set his memories and give him a space to remember and reflect.
Nathaniel settled in easily to the depictions of village life with a nostalgia that was touching to see in a 12-year-old. But soon the more uncomfortable aspects of the novel took over, particularly the rift that grew between the main character, Okonkwo, and his son, Nwoye. With my son on the outskirts of adolescence, this aspect of Achebe’s novel disturbed me in ways it hadn’t when I’d first read it many years before. Now I worried that it presaged the inevitable distancing that all fathers and sons must one day face. But this wasn’t a subject I was ready to confront, and so I didn’t bring it up openly in any of our discussions.
By now I thought Nathaniel might be ready for Kurt Vonnegut and his signature blend of humor, empathy, and excoriating truthfulness. And thus arrived the beginning of the end of our reading ritual. Starting with Slaughterhouse-Five, Nathaniel refused to stop after a single chapter, and so we’d read two, three, more at a sitting. When we moved on to Cat’s Cradle, he began reading on his own during the day, arriving at our nightly book sessions scores of pages ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up with him, and so eventually, and reluctantly, I left him on his own.
Now in his mid-20s and a father himself, Nathaniel is still a voracious reader — not of novels, but mostly books (and blogs) on politics, economics, and alternative architecture. At times I wish fiction had taken a greater hold of him, but mainly I’m proud that he navigates his own reading catamaran. Back when he was 12, my son did Big-Tooth one better: he’d strapped together two logs with his own imaginative cord and then paddled on his way, my reading companionship no longer needed, into the waterways that matter to him most. And now, Nathaniel reads to his 15-month-old son Dean some of the same children’s books my wife and I once read to him. Who knows where the comfort of a lap, a steady voice, and Five Little Monkeys will eventually lead his child?
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning 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 it does feature 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 (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
If you are a popular and prolific enough author, an interesting thing happens to your books, they all begin to look the same. This is the primary outward manifestation of an author as a brand. As a large oeuvre gets rounded out to perhaps a dozen or two titles, the publisher picks a certain design and rereleases all the titles to have that design. This makes a lot of sense. If you are a fan of Prolific Author A and are working your way through his body of work, you’ll soon be on the lookout for the distinctive style his publisher has chosen for his paperbacks. The problem is that all too often, these uniform designs are ugly. My prescription, however, is to scale back on the shared elements and to try to present each book more uniquely so that it feels like as much effort has gone into packaging each individual book as went into to writing it.From my days in the bookstore, I know how important, often subconsciously so, book cover design can be. With that in the mind, there are some very well-known authors whose uniformly designed books are doing them a disservice and deserve an overhaul:The Vintage paperback editions of William Faulkner’s novels have it all: terrible fonts, jarring colors, and strange, bland art. The covers betray none of the complexity of Faulkner’s work and instead promise soft-focus confusion. They feel dated and badly in need of a refresh. Better versions: Check out the prior paperback covers of As I Lay Dying from Penguin and Vintage.Maybe it’s the frames around the Ballantine John Irving paperback covers, but they remind me of hotel art. Irving’s masterful narratives have been reduced to representative but inanimate objects – a nurse’s uniform, a motorcycle – that occupy the safe middle ground that Irving’s books eschew. Better versions: There is a certain dignity to the text-only designs that once graced Irving’s covers.
For a writer as inventive and unique as Kurt Vonnegut, it sure seems like a shame to just slap a big “V” on all his covers and call it a day. Better versions: They may not offer a uniform look, bit I prefer the energy of the old pocket paperback versions of Vonnegut’s novels.
Far better are the Vintage Murakami paperbacks, which evoke some of the most jarring and surreal qualities of Murakami’s fiction. They also maintain a consistent aesthetic and yet they still vary from title to title. Even better versions: The Chip Kidd-designed British hardcover of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures the vivid imagery while hinting at the underlying complexity.
I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)