I’ve been waiting for Rumaan Alam’s first novel since 1999. That year, I was a freshman at Oberlin College, and Alam was a senior who existed in a rarefied upperclassman orbit that I could only glimpse from a distance. He worked at The Feve, the town’s cool restaurant (and, at the time, its only real bar), he hung out with creative writing professor Dan Chaon (in my mind they are smoking cigarettes together, like, Hey, we’re real writers, scram, you runt), and he gave a senior reading at Fairchild Chapel, which is all stone walls and stained glass windows, ascetic and elegant. I don’t remember the specifics of what Alam read that evening — there was something about a painting, and rich people, maybe? — but I remember being enthralled by both the subject matter and the prose, which was graceful and authoritative. It seemed too good to have been written by a college student. I had this feeling that Alam would be a famous writer. I imagine this is what agents and editors experience when they read something they love: a buzz in the body, a hunch that you have found greatness.
I had to wait a few years, but my hunch has turned out to be correct: Rumaan Alam’s first novel, Rich and Pretty, is being published by Ecco Press, and many people already love it. Including me. Set in New York City, Rich and Pretty is about two women, Lauren and Sarah, who have been friends since their adolescence. The novel follows them through their 30s and asks essential questions about what keeps us connected to the friends we made in our youth, before romantic relationships (or lack thereof), ambition (or lack thereof), and competing worldviews got in the way. These are two quite different women, and Alam depicts them with such effortless wit that you almost don’t notice how poignant the story is. The passage of time is brutal and beautiful, and like the best narratives, Alam’s captures that movement perfectly. We aren’t who we used to be — and yet we are.
I had the pleasure of emailing with Alam about his book. What follows is our conversation.
The Millions: Early readers of Rich and Pretty have remarked how well you, a MAN (gasp!), capture these two female characters and their long-term friendship. I concur; the accuracy here is one of the novel’s great pleasures. Here is a terrific example: “At a certain point in her youth, back when it wasn’t inconceivable as it is now that she’d be out late, Lauren had decided that if it was after 11:30 she would, by default, take a taxi. She couldn’t afford a taxi, but neither could she afford to be raped or vomited on on the subway.” One, I love the sad-horror joke of not being able to “afford to be raped,” the nonchalant, inconvenienced language set against the gruesomeness and violence of the literal action. Two, you gracefully weave the everyday negotiation of being a woman, in a woman’s body, into the narrative, and in this way the reader’s understanding of the character deepens. That’s what feels true. Can you talk a little bit about inhabiting these women’s minds and bodies? Did it come naturally?
Rumaan Alam: Let me begin by saying this is my absolute favorite feedback to hear from readers who are also women; that I have successfully captured an experience that’s theirs but not mine. The line you isolate is, now that I look at it in this context, a rape joke. The least funny subject, addressed with humor. To me, this just sounds like something a certain kind of woman would think to herself or say to a friend she trusted. It sounds like something you would say, Edan. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote this line; I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote most of the book. It’s told in this very close third person that shifts between Sarah and Lauren; the authorial voice is much less me than it is the two protagonists. I would just…go into a weird trance state and write. I do know this: I found it easier to inhabit Lauren than Sarah. This is odd and unexpected. The book as baby metaphor never works for me (babies can’t be controlled; books can be) but these two are like my kids. I couldn’t choose a favorite but I can’t deny a kinship. Lauren’s particular self-awareness, her defensive reliance on humor, her pessimism (she’d say realism) are familiar to me. The irony here, without getting into any spoiler alerts, is that my life aligns more closely with the life that Sarah makes for herself. Minus the millions of dollars, alas.
TM: I like to write about a place I know well — Los Angeles — but with totally made-up scenarios and people and premises. My life is boring, fiction should not be. Do you come from that same school of thought? Can you talk about why you didn’t write a more autobiographical first novel? Do people ask you this more than they might ask it of another writer because you’re a gay person of color — as in, why are you not writing about “your people,” sir?!
RA: I didn’t know this was a school of thought, but my life is boring too. But I do have a philosophical answer about writing an autobiographical novel. When you are brown, as I am, there is a convention for how that autobiography is meant to work. There is a template. It is the literature of the immigrant, the literature of the first generation immigrant in my case. I simply could not see myself writing that book, bringing anything to that literature. You could say that my refusal to do so is a profound failure of the imagination; you could say that my refusal to do so is an act of rebellion. Naturally, I prefer the latter, but I realize that’s a little self-serving. I do at least have an Indian character in the mix in this book! She’s very much a supporting player, but she’s there. And gayness is a subject I think I avoid altogether in the book? To live this way — as gay, as brown — is neither gift nor curse; it’s simply fact. To have to write this way, though, strikes me as something of a curse. Representation is a terrible burden. Black and brown artists are constantly asked to stand for all black or brown people. White artists simply get to create.
TM: Another element I loved in this novel was its contemporary gaze. You are so good at writing about the delights and frivolities of our current world, and your gaze is sharp as a knife. For instance, at one point, Sarah, who is engaged to be married, glances at a pile of wedding magazines whose pages she’s dog-eared “for reasons she can’t recall. It just felt like what she should be doing — folding down pages and mentally filing away: mason jars for cocktails, Polaroid cameras left with the centerpieces, a basket of flip flops by the dance floor.” These are three perfect details for a just-so, cool wedding circa 2016. Can we credit your magazine writing experience for this sharp-eyed cultural perspective? For me, the best writing is detailed and specific. What is your writing process like, for coming up with these delicious, specific lists?
RA: Process is such a weird, opaque thing. By the end of the long haul of writing and revising, I just knew these women. They were as real to me as anyone in my life; crazily, and eerily, they no longer are. But I used to think about them all the time, I used to think as them, I used to speak their dialogue aloud. It was a very odd thing. During the revision process, I borrowed a friend’s Manhattan pied-à-terre (I’ve always wanted to say that) and I went out one afternoon to Whole Foods and considered buying the expensive cut-up pineapple and I felt as though I had been…possessed. I was Sarah? I never, ever buy cut fruit in grocery stores. It’s a ridiculous waste of money! An entire pineapple is cheaper than a little plastic container of pineapple. Anyway. It’s not spiritual or anything. It’s more like psychosis, frankly. Somehow it was just clear to me that Sarah was the sort of woman who would plan a wedding in this manner, and that she would find the notion of a basket of flip flops by the dance floor alluring.
TM: I asked Dana Spiotta this question when I interviewed her for Innocents and Others, which is also about a friendship between two women who meet when they’re younger: Why do you think there’s been this surge of narratives about women friendships in the last few years, from the beloved “Galentine’s Day” episode of Parks and Recreation, to Ferrante fever, to The Girls of Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe, to HBO’s Girls? Do you have a sense of why we’re so hungry for these stories? Were there any friendship narratives that inspired Lauren and Sarah’s?
RA: I like to tell myself that this work was accidentally zeitgeisty. I started it in 2009, and I very much live in a weird cultural vacuum. Like, I am still not totally clear on who Taylor Swift is. But to be sure I was aware of these things in the culture, and honestly, I assiduously avoided them. I had never seen Girls until HBO finally unveiled that cheaper version of HBO for cheapskates like me. I absolutely love it, but am sure as hell glad I didn’t have it in my brain when I was writing this book (though obviously it’s quite different). I’d counter that narratives of intimacy between women have always been very common; it’s a theme in much of Alice Munro, it’s in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?.(I have such empathy for the undergraduate writing teachers of the late-1990s whose students had all mainlined Lorrie Moore, as I did.) Many of my favorite works — Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret — are concerned with this particular question of the bond between women. I don’t know the Bible at all, but don’t Ruth and Naomi meet this criteria? When you write about friends, you can take the sex out of the equation, even if there is some lingering eroticism, which is nice. And with friends there’s volition; it’s different than writing about family, where the bond is a question of context, and more of a given. I have no great answer. Here’s a funny story: a long time ago I was at dinner with my husband and there were two men seated near us. Somehow by context we knew they weren’t lovers, or brothers, or colleagues. And my husband said, “I just don’t understand why one man would be friends with another man.” I still think this is the funniest story. Obviously, he’s kidding, but he’s onto something; the intimacy between men is a lot harder to untangle, at least for me.
TM: I really loved the structure of your book because it surprised me. I didn’t expect it to cover as much time as it does. Most of it takes place in the span of a few months, and then it covers more time in the final third so that we are moved farther into the future than I expected. It reminded me that novels can do whatever they want, formally. Was this structure clear to you from the get-go? Can you talk a little bit about the drafting of the novel and how it came to be what it is today?
RA: I began writing this work as a screenplay. I think you can see that in its reliance on dialogue. There was something, in my mind anyway, cinematic about this treatment. There’s a tight focus on this sustained period of a few months, and then two big leaps in time. I knew I wanted the book to end quite far from where it had begun, and the last thing I wanted was to write a 900-page novel, so this structure was also the easiest way to get there. The finished book is at once quite close and quite far from the original draft. There were structural changes, mostly having to do with shuffling the work so we bounce between perspectives more quickly, say every 25 pages instead of every 50. Revising this was by far my least favorite part of this entire process, and the day that I finished I bought myself a really expensive pair of shoes. But you’re right; novels can do whatever the writer asks them to. It may not work, but you can always ask.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you: What’s the last best book you read?
RA: I have been reading so much lately. Part of it is a consequence on transitioning from the business of book writing to the business of book publishing. Suddenly, I have colleagues! I think writers with books coming out — especially writers making their debut, as I am — kind of organize themselves into loose coalitions. It’s lovely. And that there are so many good goddamn books coming out this year makes me feel not competitive but…reassured. It really does. I was riveted by Jung Yun’s Shelter; Lindsay Hatton’s Monterey Bay is both evocative and lovely and quietly chilling and unsettling; Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls is a disarming portrait of a young marriage; Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun is a showstopper that takes on big themes in a most human way; Lynn Steger Strong’s Hold Still is this complex story about family that’s so honest as to be disturbing. What a great time to be a reader.
The only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept (sorry vegetarianism!) was 2014’s: to write down every book I read. I’ve stuck with it; thus, I’m able to offer an exact accounting of my 2015 in reading. I can’t quite believe that someone has asked me to do so, but boy am I prepared.
As I suffer from tremendous anxiety of influence, I didn’t read a single book while writing my own. (To relax, I cooked; to fall asleep, I did crossword puzzles.) From June on, though, I read deliriously, hungrily, eager to make up for lost time. First, in (fruitless) search of an epigraph for my book, I reread Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret and then Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both as wonderful, indeed much richer, than I remembered.
I played cultural catch-up, reading books that had been much discussed among my circle (my circle: complete strangers I follow on Twitter) over the previous year and half: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (in three days!), Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, Rabih Alameddine’s devastating An Unnecessary Woman, a book that makes bookish people feel, by association, unnecessary, and Lorrie Moore’s Bark.
We went on vacation and I sat by the pool and read Mira Jacob’s un-put-down-able The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which was like if Mad Men had only been about Joan (that is to say: not boring).
You can never actually be well read; there’s too much out there. So sometimes it’s best to choose randomly. I picked up Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse because my father-in-law happened to have a particularly groovy paperback edition of it. In a piece about the Argosy bookshop, Janet Malcolm wrote about one of the owners resigning Louis Auchincloss to the bargain bin. Thus, I read his The Rector of Justin. (If you spot it in a bargain bin, give it a shot; it contains a wonderful, truly hateful character.) I read Ed Lin’s slender and foulmouthed Waylaid on the recommendation of a friend, and Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest because I’m fascinated by Sophie Calle, and Barbara Browning’s I’m Trying to Reach You because I loved the title. I read Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps and Birds of America because I never got an MFA and I have to learn to write somehow, and I read Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight because I love sadness.
I’m working on a new novel that sort of involves a poet, so I read two books that involve poets: Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. This is like someone who’s never played tennis deciding to learn the game by studying Venus and Serena Williams, but there you go. I read Colm Tóibín’s characteristically wonderful Nora Webster, and Helen Dewitt’s icily smart The Last Samurai (I’ll confess a personal failing: I can’t handle children as narrators). I read Bellow’s superb Henderson the Rain King, (problematic, in the argot of our times) and then Dangling Man, the same author’s first novel.
One great perk about publishing a book is that people send you books. For free! That’s how I got my hands on Nell Zink’s Mislaid (my notes say I found it “bonkers”), and two titles that haven’t even been published yet: Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, two excellent books destined to appear on a lot of Year in Reading 2016 lists. Jealous? You should be.
I read two works of nonfiction: Hermione Lee’s smart and comprehensive biography of Willa Cather, one of my all-time favorite writers, and Edmund White’s City Boy, a rambling and sort of disappointing document. And somewhere along the line, I read Margaret Atwood’s unexpectedly optimistic MaddAddam (spoiler: humanity perishes, the written word endures). I just counted: there are 36 volumes waiting on my bedside table (including collections of L.P. Hartley, Carson McCullers, and John Updike that contain multiple novels). Christ. The years are never long enough.
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“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
In her essay In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, fellow staff writer Emily St. John Mandel writes about protagonists who behave badly, like the eponymous Marie in Marcy Dermansky’s frisky little novel, Bad Marie. It’s true, many readers want to actually like a book’s main character — they’d take them to lunch if they could — but true villains are a hoot, everyone knows that. Who doesn’t love to hate Dr. Claw and his menacing feline in Inspector Gadget?
The problem is, in a work of thoughtful fiction, most villains are given a modicum of humanity; it’s their hidden vulnerability, their tangled motivation, that makes a reader believe they are real people. Makes them less villainous, really. Dermansky’s Marie is “supremely conniving,” as Mandel puts it, but she isn’t a villain. She isn’t vile. It’s impossible to hate someone that shocking, that fun.
I’ve been thinking lately about the truly poisonous characters in fiction. The female ones, specifically. Because women are vilified every day for not doing or saying what they’re supposed to. Is it anti-feminist to write an evil woman? I hope not, because there are some truly fabulous cunts in fiction.
Here are just a few:
Edith Stoner in Stoner
John Williams’ quiet masterpiece about an unassuming English professor named William Stoner spans more than 45 years and depicts, with simplicity and compassion, the slow and important work of understanding the self — one’s passions and desires, one’s body, one’s flaws. A main source of conflict in the novel is Stoner’s wife, Edith. Like Stoner at the beginning of the novel, Edith doesn’t know who she is. At the start of their courtship, we learn:
Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand; yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life, nor could it have ever occurred to her that she might become responsible for the well-being of another.
Unlike her husband, though, who discovers his love of literature and commits himself to the study of it, Edith never finds or seriously seeks out true fulfillment. Her unhappiness is a weapon she uses in their marriage, and the above passage only hints at her capacity for viciousness. She usurps his home office, she pits their daughter against him. Oh, how she terrorizes Stoner! I recently led a discussion about this novel and midway into it a woman raised her hand and said something like, “What the hell is up with Edith?” This was followed by a flurry of nods and invectives from the rest of the class. It takes everything in me to summon up sympathy for Edith — to even comprehend the depth of her meanness. Though her role in Stoner’s narrative is complex, I’m sure that if she starred in her own novel, it would be a tedious, vacuous, and miserable read. Boo! Hiss!
The Wife in “Do Not Disturb”
“I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” says the push-over husband in my favorite story by A.M. Homes, “but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” Who would know what to do? In “Do Not Disturb” we witness a dysfunctional marriage turn even more toxic as the narrator’s wife, a surgeon who knows exactly how cancer can terrorize one’s body, undergoes a hysterectomy and chemo, all the while being nasty to her partner and saying things like, “I feel nothing. I am made of steel and wood.” The wife’s brief moments of vulnerability — for instance, when she farts and runs out of the room, embarrassed — redefine her vileness as nothing more than a defense mechanism in the face of a life-threatening disease. But when I reach out to sympathize with her, she bites my hand.
Cathy/Kate Ames in East of Eden
Some readers complain that Cathy — Cal and Aron’s mother in John Steinbeck’s classic novel — isn’t a believable or plausible character. That might be true, for her cruelty renders her inhuman. I’d diagnose her as a dangerous psychopath; she kills her parents in a house fire, shoots her husband, abandons her newborn children, and murders her brothel boss so that she may inherit the business — and does it all with a smirk. She feels no empathy, thinks only of herself. And, like some reality television villainess, she’s beautiful. Of course she is. Here is a description of her as a school girl:
Cathy grew more lovely all the time. The delicate blooming skin, the golden hair, the wide-set, modest, and yet promising eyes, the little mouth full of sweetness, caught attention and held it.
I love Cathy’s inner-monster almost as much as I love Steinbeck’s descriptions of her. With prose rhythm like that, I forgive this book for all of its flaws, for the way it demonizes a woman for using her sexuality to get what she wants.
Zenia in The Robber Bride
The three female protagonists of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride suffer at the hands of Zenia, the man-stealer (and man-eater), who isn’t so much a woman as non-gendered — she is without a verifiable past, she is almost mythic in her actions and in her ability to disappear and renew herself, and she does not suffer as the other women, or men, in the novel do. If she wants something (or someone), she uses her body to get it. But she uses something else, too, and that something remains a mystery to the characters. Zenia has large breasts but they aren’t real. She’s a home-wrecker and it’s fun to hate her.
I’d consider Margaret Atwood a feminist writer, meaning, I suppose, that her books pass the Bechdel test every time, and that she gives her characters, male or female, rich internal lives. Her novels are often about women and the issues that preoccupy them, from family to their bodies to friendships with other women. It’s funny, then, that when thinking of vile women in fiction, I thought not only of Zenia, but also of Serena Joy, the steely Commander’s wife in The Handmaid’s Tale, and of Cordelia, the manipulative Queen Bee from Cat’s Eye. With Zenia, though, her behavior seems motivated only by a need to lie, rather than by something more complex and sympathetic. I’d argue that the novel’s comic tone allows for Zenia’s larger-than-life, wonderfully vile presence in Atwood’s oeuvre. Atwood is a feminist writer because she writes flawed female characters who, like real people, judge one another. Evil is not gender-specific, though the way we vilify others often is.
There you have it, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Who are your favorite vile women in literature?
Stumble across any list and you know that always there lives a list beyond all lists: the list of books which you, reader, are unable to explore until you find some Kryptonlike strength over your own autobiographical impediment. This strange year, 2011, offered me force enough to pull the rock away from the cave entryway to two unparalleled literary voices, and now I wonder how I managed to live so long without these books, arising from such different universes: Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, translated by Nicholas de Lange, and Lorrie Moore’s fictive paean to lost friendship Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
To consider Oz first: when the intellectual history of our time is written, not on electronic tablets but on pop-up holograms, someone will wonder why our era dedicated itself to the declaration of moribund genres, most especially the memoir, pundits forever attending the flickering of the patient’s stats and vitals. Could the greater diagnosis be that we suffered a spate of memoirs written in haste, lacking the wisdom of sufficient retrospect, devoid of the doubleness, whether of persona or timeline, that invariably creates meaning? In the case of memoir, we have shown love for the premature epitaph. Repeatedly we declare the patient dead until once again it rises, our own favorite dirt-spattered zombie.
Oz, in his Rabelaisian memoir, could not be considered guilty of writing too close to some original timeline: with his form of genial chuckle, he is happy to say that he encompasses the entirety of modern Israel, that it’s as if he shook hands with George Washington, fought in the Revolutionary War, and has survived to see two tea parties come, and, perhaps (please?) go.
So that if all memoirs rise and fall in their treatment of time, time in Oz is untraceable, more wormhole than line or even double helix, much in the same way that the history of Israel presents such conundra, both ancient and present, lost and continuously redefined. You finish the memoir and realize the mother’s desperate end, a suicide in Oz’s teen years, casts a shadow forward and back, a lacuna in the overarching story. And yet Oz doesn’t play needlessly coy, nor is he melodramatic: the narrative of his one family cannot creak under history if history is the family’s blood. Elegant and excessive at the same time, Oz’s wit soars, his curious attentiveness that of a lover, his moral compass unwavering. While surely some might say the work would benefit from editing, it is in the excesses of history, happy or desperate, its atavistic claws forever seeking the living, that his saga lives with such reckless accuracy.
As for his politics, Oz says elsewhere that he does not wish to exist merely as a symbol in the minds of others, to represent either the shrewd, gifted, repulsive vampire or the sympathetic victim deserving both compensation and atonement. The Zionist enterprise, as he sees it, is that of a drowning man who has no other objective justification than to grasp at a plank, and yet for Oz, a crucial moral distinction hews to the man who does not grab the whole plank for himself and push others to the sea. Recently, despite all the flak he received from all sides, Oz sent his memoir to Marwan Barghouti, considered, depending on your perspective, either an activist or a terrorist. In sending the book, Oz — who benefits from a cultural landscape akin to Latin America’s, in which a writer can truly be an engaged citizen, helping to shape public discourse — hoped his memoir might be a peace token of sorts, a book acting as a bridge toward understanding. Is this act not the opposite of the recent razing of the Occupy Wall Street library?
But back to the subject: Oz’s memoir succeeds in transcending symbolism. In writing so specifically about both nations and the nations of literature, his memoir articulates the possibility of understanding beyond nation. In the meanest flower blows the most universal wind and so on. Yet maybe, for a final verdict on this, we should wait to hear not from another dead man, Wordsworth, but rather from the living Barghouti.
To end with something a bit more personal: last year, in these pages I wrote about the death of my father. As a footnote to that piece, when this same father was already a living cadaver, some two years ago, his brain easing the fear of death by transporting him to diverse sociocultural milieus, he nonetheless managed to keep a firm grasp on a voice of clarity. In his case, such clarity was equivalent to the name Amos Oz. Edie, you must read the most recent piece by Oz. That Oz had been such a literary celebrity in our house for so long, his biography partly overlapping with my father’s, with their family friends in common, meant that the name Oz had come to mean all of the following things: lost turf, mind, glory. This concatenation meant that, so long as my father lived, I found it impossible to read more than snatches of Oz. Until randomly, or as randomly as such things work, someone asked me to introduce a speech by the great Oz himself, passing through our small upstate New York hamlet in honor of the apparition of Scenes from Village Life, the recent book of unsettling short stories, structured like Winesburg, Ohio, which could be read as a parable of uneasy coexistence. And the power of his earlier memoir transformed what had been mere epitaph — the name Oz — into living conscience, something mutable and present standing guard over the equally uneasy dead.
If Harold Bloom is right in saying that writers must come to grips with their literary, oedipal parentage and slay the masters in some crucial misreading of such masters, if our original thinking really could be structured in such clear-cut fashion, then where is the anxiety? For the space of this reductive review, let us think Bloom wrong and consider instead the pleasure of the choir, of many voices raised in praise of one unseeable supreme force. I came across Lorrie Moore’s amazing novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, written relatively early in her career, in one of those pleasurable serendipitous moments that only actual books can occasion. In a rare occurrence, I was clearing off bookshelves and out it tumbled, a British paperback with one of those faux-innocent covers the English favor, washed through with a murky yet childlike gloom, as if a painting created by a child the day she realized that there would be little more to look forward to than a spate of iron-gray skies and perhaps a teatime sweet.
I knew of Moore’s later work; she had been extolled to me by many I respected, but I had not yet had the crucial stumble. Coming across an overlauded author is like entering a romance with, take your pick, a movie star or a beachside house: one wants to make sure one’s appreciation arises from some deep inner lexicon of romance and not merely from the prefab, debased currency of everyone else’s adulation. Love is discovered but never curated. So it was for Moore and me and may it be, somehow, for you, unimaginable reader, despite this praise-song. For whatever this may be worth, before my crucial stumble, I had just sent away, finally, a novel I’d written which laid to bed whatever I wanted to explore about the primacy of friendship (of the female, wanton variety) and now felt the topic exhausted in myself: I was a perfect readerly receptacle. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, as well as some of the disconsolate stories of the late Gina Berriault, had explored some of the terrain I had wanted to explore, and yet, even if there is no scarcity to such turf, they had left vast blissful spaces. And so to find Moore was to find some new voice exploding in the choir, someone with vulnerable humor and psychological brilliance to spare, with a tender heart, a poet’s ear, and a comic’s timing, a lost wife in Raymond Carver’s realist attic, both mad and wise, spinning deceptively simple ironies.
A line, chosen in aleatory fashion:
. . . , and I again remembered that night last year, the one with the man and the gun springing up like a jack-in-the-box, the light summer midnight just beyond and past the branches. We had run, always heading for the next group of trees, and then for the next and then the next, like an enactment of all of life.
Note the dynamism, the use of what linguists call iconic language (and then for the next and then the next not being an apprentice’s tic but rather a visual representation of a stand of trees) and the widening out, subtle, cadenced, into the abstracted end of the line, where, pace Aristotle, we are forced to identify with the characters, experience catharsis, and reflect on our own categories, all in one lucid heartbeat.
We might not notice what happened. We might, as new neurological studies show, have increased social cognition after reading such fiction. We might find ourselves in James’ world, our sense of nuance refined. Or we might simply fall in love.
Reader, can fiction do anything more?
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I’m glad to see my last post got people talking. I guess I have to get into specifics now. Keep in mind that I’ve only read about ten books this year because it took me all of January and February to read Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Incidentally, if you’re looking to tone up for the summer months, I recommend all of Caro’s books. Even the paperbacks come in weighty volumes perfect for curls or bench presses). After that it was a real relief to read a couple of books people have been hounding me to read: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.I’d read Atwood’s Cat’s Eye before and like it a lot, but The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. My girlfriend has been teaching it to her ungrateful undergraduates, and I read it and got a few free lessons on the fascinating language play that goes on in the text. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so filling for both my heart and my head.Housekeeping had been lying around my apartment, and, to be honest, I didn’t want to read it. Nobody could really tell me what it was about or anything about it, for that matter, other than that they read it in college, it was beautiful, and they loved it. I read it in twelve hours. It’s the kind of book that really ought to be read in a burst like that because its physical world is so distinct and so engrossing, it invites the reader to wander in and stay for awhile. I don’t think I’d have liked it as much if I’d nibbled at it for a couple of weeks, but it was the perfect book for me at the perfect time. (Note: I was also, no doubt, caught up in the Marilynne Robinson zeitgeist. I heard her read from her new book Gilead, and for a while here in Iowa, it seemed like Marilynne was all people could talk about).After these two terrific novels, I read Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss. It’s a shame that congress passed that law that mandates everyone who writes about Krauss to refer to her as Jonathan Safran Foer’s husband in the first three sentences (There, I’ve done it… I fear the man), because she’s an incredible writer. Read the prologue to the book and see what I mean.Of course no year of reading would be complete for me without a couple of books about genocide. Max had a great post on historians and journalists who write about the ugly moments in history, and I seem to be working my way through most of the books on his list. Two years ago I read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You… about the Rwandan genocide. Last year it was Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (a woman!), and this year it was Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell. I confess that I forced myself to start this book (even while I was buying it I was apprehensive), but I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. Power writes with clarity and precision about American foreign policy in a way that is easily understood without being too simplistic or dumbed-down. I saw Power on Charlie Rose last year and thought she was so smart and interesting. Her book didn’t disappoint.And now I’m tearing through Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (I’m ashamed to say I’d never read it). So I’ve only read a handful of books this year, but I must say that the women are walking all over the men (and that’s with Robert Caro and JF Powers on Team Penis). I do find that my “To Be Read” list is still male-oriented, so if anybody has any suggestions of books by the fairer sex, let me know. I’m open to anything.
It’s a good time for books right now. In my year and half at the book store, I haven’t quite figured out the nuances of the publishing calendar, but it seems like spring is always the best time of year for new books. I suppose the publishers anticipate that people will have plenty of time to read during the summer. There were several interesting new releases this week: Dry is Augusten Burroughs’ follow up to last year’s Running with Scissors a memoir about his growing up in the care of a profoundly disturbed shrink. It is hilarious until you remind yourself that it’s a true story. Not sure if Dry will live up to Running with Scissors but it’s certainly worth reading if you enjoyed that book. Several great books about baseball have come out this spring (including Game Time a collection of essays by one of my favorite baseball writers Roger Angell). This week’s baseball book is Moneyball by Michael Lewis which strives to explain how the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane, have managed to become successful while sporting one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This has easily been the most interesting story in baseball over the last couple of years so it’s not at all surprising to see a book that focuses on it. The big novel release of the last week or so was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood author of, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin. I have never read Atwood, but several of my trusted fellow readers are most devoted to her work.Heard on the RadioNPR often broadcasts gushing reviews of the world’s blandest music. In fact, their review of the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was unequaled in both the reviewer’s unabashed worship of the band and the grinding dullness of the music that accompanied it. Which is saying a lot, since typically I don’t really have a huge problem with the Chili Peppers. On the hand, NPR regularly devotes air time to some very worthy books, and last week was no exception. Morning Edition devoted a long segment to interviewing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc author of Random Family. To write this remarkable book, LeBlanc spent more than ten years spending time with a family in a decaying neighborhood in the Bronx in order to chronicle their lives. She was able to draw a masterful picture of one troubled family among many. In her interview, it was especially interesting to hear how the assignment to write a single article for Rolling Stone blossomed into a ten year odyssey in the writing of her book. I also caught a tidbit of an interview with Mary Roach the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which chronicles, in a light hearted way, the numerous ways in which society has been advanced by putting the dead to work. There are the obvious medical examples, but some rather strange examples, as well. Apparently, the first crash test dummies were actually dead bodies, strapped into cars and rammed into walls. Pretty bizarre. I also caught an interview with a couple of the guys (I’m not sure which ones) who put together the book Temples of Sound. This is a fun little illustrated encyclopedia of the most storied recording studios of our musical century. Fantastic pictures accompany text filled with the magic-moment-of-creation stories that all music fans love to read about. Temples of Sound, by the way, is put out by Chronicle Books, which accounts for its great look. When perusing the shelves look out for books put out by Chronicle; they are always interesting or funny and they are beautiful visually.Yes, but is it Art?The art book that caught my eye this past week is a monograph on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark who is most famous for slicing the facades off of derelict buildings. In keeping with the style that made Matta-Clark famous, Phaidon, the publisher of many popular art books, put out a book from which a section of the spine has been cut away to reveal the bare structural binding of the book. It is a wonderful tribute to an artist who died very young as well as a triumph of creative book design.What I’m Reading NowIn Nine Innings Daniel Okrent writes about a single baseball game. In the early ’80s he followed the Milwaukee Brewers for well over a year in order that he would know this team more intimately then even their most rabid fan. Then he picked a single baseball game and used the knowledge he had gathered to write about it. The book is both a microscopic look at the elementary unit of America’s pastime and a study of the many individuals involved with the game as a backdrop. A grand book, especially for a baseball fan.