This is the 14th year that the Year in Reading series has run at The Millions. It’s the third year that I’ve blearily written the introduction to kick off the series the night before it’s set to begin, and I’m running out of ways to say it: this is the best thing we do here at the site. There are so many things competing for our attention, and most of them are bad. So at a time of year when people are recovering from family drama or girding their loins for more, when election results are being processed or contested, when writers are licking their wounds or thanking their stars about the year-end lists, Year in Reading feels like a place for enthusiasts to gather and compare notes about the things that brought meaning to life as we hurtle into the future. 2018 was the year of solastalgia; Year in Reading is a place of solace. The series is a record of love and this year, as ever, I am grateful for it.
The names of our 2018 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ling Ma, author of Severance.
Bryan Washington, author of Lot.
Elizabeth McCracken, author of Bowlaway.
Shobha Rao, author of Girls Burn Brighter.
Brandon Hobson, author of Where the Dead Sit Talking.
Ada Limón, author of Bright Dead Things.
Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
M.C. Mah is a writer in Brooklyn.
Samantha Hunt, author of Mr. Splitfoot.
Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me.
Colin Winnette, author of The Job of the Wasp.
Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans.
Brian Phillips, author of Impossible Owls.
Lauren Wilkinson, author of American Spy.
Jianan Qian, The Millions staff writer and author of Say No to Eggs.
Hannah Gersen, The Millions staff writer and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, The Millions staff writer.
Edan Lepucki, The Millions staff writer and author of Woman No. 17.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, The Millions staff writer.
Nick Moran, The Millions special projects editor.
Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox.
Angela Garbes, author of Like a Mother.
Neel Patel, author of If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi.
Hernán Diaz, author of In the Distance.
Adrienne Celt, author of Invitation to a Bonfire.
Donald Quist, author of For Other Ghosts.
Lisa Halliday, author of Asymmetry.
Ayşegül Savaş, author of Walking on the Ceiling.
Octavio Solis, author of Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border.
Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift.
Chelsey Johnson, author of Stray City.
Daniel Torday, author of The Last Flight of Poxl West.
May-lee Chai, author of Useful Phrases for Immigrants.
Casey Gerald, author of There Will Be No Miracles Here.
Etaf Rum, author of A Woman Is No Man.
Lucy Tan, author of What We Were Promised.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs, author of Small Fry.
Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions contributing editor and author of City on Fire.
Carolyn Quimby, The Millions associate editor.
Thomas Beckwith, The Millions staff writer.
Sonya Chung, The Millions contributing editor and author of The Loved Ones.
Lydia Kiesling, The Millions editor and author of The Golden State.
Adam O’Fallon Price, The Millions staff writer and author of The Grand Tour.
Jacqueline Krass, The Millions intern.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of A Kind of Freedom.
Steph Opitz, founding director of the Loft’s Wordplay.
Katie Kitamura, author of A Separation.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
Hisham Matar, author of The Return.
Anna Wiener, a writer in San Francisco.
Dave Cullen, author of Parkland.
Jen Gann, editor, New York Magazine.
Tommy Orange, author of There There.
Anisse Gross, a writer in San Francisco.
Tara Marsden, co-founding editor of Wolfman New Life Quarterly.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants.
Emma Hager, a writer in California.
Chris Power, author of Mothers.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black.
Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers, a writer.
Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin.
Kamil Ahsan, reviews editor at Barrelhouse.
Marta Bausells, a writer and journalist in London.
Anne Yoder, The Millions staff writer.
Michael Bourne, The Millions staff writer.
Ismail Muhammad, The Millions staff writer and reviews editor at The Believer.
Matt Seidel, The Millions staff writer.
Ed Simon, The Millions staff writer.
Kaulie Lewis, The Millions staff writer.
Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions staff writer and author of Station Eleven.
Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions contributing editor and author of Ember Days.
Kirstin Butler, The Millions social media editor.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
They keep coming – novels, short stories, memoirs, journals, oral histories, documentaries and feature films that feed off the decade that goes by many names. Tom Wolfe called it the “Me Decade.” Martin Amis called it the “Joke Decade.” Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris called it a “Kidney Stone of a Decade.” I call it the “Cockroach Decade”; the 1970s have become an unkillable source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers, the scummy well that refuses to run dry. What is the secret of its durable appeal? The answer, I think, comes in three flavors.
1. Primary Sources
These are first-person, boots-on-the-ground accounts of how lives were lived in the ’70s or, in some cases, how those lives are remembered from a distance of many years, after the fog of booze and ’ludes has drifted out to sea. There’s a scabrous new entry to this sub-genre called 20th-Century Boy: Notebooks on the Seventies, an eyewitness account by Duncan Hannah, an aspiring painter who arrived in New York from Minneapolis (by way of prep school and Bard College) in the early 1970s and proceeded to take a swan dive into the bubbling downtown scene of art and punk rock experimentation. He drank and drugged heroically, hit every club and party, fucked anything that walked upright (well, in Hannah’s case, anything female that walked upright, since he claims he was 100 percent hetero, to the chagrin of many of the guys.)
Hannah had the good sense to write everything down “as it happened,” which gives the book its pungent, sometimes sick immediacy. Here, for instance, are Hannah’s thoughts after accompanying an acidophilic girlfriend to an abortion clinic: “After the fifty acid trips this girl had taken from eighth grade on, what would she have given birth to…a fish? Stan Laurel?”
Students of history and fans of Balzac will learn valuable things about how life was lived – and how much things cost – in New York City in the 1970s. It took just $60 to hire somebody to kill somebody. A loft rented for $350 a month. A double feature of foreign films at the Carnegie Hill Cinema cost $1.50. The World Trade Center loomed in the distance “like twin phosphorescent robots.” Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue was the gay hustlers’ corner. The twin lodestars of downtown nightlife were CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where Hannah was a fixture, and farther uptown it was Studio 54, “the elegant playground for the international jet set,” where Bianca Jagger famously rode a white horse onto the dance floor and where Hannah once spotted Truman Capote, pickled on booze and prescription drugs and looking like “a waxwork from Madame Tussauds. A zombie.”
After a while you begin to realize that this was a small world, virtually a club, and Hannah was able to join it and live the dissolute boho life partly because he was pretty, partly because he had artistic dreams, and partly because he got regular checks from home. The name-dropping gets tiresome eventually, and Hannah comes across, more than once, as a rich-boy dilettante, a trust-fund punk. The club is so hermetically insulated from the outside world that the era’s searing traumas, Vietnam and Watergate, get glancing mention. And here is Hannah’s insight into his struggle to become a painter: “It’s hard.” Such remarks give new depth to the meaning of the word shallow.
Despite all this, 20th-Century Boy will stand as valuable source material for anyone hoping to understand the 1970s. If it did nothing else, the book confirmed two of my long-held beliefs: that Iggy Pop is a genius, and Lou Reed was a five-star asshole. And it ends almost sweetly, with Hannah’s stubbornly conventional paintings winning him a solo gallery show, where he arrives sober, gets treated like a prince, and actually sells a bunch of pictures. Hannah has come to realize that the coolest thing of all is the courage to do what’s uncool. It’s a grace note of an ending to a long grubby harrowing wallow. Somehow, it feels perfect.
Hannah, it turns out, is quoted frequently in another primary source from the era, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, first published in 1996, two decades after the facts. Absolutely everybody who was anybody is here, yakking away about the bands, the booze, the backbiting, the brawls, the record deals, the nihilism, the hard drugs, the sex, the joy of making it up as you went along, with no expectations, no limits, no rules. The punk movement, which was never a true movement, took all of five years to eat itself alive. But reading about the cannibalistic banquet is the equivalent of passing a ghastly car crash: you cannot look away.
A far more expansive primary source is Will Hermes’s superb Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. Using a wider lens than McNeil and McCain, Hermes examines the hot house scenes in the mid-’70s that produced not only punk but also hip-hop, salsa, loft jazz, minimalist operas, superstar DJs. In a review of the book, David Gates echoes one of the lessons from 20th-Century Boy. “Of course we get the headline-news boilerplate: Son of Sam, the 1977 blackout, the opening of the World Trade Center,” Gates writes. “But more important, Hermes gives us a sense of what a small town New York used to be.”
2. Embellished Experience
Then there are writers and artists who journey back in time, ransack their memories of the ’70s, and embellish them to create a sort of time-lapse portrait. Michael Zadoorian’s fourth book, the terrific Beautiful Music, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that is usually the stuff of first novels. A nerdy white teenager named Danny Yzemski is living with his unhinged widow mom in northwest Detroit in aftermath of the 1967 riot (or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion). It’s 1974 and Detroit has just elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, and racism and the related tensions on the city streets and in the hallways of Redford High School are prompting many white families to pack up and get out of town. Danny’s salvation is his discovery of rock ’n’ roll, which helps him survive tough times in a tough town.
I called Zadoorian at his home in Detroit and asked him why he revisited the ’70s four decades after his 1975 graduation from Redford High. “I don’t know what drew me to write a coming-of-age story when I was in my late fifties,” he replied. “Maybe it’s a matter of trying to understand your path, this place, the way life was back then, including the toxic things like racism, anger, fear, white people moving out. There’s something fascinating about the ’70s, especially to people who weren’t alive then. Things were so outrageous and ugly that there was an audacity and a beauty to it. It was a time of ferment when the world went kind of crazy. It’s interesting to find those moments in time when things shift.”
For Zadoorian, one of the most seductive shifts in the ’70s was the music. “I wanted to be unashamed about the music I loved then, including stuff that would be considered crap now – like Foghat,” he said. “Punk rock was a reaction to bloated stadium rock and all the excess.” Joey Ramone addressed this split in Please Kill Me when he compared the making of the first Ramones album with the working method of Fleetwood Mac, the richest band on the planet:
We did the album in a week and we only spent sixty-four hundred dollars making it – everybody was amazed. At that time, people did not have that much regard for money. There was a lotta money around. Money circulating around for absurd things. Money wasn’t tight yet – some albums were costing half a million dollars to make and taking two or three years to record, like Fleetwood Mac and stuff.
Another talking head in Please Kill Me is Patti Smith, the poet rocker whose 2010 memoir of the era, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. The book spins around her relationship with a fellow aspiring artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as the two become soul mates, lovers, and each other’s muses. The book stops when they reach the crest of fame – a wave she’s still riding, one that snuffed him out in 1989 when he died of AIDS at 42.
Spike Lee’s 1999 movie, Summer of Sam, is set in the incendiary summer of 1977, the poster-boy season of the decade, when New York City was bedeviled by a serial killer, arson fires, a blackout, riots, near bankruptcy, the discordant rise of punk and disco – a citywide fever that seemed like it would never break. Here’s how a young woman identified as Keelin remembered that summer for the New York Times:
What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting, no subways, little work, no elevators, no refrigerators, Son of Sam roaming around, boyfriend sick, and punk rock as sound track in my head, Blackout ’77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City during its glorious nadir.
While Lee’s movie is supposedly about the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, the thing about the movie that sticks with me is its evocation of the era – winking disco balls, easy sex and plentiful drugs, bad fashions, the racist clannishness in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, with Ben Gazzara perfectly cast as the white neighborhood’s Mob boss patriarch. The movie is both a snapshot of a moment in time and an indictment of a timeless American urge: the need to find a scapegoat, to pin blame on someone outside the clan.
Full disclosure: I, too, got bitten by the Cockroach Decade. Last year I published a nonfiction book called American Berserk: A Cub Reporter, a Small-Town Daily, the Schizo ’70s, which chronicled my time working at a Gannett newspaper in a central Pennsylvania tank town during the Summer of Sam. When I started writing the book, I saw the decade as pure cheese, a grim jumble of water beds, Ford Pintos, shag carpets and shag haircuts, leisure suits made of petroleum-based fabrics, Peter Frampton’s talking guitar, disco, the Captain and Tenille. By the time I finished writing the book, however, my memories and research had helped me realize something Will Hermes and Michael Zadoorian understood from the start. The ’70s was a time of ferment and pushback, the era that gave us Earth Day and the Alaska pipeline, gay rights and women’s rights and Nixon’s call for “law and order,” the grime of CBGB and the glitz of Studio 54, a brief burst of brilliant auteur-driven movies, people scrambling to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon while others drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. “Amid the cheese and the kidney stones,” I concluded, “there was a staticy vibe, a disconnect, a dissonance that has proven strangely alluring. The times were anything but homogeneous; they were cracked, crazed, schizo. For some writers – myself included, as it turns out – bad times can be the best times.”
3. Fruits of Research and Imagination
And then there are those artists who missed the party but are drawn to its irresistible afterglow. One of the most stunning recent examples was 2015’s City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions who was not yet born when many of the depicted events took place. This sprawling, 911-page novel is packed with detail about New York City in the ’70s, including squatters, punk bands, DIY zines, heroin, sexual experimentation, real-estate exploitation, trust-funders in the Duncan Hannah mold, all of it bubbling toward the cataclysmic night of the July 13, 1977, when the lights went out and New York burned. The novel is a stunner, a testament to the power of research fueled by a rich imagination. Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote, “New York felt empty…and out of control. But, in part because of the collapse, the city also felt open, liberated, available. Anything seemed possible.” Including this magisterial novel, so many years later.
Rachel Kushner, who was born in 1968, pulled off a similar feat with her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. A woman motorcycle racer from Nevada named Reno – “the fastest woman in the world” – lands in the downtown New York art scene of the ’70s and proceeds to paint a fly-on-the-wall portrait of all the hustlers, poseurs, talkers, minimalists, frauds and geniuses. Kushner takes the reader on side trips to World War I battlefields, South American rubber plantations, the gilded enclave of Lake Como, and the violent streets of Rome. There’s a rare fearlessness at work here. As I noted when the book was first published: “Kushner doesn’t just write what she knows; she writes what she knows and what she is able to learn and what she is able to imagine truthfully from all of it.”
In his 2009 National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, Irish-born, New York-based Colum McCann used Philip Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 as his narrative glue. Around that magical moment McCann spins stories of the interlinked lives of an Irish monk, a Guatemalan nurse, socialites, artists, judges, hookers, the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Vietnam. We travel from the burnt-out Bronx to Park Avenue to downtown and, yes, to Max’s and Studio 54. We’re a long way from Duncan Hannah country; we’re in a time and place that has failed utterly to insulate itself against bankruptcy, crime, grime, racism, abandonment, grief – or the quivering possibility of redemption. The Irish monk might be the perfect emblem of why the ’70s continue to draw us back: “he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.”
Bringing us right up to date, there were three 1970s-infused premiers at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mapplethorpe, directed and co-written by Ondi Timoner, is an intriguing new biopic that flips the equation of Just Kids by pushing Patti Smith into the background and making the case that what actually killed Robert Mapplethorpe was his insatiable hunger for fame. The documentary Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, attempts to bottle the exuberance and decadence of the famous disco, which led to the downfall of its two creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. (In his 2009 book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, Anthony Haden-Guest noted that the guests on the club’s frenzied opening night, April 26, 1977, included Donald Trump and his new wife, Ivana.) And Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, a concert documentary filmed in Los Angeles in 2016, draws its title from Smith’s 1975 album. The iconic photograph of svelte, mop-haired Smith on the album’s cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe.
So the Cockroach Decade is still alive and very much with us. It was a time when everything was sucky and broken and therefore anything was possible. The stakes were so low that the potential was unlimited – and people were ready to get on and ride. As Ian Schrager said of those pre-AIDS days and nights: “We rode it for all it was worth.” It was this wide-open, anything-goes, more-more-more ethos that makes the ’70s simultaneously so appalling and so appealing. Nothing succeeds like excess; nothing fails like excess. That’s what the decade keeps telling us, and that’s why artists will keep going back for more, more, more.
Image credit: Wikimedia
Over the last 13 years, the Year in Reading has collected the book recommendations and musings of some of the most brilliant readers and writers working today. Looking at the series over time it becomes an instrument of measurement, not only for tracking the way the site itself has grown and evolved, but for recording the big books of the moment, or the books of yesteryear that readers never tire of discovering anew. It can also capture–in a glancing, kaleidoscopic way–the general mood of the professional reading public. The 2016 Year in Reading was in some respects pretty grim, as contributors tried to reconcile reading, at its heart an intensely private, personal passion, with the requirements of being human in a world where bad things persist in happening.
This year I’d like to focus on the good things. The Year in Reading is my favorite thing we do at this site, and I’m so grateful for the writers who gave generously of their time to participate. I’m grateful for the dedicated readers who navigate here every morning and give the site a reason to live, and for the supporters who are helping us secure the future. This is our 14th year, and 14 years is an eon in Internet Time. The Millions won’t survive the heat death of the universe, but it has already stuck around longer than at least some bad things will.
A lot of our 2017 Year in Reading contributors were anxious and tired and read less than they would have liked. The good news is that they still did a lot of excellent, engaged reading. The good news is that there are more exquisite and important things to read than you’ll ever read in your lifetime. The good news is that books are still the vehicles for inquiry, revelation, devastation, and joy that they have always been.
The names of our 2017 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage.
Eugene Lim, author of Dear Cyborgs.
Edan Lepucki, contributing editor and author of Woman No. 17.
Sonya Chung, contributing editor and author of The Loved Ones.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer and author of Station Eleven.
Nick Ripatrazone, contributing editor and author of Ember Days.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor and author of City on Fire.
Janet Potter, staff writer.
Louise Erdrich, author of LaRose.
Ahmed Saadawi, author of Frankenstein in Baghdad.
Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of Borne.
Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan.
Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You.
Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties.
Kevin Young, author of Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.
Yoko Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear.
Danzy Senna, author of New People.
Jenny Zhang is a poet and writer.
Matthew Klam, author of Who Is Rich.
Paul Yoon, author of The Mountain.
Julie Buntin, author of Marlena.
Brandon Taylor, associate editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and staff writer at Literary Hub.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer and author of Home Field.
Matt Seidel, staff writer.
Zoë Ruiz, staff writer.
Clare Cameron, staff writer and author of The Last Neanderthal.
Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer.
Ismail Muhammad, staff writer.
Thomas Beckwith, staff writer.
Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
Robin Sloan, author of Sourdough.
Juan Villoro, author of The Reef.
Chiwan Choi, author of The Yellow House.
Scaachi Koul, author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter.
Gabe Habash, author of Stephen Florida.
Ayobami Adebayo, author of Stay with Me.
Kaveh Akbar, author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
Kima Jones, founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts.
Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars.
Hamilton Leithauser, rock star.
R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries.
Rakesh Satyal, author of No One Can Pronounce My Name.
Kristen Radtke, author of Imagine Wanting Only This.
Nick Moran, staff writer.
Lydia Kiesling, site editor and author of The Golden State.
Anne Yoder, staff writer.
Michael Bourne, staff writer.
Tess Malone, associate editor.
Bill Morris, staff writer and author of Motor City Burning.
Kaulie Lewis, staff writer.
Myriam Gurba, author of Mean.
Patrick Nathan, author of Some Hell.
Morgan Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing.
Michael David Lukas, author of The Last Watchman of Old Cairo.
Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man.
Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy.
Kara Levy, fiction writer.
Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.
Heather Scott Partington, NBCC emerging critic.
Paul Goldberg, author of The Yid.
Simeon Marsalis, author of A Lie is To Grin.
Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone.
Laura Turner, writer.
Sarah Smarsh, journalist.
Kyle Chayka, writer.
A Year in Reading: Outro
It’s the (second) most wonderful time of the year: Millions Most Anticipated Great Second-Half Preview time! Below you will find just shy of 80 wonderful books to get you from July to December 2017. We’ve got new titles from big names (Erdrich! Eugenides! Ward! Messud!); we’ve got stellar debuts (Zhang! Clemmons! Rooney! Khong!); we’ve got translated gems (Binet! Szabó! Krasznahorkai!); we’ve even got cross-genre celebrities (Weiner! Hanks! McKibben!).
The Millions Previews — both our semi-annual long lists and our newer monthly offerings — are some of the best things we do at this site. As Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote yesterday, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The site has been running for 14 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.
Please enjoy the rich offerings below, come back August 1 for the monthly preview, and prepare yourselves for 2018 (which, according to our agents in the literary field, is going to be a doozie).
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: A retiree has sold his station wagon to buy a lifelike sex doll, his daughter’s come home after running out on her paranoid tech billionaire husband, and another man’s been sexually assaulted by a dolphin. Just so you know what you’re getting into: all of this happened in the first 60 pages of Nutting’s new novel, a darkly comic exploration of familial and romantic love, and how technology warps both. (Read our review.) (Nick M.)
Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam: Klam was one of The New Yorker’s original “20 Under 40” writers in 1999 and published a story collection, Sam the Cat, the next year. And then nothing. For 17 years. Now at last, Klam is publishing his debut novel, about a has-been cartoonist who leaves his family behind to teach at a weeklong arts conference where he rekindles an affair with one of his students, the unhappy wife of a Wall Street titan. When he’s firing on all cylinders, Klam is hilarious. (Michael)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: The buzz around this debut is more like a roar. Thandi is caught between black and white, America and South Africa. When she loses her mother, she has to try to connect the dislocated pieces of her life. While Clemmons has recently burst to prominence, she has long been doing the work to get there. She teaches literature and creative writing, her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, Transition, the Paris Review Daily, she is co-founder of Apogee Journal, and a contributing editor to LitHub.com. The best part? She’s got a two-book deal. (Claire)
The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich: Nobel Prize—winner Alexievich is best known stateside for her Voices of Chernobyl, where she documented the stories of survivors of the nuclear disaster, but it’s her first book The Unwomanly Face of War that established her as an oral historian. Alexievich gave voice to the less documented women’s role in WWII by interviewing female gunners, pilots, medical workers, and others. She writes: “Their words and feelings? A whole world is hidden from us. Their war remains unknown…I want to write the history of that war.” First published in English in 1985, this new edition is translated by the renowned Russian duo Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. (Read our interview with her.) (Anne)
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye: A novel “in the existentialist tradition” that both obscures and exposes xenophobia in contemporary French society, the story of provincial school teachers Nadia and her husband, Ange, is described by the publisher as “surreal, allegorical, and psychologically acute,” and by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “revelatory and devastating.” NDiaye, winner of both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina, is the author of 13 works of fiction, seven of which have been translated into English. She also co-wrote the powerful, artful film White Material with Claire Denis. Despite comparisons to Elena Ferrante and Doris Lessing, she is little known in the U.S.; hopefully this will change. (Sonya)
Refuge by Dina Nayeri: Nayeri’s first novel, A Teaspoon of Earth, follows a young girl as she grows up in post-revolutionary Iran and dreams about her sister’s life in America. Refuge, Nayeri’s second novel, also centers on a young Iranian girl, Niloo, but this time the story is flipped: Niloo flees Iran, leaving her father behind, and grows up in Europe. Twenty years later, she’s a sophisticated academic struggling to navigate her connections to her family, a growing community of Iranian refugees, and her adopted homeland. A nuanced look at what it means to seek refuge; novels don’t get more timely than this. (Kaulie)
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt: Maybe you’ve heard of Hunt’s last novel, Mr. Splitfoot? It’s in our Millions Hall of Fame, and Hunt’s been interviewed for the site. She’s also published in The New Yorker and been reviewed (glowingly) by almost every major publication. Now she’s back with her first collection of short stories and, in true Hunt style, they’re bizarre, beautiful, and haunting. Dead dogs come back to life, women turn into deer, and there’s at least one killer robot; there’s also suburban loneliness and anxiety mixed with a healthy dose of witty humor. What more could you ask for? (Kaulie)
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: In Rooney’s debut novel, former lovers and current best friends Frances and Bobbi are Trinity College students turned spoken word artists who become entangled in the lives of Melissa and Nick, an older married couple with married-people problems. Much has been made of Rooney’s age (she was born in 1991), and her sharp, funny dialogue. Her editor calls her the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” and in its review, The Guardian notes, “Her hyperarticulate characters may fail to communicate their fragile selves, but Rooney does it for them in a voice distinctively her own.” (Edan)
Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco: In this 2013 debut, the Spanish novelist spins a dystopian yarn tracking a young boy’s flight into the wild. There he is confronted by an ancient goat herder bearing wisdom that trust is a hard-won commodity, and once violated, often too fragile to ever be redeemed. Described as “harrowing,” “stark,” “violent,” and “parabolic,” Out in the Open provides a timely and certainly intense meditation on the role trust plays in cultural progress and preservation. A reliably literate, fluid Margaret Jull Costa translation makes for a gripping read. (Il’ja)
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen: A long essay exploring, of all things, a mime. Wen, a former radio producer, pens this tribute to Marcel Marceau, the “artist of silence,” who in addition to being the most well-known mime in history was also a Holocaust survivor and member of the French Resistance. Kirkus raves “Readers will marvel not only at Marceau, but at the book itself, which displays such command of the material and such perfect pitch.” (Lydia)
The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat: In this hybrid work of memoir-criticism, prolific writer (and Year in Reading alumna) Danticat reflects on the death of her mother, part of a longer meditation on the way that artists cope with death. Michiko Kakutani writes that Danticat “wants to learn how to use language to try to express the inexpressible, to use her art to mourn.” (Lydia)
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: Khong, who was an editor at Lucky Peach, brings us a debut novel about a 30-year-old woman who’s moved back home with her parents to help with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Told in short vignettes that span a single year, Goodbye, Vitamin has, according to Justin Taylor, “breathed fresh life into the slacker comedy, the family drama, and the campus novel.” In its starred review, Booklist writes: “In her tender, well-paced debut novel…Khong writes heartbreaking family drama with charm, perfect prose, and deadpan humor.” (Edan)
South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby: Just when you think you’ve seen all the books, along comes a comedy of manners about climate change starring a ragtag team of cultural misfits at the edge of the world. Shelby’s novel grew out of a(n award-winning) short story, but its scope is capacious; in an advance review, Year in Reading alum Robin Sloan says “South Pole Station is a portrait painted with the whole palette―science and politics; art and history; love and frostbite―and all of it crackles with the can’t-make-this-up details of life at the bottom of the world.” (Kirstin)
Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz: 1960s and 70s L.A. party girl and writer extraordinaire Babitz is having a revival. Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company were recently published by NYRB Classics, and now her novel Sex and Rage is being re-issued by Counterpoint. Readers can’t seem to get enough of her writing and it’s hard to imagine literary L.A. without her voice. That’s because Los Angeles is not just a setting in her work, it’s not a character, it’s not a myth, or a lover. It’s love itself. (Zoë)
The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor: Fermor, who died in 2011, is perhaps best known for the books chronicling his youthful tramp across Interwar Europe—drinking and frolicking and picking up a half-dozen languages along the way. Here, in his only novel (originally published in 1953), the action is concentrated on the island of Saint Jacques, whose French aristocracy is in the midst of Mardi Gras revels. A volcano looms over the picturesque town in carnival, an outsized force of nature in this slender work as florid as it is fun. (Matt)
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen: The latest by the man behind the labyrinthine Book of Numbers kicks off with a situation that’s nothing if not explosive. Two Israeli veterans, Yoav and Uri, decide to spend a year in New York with Yoav’s cousin, a right-wing American patriot who runs a tri-state moving company. In short order, the two get enlisted to work as ruthless eviction-movers, which leads inevitably to one homeowner seeking revenge. (Thom)
A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma: The title of Sharma’s new story collection is apparently ironic—“An apter phrase might be ‘bad luck and isolation,’” according to Kirkus Reviews. David Sedaris deems the stories “complex, funny enough to laugh out loud at but emotionally devastating,” and the Kirkus reviewer does ultimately concede that the stories exhibit “a psychological acuity that redeems their dark worldview.” Fans of Sharma’s Family Life may be interested in a story that seems to have been the seed of that novel. And if you’re interested in a sneak, the title story and “You are Happy?” (among others) were both published in The New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn about his first novel, Short Century, Gerrard succinctly described the plot of his second: “It’s about a machine that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users. That is my attempt to question and honor one of the major ideas of fiction, which is that fiction should lead up to an epiphany.” This new work explores the effects of such epiphanies—the narrator’s tattoo reads “Dependent on the Opinion of Others”—on the inscribed-upon individuals and society as a whole. The result, according to Publishers Weekly, is a “wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman.” (Matt)
I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim: One of Korea’s most prolific and celebrated authors brings us a new novel, translated by Krys Lee, about two young men on the streets of Seoul: Jae, who is abandoned as a baby and becomes a leader of a powerful motorcycle gang, and Dongyu, who runs away from home as a teenager to follow Jae. Booklist remarks: “this is a wrenching examination of discarded youth, abuses of power, and the irreparable disintegration of societal structures,” and John Darnielle is a fan, saying, “Young-ha Kim is kin to those writers of more experimental times than ours: Daniel Defoe and Thomas Nashe, writers who followed their stories and themes into whatever haunted, humid dark corners they found, and who weren’t afraid to linger in those places to see what else might be there. (Edan)
Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina: Part memoir and part historical fiction, this unusual book uses recently declassified FBI files to trace the escape of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray. With a fake passport, Ray managed to elude capture for 10 days in Lisbon, Portugal. Muñoz Molina’s fascination with this story has to do, in part, with his personal connection to Lisbon, a city that was the inspiration for his first novel, Winter in Lisbon. Muñoz Molina recounts Ray’s hideouts in Lisbon in 1968, while also looking back on his own memories of the place, when he lived there in the late 1980s, and was just getting started as a novelist. Throughout the narrative, Muñoz Molina reflects on the writing process itself, and how he came to construct Ray’s narrative. (Hannah)
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud: Following The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s new novel tells the story of lifelong friends Julia and Cassie. Their paths diverge and the result is a story about adolescence that contrasts a childhood’s imaginary world against adult reality. Messud, who will always have my heart for her response to a question about an unlikeable female character, tackles big questions with complex and nuanced novels. It looks like this will deliver. (Claire)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Sour Heart is Lena Dunham’s first pick for her imprint at Random House, which is a delight since Zhang is a powerful fiction writer who offers an intimate look at girlhood. Karan Mahajan says that the book, which is narrated by daughters of Chinese immigrants, “blasts opens the so-called immigrant narrative.” And Miranda July reveals that Sour Heart will come to “shape the world—not just the literary world, but what we know about reality.” (Zoë)
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta: Here is how Mrs. Fletcher, the seventh novel by the author behind The Leftovers, begins: a woman named Eve Fletcher gets an anonymous text with a simple and unsubtle message: “U R a MILF!” The message, over the course of several months, drives Mrs. Fletcher to grow obsessed with a MILF-porn website, which leads to some unsavory consequences in her day-to-day life. It doesn’t bode well that she’s also the director of a senior center. (Thom)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: French intellectual history is unlikely whodunit territory, but leave it to Binet to mine comic and genre gold from the milieu of 1980s Paris. Set into motion by the sudden (and real-life) 1980 death of cultural critic Roland Barthes, Binet’s novel features all the literary and cultural heavyweights of the time—Butler, Derrida, Deleuze, Eco, Foucault, and Kristeva—while also, in a Calvino-like touch, including a hunt for a manuscript that purports to unlock hitherto unknown linguistic mysteries. Highbrow hijinks ensue, obviously. (Kirstin)
The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk: The 10th novel from Nobel Prize-winning Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman is a story of fathers, sons, and myths. Master Mahmut, a traditional Turkish well-digger, and his young apprentice work hard at their back-breaking trade, searching for water in a barren land, until an accident changes everything; the “demonic” voice of a red-haired woman haunts the survivor. Allusions to Oedipus Rex and Shanameh, stories of patricide and filicide, fill the novel, but there’s more than a little mystery here as well. And since this is Pamuk, you can be sure to find plenty of musings on the clash between modernism and tradition, new and old. (Kaulie)
New People by Danzy Senna: The fifth book from Senna, whose previous work includes the best-selling novel Caucasia and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, about her parents’ marriage. Like her earlier work, New People explores complex issues of race and class, following two light-skinned black Americans who marry and attempt to have it all in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In her review for The New Republic, Morgan Jerkins writes “What this novel succeeds in is creating a dense psychological portrait of a black woman nearing the close of the 20th century: inquisitive, obsessive, imaginative, alive.” (Lydia)
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard: What’s newsworthy about Autumn is what it is not: it’s not an entry in the epic (and still going) My Struggle, which made Knausgaard famous. Instead, it’s book number one in a new, unrelated project, which the author refers to (naturally) as the Four Seasons Quartet. Conceived as a “lexicon for an unborn child,” the projects consists of hundreds of very short texts, each of which tackles a different everyday object. “Now, as I write this,” the first entry begins, “you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you…” (Thom)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: Described as “a modern-day Antigone,” Home Fire follows Isma Pasha, a British woman who comes to America in pursuit of her Ph.D., her beautiful younger sister, and their brother, who’s haunted by the legacy of their jihadi father. Add in a rival London family, an increasingly tense political climate, an impossible romance, and remorse in Raqqa, and perhaps you can begin to see the Grecian similarities. The latest novel from Shamsie, whose Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Home Fire should prove moving and thought-provoking, even for those who never cared much for Antigone. (Kaulie)
The Mountain by Paul Yoon: In his second published story collection, Yoon presents six distinct stories set at various times—past, present, and future—and all across the world. Throughout, characters are linked not by personal connections to one another, but instead by a shared theme: how they reconcile violent, traumatic pasts with their present-day lives. (Nick M.)
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard: The Ribkins are quite the talented family. Johnny Ribkins, now 72, can make a precise map of any space, whether he’s been there or not. Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale walls. His cousin belches fire. This black American family once used their powers to advance the civil rights movement, but when disillusionment set in, Johnny and his brother turned their talents to a string of audacious burglaries. Now Johnny’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from a mobster—or he’ll swim with the fishes, as they say. Praised by Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, Hubbard arrives on the scene with an auspicious bang. (Bill)
White Plains by Gordon Lish: Would we be highlighting this collection of literary odds and ends from a tiny indie press if its author were not the erstwhile Captain Fiction, editor of Raymond Carver’s early stories, and one of American fiction’s most infamous provocateurs? Probably not. Even the publisher’s own promotional materials expend more words on Lish than on the book he has written, enigmatically subtitled Pieces and Witherings. But whatever else can be said about the man, Lish is among the most influential literary figures of his generation. His own work, though wildly uneven, is worth a read. (Michael)
After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus: In her life and work, radical punk writer Kathy Acker assaulted the male hegemony of narrative fiction with her transgressive experimental books, including Blood & Guts in High School and her re-appropriation of Great Expectations. As true to these ideals in life, Acker begat a full mythology. “Acker understands that writing without myth is nothing,” writes Kraus, Semiotext(e) editor, author of I Love Dick, and now author of Acker’s first biography. After Kathy Acker, according to Sheila Heti, “feels like it’s being told in one long rush of a monologue over late-night drinks by someone who was there.” (Anne)
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah: Gurnah’s Gravel Heart is a book that may remind some readers of the author’s Man Booker Prize finalist, Paradise. It circles around the falling of a society, herein Zanzibar, in the wake of colonial disruption. The protagonist, Salim, is caught in the midst of all this, and his slow spinning—internally and externally—revolves into a moving portraiture of a man caught in a web of things, hard and difficult. The structure of the book pays homage to William Shakespeare, and it may this that solidifies Gurnah’s ninth novel as an ambitious work worthy of attention. (Chigozie)
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: The book industry trades in superlatives, but the buzz for this debut novel stands out. To read it is to become an evangelist for it, apparently, and Stephen King says he’ll remember it forever. It’s about 14-year-old Turtle Alveston and her “tortured but charismatic father,” from whom she’s gradually realized she needs to escape, with the help of her one and only friend and an arsenal of survival skills. (Janet)
Eastman Was Here by Alex Gilvarry: Artistic ambition, intellectual misogyny, and Saigon provide the backdrop for Gilvarry’s second novel, whose Norman Mailer-like protagonist seeks to reclaim his former journalistic eminence by chronicling the end of the Vietnam War. It turns out, however, that no matter how far from home you go, you take your troubles with you; and the titular Eastman finds that his ghosts, like those of the nation that created his oversized public persona, can’t be outrun. Year in Reading alum Saïd Sayrafiezadeh says “Eastman Was Here is a wildly entertaining book, intoxicatingly written and deceptively profound in its insights into the nature of celebrity, country, marriage, war and the pitfalls of being a writer.” (Kirstin)
Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This debut was described by The Guardian as a “clever and funny take on domestic life and Nigerian society.” Set in the 1980s, the story centers around the familial—and family planning—struggles of a young woman trying to conceive. She does everything she can, including ascending the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, goat in tow, only to have her in-laws foist a second, and presumably more fertile, wife, upon her feckless husband. Published earlier this year in Britain, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. (Matt)
The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek: Kobek had a surprise hit on his hands with 2016’s I Hate The Internet, his self-published satirical novel that lambasted the tech industry’s distortion of San Francisco. After that novel published to favorable reviews—including one from Dwight Garner in The New York Times—and strong sales, Kobek is returning with The Future Won’t Be Long.The forthcoming novel is a prequel to Internet that finds a younger version of Internet’s protagonist, Adeline, as a struggling young artist in New York. Written before Internet, Won’t Be Long tracks Adeline and her friend Baby as they navigate, in Kobek’s words, “the decaying remnants of Punk New York.” We can expect this novel to observe that decay with the same wit that characterized Internet. (Read our interview with him.) (Ismail)
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: New Orleans native Sexton’s debut novel tracks the sliding fortunes of three generations of a black family in her hometown, as they move from tenuous middle-class respectability during World War II through the ravages of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, and the psychic calamity of Hurricane Katrina, casualties of the American Dream that has unraveled from Jim Crow to Donald Trump. (Bill)
To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Ten stories whose settings range widely from WWII Kansas City to New York City to western Massachusetts to woodsy Wisconsin to rural Minnesota and the Twin Cities—from a writer who’s been working the biz side of indie publishing for decades. Foreword Reviews writes: “What is remembered; what is missed; what will never be again…all these are addressed with the tenderness of a wise observer whose heart is large enough, kind enough, to embrace them all without judgment…intense and finely crafted.” From Kirkus: “…Summie writes elegantly of Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, with their disappearing farmland, aging population, and winters that are both brutal and engendering of intimacy.” Summie’s debut marks her later-life chapter, and you can read about that in our interview with her here. (Sonya)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Ward returns with her first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. Ward’s two books between, a memoir (Men We Reaped) and a book of essays she edited (The Fire This Time), deal head-on with racism in America and the woeful ways it’s still deeply embedded in our society. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s southern-steeped voice is just as keen and continues to take on the South’s murky history, this time through the young Jojo as he travels with his drug-addicted mother and baby sister as they go to pick up his father just released from prison. (Anne)
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss’s fourth novel follows the lives of two Americans in Israel in alternating chapters. The first character, Jules Epstein, is a recently-divorced, retired lawyer drawn to a rabbi; the second, a novelist named Nicole, is recruited by a mysterious literature professor working on a project about Franz Kafka. Krauss’s novel A History of Love has been rightly praised, but this new book might send people back to her equally intriguing debut, Man Walks into a Room, another investigation of what happens when our lives are radically transformed. (Nick R.)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: With her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, Ng proved she is a powerful storyteller of multifaceted families and the women within them forced to make difficult decisions. Her sophomore effort tangles multiple families in a drama of class and race in a Cleveland suburb. When single mother and artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, she rents from the well-off Richardson family. Of course, the initial fascination with the Warrens turns sour when they are pitted against the Richardsons in a town rift about a family adopting a Chinese-American child. (Tess)
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott: National Book Award winner McDermott is simply one of the finest living Catholic writers, and her new novel looks to capture the spirit of her previous work: families and cultures strained by the optimism of faith tempered by the suffering of reality. A man’s suicide early in the novel leaves behind his pregnant wife. She is comforted by The Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, a Brooklyn convent. A generational novel sure to appeal to longtime McDermott fans, and to bring-in new readers as well. (Nick R.)
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride: McBride returns to fiction for the first time since winning the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, his masterly novel about the exploits of the doomed abolitionist John Brown and his entourage. McBride’s new book, Five-Carat Soul, is a collection of stories told through the eyes of an antique toy dealer who makes the score of a lifetime; the poor kids in a neighborhood band called the Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band; a mixed-race child who believes he’s the son of Abraham Lincoln; a boxer; a lion; a doctoral student who uncovers a beautifully complicated war story. Five-Carat Soul will thrill fans of McBride’s unmistakable fictional voice. (Bill)
The Golden House by Salman Rushdie: Rushdie’s 13th novel—heralded by his American publisher as a return to realism—is concerned with the lives of the extremely wealthy in Obama-era Manhattan. On Obama’s inauguration day, a mysterious billionaire named Nero Golden and his three adult sons move into a “cloistered community” in Greenwich Village. Their young neighbor René, drawn in by the family’s glamor, finds himself increasingly entangled in their lives, while elsewhere in Manhattan, another billionaire—or, well, perhaps we should go with “self-proclaimed billionaire,” because who knows—begins an improbable campaign for the presidency. (Emily)
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison: This volume collects the great novelist’s Norton lectures at Harvard University, giving those of us who didn’t get to attend a glimpse at Morrison’s thoughts on race and otherness, and how these things affect literature and lives around the world. The lectures also include revealing discussion of her own novels. With an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Lydia)
Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander: Though the latest by Englander takes place on three different continents, at heart it’s a novel about the conflicts of modern Israel. Z, or rather Prisoner Z, has been held at a black site in the desert for close to 12 years, where the only company he’s allowed is a single guard. The one official who knows about him is a comatose figure named The General. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn who Z really is: an American operative who compromised Israeli state secrets. (Thom)
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó: Why does writing this vivid take so long to find its way West? Equal parts lament, paean, and family saga, Szabó’s 1969 novel (and 2007 Prix Cévennes winner) in Len Rix’s legato English translation captures handily the “double tragedy of eastern Europe”—razed by Nazis and rebuilt by Communists. The unquiet spirits of post-war Budapest put meat on the bones of the Soviet joke that “only the past is unpredictable,” and one less-than-silent witness of the sins and slights of a shattered community harbors no illusions about permitting the living to exist peaceably in the soft-focus sentimentality of their survival. (Il’ja)
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke: I heard Locke—award-winning author of Pleasantville, a writer on Fox’s Empire, and a native of Texas—say that she wanted to write something about the black experience in the South that wasn’t only about prejudice, but showed that complexity and love and joy exist even in oppressive systems. I may be paraphrasing poorly, but I’m excited to read her book, which is about a black Texas Ranger trying to solve the murders of a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman. (Janet)
The Living Infinite by Chantel Acevedo: Acevedo’s third novel is a retelling of the life of the Spanish princess Eulalia, born four years before the revolution that removed her mother, Queen Isabella II, from the Spanish throne. After an upbringing in the Spanish court and in exile, Eulalia traveled first to Cuba and then to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with secret hopes of finding a publisher for her scandalous memoir. (Emily)
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson: It is 1930, in Cotton County, Ga., and Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter, gives birth to two babies, one light-skinned, the other dark. A field hand is accused of her rape, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight. So begins this second novel by the author of the radically different Ten Thousand Saints, set in New York’s gritty Lower East Side in the 1980s. “This is the kind of novel you sink into, live inside,” says Victor LaValle, author of The Changeling, about The Twelve-Mile Straight. (Michael)
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee: McPhee has been producing lithe nonfiction pieces like “Uncommon Carriers,” “The Ransom of Russian Art,” and “Coming Into the Country” for The New Yorker for 54 years. That alone should provide sufficient incentive to sit up and listen when the man offers a primer in the how, the why, the who, and the humor of getting at the story without sacrificing the art. And that’s what Draft No. 4 is: eight crunchily practical, previously published New Yorker essays/workshops on the craft of creative nonfiction. Written by the departmental dean, no less. (Il’ja)
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe: Rowe’s two previous books—How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake—were collections that walked the line between short fiction and prose poetry. A Loving, Faithful Animal, her exquisite first novel, is concerned with the long shadow of war across generations. Rowe tells the story of a fractured family in 1990s Australia after the father, a Vietnam War veteran, leaves home. (Emily)
Border by Kapka Kassabova: When Kassabova was a child growing up in Iron Curtain-era Bulgaria, the country’s isolated southern borderland—where Bulgaria meets Turkey and Greece—was rumored to be a relatively easy crossing point into the West, and so the region swarmed with migrants, soldiers, and spies. In Border, a work of narrative reportage, Kassabova returns to a region whose natural beauty is matched only by the complexity of its political and cultural landscapes: the Communist-era spies have long since departed, but the borderland, Mark Mazower wrote recently in The Guardian, remains “an environment that does not spare the unlucky or the vulnerable.” (Emily)
The Doubles by Scott Esposito: Esposito wears many literary hats as founder of lit blog Conversational Reading and its companion journal Quarterly Conversation; as director at Two Lines Press; and as a columnist at Lit Hub writing on strategies for enduring the Trump Presidency. With The Doubles, he turns his focus to film and through film, back to his own life. Mathew Specktor writes that through this prism, Esposito “arrives at something magnificent: a work of sustained criticism that is itself a work of high art and a profound meditation on how the art we see becomes who we are.” (Anne)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Six years after her quirkily brilliant novel-in-stories A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer, Egan is back with a noirish historical novel set in wartime Brooklyn. At the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Anna Kerrigan becomes the nation’s first female diver, repairing ships that will help America win World War II. Through a chance encounter, she meets nightclub owner Dexter Styles, who she hopes can help her solve the riddle of her father’s disappearance years before. (Michael)
Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides: Surprisingly, this is Eugenides’s first collection of short fiction—a debut of sorts from an author best known for his novels, especially his sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning saga, Middlesex. The stories in this collection span Eugenides’s 25-year career, and many were originally published in The New Yorker, including the story “Baster,” which was adapted into the 2010 romantic comedy The Switch. (Hannah)
Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien: After the massive success of Man Booker Prize shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the world has realized that Thien is one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today. Her previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and in present day Montreal, explores the aftermath of war. It was published in Canada 2011 and will now be released in the U.S. for the first time. Welcome to the party. (Claire)
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A collection of new and previously published essays on the Obama years, from the writer whose access to and insights about the former president were beautifully documented in The Atlantic essay “My President Was Black.” The new collection includes an interview with Obama. (Lydia)
A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg: A decade after it first appeared, Hallberg’s debut illustrated novella is being reissued in a newly designed edition. It arrives two years after Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions, published his breathtaking first novel, City on Fire. Field Guide consists of 63 interlinked vignettes with accompanying photographs and annotations, which probe the inner workings of two families in the New York suburbs. The book’s subtitle would have delighted John James Audubon: “Concerning chiefly the Hungates and Harrisons, with accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full descriptions of the plumage of both adult and young, with a taxonomic survey of several aspects of family life.” Taxonomic is the perfect word for this gorgeously executed little marvel. (Bill)
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: Machado is a talented essayist; particularly notable are her pieces for The New Yorker, including “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!,” one of the finest examinations of the adjunct crisis in America. Her fiction deals with more surreal fears, with sharply-drawn pieces like “Horror Story” in Granta: “It started so small: a mysteriously clogged drain; a crack in the bedroom window.” Stories like “The Husband Stitch” are marvels of language and experimentation. A fiction debut to watch. (Nick R.).
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks: Yes, it is that Tom Hanks. A collection of 17 short stories involving typewriters, which the author also collects in real life. This is the debut collection of the 60-year-old cinema lion. According to The Guardian, everything came together for Hanks as a fiction writer when he published this story in The New Yorker in 2014. (Lydia)
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcón: Award-winning writer Alarcón returns with a new short story collection that features a wide range of memorable characters. The King Is Always Above the People examines immigration, Latin American families, Los Angeles, and much more. Alarcón has received much critical acclaim for his previous books and his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, was a finalist for the 2014 Pen-Faulkner Award. (Zoë)
Here in Berlin by Cristina García: The Cuban-born American writer García—novelist, journalist, poet, anthologist, and National Book Award finalist—transports us to Berlin for her seventh novel. An unnamed Visitor, armed with a camera, goes spelunking in the German capital, seeking to reckon with the city’s tangled, living history. The result is a series of snapshots: a Cuban teenager taken as a POW on a German submarine; a female lawyer still haunted by her childhood in the bombed-out suburbs of Berlin; the son of a Berlin zookeeper who fought to protect the animals from both bombs and a starving human populace. These and other ghosts still walk the streets of García’s bewitching contemporary Berlin. (Bill)
A Natural by Ross Raisin: Named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists” in 2013 and the author of books (God’s Own Country, Waterline) about intense loners, Raisin places his latest protagonist within a more communal setting: a soccer (or rather football) club. The novel follows a young, gay player navigating the sporting world. As Raisin explained in an interview, the subject threw some British publishers off, who explained their reasoning thusly: “We don’t know how to sell it to women because it’s about football, but at the same time we don’t know how we sell it to football supporters because it’s got gay in it.” Quite the dilemma, but thankfully not all were scared off the pitch. (Matt)
Ferocity by Nicola Lagioia: Ferocity is the latest from Europa Editions, which also publishes Elena Ferrante (as well as gems like Treasure Island!!! and The Elegance of Hedgehog). Pitched as Gillian Flynn meets Jonathan Franzen, Ferocity won the 2015 Strega Prize, Italy’s preeminent fiction prize, and concerns a dead woman, her brother who’s set on figuring out what happened to her, and Southern Italy in the 1980s. Sign me up. (Edan)
Vacationland by John Hodgman: Known variously for his work on The Daily Show, his podcast and New York Times Magazine column—both titled “Judge John Hodgman”—his role as “the PC” in those Mac commercials in the aughts, and three books of fake facts, Hodgman is a unique and hilarious public figure. Hodgman’s new book—a memoir about fatherhood, aging, travel, and his home state of Massachusetts—is the most (maybe the first) unironic thing in his career. (Janet)
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: A new offering from Erdrich on the heels of her National Book Critics Circle Award win for LaRose last year. The new book takes place during an environmental cataclysm—evolution has begun reversing itself, and pregnant women are being rounded up and confined. A pregnant woman who was adopted in infancy from her Ojibwe birth mother returns to her mother’s reservation to pursue her own origin story even while society crumbles around her. (Lydia)
Don’t Save Anything by James Salter: November 2017. I remember hearing Salter read his heartbreaking story “Last Night” to a captivated audience in Newark, N.J., at Rutgers University—it was a moment of shared intimacy that I’ve rarely experienced at a reading. Salter had a presence both on and off the page. Don’t Save Anything collects Salter’s previously uncollected non-fiction; essays that appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, People, and elsewhere. The book’s title comes from a line from one of Salter’s final interviews: “You try to put everything you have in a book. That is, don’t save anything for the next one.” (Nick R.)
Mean by Myriam Gurba: In her coming-of-age nonfiction novel about growing up queer and Chicana, Gurba takes on misogyny, racism, homophobia, and classism with cutting humor. Mean will make you LOL and break your heart. Mean has already received advance praise from brilliant, badass feminist writers Jill Soloway, Michelle Tea, and Wendy C. Ortiz. Gurba’s previous book Dahlia Season won the Edmund White Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. (Zoë)
Houses of Ravicka by Renee Gladman: This fall Dorothy Project publishes Houses of Ravicka, the fourth book in Gladman’s series of novels set in the city-state of Ravicka and told in the author’s nimble prose. The books catalog the intricacies of language and architecture and their intersection—something Gladman’s recent Prose Architectures from Wave Press does quite literally. As The Renaissance Society notes, “Gladman approaches language as a space to enter and travel within, and her writing is attuned to the body as it moves through architectures of thought and experience.” In this latest volume, Ravicka’s comptroller tracks the ways the houses in the city-state shift with time. (Anne)
The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai: The Hungarian author has described his style as “fun in hell.” With this, the seventh! New Directions translation of his work, English language hell just got even more fun. A giant with an H2O fixation and a Portuguese child quarry slave on a quest for the surreal are just two of the characters met in this short story collection that examines the practicalities of cultural entropy, and stylistically sacrifices little of the author’s depth, range, and extraordinary stacking of subordinate clauses. These stories should provide the uninitiated with a workable introduction to Krasznahorkai and his formidable oeuvre. (Il’ja)
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner: The creator of Mad Men and former writer and producer for The Sopranos applies his screenwriting chops to literary fiction with this debut novel. Set in a privileged milieu in modern-day New York, it’s been described as “a dark fable,” “a collision course,” and, most intriguingly, by Philip Pullman, as a story characterized by an “ice-cold mercilessness reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh.” At 144 pages, this novel apparently cuts to the chase and doesn’t spare any of its characters. (Hannah)
Radio Free Vermont by Bill McKibben: Is it a surprise that the debut novel from one of our best-known environmental activists focuses on grassroots resistance? In backwoods Vermont, two radicals use an underground radio show to recruit people interested in seceding from the United States. What follows is a zany, witty, and altogether timely imagination of modern resistors. (Nick M.)
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: A collection of essays on music, culture, and personal history from the poet and Year in Reading alum (and MTV News writer, before MTV News made their woeful decision to “pivot to video”). Terrance Hayes writes, “Abdurraqib bridges the bravado and bling of praise with the blood and tears of elegy.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski: British writer Diski won a wide following with a strikingly clear-eyed chronicle of her battle with the lung cancer that killed her last year at the age of 68. The Vanishing Princess, her only collection of short stories, is now available in the U.S. for the first time, and it will be welcomed by fans of Diski’s piercing nonfiction and dreamlike novels. In the story “Short Circuit,” Diski mines her own stays in mental institutions to pose an old but not unreasonable question: are the people we regard as mad the truly sane ones? (Bill)
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Şafak: Şafak is one of Turkey’s most popular novelists, and her fiction and nonfiction has been translated around the world. Three Daughters of Eve, her 10th novel, takes place in contemporary Istanbul, but looks back on an earlier era, as Peri, a wealthy housewife, recalls her friendship with two fellow students at Oxford University. Together, these three young women became close through their studies, debating the role of women in Islam, and falling under the influence of a charismatic but controversial professor. The scandal that broke them apart still haunts Peri. (Hannah)
Once a decade, Granta publishes a special “Best of Young American Novelists” issue featuring work from American fiction writers under the age of forty. The latest list includes Millions staffer and City on Fire author Garth Risk Hallberg, as well as Lauren Groff, Yaa Gyasi, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Claire Vaye Watkins, to name just a few. The issue will hit shelves on May 4th.
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgård
I see that last year I recommended books one to four, so I won’t go too much into this again. Book Five is pretty much more of the same, but mostly focuses on young adulthood. I’m looking forward to Book Six…I still have absolutely no idea what the Mien Kampf connection is. But the book is great.
Dream Boogie by Peter Guralnick
Sam Cooke had a kind of funny problem early on in his career. As a teenager, he started singing in the Chicago Gospel circuit. Everywhere he went, people noticed. His voice was angelic, and he was charming and appealing. Within a short time, Sam was invited to be a member (then soon promoted to frontman) of The Soul Stirrers — the band he’d emulated since childhood. But Sam was also uncontrollably sexy…he couldn’t turn it off if he wanted to (and he didn’t want to). So Sam starting packing these sleepy midwestern Sunday services with young women. The pastors were in kind of a pickle: Sam was great for business, but was this their business? He wasn’t doing anything wrong…but it felt a little iffy. After a few years, Sam was at a crossroads: stick with the authentic Gospel music that had made him something of a star, or dive into pop music — offending many of his, and his family’s, religious sensibilities. Sam chose pop. This is a good read for anyone who likes Sam. I also recommend Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis for any Elvis Presley heads out there.
10% Happier by Dan Harris
I recently became (slightly) interested in meditation. I discovered this guy’s podcast and found an interesting interview with Rivers Cuomo, who has been meditating his entire life. I actually started listening to Weezer for the first time after hearing this interview. Dan Harris came to meditation as a full-on skeptic, but found his own way of appreciating it. I can relate.
The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop is inspired. I read her when I feel uninspired. Check it out.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Full disclosure…the author is a friend/drinking companion. Unfortunately, since I have kids, I had to read this book in stops and starts. It seems like it should be done in marathon stretches, as there is a wide-ranging cast of characters, times, and places. Ultimately I pulled it together and came out with a pretty good understanding of what happened, and ultimately I found it a satisfying, cohesive novel…which is impressive, since it had like 1,000 pages to fall off the rails…it didn’t.
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We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.
It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)
But then the Year in Reading entries started coming in, from more than 70 writers. This is the 13th year of the series, and it feels like the most necessary yet. The entries have a measure of fear and grief, yes. They are about reckoning with the past, and preparing for the future. They are also full of beauty, full of sensitivity, full of intelligence, full of curiosity and care. They are about dissolving in someone else’s consciousness. About sharing suffering. About taking a break. About falling in love.
Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante. But there are many other names to discover in this series — exciting debuts and forgotten classics and authors whose names were on the tip of your tongue. There are hundreds of books: novels, essays, works of nonfiction, and poems.
As in prior years, the names of our 2016 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.
There are difficult weeks and years ahead, but we hope you’ll be momentarily refreshed and heartened as you hear from an array of prodigious readers and writers. At the very least, you’ll find something good to read.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Chigozie Obioma, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Fishermen.
Sofia Samatar, author of A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories.
Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond.
Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens.
Caille Millner, author of The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification.
Edan Lepucki, contributing editor at The Millions and author of California.
Matt Seidel, staff writer at The Millions.
Sonya Chung, contributing editor at The Millions and author of The Loved Ones.
Nick Moran, special projects editor at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor at The Millions.
Tana French, author of The Trespasser.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, author of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Border of Paradise.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun.
Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls.
Annie Proulx, author of Barkskins.
Teddy Wayne, author of Loner.
Brandon Shimoda, author of Evening Oracle.
Basma Abdel Aziz, author of The Queue.
Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers.
Yuri Herrera, author of Signs Preceding the End of the World.
Sally Rooney, author of Conversations with Friends.
Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl.
Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming.
Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me.
Mauro Javier Cardenas, author of The Revolutionaries Try Again.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer at The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Zoë Ruiz, staff writer at The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer at The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, staff writer at The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer at The Millions and author of Home Field.
Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer at The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer at The Millions and author of The Last Neanderthal.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer at The Millions.
Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest.
Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes.
Natashia Deón, author of Grace.
Bridgett M. Davis, author of Into the Go-Slow.
Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Leila Aboulela, author of The Kindness of Enemies.
Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers.
Dimitry Elias Leger, author of God Loves Haiti.
Chloe Caldwell, author of I’ll Tell You in Person.
Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar.
Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First.
Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will.
Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation.
Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Anuradha Roy, author of Sleeping on Jupiter.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions and author of Somebody’s Daughter.
Janet Potter, staff writer at The Millions.
Ismail Muhammad, staff writer at The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, editor of The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer at The Millions.
Adam Boretz, web editor of The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor at The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions, author of To Be a Machine.
Kevin Nguyen, digital deputy editor for GQ.
Nadja Spiegelman, author of I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This.
Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special.
Álvaro Enrigue, author of Sudden Death.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Lucky Fish.
Sylvia Whitman, owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Mensah Demary, editor for Catapult.
Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World.
Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office is Under Attack!.
Hamilton Leithauser, rock star.
Lilliam Rivera, author of The Education of Margot Sanchez.
Jane Hu, writer; grad student; Canadian.
Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys.
Michelle Dean, author of Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion.
A Year in Reading: Outro
In the late 12th century, the father of teenage Leonardo Fibonacci takes him off the North African streets and sets him at the feet of gruff Arab tutors. They can’t help it — they like the kid, who they can tell is going to be a nightmare until they agree to teach him the Art of Nine Symbols. Back in Pisa, Fibonacci discovers an axiomatic sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). The corresponding ratio describes the pleasing spiral he’s been staring at all day — it just looks right. Eight hundred years later, a creative-writing student drafting a story is told it might help to draw its plot. And there it is. (See figure A.)
Here come the metaphors. John McPhee compares writing a story to prepping a meal, and to the gathering — crystallizing — of salt underground. His essay, “Structure,” traces the Continental Divide, pulls on “chronological drawstrings,” and knits the presumed narrative scarf from the “threads” everyone keeps talking about. McPhee encourages students to diagram a story as “a horizontal line with loops above and below it to represent the tangents along the storyline, a circle with lines shooting out of it that denote narrative pathways…” (See Figure B.) The rhetorical free-for-all disguises the wide influence of the gist — the anatomy of storytelling. Speaking of stories, “the shape of the curve is what matters,” says Kurt Vonnegut. Whereas Gustav Freytag’s muse was, sadly, a triangle, the sign and symbol of Fibonacci-McPhee is more like a map. But they’re manifestations of the same idea: of stories seeking, building, bending like a river, or anyways conceived of less as an appeal to a reader than as science-ish fieldwork. This definition of structure — indeed any definition of it — begs the question: What if structure is not that geometric or quite so cosmic or even, according to an au courant diagnosis, “televisual?” What if structure consists of questions themselves and not strictly the objects of those questions with which plotting is synonymous: A dead body. An excess of suitors. “A fully armed and operational battle station.”
Stories posit a teller in the service of the told, who are now able to, if they must, rate that service with a fractional number of stars. But the novel especially is a kind of hopeless democracy of two. An author and a reader staring at the same machine — the same story — not sure if and when it worked. Two privileged children — serialized TV and narrative nonfiction — have done so well for themselves that they should have laid the framework bare. But an erudite incoherence about structure is the rule. One thing for sure is that structure’s an anxiety, about a better way to tell a story, and surer proof of our discernment — that we get it. And so the idea of order in nature settles the nerves. The golden spiral is in the leaves, in shells — in stories?
The Fibonacci-McPhee Sequence
Early on in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire there’s a transition in point of view, from William — scion, dilettante, and ex-singer in a punk band — to a blank-slate teen, Charlie, as he removes from its sleeve “the first Ex Post Facto LP from ’74.” This raised my hackles — though perhaps I should admit to having the quick-trigger hackles of someone with too many bookmarks in too many novels, not to mention paused places in the middle of episode three of season two, etc. Along with the ambitious size of the book, the coincidences of City on Fire have been well scrutinized: “…overstuffed with characters, and the lines of action uniting them fray to the point of breaking;” “overuse of chance discoveries of buried evidence.” There’s a wariness about what exactly the novel’s up to, despite the fact that just a little later it more or less tells you. In what is either a cool nod to, or a hearty embrace of, genre convention, Charlie’s crush, Samantha Cicciaro, is mysteriously shot. But thereafter the book occupies itself less with whodunit than with the shots’ sound waves ringing out into the night, washing over 10 other characters and, in a quantum-mechanical whisper, telling them that no one is alone.
City on Fire is a needle threaded between conventional plotting and ambitious “structure.” It finds itself among contemporary novels exhibiting an inflated sense of connection — storytelling in a kind of horoscopic style. It’s always been an odd thing to chalk up to a matter of belief: that one reader’s definition of a story is to another not a story at all. In a twist you would have never seen coming, “narrative architecture” becomes our term for what’s not necessarily there.
In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.
— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”
We have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about structure. The following terms were used to describe the structure of narratives bearing the mark of horoscopic style (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, City on Fire, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s TV adaptation Game of Thrones): “stereoscopic,” “televisual,” “kaleidoscopic,” “unfilmable” — at least before the film. These structures were “non-linear,” “multi-head,” “multi-thread,” “rhizomatic,” “fragmented” — this last appearing so often that I had to wonder just what constitutes whole, homogeneous storytelling. What was it about these structures that was so “innovative” and “experimental?” Or, for that matter, “soap operatic” and “ruthless?”
To wit, Cloud Atlas is defined by “mapping” and “maplessness.” Its structure is “cool.” Here’s what happens: The novel’s five story lines culminate palindromically in one central section before the stories pick up in reverse order in the second half of the book (A, B, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, A). But that’s not what’s happening. Circumstantially, the story lines are connected by a birthmark, and, thematically, by music. The Five Narratives are also connected by the fact that Mitchell wrote them impeccably and, in accordance with genre, faithfully. It is said that the author pulled it off by “immersing himself in the different narratives one at a time, even keeping them in different ‘folders.’” Here is structure conflated with something more like process — the scout’s knot tying oneself to a chair. The story is a function of the author’s method of organizing for himself. McPhee describes his own use of Nabokovian note cards: “Then I move the cards around to see where I’m going to find a good structure, a legitimate structure.” It seems fair to ask: Who’s immersing whom here? Shall we perhaps hold each part of the story and think about whether or not it brings us joy?
These are the perils of “world-building.” A Game of Thrones episode marks time by cutting to each of its story lines, from Winterfell to Meereen, ne’er betraying a particular imperative to move the story in any direction but between. There’s a similar call-sheet structure to A Visit from the Goon Squad (the aforementioned rhizome); in her review, Sarah Churchwell sums up horoscopic style quite nicely:
Egan’s vision of history and time is also decidedly, and perhaps reassuringly, cyclical: the impacts these characters have upon each other are engineered not by coincidence but by connectedness itself, as the people we bump against and bang into become the story of our lives.
Not coincidentally, here is how Hallberg describes his intrepid journalist character: “A receiver. A connector. A machine made exactly for this.” Let us remember our Borges: that absolutely accurate “Map of the Empire” is torn to faded shreds, except, perhaps, where it showed us those places we’d put down our novels. Granted, these books are in almost every way excellent; Egan, Mitchell, and Hallberg are genius naturalists. Capable of invoking anything — any clipper ship or anxiety or rhododendron. But that kind of genius can be difficult to distinguish from a painterly need to get into the corners of the frame. Structure should be instrumental to a thing’s use; a handle for the writer’s talent. And yet the imperial cartographer’s exactitude somehow became a suitable answer for how to keep a reader in thrall. These novels have been praised for, among other things, ambition, inventiveness, and that they are, but what connects them more than anything else is that they’re romantic about structure.
The least we could do is to stop insisting that we’re all referring to the same thing. Which is, generally, convention. Structure is nearly synonymous with aiming for the cheap seats of genre, where the detective and the wizard and the submissive sit together and watch the game. We’ve come to regard suspense as a market force — an outline in chalk with which to take ingenious exception. And so we’re flush with cool hybrids. MacArthur fellows take on zombies; Ursula K. Le Guin gatekeeping Kazuo Ishiguro; a market for post-apocalypse in full bloom. But whenever much attention is paid to exceptions to the rule, one can only assume the rules are very clear. I’m speaking of genre, but also rent. Writing to market or furiously curating a social media platform are seen as considerations on the level of food on the table. A cottage industry in semi-pro writing has met popular — and extremely earnest — demand. In this sense, horoscopic style is both product and allergy to the “tools” of the craft industry; links to a “weak verb converter;” intensive three-day seminars for the low, low price of $995 for tuition and Final Draft software.
If our entertainments were piles of San Andrean rubble, wouldn’t we know? Perhaps, but structure has a way of passing itself off as an answer to the very question it presents — it’s what works. “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages,” McPhee writes. And the other way?
“Listeners, we are currently fielding numerous reports that books have stopped working.”
— Welcome to Night Vale, “Station Management”
“Fiction is the posing of narrative questions,” is actually something the writer David Lipsky has said aloud on multiple occasions. Lipsky teaches a class of singular usefulness, from which I basically repeat back lessons in a dazed monotone. Men call him Lipsky, and women call him David. We were of one mind to get a good seat, and another to duck and scribble. In class, Lipsky calls on people, a barbaric pedagogic practice literally frowned upon by most of us, and what’s more, there was a preponderance of correct answers — never a drawing. The idea was that story — or, synonymously — structure, is no more and no less than to ask the reader leading questions in the hopes of interesting them. Of a given character — will she or won’t she be fired, loved, caught, absolved? In the end, the class was approximately half Immunes, with the other half wearing white smocks sporting one of David’s terms of art printed in bold: withheld data.
No one likes to be asked what the story’s about. But Lipsky was never referring to the about of the abstract painting or the period of the historical novel. Nothing was an allegory of post-whatsit America. He meant: a girl is trying to fit in at a private school. Or: those letters were forged. And once the story’s little knife is stowed, and a quorum had nodded or squinted or furrowed, he would say ask us to make an annotation in the margin: If a particular story, once begun, should find itself resolved, another story has to take the baton.
Now and then I’ll read a novel by a writer who seems to have bought in. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel in two — the technical term here would be “parts.” Groff sets up the reader for any number of things — matriarchs withholding approval; a million-dollar bet on the marriage of an implausibly successful playwright to an “Ice queen from nowhere.” Readers will note the use of brackets. Nowhere-ian royalty Mathilde is “pretending to be faithful. [perhaps not].” Groff has referred to these bracketed asides as a “Greek chorus,” but what they are really is an efficient method of opening up dramatic-ironic gaps — questions. “She couldn’t know, he thought. [She did!]”
Ironically it’s the alternatives to “narrative architecture” that can seem a little bloodless and technical. Structure, to George Saunders, consists of “tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply.” These being tools at anyone’s disposal, no matter how inconveniently literary. After all, there are high stakes in life as it is ordinarily lived, which is to say, pitched anxiously between desire and embarrassment. A story that works makes room for the possibility that it won’t. “It wouldn’t have to be good,” says the imperious, soon-wedded older sister in Rebecca Curtis’s “The Toast.” It just “needs to be appropriate.” And yet there are some of us who wouldn’t be caught dead using a “tool.” We might keep it in the drawer by the bed, but what writer told to tell their story, find their own voice — “in order to live” — would want to feed it through “clunky machinery.”
Who Cares? Case Studies
About Star Wars: The Force Awakens, critics had 8, 10, 11, 18, 32, 43, and 77 “questions,” 6 of which were of the “big” variety, 11 of which were size “huge.” And 7, 15, 17, and 25 questions had gone exasperatingly “Unanswered.” Question in this context means “plot hole,” of which 5, 9, 40 (and “20 more” on top of that) were “unforgivable.” Admittedly, some of the enumerated are more like inconsistencies — does one need a map to reach coordinates in space? — but many of these questions are entirely intentional plot devices. Where is Luke Skywalker? gets you the movie. Rey’s parentage gets you all three. To be clear, the notable equivalence here is between functional storytelling and the galling lack thereof. It’s hard to say just how this happens, but there might be a clue on the white smock, a variation on the lover’s quarrel: What’s the difference between not telling and a lie?
One more case study from the relevant world: Serial. When it became clear that a radio documentary had become a blockbuster, that people loved this murder, Sarah Koenig, it seems, felt herself painted into an ethical corner. Here she is, bristling at the notion of enacting “suspense,” with the NYT Magazine’s question in bold:
But the podcast is a hybrid of journalism and entertainment. You have a lot of information, and it seems you’ve structured it for maximum suspense. I don’t think that’s fair…To us, it didn’t feel that different from a really long magazine story or — you know, any story that you would take care in structuring.
In the very first episode, Koenig describes Adnan Syed ’s mild manner — he doesn’t seem like a vicious psychopath. “I know, I’m an idiot,” says Koenig, her tone pitched to effective self-deprecation. Koenig knows that 12 podcast episodes won’t decide whether in fact evil is human or inhuman. (Not even Janet Malcolm knows: “The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil — it is merely a restatement of the mystery.”)
If not “suspense,” Koenig admits to “structuring.” But this distinction doesn’t hold up to scrutiny — not that I question whatsoever Koenig’s integrity. Actually, Serial is too good, and too intelligently structured for her to have a leg to stand on. “I’m an idiot” is a play for identification. (“Silly me.” — Season Two.) This line — about looking into Adnan’s big brown eyes — is right there in the script where, perhaps, there could have been a breakdown of cell-phone tower data (and after a useful delay of an episode or two, a questioning of its accuracy). I have little doubt about which was the better choice. When David Remnick asks Koenig about her method, she says, “I think I’m trying to convey that you can trust me because I’ve done my homework.” And in this sentiment, she sounds a lot like David Lipsky (“Bond with your reader. Tell them honest things.”). This trust is also a kind of structuring — I know, I’m an idiot. But there are a lot of stories out there, and we tend to pick the one that looks us in the eye and asks, maybe a little preposterously, Can I tell you a secret?
Koenig is then asked about decisions she made with Serial’s decidedly unpatented voice. Co-producer Julie Snyder levels with her after an unsatisfying cut:
Edit after edit after edit…“It’s not working…It’s not good. I need to know what you — Sarah Koenig — make of all this. Otherwise I don’t care. I don’t know why you’re telling me all this…You need to make me care.” I was quite uncomfortable with that initially, but then I realized…That’s the thing that’s going to make you listen to the stuff I think is important.
If that sounds a lot like “Keep your eye on the ball,” you’re not wrong. But rest assured that our culture-making class hadn’t even thought of the ball much less kept an eye on it. (See: testaments to their confidence approximately everywhere you look.) Koenig’s discomforted by the idea that making someone else care is indistinguishable from selling it to them. To name just a few of the principled stands against Caring What Anyone Else Thinks: morning pages and the art-therapy discipline; The Compulsive’s Way — simply not being able to stop; “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” or art as vocation (“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present.” — Elena Ferrante, not on Twitter). This has to do with one’s basic orientation as an author: Is art a means to cultivate or to reach? And if you must insist on writing, I have to ask — just how acutely do you feel the need to be borne witness to? Because a singular question harries stories at every turn, echoing the unminced words at the Serial editing bay: What is any of this for? Inevitably, the answer occurs somewhat too late: Making someone else care is the highest commandment of structure.
Which is why, after the remedial instruction, almost all of what David Lipsky does is prose tips. The theory being that thinking unapologetically in terms of setting things up and paying them off frees the writer to devote themselves otherwise to sentence-making. The syllabus, with few exceptions, is composed of those writers who can really launch ships prose-wise: David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Zadie Smith. In fact, the “system” — would that it were my own batch of Kool-Aid — kinda dead-ends at despairingly scintillating talent.
But generally speaking that talent is not responsible for America’s mass-market mysteries on short flights; or that which manages to hit her dull and chipped funny bone; or sate her great appetite for vanilla S&M and truer detectives. A working fallacy results. Tent poles such as Game of Thrones, The Marvel Universe — they have a kind of ideological monopoly on What happens next? But the more we accept the premise that what succeeds in the market works, the easier it is to convince ourselves that the market itself strives to give us the culture we need. [It doesn’t.] The challenge for lit is the same for our culture at large from here on: distinguishing the market’s products from actual voices.
“Implausibility is part of the design.”
— Louis Menand, “The Time of Broken Windows”
It’s not that Hallberg commits the ordinary fictional sin of superimposing a false meaning on his novel, which is ultimately just as believable as a line drawn to connect any one thing to another. City on Fire may be elaborately plotted, and a story richly told, but it is not given, not structured for us. Though, we can easily exaggerate the author’s sacrifice. It’s not quite walking in front of a tank; maybe more like picking up a shift. A sense of the uncanny, of a kind of empathic genius at work, is as essential an aspect of reading as structure, but most readers, I think, experience design as unforeseen plausibility.
Some things do work every time. For example, I go to the physical bookstore and get the “ambitious” book over and over, like Charlie Brown when Lucy promises to hold the football but instead of a football it’s that thing when The Times runs a review by Michiko Kakutani in the daily and then another on Sunday. Tour de force in hand, I go home and read the first chapter with a sheepish sense of my own demography. Along those lines, I can imagine how refining the concept of narrative structure must seem a split-hair, just another narcissistically small difference. Dirty tomatoes and organic stories at $26/lb — not those factory-farm stories wrapped in pink blood on a bed of Styrofoam. But in the bathwater of authenticity are plenty of real distinctions — I’m looking at you, Texas barbecue, starting a band, and the notion of a high literature that tells “honest things.” Whenever I hear that triumphalism — lines grayed, blurred away! — I find myself fondly missing the clarity of differences.
If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval…That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long — long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line — and because it is not long enough.
— Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One”
This is where it seems as if I should offer some kind of agnostic politesse. Endorse a descriptivism of storytelling — all structures are “legitimate.” Any structure that makes you happy. “You don’t choose it so much as it chooses you,” says Carmine Cicciaro, Samantha’s father. It’s always tempting to side with anti-dogmatism. But I can’t do that. Because, what if there is a moral to this story?
Structure abides. Ex Machina’s key cards and power-outs; Groff’s unreliable Rashomon-esque narrators of sex after marriage. An out-of-print novelist sees a picture of Britney Spears exiting a restaurant holding a pack of cigarettes, her phone, “and then she’s got my second book.” (“Case #2: Britney”– Mystery Show.)
But it is literary reporting that has pretty much become structure’s standard bearer. In Rachel Aviv’s “Where Is your Mother?”, a healthy child cries in an empty apartment, and dust plumes off the bed. “I was born overseas,” the mother says, and nothing else. In “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield,” Daniel Engber asks “What if D.J. had a private chamber in his head, a place where grown-up thoughts were trapped behind his palsy?” Story writes itself, as they say. [Nope.] Then again, a sound almost like clockwork accompanies Kathryn Schulz writing of sixth-century tsunamis, barking dogs ahead of the wave, and a number: 243. In the first few paragraphs of these stories, it feels as if inspiration taken from McPhee’s looping squiggles was only ever as important as his old-hand assurance that the storytelling principle is ethically OK in “narrative nonfiction” or where’s-the-line journalism.
I’m not so worried about some moralizing theory of declining attentions spans — our “distraction.” In fact, nothing could distract me from another form of anxiety: I desperately want to pay relentless attention to only the few, mattering things. Structure, truly evident, directs that attention. If stories are a means to tell us what you “think is important,” then by all means.
The policy of bracing honesty has these lesser known clauses: that you have to figure out what most needs to be said, and why anyone should want to hear you say it. If you happen to read pop physics, there’s what’s called the “observer effect.” Any observation affects the experiment (the “collapse of the wave function” — what happens emerges from a prior limbo of possibilities). The observer effect also applies to the question of structure and the black box of process: none of it works, because it cannot be verifiably shown to have done what it intended to do. Writing is nothing until the precise moment the reader intuits a meaning. I want to tell you something. I can draw the map. Only you can tell me if it goes anywhere. Say the word.