If, like me, you’re a parent to a young child, you probably find yourself reading a lot of picture and chapter books, and then, before your own bedtime, reading different books, ones that feature more adults, more drinking, more ennui. You might believe these books, theirs and yours, to be quite different — but that’s not always the case. Over the years I’ve made connections between my favorite authors and my son’s. Once you see the similarities, you can’t un-see them. So read on, brave adult, if you want the veil pulled from your eyes…
Jonathan Franzen and The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain
Once you get beyond the shock of how the most famous Bear Family spells its name, you might notice how alike these books are to certain famous American novels written by a certain famous American man. A classic Berenstain story (by the original duo Stan and Jan, not the later, inferior titles by Jan and Mike), contains a lot of back story and exposition, and its lessons — on manners, nightmares, and so on — contain at least one moment of domestic strife and misunderstanding. Like The Corrections or Purity, these are narratives about beasts in human clothing (a la Chip Lambert and Andreas Wolf), and the mother controls not just the household but everyone’s psyches. And like Franzen’s novels, the Berenstain Bear books might meander, reveling in details alternately informative and irrelevant, but ultimately they’re straightforward tales about family. (Also, as a friend pointed out to me recently, JFran sort of looks like a Berenstain Bear. This can’t be coincidental.)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
Yanagihara clearly recognizes this connection because she put it in her book: artist JB names his series of paintings of Willem and Jude Frog and Toad, after Lobel’s famous amphibious friends. And, let’s face it, A Little Life is basically Lobel for Adults (now with rape and suicide!) Willem is Frog, the perennial optimist, while Jude is sad old Toad. Like Frog and Toad, Willem and Jude need and love each other despite their differences, and because of them. Toad will keep trying to push Frog away, but Frog will remain by his side. Lobel’s stories, like Yanagihara’s novel, maintains an elegant clarity about the unimpeachable sadness of the world. Plus, Toad’s nice, cozy Toad Hole is the animal equivalent of Willem and Jude’s million-dollar country home.
Emma Straub and What Pete Ate From A-Z by Maira Kalman
Kalman is mainly an artist and illustrator for people of all ages, but her children’s alphabet book is a favorite in our household for its cheeky commentary and beautiful, funny drawings. (I would like to live inside her picture of a pink ice-pop, please.) The characters in this book — Roberta Rothschild, president of the Rubber Band Society; cousin Rocky with his list of people who have wronged him — remind me of the Post family in Straub’s novel The Vacationers: they’re sometimes put-upon, often very funny, from Manhattan, and quite lovable. An Emma Straub novel is the literary equivalent of a Maira Kalman drawing; I have no doubt that her forthcoming novel, Modern Lovers, about two families in Brooklyn, will cement this kinship.
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Richard Scarry
You might think you’re super literary, cozying up with Knausgaard’s multiple-tome fictional autobiography after a long day with your toddler. You probably agree with James Wood, esteemed literary critic for The New Yorker, who wrote: “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested.” But you probably also feel this way reading Richard Scarry’s books, which, like Knausgaard’s, describe so much of the mundane. Do we really need to know about every piece of clothing in Huckleberry’s wardrobe? Also, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town, with its quaint town squares, its weird cars you’ve never heard of, and its waiters carrying tagines, could only be, like Knausgaard himself, one thing: European.
Gary Shteyngart/George Saunders and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Have you introduced your kid to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yet? I don’t mean the movie with Gene Wilder (or the remake with Johnny Depp in that creepy bob). I mean the book by Roald Dahl. Shit is fucked up! Charlie Bucket lives in horrible poverty, Wonka is a shut-in maniac with too much money, and the Oompa Loompas are victims of the global economy, trucked in from some far-off land to perform labor cheaply. (I’m not kidding. Wonka performs experiments on these workers! They never get to leave the factory!) Wonka’s crazy schemes and nonchalance about everyone’s endangerment remind me of the nutty heroes of Gary Shteyngart’s novels. (Absurdistan, indeed.) The book’s workplace commentary, so tragic it’s funny, is straight Saunders. In fact, I’d love to see him write a novel from the perspective of an Oompa Loompa. It would be like “Pastoralia” but with sugar and torture instead of a cave fax machine.
So there you have it. I suppose it’s time we just rolled up our sleeves and read the child some Don DeLillo, and at night tucked ourselves in with Hop on Pop. We’re tired enough, aren’t we?
In 1998, David Foster Wallace published an essay titled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment” in Premiere magazine using not one but two pseudonyms. Though he was apparently outted against his will as its sole author, it seems strange to imagine he thought he could pull off the deception. Here’s the New York Daily News on the story: “The man of many words Bandana-wearing writer David Foster Wallace didn’t appreciate our scoop last week that he was the secret author of an article in the new Premiere about the porn business. It wasn’t that hard to unmask Foster…since the piece was littered with the same long-winded footnotes…used in his much-praised 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. Even with such obvious clues, Foster doesn’t think it was his writing style that exposed him, but rather that someone at Premiere ratted him out.”
I didn’t read the Premiere article upon its release, but I don’t think I would have needed a rat to tell me who wrote it. As with most members of the relatively tiny literary community, had I been paying any attention I think it would have been pretty obvious. His voice is just that distinctive. It’s the same with any number of oft-parroted literary figures: Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy.
It works for other art forms too, of course. Show me a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe or Diane Arbus, an interminable camera movement by Bela Tarr, an Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” sequence, play me a track from an AC/DC album, and I’ll know, I’ll know, I’ll know without even having to think about it. Some people just have Voice.
Among this generation of writers, there could be no Voice more recognizable and imitated than that of George Saunders. And with good reason, too. A style that singular, brilliant, and incredibly New Yorker-friendly is rarer than a lottery win.
Like everyone, I was wild about Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And, like everyone, I was absolutely crazy about his second collection, Pastoralia. When his third, In Persuasion Nation, was released in 2007, I bought it in hardback and gobbled it up just as eagerly as the first two, this time experiencing a just a hint of disappointment. Something seemed off, or — more to the point — not off enough. I liked the new stories, sure, but they filled me with an unsettling sense of familiarity. They just seemed so…well, so similar to his others.
I closed the book, slid it into its place on the shelf, and said to myself, Enough Saunders. I get it. I get the funny, invented brand names and phony trademarks, the quirky intersection of erudition and stupidity on display in his characters inner (and outer) monologues. I get his “deadpan science fiction gloss,” as The New York Times labeled it. I just get it. However much I admired his work, it had started to seem like a magic trick I’d seen a hundred times. And the magic was wearing off.
I’ve been faithful in my Saunders hiatus since then. That is until recently, when, as part of a story exchange with a friend — picture a lazier version of a book club — I agreed to read and discuss “Victory Lap,” from the much-lauded 2013 collection Tenth of December, first published, of course, in The New Yorker. I wasn’t particularly excited about the selection, but I figured at the very worst reading a new Saunders story would essentially be like rereading one of his old ones.
I wanted to be wrong. But you know what? That’s exactly what it was like.
Here’s a passage, in case you haven’t read Saunders in a while. We’re in the mind of a 14-year-old boy here:
Hey, today was Tuesday, a Major Treat day. The five (5) new Work Points for placing the geode, plus his existing two (2) Work Points, totalled seven (7) Work Points, which, added to his eight (8) accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen (15) Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat (for example, two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins), plus twenty free-choice TV minutes, although the particular show would have to be negotiated with Dad at time of cash-in.
One thing you will not be watching, Scout, is ‘America’s Most Outspoken Dirt Bikers.’
Classic Saunders, right? There’s something undeniably great about having Voice like that, a voice you can’t escape, like Tom Waits. Or Cher. And, career-wise, the upside must be huge. Recognition. The feeling of attachment that fans have to artistic output they feel they know because it shares an essential sameness with the work that came before. And it’s good, too. I mean, fundamentally, Saunders is a terrific writer, a great observer, a clever entertainer.
But that sameness — it’s there, and it’s nagging. There’s a downside to that much voice. An unsurprisingness. A feeling of sloggy repetition and even self-parody. At what point, after all, does Voice become a slump?
Reading “Victory Lap,” I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if Saunders did something completely different for his next book. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he wrote a historical novel or a techno-thriller, or even if he just played it straight and wrote about real feelings and people in a way that wasn’t couched in such predictable peculiarity, in a way that wasn’t so obviously him? Wouldn’t it be exciting to see him let down those droves of hard-won fans by swerving off in a completely unexpected direction?
It’s a lot to ask, I realize. And he certainly doesn’t need to change. In fact, I might be the only one calling for it, given the MacArthur Fellowship he’s been awarded and the spot he once landed on TIME’s list of the 100 “most influential people in the world.” Not to mention that I’m understating things dramatically by saying that the coverage of Tenth of December was ubiquitous and almost rabidly positive. Lest I be misunderstood, I completely appreciate everyone’s excitement over his work. I understand that he’s a Great Writer, and, according to everyone who has met him, an inspiring teacher and a hell of a nice guy.
Still, it would be a pleasure to see him take a risk. Just as I would have loved a chance to see what David Foster Wallace might have come up with deprived of his usual toolbox of idiosyncratic tricks and techniques.
Raymond Carver successfully navigated one of these big authorial shifts, as D.T. Max reported in his 1998 New York Times piece, “The Carver Chronicles,” writing:
There is an evident gap between the early style of ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ Carver’s first two major collections, and his later work in ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Where I’m Calling From.’ In subject matter, the stories share a great deal…But the early collections, which [Gordon] Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel…The later two collections are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality.
The toolbox of which Carver famously deprived himself for his final collections was the often-oppressive editorial intervention of Gordon Lish, who arguably sapped the fullness from Carver’s early stories favoring a style much sparer than the author himself intended. After something of a battle between them, Carver wrested (or Lish ceded) control of his work, and the result is that his last collection swells where his early stories flatten. Again from D.T. Max at The Times: “Once Carver ended his professional relationship with Lish, he never looked back. He didn’t need to. ‘Cathedral’ was his most celebrated work yet.”
J.K. Rowling is another author who appears to have managed an enormous and worthy transition in her career and authorial voice, following up the insane success of the Harry Potter series with The Casual Vacancy, a full-on adult novel in a completely different voice, and a bestseller despite mixed reviews. For her next book, she zagged yet again, releasing a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Interesting to note that Rowling chose to publish the latter pseudonymously, as Robert Galbraith. It’s not unusual for writers to use pen names when dabbling in genres other than the ones that clinched their fame, presumably for the same reason that writers fall into a reliance on certain “voices” or styles to begin with — because the last thing writers want is to let down their fickle audiences. And what most readers want is more of the same.
To be fair, this, too, is understandable. Nicholson Baker’s fiction always reads like Nicholson Baker, and I love reading his books. Same for Raymond Chandler, Anton Chekhov, E.E. Cummings, Marcel Proust, and a slew of other writers with incredible and incredibly-reliable voices. That said, I’d love to see what Proust might have done in another voice, in, say, science fiction or with the story of a pair of street urchins. Or how Chandler might have written differently to tell the story of a great romance, stretching beyond his comfort zone where something entirely fresh might be born.
Maybe early writerly instruction is partly to blame for all this authorial parochialism. Aren’t we all told from the beginning that we must “find our voices?” What no one ever says is that once you wander into that swamp, you might do well to toil your way out of it again. It’s rare that you hear anyone praise authors for avoiding a reliance on a particular voice to begin with, as writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Richard Yates did, or as an author like Jennifer Egan continues to do.
The careers of musicians might be instructive, the way they can change from one album to the next, as Madonna has famously done in all her various manifestations. Singer Joshua Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) abandoned his solo recording career as J. Tillman and his years of success with the indie-folkster band Fleet Foxes to try something completely different, an incarnation Stereogum dubbed “his shamanic lounge-lizard Father John Misty guise.” The result has been an incredible couple of albums and what will undoubtedly go down as the most interesting and creative period of his career.
Bob Dylan should perhaps be everyone’s idol on this score. I often think about the gamble he took by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Everything went haywire afterwards, and he must have questioned everything. But that act did more than merely change his career, it changed culture. It’s no wonder that some artists aren’t inclined to veer into unknown territory, but the courageous ones prove that Voice is never more powerful than the moment an artist forsakes it.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“See here, I want you to come to Random House and lose some money for us with literary books,” the press’s president and publisher, Harold Evans, told Daniel Menaker, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, in 1995. “You have five years to fook oop.”
In his memoir, My Mistake, Menaker recounts this scene and his subsequent transition from magazine to book publishing. Blessed with this permissive mandate, Menaker naturally chose a book of short stories for his first buy. He ran the project, George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by his boss, Ann Godoff, who told him:
“Well, do a P-and-L for it and we’ll see.”
“What’s a P-and-L?”
“You don’t know how?”
The dialog continues for pages, Godoff guiding Menaker with Socratic patience through the advance, payment schedule, initial print, returns, trim sizes, PPB (plant, printing, and binding), and finally the pricing, before arriving at the beautiful and the good formula for putting out a debut collection. “That ought to do it. Isn’t this scientific?”
(Menaker can afford to lead with his book publishing greenness here, knowing full well that Saunders, whom he edited at The New Yorker, has since entered the American short story writer’s pantheon.)
Reading Menaker’s anecdote, I wondered about the first professional decisions of newly minted editors — be they powerful tastemakers blissfully ignorant of P-and-L statements or recently promoted assistants. What drew them to the first proposal they tried to acquire? Did they look upon the decision as a momentous one? Do they even remember it now?
I asked six editors to share a story about their first buy, encouraging them to reflect on the projects themselves and what they were thinking at the time: their vision of where their list should go and the risk, fear, excitement or challenges involved. Here are their stories.
Scott Moyers, Vice President and Publisher of The Penguin Press
I spoke by phone with Moyers, who recalls the sense of initiative behind his first acquisition: “I felt like I was reaching out into the world and creating something.” He had been an assistant at Doubleday for four years before making a “huge leap” to Associate Editor at Scribner. Going after projects was difficult because as a new editor, he “didn’t know many agents and didn’t expect to get a first crack at many projects.”
Sometime during this period, he read a “stunning piece of longform journalism” in the Wall Street Journal by Thomas E. Ricks about a Marine platoon’s boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. Moyers jokingly described how he went on to pester Ricks and his agent for the book rights to a longer, “almost anthropological study” about Marine culture, its indoctrination methods, and the occasional tensions with the values society the soldiers were tasked to defend.
The pestering paid off, as he secured the floor in the auction, an anonymous baseline bid with the right to come back and beat any higher offers. There was another offer, which Moyers topped to secure Ricks’s Making the Corps, a success he says helped to “cement [his] status as an editor.” Moyers would go on to edit more books by Ricks, sell his books when he became a literary agent, and acquire his books yet again when he returned to editing.
Over the years since that first buy and the “almost existential fear” of being a young editor — one might compare it to a kind of tweedy boot camp — Moyers says he gradually learned what can and cannot be controlled in publishing. Reflecting back on the period when he was trying to make a career, he wryly notes that “nobody necessarily cares about your success except you and your parents,” and that Ricks’s decision to go with a young editor was an “act of generosity and faith” that he has not forgotten: “We grow more protective as we grow conscious of whom we owe.”
Kathy Pories, Senior Editor, Algonquin Books
Moving from the rigorous standards of nonfiction reporting to tales that couldn’t be any taller, Kathy Pories describes in an email how she reeled in quite the catch with her first acquisition:
The first book I acquired as an editor was a book by a local writer. His agent was in New York, and the book was out with other editors. It had an experimental feel to it, a structure unlike most books I’d read so far…fable-like. It felt like the kind of novel that people would either “get,” or they wouldn’t, so it felt a little risky for it to be the first book I bought. Still, my Editorial Director, Shannon Ravenel, was firmly in agreement — there was something so exciting and original and moving about this father-son story — and so she gave me the go-ahead to make an offer.
That book was Big Fish by Daniel Wallace. I remember that I was so green that Shannon kept passing me post-its with messages about what I should say to the agent (which in retrospect, I’m sure he could detect in my halting delivery as I engaged in my first negotiation. I wish I had a recording of that conversation now.) And we had no idea how big that book would become, or that within weeks, film rights would be optioned — or that it would actually become a movie. Anyway, it was an auspicious start. Seventeen years later, I still think you have to have that feeling that something is risky; those are the books that are the most exciting to publish. But I’m a little better on the phone these days.
Timothy Bent, Executive Editor (Trade), Oxford University Press
Timothy Bent remembers acquiring a vital, memorial work that has stayed with him over the course of a long career in commercial and academic trade publishing:
When I was at Arcade about twenty years ago I urged Dick Seaver, the publisher, to sign up a book whose manuscript he had given me, a newly hired assistant editor, to read. It was a essentially a “grief” book: a father’s biography of a daughter born with birth defects and who lived only a short time — barely over five months. It was a really painful story — operations, hope, more operations, loss. This was before I was a father myself and therefore before I could really understand all the dimensions of the grief, but the writing was so limpid, the thoughts and expression so unsentimental, the vision of this child so clear — what character and personality in a months-old child! — that I wanted badly to work on the book. I championed it, Dick acquired it for me, and I edited it.
The author is William Loizeaux, and the book is called Anna: A Daughter’s Life. It taught me to understand that every life, however foreshortened and unfulfilled, was worthy of a book, just as are those of Great Lives and Large Deeds; Anna inhabits one of those unvisited graves (as the narrator at the end of Middlemarch has it), whose lives we would never know or appreciate were it not for the written accounts by those who love and remember them. Her life counted. I gave myself to that book and became very close to the author and his family; when it was reviewed in the New York Times by Reeve Lindbergh, appreciatively, I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment that has never been matched since, though I’ve now acquired and edited many hundreds of titles, many on those whose remains inhabit highly visited tombs. How does a biography of Anna Loizeaux stand up to one of Bismarck? In my mind, it just does: that’s what a writer can do.
Alex Star, Senior Editor, Farrar Straus Giroux
Alex Star’s first buy involved an essayist, Meghan Daum, who made her reputation partly on the strength of a comic, rueful, and rodent-populated essay about the perils of being an editorial assistant: “For the editorial assistant, every day is a new near-death experience. As if ‘going toward the light,’ we chase after what literature there is, trying, at least in the beginning, to discover the genius in the slush pile who’s going to elevate us from entry-level minion to up-and-comer with a brilliant eye.” Star writes:
The first book I acquired, in the spring of 2012, was a collection of essays by Meghan Daum. This was doubly gratifying, since her first collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, was an important book for me back when I was trying earnestly to mis-spend my own youth, and because a new essay Daum had written, about a parent’s death, struck me as her best work yet. Daum’s new collection will appear this fall, and it covers mortality, children, animals, music, and growing older — an entire course on human nature, inside two covers.
Jenna Johnson, Senior Editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Jenna Johnson, who has been acquiring books for eleven years now, began with one about eight dramatic seconds. As she suspects is often the case with young editors, Johnson benefited from the “kindness of a senior colleague” for her first buy. During our phone call, she explained that inundated editors will sometimes encourage up-and-comers to pursue projects, which, however intriguing, they themselves might not have time to take on.
Thus was a book on rodeo culture passed along to Johnson by an editor for whom she had been reading manuscripts. Johnson’s history background and “demonstrated love for the American West” made her the perfect person to take the reins of W.K. Stratton’s Chasing the Rodeo, which offered a lively account of the rodeo and its literature, a discussion of the West’s place in the American imagination, and a portrait of the author’s own “rodeo bum” father.
Johnson said that the first buy “signals a moment of traction,” a crucial step for a young editor “learning to negotiate the system and find a book that suits the house.” Though a project about rodeos was not an “obvious Harcourt book” at the time, the house had published works by Roger Kahn and Roger Angell, so there were some “points of contact” for a book about sports culture.
What came through most vividly in our conversation was the joy of working alongside the author to achieve “the right balance” of reportage, history, and memoir: the challenge in any piece of narrative nonfiction. From this first buy and from many subsequent acquisitions, Johnson has come to see that writers and editors often end up as each other’s “mentors” in steering a project home.
Jeremy M. Davies, Senior Editor, Dalkey Archive Press
Finally, Jeremy M. Davies writes in about a thwarted first buy, which teaches him that a young editor must hone his taste as well as his strategic instincts to make his way in the publishing world. What follows is a two-part story of discovered manuscripts, intrigue, innocence lost, and a gleeful turn to (fictional) anarchy:
I had only been at Dalkey Archive for a couple of weeks. The first book I wanted to see signed on was an unsolicited submission by a translator of a deceased author who, at that point, had never, to my knowledge, been Englished. While I had minor reservations about the book — I wouldn’t say I’d put my head on the block for it, as I would have for Édouard Levé, or Lascano Tegui, or Gerald Murnane, to name three more recent Dalkey acquisitions behind which I’m proud to have been lurking — but I was certain it was right for Dalkey, and that the author was someone for whom Dalkey would be applauded for introducing to the Anglophone world.
Now, you have to understand that, then as now, it’s the Director who makes all final decisions about, well, everything. The process was semi-democratic, in that a book universally praised was far more likely to get the Director’s okay. Books to be rejected would either be dismissed out of hand or else assassinated by other, less obvious means.
I was nervous about making a strong positive recommendation so soon after arriving at the Press, but, to my surprise and relief, I received a fairly rapid and equally positive reply, and permission to contact the translator with the news that Dalkey did, indeed, want to publish his work.
At the next meeting, the book was axed on account of another staff member’s claiming that he didn’t, after all, “like the ending.” I suspected there was more to it than an aesthetic judgment, but what could I do? It was enough to kill the project, and I was instructed to reject the MS, even though it had already been accepted. The translator wasn’t too pleased with this apparent duplicity, and I wasn’t too thrilled to seem the culprit. But that’s showbiz, I guess: it was a good lesson.
Another “excellent” press would acquire the book and translate several more by the same author, whose identity Davies will not reveal: “Here’s a hint: it ain’t Bolaño.” In the story’s denouement, our hero, wiser and schooled in the Machiavellian dealings of non-profit publishing, triumphs:
The first actual acquisition I handled differently. This was an original English-language MS that (also) came in on the slush pile, a few months later. The submission held my attention as being written by someone in control of his material (not often the case with slush). I was struck by its tone, ambition, and eccentricity, and its very skillful juggling of slapstick silliness with desperate bleakness. It also didn’t hurt that it played to my pathological cinephilia. Cutting to the chase, this was Mark Binelli’s wonderful Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, which recasts the titular anarchists as vaudevillians who appear in such films as Ventriloquism and Its Discontents.
So, I saw that the book was “the real thing” (such clarity, in those days!), and I likewise saw that Mark was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. (And if you haven’t read his nonfiction, you should: his most recent book is Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, and he recently published a great profile of Pope Francis.) Evidence that I wasn’t a complete idiot: when I brought the book up, I started with the Rolling Stone connection and only then went on to quality. This put things in the proper context: Sacco and Vanzetti was a project that had a chance at some real publicity, and thus sales, so its high quality as fiction became added momentum in overcoming editorial inertia, rather than the initial meek shove. There were no sneak attacks this time, and the book was published in 2006 to great reviews all over the place.
But, you know, like the man said, “Show me a movie with a happy ending, and I’ll show you a movie that ended ten minutes too early.”
In “Where We Must Be,” the first story of Laura van den Berg’s debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a young woman, Jean, is driving north to Washington. After a wasted summer in Los Angeles, during which she failed to find acting work, she passes through one of the redwood forests in Northern California. A sign beside the road advertises, “Actors wanted,” so she leaves the highway and follows a dirt road. Stationed in the cul de sac is a mobile home that functions as an office for a man who arranges “encounters.” Tourists from around the country, Jean discovers, are willing to pay for the opportunity to get chased through the woods by Bigfoot. In a moment of desperation and humiliation, she auditions, stomping around the trailer in costume, “bellowing and shaking [her] arms.” The man hires her immediately.
“Where We Must Be,” like most of the stories in this collection, concerns a folkloric animal. The protagonists, or their loved ones, are obsessed with these monsters—the Amazon’s mapinguari, Lake Michigan’s mishegenabeg, the Congo’s mokele-mbebe—but no beasts manifest physically. We see Bigfoot, but only as a costume worn by an actor. Unlike Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, where humans interact with bizarre creatures in an otherwise literary setting, van den Berg’s freshman effort is far from a fantastical work, indexing fabulism without ever adopting its tropes completely. And this peripheral treatment of the absurd may signal a change in contemporary letters.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline arguably borrowed an aesthetic engendered by Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo (or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for that matter), but George Saunders’ 1997 collection repopularized the critical viability of comic fabulism in the 21st Century, setting off a string of imitators. And though there are some young, stalwart realists—Jhumpa Lahiri, and more recently, Josh Weil—for ten years the lion’s share of new books getting buzz in the literary circles have contained something outlandish. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude has flying children; Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned features vikings.
There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with the fabulist trend. But in practice, a lot of the work that falls into the post-modern, ironic sub-genre lacks real weight. Simply being clever is no doubt easier than balancing ingenuity with pathos. Shakespeare’s jokes released tension, but he didn’t found his plays on them. At her best, Laura van den Berg manages to establish an equilibrium between concept and poignancy. It doesn’t appear she trained to be a realist—there aren’t a lot of camps instructing such writers these days—but she may end up a champion of the movement.
There are certainly times when What the World seems structurally transparent. Van den Berg is a well-disciplined storyteller, but in some of the stories the sum of the parts isn’t much more than the sum of the parts. She always introduces her conflict early, then provides a subplot, an accessible over-arching metaphor, and finally a turn. But in “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life,” for instance, about a young woman working in a Manhattan mask store and sleeping with her married boss, the various planks get hammered into place but the surface doesn’t feel sanded. There’s something inorganic about the unfolding of the narrative, as if van den Berg were a politician delivering her catch phrases from the stump; she’s on message, but the tenor of the delivery lacks passion.
On the other hand, “The Rain Season,” about a woman who retreats to Africa after her house burns down in Chicago, borders on masterful. “The Rain Season” is one of six stories featuring monsters—in this case mokele-mbebe, the amphibious African jungle reptile descended, as legend has it, from the sauropod family. In the village where the narrator teaches, the monsoon season is impending, and so is civil war. The townspeople spread the rumor that mokele-mbebe has left the forest and killed a farmer, and in deference to tradition, draw the monster’s image in the soil to ward off additional invasions.
Van den Berg does nothing specifically to exoticize the setting, but even in a book by a native African, like Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, the sections of the continent ravaged by disease and violence are the ideal breeding grounds for magic. When the hills are full of rebel soldiers who loot, rape, and kill indiscriminately, why shouldn’t the jungle contain a creature with the head of a hippopotamus that devours children? Yet in “The Rain Season,” mokele-mbebe is not a distraction from the human story. Rather the legend is a cultural articulation of fear, and the way van den Berg handles the relationship between fable and fact is pitch perfect. In a collection that can feel at times numbed by grief and loss, “The Rain Season” rises above distress, even approaching sentimentality. Normally I’d be opposed to a story at whose core are piteous children (“The Rain Season” contains a near saccharine scene: a semi-orphaned student gives his teacher a beautiful, handmade object), but as a counterpoint to the tragedy encapsulating the rest of the tale, a little maudlin gauze feels not just permissible, but necessary.
Before the book’s release, Barnes & Noble chose What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us for its “Discover Great New Writers” series. Undoubtedly, this is a boon for Ms. van den Berg. But more importantly, if her collection continues to gain traction, realism and sincerity, like some rough beast borne on slow thighs, may have finally reemerged from the forest. Van den Berg is writing a novel, now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in that book she discards the surreal elements altogether. She doesn’t need them.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 3 will focus on Audience, Character, and Conclusion. Please note that today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 2: Geographic and Historical SettingGarth: The setting of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation reminds me of one of George Saunders’ theme parks, CivilWarLand or Pastoralia. It could be real, but everything is slightly exaggerated or off in the way of good science-fiction. The rational philosophers of the College of Lucidity refer to themselves by number rather than name, for example, which works both as a cool detail and as a commentary on the humanistic blind-spots of the Enlightenment, which we discussed earlier. M.T. Anderson does the set piece very well, and in his capable hands, historical footnotes like the titular “pox party” become hallucinatory visions that work perfectly to dramatize the book’s central concerns.Emily: And one historical footnote in particular gets a lot of attention. Although the removal of Thomas Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause from the list of grievances against King George in the Declaration of Independence is hardly a historical revelation at this late date, I couldn’t help thinking that it is a crucial hovering presence in Anderson’s miscellany. Here’s the clause:He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of an other.In the end, it was cut because the Southern states wouldn’t sign a Declaration with a condemnation of slavery (thereby laying the groundwork for the Civil War).Garth: This is totally fascinating, Emily. And it is a revelation, to me at least: I had no idea this was ever in the Declaration of Independence. I can see quite clearly now that much of the plot of the second half of Octavian, which is driven by a rumored alliance between American slaves and the English crown, is drawn not from the airy realms of authorial fancy, but, like so many other of Octavian’s seemingly absurd details, from Anderson’s research. Octavian would have been familiar with Horace’s poetics, wherein dramas were supposed to “instruct and entertain.” I think Anderson’s most effective instructional tool is letting us discover that the story’s seemingly science-fictiony details, which “shock the conscience,” are quite real. I want to flag, too, for future discussion, the sensibility Jefferson reveals in that deleted clause. Is he a rank hypocrite? Or is he – rather more appallingly – quite like us (although a much better writer, unless “us” includes M.T. Anderson)? Jefferson’s commitment to the sanctity of “life and liberty” strikes me as deeply felt, the contempt for “this execrable commerce” not merely rhetorical. And yet the force of Jefferson’s sentences is: Get off our back, George, and stop meddling with our slaves.Emily: Yes – the idea of “profit and delight” (to use an 18th-Century phrase often invoked with specific reference to miscellanies) is, I think, at the core of Anderson’s poetics. Octavian’s life as Anderson tells it is absolutely engrossing – entertaining – and it gives appalling force to the profound contradiction inherent in the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic: A nation that upheld itself as particularly invested in personal freedom and liberty was also a nation of slave-holders. Octavian is less “Traitor to the Nation” than betrayed by it. In one of the most intellectually frightening scenes of the book, Octavian’s captors – rationalists to the end, even as they are hypocrites – explain to him that there is no contradiction between their commitments to “the cause of Liberty” and to keeping slaves. They explain that the freedom the revolution seeks to ensure is the freedom of exchange (capitalism), rather than some more abstract, philosophical freedom that would require the freeing of slaves. The scene is on par with Orwell or Kafka – the rational irrationality, the rational cruelty, the commitment to cold, abstract principals when the hideous inhumanity those principals inflict screams out for recognition.Garth: As a scholar of the 18th Century, you know a lot more about this than I do. Do you think this explicit argument about “freedom of exchange” is as historically accurate as the other elements of the book? Of course it’s implicit in “no taxation without representation,” but were pluralities of revolutionaries making it the fundament of their concept of natural rights? (If so, I shudder to think what the “strict constructionists” on the Supreme Court would do with this.) Because it really does seem like Jefferson’s “liberty,” enshrined in the Declaration and even the deleted clause above, is much more expansive than that. My bleeding-heart sense of the thing is that Jeffersonian “liberty” is like Hegel’s “spirit” or like divine love in The Bible – a universal principle that, as history progresses, comes closer and closer to being realized in the world. Until heaven is at hand, we struggle and contradict ourselves and do our best to explain away our blind spots. This is going to tie in to some things I want to say about character in the third part of our discussion, but I wanted to give you a chance to jump in and comment here.Emily: Freedom of exchange was definitely a part of the impetus for the revolution. As with so many other revolutions of this age (the English Civil War, the French Revolution) and others after it, the American Revolution began in practical, material grievances – issues like the stamp tax and England’s refusal to allow colonists to appoint their own governors. But this is not to deny a genuine intellectual and emotional commitment to the abstract ideal of freedom among the revolutionaries, or the reality that some believed the revolution would bring an end to slavery, and that there was a Christian imperative to end slavery. We see this view represented in Anderson’s book by Evidence Goring, a young American soldier who befriends Octavian. Goring believes that “slavery and subjugation shall soon fall away” and offers a gruesome vision of the fate that awaits slaveholders:And God shall curse those who hold their fellow Men as Slaves; and in the Last Day, they shall know Weeping, when Christ comes striding from the Skies, Hands drizzling His Blood, Eyes filled with a Sorrow at what He must do: For then they shall remain enchained to this Flesh, hobbled with Bone, when the Rest are released from their Gross Bodies into the hallowed Air.In this vision of Goring’s, which borrows the language and tone of Revelations, there are, perhaps, intimations of your ideas about Hegel? This vision also censures the kind of materialism that Octavian’s owners defend, the kind of materialism that puts property, particularly human property over liberty in the famous Revolutionary slogan “liberty and property.” Those who value material property, human property, bodies, above liberty, will never achieve transcendence.
George Saunders’ collection of stories, In Persuasion Nation came out this year to rave reviews. He is also the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. Earlier this year, Saunders explained to me why he could never have a blog (internal “labor dispute”), but, hoping that he wouldn’t mind making a small contribution to one, I asked him to share the best book(s) he read this year, and he generously obliged.The highpoint of my reading year was getting the chance to re-read Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith in preparation for public events with them; I was inspired by the kindness and courage and breadth-of-vision of both of these writers. I also really enjoyed The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright – an amazingly well-researched account of the roots of Al Qaeda.Thanks, George!
The annual MacArthur “Genius” Fellows were named today. This award gives people from diverse fields $500,000 with “no strings attached,” for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances.” There are typically a handful of literary types among the scientists, artists, and musicians who become Fellows, with this year being no exception. George Saunders is probably the best known among them, but I’ve listed all of the literary winners below along with some relevant links:David Carroll – Naturalist Author/Illustrator – From the bio on his site: “David is an active lecturer and turtles/wetlands preservation advocate. His art and writing, as well as his extensive fieldwork with turtles and wetlands has been widely recognized, and been the subject of many feature articles.” He is the author of a recently published memoir, Self-Portrait with Turtles and “the wet sneaker trilogy” of The Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, and Swampwalker’s Journal.Atul Gawande is a prominent surgeon, but he is better known for his book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science and his articles in the New Yorker, including “The Bell Curve: What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are?”, “Piecework: Medicine’s money problem,” and many others. In my opinion, Gawande’s best quality is his ability to bring his perspective as a surgeon to his stories. Nearly all of his articles start with an observation he has made on the job that he then investigates further. (In this respect, he’s not unlike another great medical writer Oliver Sacks.) Other links: A Slate diary Gawande did in 1997; Gawande’s 2005 commencement address at Harvard Medical SchoolAdrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was an incredible work of journalism. To write the book, she spent ten years following the lives of an extended family in the Bronx to paint a detailed portrait of the lives of people that don’t get typically get such attention in the press. In an interview with Salon from 2003 (you have to watch an ad to read it), LeBlanc explains what she discovered while writing the book. See also: a recent article by LeBlanc on child actors in the New York Times Magazine, reprinted here.David Macaulay is the illustrator and author behind those incredible “The Way Things Work” books. In them, he deconstructs everyday objects as well as big buildings and other structures in engaging, lighthearted, yet incredibly detailed illustrations. You can see a few of those illustrations here. Macaulay is probably best known for The Way Things Work, but his architectural books, like Mosque are fascinating as well.I can’t pretend to know much about Sarah Ruhl – theater is a blind spot for me – so I’ll point instead to this long and glowing profile from the Washington Post: “She has been writing and rising steadily ever since, creating plays that aren’t easy to categorize. (An anthology of her plays will be published this fall.) The Clean House is tight and funny, skirting the polemics you might expect from a scenario that begins with a demanding WASP doctor and her recalcitrant immigrant maid. Yet it deepens by sly degrees, sweeping the audience on a surprising cloud of feeling as the characters deal with terminal illness in unorthodox ways.”George Saunders likely needs little introduction here as he’s been a favorite at The Millions and on many other book blogs. He is known for his unique, dystopian yet bleakly funny style that somehow manages to capture everything that is weird about our world without being obvious about it. For more George Saunders fun, check out an interview at Identity Theory, his story “Adams” from the New Yorker (there’s more where that came from), or his books, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, and In Persuasion Nation.