Due to unremarkable, inevitable, and momentous circumstances, I didn’t read as much this year as I would’ve liked. Many distractions were bad, but some were good. My wife published her first novel. Twin Peaks, the best television show of all time, came back and somehow got even better. I played a lot of Zelda and Super Nintendo. But, like every other year, the books I loved were great company. Here are some I’ll remember from 2017.
Daniil Kharms’s Today I Wrote Nothing is one of the funniest, most surprising, and consistently enjoyable books I’ve ever read. It’s glitch fiction, composed of short notebook entries (“Today I wrote nothing. Doesn’t matter. January 9”), poems, and stories that read like anti-parables. Written during life under Joseph Stalin, these pieces go by very quickly—they briefly spasm in a few directions, give you an unexpected punchline or no punchline at all, and then terminate (many conclude with just the word enough).
In one story, a man waits for another man, gradually growing angry. When the other man finally shows up carrying food from the store they argue about time, until one wallops the other over the head with “the biggest cucumber from his satchel,” killing him. The final line of this story (which is only a few hundred words) is: “What big cucumbers they sell in stores nowadays!” Another story ends with Kharms confessing he actually can’t write anymore: “Wow! I’d write some more but the inkwell’s gone missing somewhere.”
Recalling writers like Richard Brautigan, Lydia Davis, Franz Kafka, Joy Williams, and Samuel Beckett, this is delightfully error-ridden writing that squirms and wriggles against the expected and logical, creating its own nonsensical logic in the process. A few of my friends have now read most of this book, just because I kept sending them pieces.
Morgan Parker wrote my favorite book of poetry that I read this year: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Like Kharms, Parker is funny and surprising, but she writes with such fearlessness that it’s impossible not to follow her. Deploying astonishing line after astonishing line, the book offers questions (“Is a mother still a self,” “What does money cost”), subversions (“With champagne I try expired white ones/ I mean pills I mean men”), and wonderful writing (“Right now six people are in outer space,/ and you are growing smaller in my mind.”). This book is a brilliant riot of consciousness: “So what if I have more regrets/ Than birthdays I am old/ For my age, I am made of water/ Why do you get up in the morning.”
The Vanished by journalist Léna Mauger and photographer Stéphane Remael is an extraordinary investigation of the johatsu, the group of 100,000 Japanese who vanish without a trace every year.
Though many disappear because of shame, debt, and the societal pressure for success (one student disappears when he’s faced with taking his exams), the book includes a range of voices, places, and stories, including: the companies that help those who wish to vanish to move in the middle of the night; Tojinbo cliffs, a popular suicide site, and the man who devotes his life to dissuading those considering suicide there; Sanya and Kamagasaki, neighborhoods in Tokyo and Osaka, respectively, that have been wiped off maps but are inhabited by people hoping to disappear, including day-laborers living in tiny rooms; and otakus, from the Japanese word meaning “home,” referring to people who waste away and lose themselves in monomaniacal passions like doll and fanzine collecting or video games. Complete with amazing photographs, this is a fascinating and exceptional book.
Hernán Díaz wrote my favorite passage of the year. It occurs toward the end of his debut novel, In the Distance, so I’ll avoid specifics, but not since László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango have I read such an exhilarating narrative turn.
In the Distance is about a young Swedish immigrant, Håkan Söderström, who is separated from his brother on his way to America. What follows is one of the most compelling deconstructions of a genre convention I’ve ever read. This is an old-school Western turned on its head—Håkan hates guns and becomes an outlaw legend on accident. But maybe what makes it great is that it’s also a memorable immigration story, not to mention a powerful depiction of loneliness, while being stuffed with some of the best landscape writing around (“Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block.”). And in addition to that narrative turn toward the end, there are countless other great moments: Håkan gets roped into a wacky naturalist’s search in dried-out seabeds for a jellyfish-like organism that supposedly created mankind, and during one drug-induced passage, Håkan looks at his own brain.
The end seems to be the best place to start with Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman, which has my favorite ending of the year. Not just because of the twist in the last few pages (which are staggering), but because the novel sneaked up on me. It kept getting better and better and I couldn’t really put my finger on why I was enjoying it so much. A Working Woman is set in Madrid, and is about struggling writer Elisa, and her roommate, the more headstrong Susana. Susana finds a sexual partner through a personal ad; Elisa wanders Madrid’s ruins and edits a book she dislikes while contending with an unspecified psychiatric condition. Gradually, through their volatile proximity and an art project, the two become enmeshed in each other’s madness, resulting in an elusive mindbender that mutates and resists any effort to box it in or categorize it. Somehow, the book reveals itself without yielding its secrets.
Other books I loved that I read this year: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag; Winter in the Blood by James Welch; Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls; Large Animals by Jess Arndt; Close Range by Annie Proulx; The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels; Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish by Tom McCarthy; I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy; Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra; The Plains by Gerald Murnane; See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt; Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin; What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson; McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh; Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall; The Bell by Iris Murdoch; Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue; Old Open by Alex Higley; Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter; Daddy Issues by Alex McElroy; The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza; and Difficult Women by David Plante.
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The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence.
Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure?
Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and — possibly, we’re not sure — herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us.
And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget:
Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author:
Jan 2 – “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.”
Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.”
Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.”
Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected:
“In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”
With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot.
What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view.
A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males:
Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven
Ann Patchett, Run
Susan Choi, A Person of Interest
Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad
Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories
Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories
On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly.
In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!)
Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn’t cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him.
Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction.
How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately” male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze.
In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no.
(Image: Male/Female – Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_’s photostream)
I’m just not a short-story writer, a few fiction writers have said to me recently, young authors who’ve written one or two novels. I’m struck by the statement, because I wonder often about this – the difference between long form and short form, process-wise – and have been tempted to make the declaration (to myself, at least) as well. At this point, I empathize with the statement, but am not quite ready to go there.
I wrote short stories earlier in my writing life because, well, that’s what They told us to do. And They were right. You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter. Of course you can practice and develop all these by writing a novel; but it will take you much much longer. Consider how many story drafts get partially or completely tossed into the literal and/or virtual garbage as you figure out what you are really writing about; how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale.
But I never felt like I hit my stride with short stories. I published several, and even won some awards, but of all the stories I’ve written, I’m probably proud of one, maybe two of them. One story, which won a fairly prestigious award, was so bad in my opinion, that I completely destroyed it – hard copy and digital. (I recently contacted the publication that sponsored the award, and they too have no record of it; poof! – I am not a short-story writer.)
When I happened upon the novel that would become Long for This World, it was liberating and exhilarating. All that room, the freedom to move among settings, cultures, time periods, points of view. The license to spend three or four years working on something, keeping notebooks full of ideas and sketches and scenes, filtering anything and everything through the lens of The Novel I’m Working On; indulging my mind and imagination in layers of world and character and idea. This is my medium, I started to think; this is how I experience life – big and messy – what existence means to me. I am a kitchen-sink writer: throw it all in, everything you care about in one, interconnected world, glorious heterogeneity; then shape something out of it.
But look: I’ve written one novel (and a second monster of a novel draft), and I’m not even 40 yet. Is it really time to decide what kind of writer I am? Developing as a writer is indeed so much about knowing thyself; about riding the tailwinds of your strengths, not spinning your wheels trying to be a different kind of writer than what you are. David Means said recently in a New Yorker podcast, referring to Raymond Carver, “Style is a maneuver around what you can’t do […] around things you can’t deal with.” Barry Hannah said, “Be master of such as you have.”
On the other hand, the sculptor Henry Moore said that contentment is having an impossible goal, the absorbedness (Donald Hall’s word) of pursuing it. To me, the short story is this miraculously compressed form, elegant and complex, small in shape but large and deep in meaning; it has the capacity for perfection in a way that the novel does not. Many writers work their way “up” to writing a novel; perhaps my artistic trajectory will be to work my way “down” to writing gorgeous, perfect short stories. Who knows? I look forward to finding out.
In the meantime, I am lately obsessed with the form we refer to as “linked” stories. Sometimes these are called “story cycles” or “a collection of tales about _____.” As a reader and developing writer, I cannot get enough of this form: compression and vast heterogeneity in one! The stories in this sort of collection may vary widely in style, voice, point-of-view, scope. Often they are held together by a single character, or perhaps a place/culture; or both.
The “link” can be strong or weak, explicit or implicit. From where this writer sits – aesthetically, developmentally – the linked collection is a potential new “home” for development of craft. If 20 pages never quite feels like enough; if you and your world /your character have more business to tend to at the end of this particular narrative arc; or if that minor character got cut from a story but is still breathing and pulsing and waiting to go on stage; well then off you go to the next story in the “cycle.” At the same time, you can work within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity. Ah, the joy, the absorbedness, of the impossible goal.
Some of my favorite linked collections:
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – short “tales” of life in the fictional Midwestern town of Winesburg. We get to know many different characters, and all the stories reveal the essential (and ironic) loneliness of living in a place where everybody knows your name. Haunting, romantic, a masterpiece of the achingly grotesque inner lives of human beings.
Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber – both form and content are stunning in this National Book Award finalist. The collection is subtitled “A Ring of Stories,” and indeed they are meant to be read in sequence; a minor mention or character in one story becomes the heart of the next (and we start and end with a contemporary character named Alice). In between we traverse centuries and continents, along with the timeless experiences of faith and passion, each story novelistic in scope. Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely,” and there is that delicate, not-quite-taut sense of wholeness in Silber’s work.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx – Proulx’s Wyoming is a brutal and unforgiving place, but not one that we can’t all on some level relate to: you may not be a rodeo bull-rider, but you probably know what it is to feel wounded and constrained by your parents’ flaws; you may not be a gay cowboy, but you may know the pain and dangers of hiding (and revealing) your deepest passions in a hostile environment. I particularly love the diversity of form within the collection; stories range from two to 40 pages long, from sharply humorous flash fictions to vast, novelistic canvasses.
Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant – like many devotees of Gallant, I don’t know what took me so long to get to her. Her stories I suppose are difficult, in the sense that the prose is dense, intelligent, original. This is not “summer reading.” The series of five Linnet Muir stories are the ones I’ve enjoyed most and exemplify exactly what I love about linked stories; each story stands alone, but together they sing. I recommend them for anyone who is weary of mopey-smart-girl stories but wants to be inspired by excellent mopey-smart-girl stories.
Stories by Leonard Michaels — I love the stories about a character named (Phillip) Leibowitz, as both a youth and an adult, including “Murderers,” “City Boy,” “Getting Lucky,” and “Reflections of a Wild Kid.” The character may not be exactly the same character in all the stories, but again that’s the beauty of the form; maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Michaels didn’t assemble these stories to form a collection, he used the linked form more liberally. Before he died in 2008, Michaels was also working on a series of stories about a mathematician named Nachmann.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson — the nameless through-line narrator of these stories is an excellent study in compelling unlikeability. He sees the world so vividly, and ecstatically; though only when he’s high or experiencing some kind of violence or brutality. The reader lives in that uncomfortable tension throughout, and enjoys it. By the final story, our anti-hero settles down a bit, though (we find ourselves hoping) not too much.
Fidelity by Wendell Berry – in these five stories, Berry revisits the world of Port William, Kentucky, the territory for all his fiction, and even some of our favorite characters like Andy Catlett, Berry’s presumed fictional persona. Berry’s fiction is both warm and harsh, in the way that perhaps only a farmer-poet-essayist-fictionwriter-activist can be.
Stories by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov’s stories are not linked, per se, but as I wrote in a previous essay here at The Millions on the good doctor, there is something to be said for reading them in groups, in succession – as if together they make up his Great Novel, his population of characters all really aspects of One Universal Character. To my mind, the stories are linked by Chekhov’s acute vision of humanity – as flabby and flawed, yet earnestly suspended in perpetual longing. As readers, we recognize that longing, its tragedy and vitality.
Lastly, it’s been many years since I’ve read either of these, but The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Dubliners by James Joyce are two widely acclaimed and beloved linked-story collections that are worth mentioning here. John Gardner wrote about the former, which revolves around two characters, Flo and her stepdaughter Rose: “Whether [it] is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I’m not quite sure, but whatever it is, it’s wonderful.” The latter, of course, is Joyce’s searing portrait of his home city in the early 20th century, captured in 15 stories, one of which, “The Dead,” is considered by some the greatest short story ever written.
Art is long, as they say. Writing well, in any form or genre, is a marathon, not a sprint. Far in the distance, many training miles ahead, I see that perfect gem of a story, those immortal 5,000 words that will leave the hundreds of thousands of others I’ve scribbled and typed, maybe even published, in the dust.
(Image: Chains – rusted from knottyboywayne’s photostream)