Wormholes, portals, wizards, dachshunds, geological time, haute cuisine: these are a few of the things you will find in Kathryn Davis’s fiction. “My sensibility as an artist,” Davis said in a recent interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, “is (thank God) a Frankenstein monster of parts.” Ever since the publication of her first book, Labrador, in 1988, she has shown herself to be a writer of graceful sentences and wild creative power—the “love child of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll,” Joy Press once called her. Wherever her imagination wants to go, Davis will follow, whether that means traveling from Denmark to upstate New York with an opera-writing murderess (The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf) or settling down in a 1950s Philadelphia partly populated by robots (Duplex). She has written a novel called Hell, in which time collapses on itself within the walls of a semi-detached house, and a novel called The Thin Place, about a Vermont town where the skin between this world and the spirit world is especially porous.
Davis’s new novel, The Silk Road, continues her exploration of the strange, but if anything, it’s even bolder than her earlier books. Rather than ease the reader into the extraordinary by way of the ordinary—as Duplex does, for example, by beginning with a sleepy suburban street before proceeding to introduce robots and sorcerers and air-borne scows—The Silk Road dives right into the extraordinary from the first paragraph:
We were in the labyrinth. Afterward, no one could agree on the time. Jee Moon was tucking someone’s right hand in under their blanket, having first tucked in the left. She did this tenderly but firmly, as if to suggest we could be doing it for ourselves. Next she took someone’s head and lifted it like it wasn’t part of a human body, a cabbage or a planet or the repository of all good thoughts and evil, which, when you think about it, is exactly what a human head is.
What is going on here? A yoga class winding down, with everyone in shavasana, or corpse pose. Where are we? In the labyrinth, like the narrator says, which we will soon learn is part of “the settlement,” located in the Arctic north, where the permafrost is rapidly melting. And who are we? A group of individuals known only by the names of our professions (the Astronomer, the Archivist, the Topologist, the Cook), guided by a mysterious woman named Jee Moon. And why are we here? To escape from a flea-borne plague that is devastating humanity.
This, anyway, is the novel’s frame story, loosely modeled on the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which 10 characters fleeing the Black Death gather in a villa near Florence and swap yarns to pass the time. But, in The Silk Road, the medieval literary device gets a new, fantastical twist: The characters don’t just tell each other tales, they hear each other’s thoughts, which swarm “from our heads and—not being solely the province of the brain—from other parts of our bodies, and [rise] to link themselves with other thoughts in a molecular action.” Though such mind-melding might quickly become ridiculous in the hands of another writer, Davis harnesses it to powerful effect, using it as an excuse to blend the characters’ voices with voices borrowed from literature, scripture, and song.
Some of Davis’s allusions are bound to slip past the reader unnoticed. There are not many who will recognize both a line from Lucretius (“Moreover in the sum of all things there is no one thing that is begotten single”) and the lyrics to an old French pop song (Chariot, chariot, si tu veux de moi…). But the sources of these lines are less important than what Davis makes of them—how she orchestrates them into a meaningful and quite beautiful whole. Often the same passages that leave us scratching our heads are the ones that take our breath away. Describing the spread of the plague across the globe, Davis writes:
Everyone knew it was a physical condition—they were that knowledgeable—but the extent of what they knew was compromised by exposure to a glut of information and rumor, making it difficult to predict anything. Some people claimed mortality didn’t come through Saturn and Jupiter, but rather through Mars. Others said the work of the planets could not be avoided but there were things it was possible to avoid. Transmutation was easiest between bodies that had matching qualities. No one knew where the sickness came from or where it was going. No one knew which hospitals had medicine or empty beds or doctors or nurses. There were robbers abroad in the land. There were wild beasts.
As this passage indicates, it can be helpful to think of The Silk Road as a piece of music, in which meaning is produced through rhythm and repetition rather than rational exposition. The reader, holding onto his hat, has to trust that themes and variations will be revealed, even if nothing in the end is certain. But complaining about indeterminacy in a Kathryn Davis novel is like complaining about William Gass’s love of alliteration or Bob Dylan’s singing voice. The embrace of uncertainty is central to the whole endeavor. Like Emerson, Davis insists that “knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.”
The Silk Road is full of enigmas. Are the main characters siblings, as their shared memories of childhood suggest, or are they linked in some more intangible sense—perhaps as different permutations of the same soul? Is the Arctic settlement where they find themselves the Tibetan Buddhist bardo between one existence and the next? When one by one the characters begin to disappear, where do they go? We can ponder possible answers, point to evidence, even argue for one interpretation or another if the spirit moves us, but finally the pondering is what’s essential. Davis’s style encourages us to remain open to multiple interpretations even when they contradict each other. A “cove of sparkling light” at the settlement’s edge may either be a “real pool of something like water—we were in agreement on that if nothing else—or just a gathering of attention, all of it in one place, as solid and bright-surfaced as a jewel but otherwise beside the point.”
Of course, the beauty of fiction is that things can be both. The cove can be liquidly real and also a potent projection. The characters can lead their individual lives—in which they walk an ancient pilgrimage route through France or bump their braces on a water-fountain spout in St. Louis—while at the same time blending their consciousness together in a hum of voices that summons all the living and the dead.
It would be safe to say that Davis is fascinated by multiplicity, but not by the distracted, all-over-the-map multiplicity that characterizes novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These novels, whatever else might be said of them, suffer from a jittery lack of focus. Their structures, down to their syntax, seem born of the same impatient impulse that has given us Tinder and flights of beer. By comparison, The Silk Road is a calm book that, with its meditative poise and measured prose, invites us to reduce speed, concentrate, reread and reconsider. Even as it entertains us in the expected novelistic fashion by narrating the story of a group of characters over a span of time, it is constantly throwing our received ideas about narratives, characters, and spans of time into question—and sometimes throwing them overboard altogether.
I have, so far, read The Silk Road three times and can already see that I am going to have to buy another copy—I’ve messed mine up with so many marginal scrawls. These range from exclamation points made to mark favorite images (“a few clerics in long black cassocks, sliding up and down the steep pathways like chessmen”) and aperçus (“Furniture was important to people who cared about the surfaces of things”) to question marks curling next to what, in a conventional mystery novel, would be called clues. The mystery in The Silk Road, however, revolves around nothing less than the formation and dissolution of selfhood—what Joy Williams calls “the great wheel of time and its terrifying promises of rebirth and forgetfulness.” If this mystery has a solution, I have yet to find it. If you do, you’ll have to let me know.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag.
Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious.
For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction.
And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist.
The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics?
As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples:
James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability.
Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label.
I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible.
After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation.
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.
I have one memory of my father reading to me.
He’d returned home from work with a gift: the latest Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Circus. I can still see him standing in the doorway, book in hand, his coat unbuttoned and hat a little askew, a smile on his face.
My father had a distinctive smile during moments that called for tenderness or an admission of affection, a smile that strained to contain itself, as if emotional intimacy was also discomfort, as if displaying pleasure revealed too much of himself. I’m sure I was aware of none of this when a small child. I learned the secret pedigree of his expression as I grew older, my memory of it now easily available so many years later.
In the copy I own today—not that original edition but the current, 79th printing—I see on the copyright page that If I Ran the Circus was published in 1956. I would have been five, in kindergarten, two years away from being able to read on my own, when I sat beside my father, the large pages of the book facing us both, and he began to read to me about a boy named Morris McGurk, who saw the promise of a circus in the junkyard lot behind old man Sneelock’s general store. Morris felt sure that cleaning up the lot, with its weeds, a dead tree, and three old cars, was probably just “a half hour’s work.”
Soon enough, fantastical circus creatures made their entrance: the “horn-tooting apes from the Jungle of Jorn,” the “Drum-Tummied Snumm,” and a “Foon who eats sizzling hot pebbles that fall off the moon.” Each page brought another delightful surprise, especially Sneelock’s unexpected abilities of wrestling the Grizzly-Ghastly, training the Through-Horn-Jumping Deer, and taming the ferocious Spotted Atrocious. The circus grew in size and spectacle, the tongue-twisting rhymes working in concert with elaborate drawings of elaborate feats that enticed the eye to linger.
Each page offered something else: my father’s voice, trying to master the tricky rhymes without stumbling, attempting the book’s wonder with a dramatic reading. In a story that was filled with splendid performances, my quiet father tried his best to hold his own. I can still hear his bemused voice in the words of Dr. Seuss.
The circus tent expanded, the crowds grew larger, the various acts grew ever more extravagant, and the skills of ordinary Sneelock turned ever more extraordinary. Yet by the end, we found ourselves back at the junkyard behind Sneelock’s small store. Because there had been no circus, only young Morris McGurk’s hopes for one—the entire book was a bravura act of invention. The littered back lot behind Sneelock’s small store was still a littered back lot, and Sneelock was once again a shopkeeper, his supposedly marvelous potential as yet untapped. I can still remember the delicious shock of surprise, my initial glimpse into the vast spaces offered by imagination. I had been taken in by a boy’s fantasies that had conjured a junkyard into an extravaganza, and transformed a shopkeeper into a hero.
And I wanted to be taken in again.
Do I remember that moment with my father because it was so rare, or because memory only has room for this one example? He must have read If I Ran the Circus many more times to me. I remember at least asking, and the sense of a growing reluctance in his “yes,” as if he thought that once you finished reading a book, that was it, we already knew the ending, didn’t we? He didn’t seem to understand why a child might be obsessed with returning to a single book, or that my insistence was also connected to him—I wanted his voice, his presence to be included in those pages.
Whether or not I had an inkling that my emotionally awkward father was somehow slipping away from me, by second grade I’d learned to read by myself and hear my own silent speaking voice in the words on the page.
Thirty years after my father read If I Ran the Circus, I became a father and returned to the joys of reading aloud, first to my son, Nathaniel, then to my daughter, Hannah. That’s when I began to understand that children’s literature is one of the most difficult of literary genres.
From the first page, a children’s author faces the immediate task of writing a book that appeals to a kind of two-headed reader—one a child, the other an adult—and almost every sentence must sing a secret harmony. If a child basks in a book but the parent reading it out loud does not, that book may eventually be misplaced in an obscure corner of a bookshelf. If the adult enjoys a book but not the child, its story will likely never be read again.
What is the alchemy of appealing to this double audience? Adults write children’s books, not children. For an author, perhaps it’s a way of remembering the wonder of one’s own childhood. The transfer of that conjured wonder to another adult can create a bridge linking parent and child.
Sharing a passion for a story is only a beginning, because another challenge arises: the performance. When you read to a child, you’re offering him or her a slice of the wider world. You become a travel guide, turning page after page into new territory, and you use your voice to bring it to life. You flesh out the words with dramatic pauses—a whisper here, a raised voice there—and learn how to deliver a sentence’s punch line. Perhaps most importantly, you round out the personalities of the characters by creating their different voices. In doing so, you begin teaching your child the basics of imagining others. Further, the initial experience of reading aloud a children’s book must be carefully recreated. Because often, not only is the book beloved, but the child’s first hearing of it is beloved as well.
Although a panoply of fictional figures march through the 24 Tintin books that I read to my son, Nathaniel, the iconic main characters belong to a small club. It was relatively easy trying on and then recreating the gruff growl of Captain Haddock’s outrageous and inventive insults, Professor Calculus’s calm befuddled responses as he mishears everything, and Tintin’s earnest, boyish voice that can quickly assume a note of determination.
By contrast, the 14 volumes of The Wizard of Oz series that I read to my daughter, Hannah, posed far more challenges. We all know the basic Oz crew as established in the first book—Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and so on. The following 13 volumes in the series keep introducing an embarrassment of additional main characters, such as the Patchwork Girl (otherwise known as “Scraps”); Tik-Tok, the mechanical man; Princess Ozma, the true ruler of Oz; the Shaggy Man; the Woggle-Bug, an oversized, top-hatted, and highly-educated insect; Jack Pumpkinhead, whose head is a, well, you know; the Sawhorse, a carpenter’s ordinary wooden sawhorse brought to life by a magic powder; and many others. Giving them individual voices forced me to tap deeper skills of impersonation. Yet if a character suddenly recurred after an absence of a book or two in the series, I sometimes forgot what voice I’d assigned them. I’d have to stall, try to remember, assume a likely voice and—
“That’s not what she sounds like, she sounds like this,” Hannah then insisted. Thus retrained, I would try again.
More than 60 years since my father read If I Ran the Circus, I now read books to my five-year-old grandson, Dean. Although he can already sound out nearly anything on a page, limited not by skill but comprehension, he gets it that reading can be both private and communal. He’s blessed with parents who love to read to him as much as my wife, Alma, and I loved to read to our children.
Some of the books Alma and I read aloud have even survived to another generation, especially those in the Berenstain Bears series. They tell the tale of a family of bears with the unadorned names of Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and their cubs, Brother Bear and Sister Bear, who live in “the big tree house down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country.” At their most basic level, these are no nonsense books about how to behave. Employing a light touch, the books offer advice about how to deal with a bully, make up with friends after an argument, defuse a nightmare, face the consequences of telling a lie. They would probably be unbearable (yes, pun intended) to both parent and child, if not for a gentle, sometimes ironic humor: all the members of the Bear family have their own foibles, fragile strengths and uncertainties, and, with the possible exception of Mama Bear, they can behave a little foolishly, too.
The books come child-ready: each paperback entry in the series is lightweight, always 32 pages long, stapled not bound, with a carefully calibrated moral arriving by the last page.
Dean loves these books so much he has invented a way to extend bedtime reading, by creating on his own a version of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Dean will open, say, The Trouble with Friends to its middle (where pages 16 and 17 display the two staples that hold the book together), then place another Berenstain Bears book—perhaps The Double Dare—on top of that, also opened to the middle pages. He’ll place another open-faced book, The Slumber Party or Count Their Blessings, over that, until he has a Dagwood sandwich of four or five books in one.
Once we read to the middle of The Trouble with Friends, then the second book, The Double Dare, takes over, and when we reach the middle of that, then the first half of the next book, The Slumber Party, takes over, and so on, until the book in the middle of this nested collection can be read through completely. The second half of each remaining book is then read in sequence, to the very end, followed by a hug goodnight and lights out. Because there’s no need to ask, “read it again,” when one book has been magically transformed into five.
One book that needs no such augmentation is another favorite, My Valley, by Claude Ponti. It is wonderfully large, 14.5 inches by 10.5 inches, as it needs to be to offer a world of vast spaces. It’s certainly big enough for a grandfather and grandson to hide behind. Ponti illustrates his own work, and while he can zoom in for the close detail, such as the eye of a curious giant, he’s equally good with a broad panorama. My Valley is filled with many full and detailed pages of the Blue Valley’s landscape, representing all four seasons. They’re an invitation to pause, regard the view, and get to know the world of the Twims as if you had their eyes, and as if you were their size.
The Twims are furry (in a short-haired way) and round-bellied creatures, smaller than the acorns, walnuts, apples, and pears that they cache in their winter storehouse. They have silly names my grandson never tires of: Empty-Dempty, Mermay-Moom, Smarghoula, Gussy-Tressy, Nothin’-Doin’ (and his pet parrot, Blahblah), and Poochie-Blue, to name a few.
The individual chapters of My Valley are confined to no more than two pages, and with little overarching drama to speak of, Ponti’s book adopts a relaxed pace in presenting glimpses of the Twims and their lives in the Blue Valley. Twims live for hundreds of years. Some fall from the sky and are adopted into welcoming families. Twims love to jump into a special puddle that can only be exited through other nearby puddles. They grow umbrellas and boats. They will steal away to whisper in the ears of the Tree of Secrets, because he “never repeats what you say to anyone.” They often visit the most charming cemetery you could ever imagine, filled with gardens the dead would have loved, such as “the garden of the Twims that loved to hear children playing,” or “the garden of the never-ending story.”
The large family of Poochie-Blue (the young Twims who serves as our guide) lives in the House Tree on the Blue Cliffs. Perhaps my grandson’s favorite part of the book is the full page, cut-away look at the House Tree. It’s a multi-storied home you can get lost in, and contains enough whimsy for you to want to visit rooms that have few right angles, and staircases of smooth steps connecting the kitchen, the bathrooms, bedrooms filled with pillows and a swing-like couch, a trapeze room, a room with a swimming pool, and four rooms lined with stuffed bookshelves—because the Twims love to read. There are helpful labels for identifying the various nooks and crannies of the House Tree: “cozy bed to read in,” and “bedroom to sleep in with a lot of friends,” but also too-obvious labels of the House Tree’s surrounding environment: “Ground,” “Outside,” and “Sky.” Dean loves pointing out the gentle absurdity of these, and we egg on each other’s laughter as we repeat them, reluctant to turn the page.
Another large landscape page is devoted to labeling the many features of the Blue Valley to which we’ve already grown accustomed—like the Singing Stone, where wishes might come true, if the wind is right. The majority, however, are places the book will visit later, such as the Dad’s Night Statue, or intriguing corners that are never visited or even further mentioned, which lend to the Twims’ world an expansive aura, an implication that it might never be exhausted. Many of the place names seem designed to delight a child: “Worstever Field,” the “Could Be” bridge, and “Crazy Hand Forest.” Why is the “Forest of the Laughing Twims” called that? My Valley doesn’t say. Perhaps Ponti is gently encouraging a reader—or a young listener—to make up a reason, and add a story to the stories already recorded here.
Immediately after we turn the last page, Dean will ask me to read the book again.
The Twims are often depicted reading books—either alone or, more likely, a batch of them together. Sometimes Dean and I have wondered what sort of books they like. A possible answer arrived recently, in the form of a new book by Claude Ponti, Hiznobyuti.
The creatures in Hiznobyuti have a similar tannish, shorthaired fur like the Twims, but they also sport rabbitty ears, their figures are far less pear-like, and they are not nearly as mellow. They might be neighbors from one of the lands that My Valley hints at, located either beyond the Island Sea in the north, or a distant place to the south—sometimes glimpsed through breaking storm clouds—called the Land Behind.
The main character, Hiznobyuti, was born with a nose resembling a mini-elephant trunk that spouted little puffs of black smoke, as if he suffered from some sort of sooty flu. “He’s no beauty!” his sister exclaims, and so he receives his name. Hiznobyuti’s parents, brother, and sister can only see his unusual exterior, and have no interest in his inner self. Before long he is consigned to a cold dark space beneath the sink, then bricked up inside it—a moment that is as grim as any in Ponti’s books.
In his isolation behind the sink cabinets, Hiznobyuti develops an obsession with “communophones,” a possible way of seeing inside the mystery of others’ thoughts and emotions. His first attempts—elaborate contraptions made of rope, or DIY radio transmissions—aren’t entirely successful. True communication, he will come to realize, lies far beyond the mechanical.
As he escapes and travels with his only friend, the two-legged talking, ticking Martin Clock (itself an abandoned creature), Hiznobyuti’s saga of discovery takes him past the challenges of a monster with hammers for hair, or the difficulty of “filling a bottomless pit with a leaky pot” for the old witch Sissyfus. Eventually, Hiznobyuti assumes perhaps the most productive Tree Pose ever posed, his arms growing into branches and leaves, his legs becoming roots, drawing him to “the secrets of stones that were as old as the earth,” and the “secrets of the sky, which were immense.” Only then does he brave a reunion with his undeserving but regretful family.
Of course, when we finish, Dean says, “Read that again.” And so we do. Why not? We’re already settled into the couch. As my grandson sits beside me, I feel the echo of my son or daughter when we’d read together, and the even more distant echo of my father, who taught me, with a single book, the power of a human voice channeling the delights of a story, and the surprise of imagination that held it all together.
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.
“An Army Newspaper” is a story by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, published in the collection The Corpse Exhibition. The narrator details his time editing the cultural section of a military newspaper, presenting his readers with stories and poems celebrating the glories of war and the bravery of the nation’s soldiers. (The war in question is presumably the Iran-Iraq war that went on for almost the entire length of the 1980s, crippling Iraqi society, though the narrator neglects to give any specifics as to the nature of the conflict.) The content of the narrator’s newspaper section is rather lacking in literary quality, as it is written by soldiers who want only to valorize their nation and its leaders rather than speak truthfully about their own experiences. But the editor manages to make his section readable by adding his own rhetorical flourishes to the soldiers’ drab, dutiful prose. His superiors praise his work, stoking his dream of becoming Minister of Culture.
One day, a packet arrives on his desk. It contains five stories, all by the same author, written in school notebooks. Unlike the usual fare that comes his way, these stories are astonishing. “The stories were written in a surprisingly elevated style,” he says. “In fact, I swear that the world’s finest novels, before these stories that I read, were mere drivel, vacuous stories eclipsed by the grandeur of what this soldier had written.” The editor looks into this soldier’s background and finds he was recently killed shortly after sending in the stories. He takes advantage of this unique opportunity, publishing the soldier’s work under his own name. The editor is soon the toast of the literary world, attending conferences and giving interviews. The stories, however, keep coming.
Day after day, packets land on the editor’s desk, all of them containing more of the soldier’s brilliant work in the same school notebooks. Did he survive? The editor digs up the soldier’s grave and finds that he is quite dead, a single bullet wound, the handiwork of a sniper, in the center of his forehead. Just to be safe, the editor burns the body. But the stories don’t cease. Dozens of packets containing hundreds of brilliant new stories arrive daily. The editor burns these as well, purchasing an incinerator for this express purpose, but still they pile up, leaving him with only one option.
I found this story to be, as they say, relatable. I’ve been following the growing body of literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for a few years now, and it certainly feels as if there are endless manuscripts landing on my desk every day, demanding my attention, driving me to consider unorthodox methods of disposal. They’re not all deathless works of brilliance, for sure, but they are, more often than not, urgent and impassioned, writers trying to come to grips with their experiences of war, whether they’re veterans offering firsthand accounts or civilians making meaning from what they’ve seen and read. The lapses into sentimentality and cliché seem the result of haste more than dishonesty.
Roy Scranton is also familiar with the conventions of recent war literature, and from both directions. After serving in Iraq in the mid-aughts, he wrote essays and journalism about the war, and also worked with fellow veteran-writer Matt Gallagher to edit Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. He was also working on a novel, starting it when he was still enlisted and spending the next ten years shaping the story. The result is War Porn, and it reads like a summary of this particular subgenre, underlining its shortcomings while pointing at new strategies.
War Porn follows three different stories: a barbecue in Utah on Columbus Day, 2004; a young soldier serving in Iraq during the first year of the war; and an Iraqi math professor in early 2003, just before the invasion. The three timelines are arranged in an A-B-C-B-A pattern, not unlike the “nesting dolls” structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. At the literal and figurative center is the math professor’s story, but I’ll get to that later. The novel opens, like so many books about the war, at home. It is quite possible that the literature of this war has focused on the homefront to a greater degree than any other conflict in U.S. history. Think of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, still one of the best novels on the subject. The entire story unfolds over a single day, as a company of soldiers is flown back home after winning a significant battle to be lauded as heroes during the halftime show of a football game. The war itself appears only in Billy’s memory, strobe-lit flashes of heat and smoke. Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta — these and others give just as much attention, if not more, to the conflicts that unfolded at home as those abroad. This is the result, I think, of having a volunteer military, one whose members move within their own world, rarely coming into contact with the wider public. The actual wars U.S. soldiers fight can feel so distant that civilian writers may be hesitant to depict warfare, opting instead to stick to more familiar territory and examine the struggles of veterans readjusting to stateside life. Indeed, the dominant trope is a vet stricken with PTSD, his journey to become whole once again.
Scranton is having none of this. The veteran in the homefront section of War Porn is a psychopathic rapist, his taste for violence stoked in an Abu Ghraib-like compound where he served as a prison guard, photographing the cruelties he inflicted and storing them on a thumb drive. There is no redemption, no absolution of guilt. It’s here that the novel’s title takes on a double meaning. “War porn” usually refers to such images of violence, but there is also the emotional pornography of stories of returning soldiers learning to forgive themselves, assuaging the guilt felt by good-hearted readers, flattering them for their performative compassion.
The thread about the war itself is just as terse, though much funnier. A young soldier named Wilson, rifle in hand and Noam Chomsky volume in his pack, stumbles through the initial stages of the war, witnessing the invasion harden into the occupation as democracy fails to spontaneously arise from the sands of the desert. He sees little and understands less, trying only to survive. His comrades are little more than nicknames spouting acronyms and profanities. The local factions vying for power are indistinguishable to him, their lives and values alien.
Ignorant American man-children wreaking havoc both at home and abroad: is this all War Porn is? Not at all, thankfully. Nestled in the book’s center is a kind of novella about an Iraqi professor named Qasim. He’s a genuine character, torn between professional and personal responsibility. His thread is by far the most humane part of the book, and this seems by design. After dismantling those homefront and combat tropes, Scranton maps out this new path into the subject, following Qasim into entire territories of the conflict that, thus far, have largely gone unexplored in American fictional representations.
It’s a different kind of Iraq War novel, for sure, but it’s not just that. It’s an expression of Scranton’s philosophy about telling new, different stories as a means of survival. Last year, Scranton published Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a short book about climate change. After spending a couple chapters amassing more than enough evidence to persuade the reader that our civilization is royally, unavoidably fucked, Scranton wonders what we can do next. He’s not thinking about electric cars, however. His concerns are existential. Namely, when climate change is on the verge of upending life as we know it, what stories do we tell to prepare ourselves?
Scranton returns to civilization’s early days, finding in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh guidance for coming to terms with decline and death, equipping oneself with wisdom and dignity. Answers to coping with this systemic problem lay, in all of places, in the humanities, that living document of what our species has thought and felt.
War Porn offers a similar suggestion when it comes to the United States’s seemingly perpetual involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East. Our own soldiers and bombs will do little besides incite rival powers to offer up their own unorthodox weaponry. Studying their history, reading their stories, could uncover new strategies, new approaches we’ve resigned to thinking of as intractable.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.
What Belongs to You
My Name is Lucy Barton
The Big Green Tent
Girl Through Glass
The Lost Time Accidents
A Brief History of Seven Killings
If you’re reading this, you survived to bear witness as Donald Trump became the Grand Old Party’s official presidential candidate. (Thanks a lot, William Faulkner!) And if the unpredictable, foreboding days spread out ahead promise nothing if not apocalyptic visions – glimpses of failures personal and societal, as well as cosmic – then take solace in this one thing: the Millions Top Ten abides as ever – safe, regular, and fun.
For here on our list, we celebrate the buying habits of our readers, and we can illuminate the works that bring them joy, inspire them, or whisk their emotions. Surely in these trying times, that’s better to read than, say, any newspaper. Right?
And so let’s begin with the good news. We graduated two – count ’em! – books to our hallowed Hall of Fame this month. First, David Mitchell launched his fourth – count it! – book to immortality, as his latest novel, Slade House, joined three of his others: Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and The Bone Clocks. (Connections abound with that last one, noted Alex Miller, Jr. in his review for our site.) Next, our own Garth Risk Hallberg sent his debut novel, City on Fire, to the Hall as well. Although this is the first time Garth has reached the Hall of Fame as the author of a work of fiction, he did previously reach it as the editor of one of our Millions Originals – Konstantin Kakaes’s The Pioneer Detectives.
Filling those two opened spots are Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Hunt’s work is an “elegantly structured novel,” observed our own Kaulie Lewis in the Great 2016 Book Preview, and it “promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story.” Don’t miss her interview for our site with Adam Vitcavage. Meanwhile Nguyen’s work is “rich, surprising, and often darkly funny,” according to Claire Messud in her most recent Year in Reading entry. (Bonus: Thanh Nguyen contributed his own entry in that same year’s Year in Reading series.) You can read an excerpt from The Sympathizer from our friends at Bloom.
Elsewhere on the list, A Brief History of Seven Killings dropped from seventh position to ninth. Ordinarily I wouldn’t remark about a book moving down our list, but this is a special case because it only needs one more month to reach our Hall of Fame, and frankly I nagged y’all too damn hard for it to drop out when it’s this close. Do your part and buy seven copies immediately, please.
Now, wasn’t that better than reading the political tipsheets?
This month’s near misses included: The Queen of the Night, The Sellout, The Nest, When We Came to the City, and The Turner House. See Also: Last month’s list.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike talk about how it feels when your favorite authors let you down.
Discussed in this episode: Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, and Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, denial, grief, bargaining, the Rabbit Angstrom books, Roger’s Version and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike, Radio On: A Listener’s Diary by Sarah Vowell, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Not discussed in this episode: Alice Munro’s disappointing short story collection, The Cottage by, I Don’t Know, Let’s Say, the Pond or Something.
Well-heeled critics take a kind of offense when writers of David Mitchell’s caliber experiment with genre fiction. Nonetheless, the release of 2014’s The Bone Clocks, with its body-jumping Horologists and systematic references to most of his previous novels, proved that Mitchell has embarked on more than an experiment; he is on a Yeatsian search for unity. Late in his life, W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, published A Vision, a collection of cultish metaphysical writings that cast the whole of history as a cycle between order and chaos, the barbaric and the civilized. His poetry of the period also represented the world this way: his famous piece “The Second Coming” culminates with the image of a “rough beast…slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born,” a kind of un-Christ who represents the beginning of a barbaric period in history, the inversion of the Christian era.
The purpose of all Yeats’s late writing, as the scholar Richard Ellmann pointed out in Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was to offer a “unified personality,” to give his readers a sense of cohesion that everyday life lacks by using a consistent set of symbols to discuss, praise, mourn, and process a disjointed reality. For Yeats, symbols like beasts, roses, and winding staircases were touchstones: no matter where his writing wandered, these landmarks offered a sense of direction — they brought him back to A Vision’s unified historical scheme. The poems he made with those images are beautiful and timeless. But A Vision is another story. Supposedly sourced from automatic writings Yeats’s wife received from the spirit world, it reads like an acid trip in a Catholic church, or — appropriately enough — like a scene from David Mitchell’s Slade House: a horror novel set in a dark corner of the newly-minted meta-world that unites all of Mitchell’s books.
Mitchell told fans at 2014’s Edinburgh Book festival that his writing has become “an exercise in world building and cosmology.” With the lengthy and ambitions Bone Clocks, he revealed the extent of that exercise by referencing characters from all of his work, back to his 1999 debut Ghostwritten. Though it would be difficult to gage the extent to which his megaverse was planned, Mitchell has made it clear that a single plot overarches everything, down even to his most quotidian Black Swan Green. Lovers of Cloud Atlas are familiar with Mitchell’s tendency to write novels as a series of interlacing plots, where a young character in one segment might be an old man in another. But what Bone Clocks introduced was design on an altogether different scale: a set of death-defying interlopers engaged in a cosmic war across time, whose antics, it turns out, have been crashing through the scenery of each successive novel.
When he announced that a new, shorter book was set to debut only a year after The Bone Clocks, fans correctly anticipated that Slade House would deepen Mitchell’s investment in that larger scheme. Released just in time for Halloween, Slade House has quickly sparked comparisons to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw — a literature critic’s ghost story, a haunted-house yarn the glamor of which was underpinned by plot and language that could bear up under the stuffiest academic scrutiny.
Mitchell has been upfront about his exasperation with critics who pit realism against everything else, as if the sort of writing where souls can be eaten and bodies shed like cicada shells needed to earn special literary stripes in order to be taken seriously. He told the Edinburgh Book Festival he likes “to use genre as a tool, like style, structure or a character. Where does it say a book has to remain within a single genre?” and The Paris Review that “When something is two-dimensional and hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, implausibly, into the brew.” Mitchell has proved himself a master of the improbable brew, but the question is whether the books that have resulted are freshening agents, or just a cheap attempt to spike the punch.
Slade House cooks up its mixture with euphoric technical complexity and flourish. Set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015, it is composed of five interlocking narratives centered around a mysterious “small black iron door,” and the magnificent, trippy, horrifying mansion to which it leads. A succession of sympathetic loners are lured into Slade House by its malevolent occupants, treated to a disorienting phantasmagoria that mixes their deepest fantasies of popularity and inclusion with their worst fears, and finally tricked into bringing about their own demise.
We hear the story through their voices, and each is masterfully rendered, deeply human. The 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose autism makes him insensitive to the subtle difference between a quirky hostess and a murderous schemer, the oafish lonelyheart policeman whose subtle racism he would blame on hard experiences on the beat, and the self-conscious college student Sally Timms are each cohesive and distinct.
For every character, Slade House morphs into a tailor-made nightmare. I found Sally’s haunting at a raucous party the most alarming and immediate, perhaps because I grew up listening to some of the same music. But more likely the sting came from her voice’s mixture of devastating self-examination and quippy humor: “Slade Alley can’t be more than three feet across,” she observes on approach to the house, “A properly fat person — fatter than me, I mean — couldn’t get past someone coming the other way.” And when she snuffs a proposition from an attractive partygoer: “Off he goes, and screw you, Isolde Delahunty at Great Malvern Beacon School for Girls and your platoon of body-fascist Barbies…screw all of you, wherever you are this evening, because I…just turned down a bronzed Australian surfer demigod…”
Yet the culmination of each story contains an obligatory nod the meta-world of Bone Clocks, and it is there that Mitchell’s ambition starts to make a messy feast of his talent. Examining Slade House’s grandfather clock, whose face bears no hands but only the words “Time is, Time Was, Time is Not,” Sally Timms quips that the clock is “Highly metaphysical; deeply useless.” At worst, this epithet could be applied to Mitchell’s language just at the passages when Slade House reaches its highest emotional pitch. At key moments in each character’s adventures there are debilitating pauses for exposition, linking Slade House’s dark little nightmare world to the wider one we heard all too much about in Bone Clocks.
Words like “lacuna,” “orison,” and worst of all, “psychovoltage” diffuse the physical terror of Mitchell’s best scenes with obtuse, jargony pinpricks. That the term “lacuna” is lifted from medieval metaphysics and “orison” from Hamlet’s banter with Ophelia in Act III scene i makes them no more interesting: pedigree adds little when species are awkwardly crossed, and there is nothing of Hamlet’s earthy nightmare in the clinical use to which Mitchell puts his meta-world’s argot, explaining away the wonderful ghost stories he’s taken such care to weave in each successive chapter.
At best, “highly metaphysical; deeply useless” might still be said of the interlaced world Mitchell is making. Metaphysical and useless, yes, but nothing is as essential as the inessential, and a little willful suspension of distaste allows us to luxuriate in Mitchell’s superfluities. The Yeats-like unifying project he’s taken on is initially thrilling in its apparent scope. And though his machinations are luxurious, underneath the heavy-handed codswallop is the pungent flavor of raw voices, coming from characters we recognize from the street. As long as his books are populated by such real people, Mitchell will deserve his following, but he is in danger of a fatal shark-jumping accident.
In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Mitchell allowed himself to suggest the unknown, and the scenes where Orito explores Enomoto’s caves are therefore riper with terror than any of Slade House’s “lacuna” scenes. Narrow paths curve into darkness, statues drip with blood, and Orito takes away only her fear and a growing list of questions about the people who built the tunnels. But Mitchell’s ambition to weave a meta-narrative has forced his newer books to reveal what is best left hinted. With their many external references, The Bone Clocks and Slade House are artsier novels than those that came before, but far less artful. In them Mitchell reads like a remodeler who stubbornly insists that the gaudy corridors he’s built between his mansions are the real architectural triumph.
Admirably, he has left nothing sacred in his conquest of genre-fiction territories, explicitly comparing his work to that of J.R.R. Tolkien, the master world-architect himself. Mitchell even included a character called Bombadil in Slade House’s final chapter, as if to assure us he knows what he’s doing, that no shrines to Tolkien will be left to gather dust during his incursion into hallowed ground. But to throw down that gauntlet is to invite comparison with a man who was a consummate novelist first, and mythology-spinner second. According to accounts from his friends, it took Tolkien 12 years to write and revise The Lord of the Rings, and obsessed with background as he was, most of that time was not spent tightening up a meta-scheme of cohesive self-references (otherwise why would there be so many Unfinished Tales, so many loose ends in The Silmarillion?), but making sure the characters and language were rich, authentic, and human. By contrast, Mitchell looks like a hobbit-sized challenger talking through a tall hat.
Above all, Tolkien knew what to leave unsaid. To name a specific example, the “Watcher in the Water” that guards the entrance to Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring is horrible precisely because we know neither what it is nor how it came to be there, apart from some scrawled suggestions in an abandoned journal. The entry reads: “The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out.” More terror is crammed into those two lines then into the whole of Slade House, because Tolkien has left space for our imaginations to populate the darkness. But Mitchell is addicted to ripping back the veil. His evil Grayer twins become less frightening the more we know about them, and their soliloquizing at each chapter’s climax makes them something worse than poorly-written antagonists: they become well-written antagonists too well explained. Their nightmare mansion ultimately disappoints, like a haunted house with all the lights turned on.
With each successive, elaborately explained novel, there is a paradoxical sense that Mitchell’s world is shrinking, because the rigging he’s so intent on fastening between storylines is clogging up the gaps that should be occupied by the unknown. Nothing can swoop down on us without getting caught in the wires. Titles like Cloud Atlas hint that Mitchell is undertaking a quest to map the changeable world, to search for suggestions of coherence among what is cloudy, turbulent, and disordered. But just as the psychedelic gobbledygook of Yeats’s A Vision added nothing to the power of his poetry (it only gave theorists the opportunity to point to some prose passage that was supposedly the origin of a poem, as if that proved anything), Mitchell’s Horologist wonderland seems like an escape from the literary into the clever. Discovering one of his linked plots gives you a Sudoku-solver’s thrill, but this pleasure would be hard to call artistic. Billed as a suggestion about the interconnectedness between us all, such moments register instead as self-satisfied technical flourishes, easter eggs.
As Mitchell gains power and the volume of his work expands, we have to hope he exercises a proportionately large restraint. Tolkien’s world-creating mechanism began with people and with language: He and C.S. Lewis used to play Scrabble in Elvish, a cultural artifact which grew organically alongside Tolkien’s lands and characters, instead of being thrust upon them in literary retrospect in the manner of Mitchell’s Horology. In terms of creative impetus, this retrograde fiddling with Mitchell’s own world could prove to be, as Sally Timms puts it, “a fatal mistake, like Orpheus looking back…”
To demand that Mitchell walk the same road as even his greatest predecessors would be inane when his explicit desire is to innovate, but as he said himself, the watchword of the world-builder, even as he mixes improbable elements, must be a plausibility that outwrestles the improbable. Plausibility means a sense of rightness to experience, and Slade House, in spite of its pristine characterization, forgets that the experience of horror starts with the unknown. Instead of dark shadows, he gives us exposition, and as tempting as it must be to forget, Mitchell should have remembered that readers will always prefer to wander the maze’s edges than to sit down for a lecture at its center.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.
The Novel: A Biography
My Brilliant Friend
The Strange Library
Dept. of Speculation
The Buried Giant
Well, folks, it’s happened. The enduring success of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks has pushed the author to a Millions echelon so high that it’s never before been reached. That’s right: Mitchell is now the only author in site history to reach our hallowed Hall of Fame for three (count ’em!) different works.
And with The Bone Clocks joining his past works, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell’s latest achievement puts him ahead of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest,The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle), each of whom authored two Hall of Fame titles. Maybe this repeated success will be enough to coax him into a Year in Reading 2015 appearance. (ARE YOU LISTENING, PUBLICISTS?)
Joining this month’s list thanks to The Bone Clocks’s graduation is Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant. It’s a book “about war and memory,” wrote Millions staffer Lydia Kiesling in her extremely personal review of the work for this site. “But it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it.”
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that our own Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is poised to graduate to our Hall of Fame next month, was the recent winner of The Morning News’s annual Tournament of Books. (It beat out Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is also on our Top Ten.) The novel, which has earned the praise of George R. R. Martin, took the final match-up by a score of 15-2, which should be decisive enough to persuade all of you who haven’t yet bought the book to do so immediately.
Join us next month as we graduate three books and open the doors for three newcomers. Will they be among the “Near Misses” below, or will they be something new entirely?
“Yes, sir, 45 boxes over the original moving estimate.”
“How much is that going to cost?”
“Well, the revised estimate adds another 1,000 pounds, so $450.”
“But that’s just a weight estimate. It could be a lot less depending on what’s in them. They could be filled with pillows for instance. What is in them?”
Many were filled with books, hundreds of them. And if the mover was to believed, they weighed about half a ton: the approximate weight of my knowledge.
I had packed all of the books into two types of freely acquired boxes: those labeled “Adult Brief for Incontinence (Moderate Absorbency),” which my wife brought home from a hospital; and a colorful array picked up at our local liquor store, everything from Ciroc Red Berry to Kinky Blue Liqueur, a versatile concoction which doubles as an aphrodisiac and a window cleaner.
I thought about packing thematically, sorting my volumes by intoxicant. The Russians would go with the vodkas, the Irish with the whiskeys, Germans with the beers, the French with the cognacs, and those few authors whom I knew personally, along with William Faulkner, with the beloved bourbons.
It would be trickier to decide whom to put in the adult diaper boxes. Definitely the Victorians, fussy as they are, but also those darkly comic authors who would appreciate their absurd fate — Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Philip Roth. I’d toss Jonathan Franzen in too, just for fun.
In the end, laziness prevailed and I freely mixed nationalities and genres in whatever booze or diaper box had room. Looking at the stacked assortment waiting to be hauled north, I wondered how I had backslid so spectacularly.
Before my last big move, from California to North Carolina about five years ago, I had unloaded most of my book-hoard — I prefer this Old English construction to “library” or “collection,” both of which don’t quite capture the thrilling chaos of that word-treasure spread over my shelves, coffee tables, floors, bathrooms, and car.
Lined up for inspection as I was deciding which volumes to sell, the books stood tall, proudly baring their spines even as their pages must have trembled. My decisions were swift and pitiless; one must be heartless to enter an era of biblio-austerity. But I take heart that of all the books I eventually sold back then, I can remember, and thus regret, only one: C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. For a person who loved books, I was actually relieved to have unburdened myself of them.
After the purge, my book-hoard was whittled down to a few boxes to be shipped via media mail.
“Now to get the media mail rate there can only be books in here,” explained the suspicious postal clerk as she watched me hoist the boxes onto the counter.
“If we open it up and find even a toothbrush, we’ll charge you the full rate.”
(Had she divined my scheme to defraud the post office by cheaply shipping dental supplies, or was she bluffing?)
“Got it,” I replied, despite the realization that I had actually thrown a non-media mail object in with my Norton anthologies — not a toothbrush but an armless Hideki Matsui bobblehead doll. (It made it through undetected.)
Those several dozen books transported from the West Coast multiplied over the years to fill 45 some-odd boxes, proving that the greatest fiction is that book lovers can reform.
I had tried to downsize before this latest move as well. Sure, I granted a reprieve to all my old favorites and recently received Christmas gifts, as well as those books I hadn’t yet cracked open and had no immediate plans to. As recounted by Walter Benjamin, Anatole France was once asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He responded, “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?” No indeed, and I won’t take my illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey out of its cover until I’m good and ready.
But many books did go into the “sell pile.” First were Finding the Right Words, 101 Ways to Say Thank You and Great Letters for Every Occasion, which my college roommate had sent me as a joke after I admitted that I enjoyed penning “Thank You” notes. Next in were a few Peter Carey paperbacks, John Banville’s Benjamin Black mysteries and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which made the cut five years ago, but not this time, and plenty more. On a roll, I even tried to throw in my wife’s pristine and eminently resalable copy of Wild — twice. She made it clear that if it happened again, Stevenson’s donkey might wander off as well.
I took the carful to a used book store, where the clerk instructed me to wait as he sorted the books into two piles — one he wouldn’t buy and the other he’d buy for a pittance. For a bibliophile, this period is especially dangerous, akin to an alcoholic trying to dry out in a Kinky Blue Liqueur distillery. If you must browse to pass the time, I recommend confining yourself to the least tempting section, for me “Spirituality” or “Business.” Then plug your ears when the clerk offers you a figure for store credit, which can be twice as high as the cash offer. Always take the cash.
The most desirable stuff having been picked clean, I went to another store in the area, selling some of my remaining wares to a less discriminating buyer for $24 in trade. (I know what I just said, but what’s one more hardcover?)
I still had a box of unwanted books left, including a copy of David Copperfield with increasingly embarrassing marginalia from the times I had read it in high school, college, and graduate school; some tattered mysteries; a comedic romance with a moose on the cover; Anatomy flashcards; and those three indispensable treatises on writing the perfect “Thank You” note. Over the next couple days I distributed these among a local coffee shop, the library donation bin, and my apartment complex clubhouse, disposing of the dismembered corpus of rejected texts so as to leave no trace of its owner.
However, as the moving estimate made clear, I hadn’t really made a dent. And thus, here I am in a new home, resolving once more to reform my book-hoarding ways. Unlikely, especially with Politics & Prose, Kramerbooks, and Capitol Hill Books nearby. Luckily, my movers made my task a little easier. As if sensing that I was a recidivist, they took it upon themselves to smash one of my bookshelves to pieces in transit. Message received.
They also blithely informed me that they had broken my writing desk as well, which I chose to take as a sign of their carelessness rather than a pointed criticism of my work.
The books, all 45 boxes of them, naturally survived the move unscathed.
Image Credit: pixshark.
It’s a testament to the meticulous brilliance of Jorge Luis Borges that a summary of his story “The Garden of Forking Paths” might run longer than the story itself, and only fitting, given the narrative’s central question: How do you build an infinite labyrinth? It’s an even greater testament to Borges’s brilliance that the story, with deadpan audacity, provides an answer. One of the story’s characters writes a vast novel the irreconcilable narrative contradictions of which lead another character to conclude that “unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, [the novel’s author] did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite forking series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.” Any attempts to navigate this web will set the reader wandering an endless maze of temporal possibilities.
This endless maze could also describe the novels of Tana French, whose Dublin Murder Squad series charts labyrinthine paths as it navigates, not forking timelines, but interconnected webs of people. Her books find tension, terror, joy, and beauty in the conflicts and resonances that arise from the disparate voices and worldviews embodied by the novels’ police detective protagonists.
Each novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series follows a different detective, each of whom has been featured as a secondary character in a previous novel in the series (with the exception of the protagonist of the first novel). Fully capitalizing on the possibilities contained in this premise, French endows the protagonist with their own distinct voices, their own unique personal philosophies. Over the course of the series, these perspectives come into dynamic conversation with one another, building to an intriguing and ever-increasing clamor.
The series begins with In the Woods, which finds detective Rob Ryan investigating a gory murder at a controversial archaeological site. What Ryan conceals from his boss and the majority of his squad is that the murder may be linked to an unsolved crime from his own childhood. In on the secret is Ryan’s partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, and as the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that the novel is as interested in the relationships between its characters as it is in the sensational crime under investigation. Much of the story’s tension arises from the toll the case takes on the once-seemingly unbreakable friendship between Ryan and Maddox, the consequences of which reverberate into French’s next novel, The Likeness.
The second entry in the series features an entirely new mystery. (Although major payoffs exist for reading the series sequentially, each book also succeeds as a stand-alone novel.) The protagonist this time is Cassie Maddox, still reeling from the events of In the Woods, which are alluded to only vaguely. This time, in a premise that’s both improbable and delightful, Maddox investigates the murder of a woman who not only resembles her exactly, but has been living under a false identity that Maddox herself created when she was a detective in the undercover police unit. Maddox takes on the dead woman’s identity, embedding herself in the mini-commune of eccentric English grad students with whom the victim had been living. The uncanny doubling of the premise models a hallmark of the series: even though characters recur from one novel to the next, each new depiction presents minor variations as the first-person narrators present us with their distinctive take on both themselves and their colleagues. The first-person Cassie Maddox of The Likeness, then, reads as a slightly different character than the Cassie Maddox of In the Woods — more clever, more vulnerable, more complex.
Supervising Maddox on her investigation in The Likeness is her former boss from the undercover unit, Frank Mackey, a manipulative risk-taker who’s featured as the protagonist in the next entry in the series, Faithful Place. One advantage of the series’s premise is the way it allows French to (mostly) sidestep the implausibility endemic to other mystery series, where a single protagonist, in volume after volume, faces sensational mystery after sensational mystery, devastating personal crisis after devastating personal crisis. Although the characters of the Dublin Murder Squad series may be tangentially involved in many large crises, they only directly handle a once-in-a-lifetime case once in their fictional lifetime, when they are featured as a protagonist.
Frank Mackey’s great crisis comes when a badly decaying corpse discovered in the neighborhood where he grew up turns out to be the body of Rosie Daly, a young woman he had dated decades earlier. The two had planned to elope to England, but when Rosie didn’t show up for their rendezvous, Mackey assumed she had stood him up, an assumption that, in the ensuing years, shapes his fundamental philosophies. As the investigation of her murder unfolds, Mackey must also interrogate his deeply held views about his family and ultimately himself.
By this point in the series, a pattern emerges. Although the material circumstances of each mystery differ quite a bit, each novel features at its core a profound epistemological crisis. As detectives, the novels’ protagonists constantly face questions about what knowledge is and how to find it, and in response they’ve each developed a specific epistemological priority, whether it’s confidence in the power of memory, or in embodied experience, or in a knee-jerk distrust of the motives of others. And without fail, by the end of each book, the inadequacies of those beliefs have been laid bare by the troubling mysteries that they fail to fully resolve.
For the reader, that instability is multiplied over the course of the novels. The series, rather than supplying a unifying theory of knowledge to replace the discredited individual epistemologies, focuses instead on replicating for the reader the experience of uncertainty that arises when varied experiences and philosophies come into conversation and conflict with each other. As the characters and their accompanying worldviews interact throughout the series, they create a complex labyrinth of infinite possibilities.
Of course, such dizzying explorations of varied human experience are not unique to the Dublin Murder Squad novels. In his early 20th-century treatise Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin identified polyphony — the unresolved juxtaposition of diverse voices and perspectives — as a defining characteristic in the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and others. It’s a compelling aesthetic model, one that encompasses a wide range of novels, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. These novels, and others in the same mold, generate vertiginous thrills as they dramatize the difficulties of understanding ourselves, other people, and the world at large.
Over the past few years, several authors have riffed on that effect by incorporating elements of popular genre fiction into their works. Novels like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird alternately embrace and subvert a whole host of popular genres, from family saga to airport thriller to ghost story to fairy tale to bildungsroman. As the novels veer from one type of narrative to the next, they create a polyphony of genre that constantly challenges the reader’s expectations and interpretive strategies.
Peter Rabinowitz, a narrative theorist, has an anecdote that nicely illustrates the relationship between genre and interpretation. In his Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, Rabinowitz writes about an experience he had teaching Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train in one of his classes. The solution to the book’s mystery pleasantly surprised the majority of the class. Two students, though, said they had figured out the ending fairly early on. When Rabinowitz asked them how they had solved the mystery so quickly, they explained that in romance novels, two rivals usually compete for the protagonist’s affections, and most of the time, one rival turns out to be a scoundrel. Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train features a romantic plot at the center in which two different men woo the protagonist. The two students said that, based on the interpretive expectations they had developed reading romance novels, they were quickly able to figure out which romantic rival was the scoundrel and in this case the perpetrator of the crime. The other students, lacking the same reading experience, were unable to make the connection. Rabinowitz goes on to argue that a reader’s understanding of any given narrative grows out of a combination of previous reading experiences and signals from the text itself. Genre, then, provides a bundle of interpretive strategies, created between the author, the text, and the reader.
French utilizes this dynamic to great effect throughout her series. While the novels’ detective protagonists pick their way with varying success through a maze of vexing people and circumstances, readers navigates their own tangled maze of contradictory conventions as the narratives hop from genre to genre, toying with readers’ expectations.
Broken Harbor, the fourth entry in the series, is an ideal case in point. As with the other entries in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Broken Harbor initially presents itself as a mystery novel, more specifically, a police procedural. In this instance, Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy (previously encountered in Faithful Place in which he butts heads with Frank Mackey) investigates the murder of a young family in a nearly abandoned housing development.
At first, readers may feel secure reading the book as a straightforward police procedural, but soon elements of a haunted house novel emerge, as Kennedy finds the murdered husband’s account of a mysterious beast tormenting the family in the months leading up to their death. The evidence baffles Kennedy, who began the novel believing that good detection happens when “suspects and witnesses…believe you’re omniscient,” in other words, that even feigned possession of knowledge ultimately leads to valid knowledge. By the novel’s end, though, Kennedy has been rattled to the point that he warns his rookie partner that the human “mind is garbage…that will let you down at every worst moment there is.”
As Kennedy tries to make sense of the case, the reader tries to make sense of the novel itself — what kind of book will it turn out to be, and which interpretive genre strategies should be used? And of course, even when the mystery is solved, it feels like none of the genres at play quite explain what happened. This reader/detective parallel calls attention to the ways genre works as an epistemological model: it offers up specific strategies (both valid and not) for finding and processing the knowledge contained within a narrative.
The genre (and epistemological) play continues in The Secret Place, the fifth and latest entry in the series, which combines a boarding school drama with a cold-case mystery with a telekinetic coming-of-age story with a novel of manners. And the novel complicates things further by relying more heavily than previous entries on the series’s growing network of interconnected characters and their accompanying narrative baggage.
In that way, The Secret Place functions as a model of the whole series: read together on a macro level, all five books place the first-person protagonists and their accompanying worldviews into a polyphonic conversation with each other. The Secret Place recreates that dynamic on a micro level when, in a climactic interrogation scene, it places in the same room multiple characters whose wildly diverse minds the reader has been granted intimate access to: Frank Mackey (of Faithful Place), Holly Mackey (who features as secondary character in Faithful Place, and a main character in an alternating third-person omniscient narrative in The Secret Place), and Stephen Moran (also a minor character in Faithful Place, and the protagonist of The Secret Place), as well as Detective Antoinette Conway, the unknown quantity in the room. The drama arises less from what is revealed over the course of the interrogation, and more from the dynamic interplay of four savvy characters attempting to out-read and outsmart each other. Their epistemological models are put into urgent conversation with each other in a more frantic microcosm of the series as a whole.
For these purposes, Stephen Moran is the ideal protagonist. He places great stock in his ability to read other characters, describing his methods in great detail, which creates a narrative in which the reader spends a significant amount of time reading Moran reading the other characters. The climactic interrogation scene only enhances the effect: when an antagonistic Frank Mackey arrives, we have moments, for instance, in which the reader reads Moran reading Mackey reading Moran, with Moran then silently critiquing Mackey’s readings (as Moran imagines them). Here, for example, Moran resists the idea that Mackey understands him, noticing “him [Mackey] watching me, amused, the way he used to seven years back, big dog watching feisty puppy. Seven years is a long time.” In pointing out the time that’s passed since his first interactions with Mackey, Moran underscores yet another confounding factor in the epistemological maze that runs through French’s novels — that other people are moving targets, and in the time we take to try and comprehend them, they’ve already changed.
As Borges reminds us, not only in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” but, fittingly, again and again throughout his work, an endless pursuit is not necessarily a futile one; there’s beauty be found in the infinite. Tana French taps into such wonders in her perpetually challenging, perpetually engaging Dublin Murder Squad series.
We recently posted a new edition of Judging Books by Their Covers 2015: U.S. Vs. U.K. These comparisons are fascinating — what does a “little billboard” on a book say about our respective cultures?
I was recently looking at the covers of Dutch-language books and found many titles that I recognized. Despite our different cultures, we share many overlaps in our literary taste. I hoped that I could draw some conclusions about those tastes by comparing U.S. and Dutch-language book covers. After spending way too much time on the task, I conclude that I can’t. The comparisons, however, are equally fascinating.
With my tongue in one cheek, I’ve provided a few thoughts below. You are encouraged to take equally wild stabs in the comments. If anyone has more cultural insight, please do weigh in.
The American covers are on the left, and the covers from the Dutch originals or translations are on the right.
The Dinner is a good place to start as it was first published in Dutch in 2009. I understand the scorched place setting of the U.S. cover. Looking at the lobster on the Dutch cover…I’m thinking of a seaside restaurant in Maine. Maybe it’s evoking the feelings that lobsters have when they go into a pot? That’s how the tension of the novel feels, like being boiled alive?
A Millions favorite, Stoner. I read the New York Review Books Classics version and it blew me away, so it is difficult for me to say anything that might sound disloyal. However, if I could draw a picture of my face after I read the novel, I would have looked exactly like the man in the Dutch cover on the right.
I had to run this Dutch title through Google Translate to make triple sure that I had the cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad. It becomes “Visit the Thugs” in Dutch, which has a nice ring to it. I’m less clear about what purples evoke to the Dutch that turquoise on the U.S. hardback cover does not? Why one less fret on the neck of the guitar? Google Translate was no help in answering these questions.
Some of the imagery for Freedom is similar, but the covers have very different feels. To me, the lake country in the U.S. cover evokes the gentrified world view of Patty and Walter Berglund. I’m interested in the choice of a flat field — is it trying to say something similar to a Dutch speaker? If there is an Ornithologist out there, please let me know if the bird on the right speaks Dutch or English.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: wow.
Anthony Doerr’s Dutch translation is interesting as the publisher went with the U.K. cover (we declared it “pretty dull.”) Maybe the Dutch designer agreed because there are some differences. Most striking are the changes of tint. The girls dress, for example, is much more vibrant on this cover than on the U.K. version on the right. In general, the U.S. cover takes the broader view of the book I read. I wonder if a reader in Amsterdam or London would disagree?
Most Revelatory Second Pass
In January I finished rereading the Harry Potter series for the first time since the final book was released in 2007. My first readings of the series’s final books had all been feverish and nocturnal — usually consuming the 24 hours after the book’s initial release. Pushing through the last 200 pages of the series at 4a.m. in July 2007, I was only interested in finding out who lived and died. When I reread Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in January, I couldn’t believe how much of the books I hadn’t retained. There was one character, who is introduced and plays a major part in the seventh book, whom I didn’t remember at all. The section of Deathly Hallows where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding, which felt ponderous my first time through, revealed itself to be a well-done study of the book’s central relationships, and my previous disgust with it was obviously just impatience for plot and clues. I thought rereading the series would be a fun, nostalgic exercise, but it turned out to be a singular reading experience, enriching in a way that was wholly distinct from my first read.
Best Serendipitous Literary Connection
There’s a new Little Free Library a block from my apartment — one of those birdhouse-like structures full of donated books that you’re welcome to take, and encouraged to replenish with unwanted books of your own. I think of myself as its fairy godmother — one of my secret joys has been stocking it with extra copies of new releases or review copies that I’ve received, like a hardcover copy of The Goldfinch I put in the library the day after its release (you’re welcome, lucky neighbor!). I rarely take a book out, except for the day I spotted The Cradle by Patrick Somerville and gasped with joy.
Best Read of the Year
I still think about Another Great Day At Sea by Geoff Dyer, which I reviewed here in May, all the time. It’s remarkable how openly delighted Dyer allowed himself to be by everyone and everything he came across aboard an aircraft carrier. It’s remarkable the depth of love and passion the carrier’s personnel shared with him. It’s remarkable that there are still secret worlds and books to introduce them to us.
I took Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan on my summer vacation, and nothing will ever be the same. All of the included essays are exceptional, but it was “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” originally published in GQ, that really fascinated me. Besides a passing familiarity with their most popular songs, I didn’t know a thing about Guns N’ Roses, but after reading that profile I started watching their music videos on YouTube, which led to watching documentaries about them, which led to reading both Slash and Duff McKagan’s memoirs. Now I sleep in a Guns N’ Roses shirt and I listen to Live Era while I bake.
Cloud Atlas is my favorite book. I await the release of David Mitchell’s books with unmatched glee. But with The Bone Clocks I felt like I was going through the motions. That penultimate sci-fi section — the one that all the reviewers either hate or concede is the book’s low point — really unsettled me. It felt like realizing you need to break up with your boyfriend — like, I still love you, David Mitchell, I just don’t think I’m in love with you anymore. Kathryn Schultz’s extraordinary profile of him went a long way towards repairing the relationship. Hearing about Mitchell’s master plan for his unwritten novels, and how The Bone Clocks pivoted his ouevre towards them, gave me a lot of hope for the future.
Most Aggravating Historical Legend
President William Howard Taft probably never got stuck in a bathtub. He was a stress eater, yes, and gained close to 100 pounds while in office, but I came to like him when I read William Howard Taft by Henry F. Pringle and I’m sad that the bathtub story is the only thing most people know about him. The story appears in exactly one place, a book called Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin Hoover, who was White House Chief Usher for most of his career. The book is full of anecdotes about the 10 presidents he served under, and a number of them have proved to be fictional, especially the ones about Taft, whom Hoover seemed to think distinctly undeserving of respect. The authenticity of the bathtub story is questionable at best.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Old School, by Tobias Wolff:
This limpid novel offers up a vivid anatomy of the adolescent sensibility. The challenge in writing about high-school age kids — particularly the sort of generally well-off and healthy kids that populate this book — is that the whole world lies before them, and even if they fail, they have years to recover. The stakes always feel high to adolescents, but adults tend to look back on all but the worst dramas from that period with the wistfulness of veterans who have stared down life’s real problems. Wolff, though, manages to make the stakes inOld School feel high even to an adult reader by never condescending to his characters. He gives them baroque angsts and passionate urges, but he also gives them a sense of proportion and an innate understanding of their own moral failings. Wolff takes seriously the predicament of a narrator, at any age, who wants more than he has and is willing to sink into a morass of moral turpitude to get it. He allows his narrator to fail and to know that he’s failing. After visits by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand (both personalities are dramatized unforgettably here), some gamesmanship around a chance to meet Ernest Hemingway provides the narrator an opportunity to enact the sort of calamitous bad judgment that can lead to profound regret and tip one over into adulthood. Adulthood, the book seems to argue (and this is where Wolff’s lack of condescension to his teenage characters comes through most beautifully) is just childhood with greater responsibilities and without the benefit of an apparently limitless future. The stakes, we feel at the end of this book, were really as high as they felt all along. The child is father to the man. Our regrets stay with us. Dean Makepeace set up the visit with Hemingway and hinted at knowing him personally, but he had no acquaintance with him. The dean put himself into a mental prison as a result of that bit of dissembling, but how much different is that prison from the tortures of adolescence? We may run from ourselves, Wolff seems to say, but we’ll never get very far — which sounds like a curse, but looks like a blessing at the end of this affecting book.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes:
What’s chilling in this book, beyond the dramatization of the way memories are corrupted by time, is the notion that it’s possible to see one’s present self in a positive light and not realize how much one’s own past actions have negatively affected others. The selves we take pride in, the parts of us we’re willing to be readily identified by, this book reminds us, are filtered versions of ourselves. Over the course of the novel, the narrator strips away the layers of his own illusion — or rather, he has them stripped away from him by force. And that is probably what is most disturbing about this beveled gem of a book. We cherish the progressive notion that if there is a moral imbalance in our lives, we will address it, but how can we address what we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the existence of entirely? We bury our mistakes so successfully that we no longer feel accountable for atoning for them. Much of life is a détente between whom we want to think we are and whom we are. This book is a draught of cold air, a slap in the face, a wakeup call.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid:
The way the second-person narration functions in this novel is a thrill to behold. Hamid keeps things tense by keeping them indeterminate. Part of that tension springs from the extraordinary politeness and deliberateness of Changez’s overtures to his unheard interlocutor (“if you will permit me”) which read as sinister somehow — something more out of the register of “The Cask of Amontillado” than any book of etiquette. The very fact that that politeness scans as sinister is part of the driving engine of this book. The frisson one feels in reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes from the way Hamid implicates the reader in the narrator’s disillusionment. One is forced to interrogate one’s own assumption — the title leads us to it, archly — that the narrator has chosen the path of jihad. Could he not simply harbor non-violent objections to a way of life he’s come to disagree with? And his interlocutor, about whom we know so little — is he a regular civilian or an intelligence agent of some sort? I was spellbound by the artistry of a book that succeeds at the challenging task of making possible two diametrically opposed interpretations — that Changez is a jihadist, and that he is an ordinary man in an intense conversation who may be being radically misunderstood. As the book approaches its climactic final moment, the pitch of emotions rises subtly, inexorably, and one feels like a lobster in a slow-boiling pot. The book is a triumph of form, but it’s also an opportunity for an extended self-analysis on the reader’s part, and an argument for a more empathetic understanding of the lives of people on the margins.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell:
So much has been said about this extraordinary book that one wonders what one might add to the conversation. Still, it ought to be observed that in another writer’s hands, this material might have yielded a series of bloodless experiments. Instead, what we have is a full-blooded, big-hearted, human story. Mitchell’s triumph is to make every leap in time, every technological novelty feel utterly necessary, and to wring an astounding amount of emotion out of settings that could easily have felt cold and clinical. By scrupulously rendering the everyday reality of his characters’ lives, Mitchell earns the right to go to outlandish places in his telling. There is no ironic distance from the more conceptual material, no winking at the reader. He’s taking it all seriously, even the oddball stuff. We relax in the hands of a storyteller who will see to every detail and think through the larger implications of every choice. We settle in for the ride. And what a ride it is. One of the under-remarked aspects of this book is what a page-turner it turns out to be, how thoroughly engrossing. Mitchell’s talents seem to know no bounds.
The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates:
A book whose astringent worldview makes Revolutionary Road seem at times almost cheerful. These characters fail each other over and over, and fail themselves. I felt a keen sympathy for the divorced Walter Grimes when he’s visited by his young daughters at work. He’s not a reporter, the way they think he is; instead, he works at the copy desk. He’s not ashamed, just a little embarrassed, but their disappointment is palpable, and it sets the stage for this story of disillusionment on a grand scale. These sisters are estranged early and spend their lives running on parallel paths toward disappointment in men, in marriage, in careers, in life itself. They fail to meet, even when they’re in each other’s presence. There aren’t a lot of people to “like” in this book, but The Easter Parade provides the greatest antidote I can think of to the assertion that a book has to be populated with likable characters for it to be enjoyable. The impossible beauty in Yates’s sentences would be balm enough by itself, but when you combine it with the extraordinary perception about humanity on every page, one is left feeling less alone on the planet knowing that someone like Yates once walked around taking things in and caring enough about people in their flawed humanity to attempt to reproduce them convincingly on the page, however odious they could be at a given moment. He somehow loves everyone, even when he’s skewering them. The gorgeousness of Yates’s prose and the heartbreaking accuracy of his insight into our sometimes-dark hearts provide enormous emotional sustenance. The care he takes in getting his sentences right, in staring accurately into a moment, is its own kind of embrace. One need not get the milk of human kindness from Yates’s characters to get it from his books.
10:04, by Ben Lerner:
Among the many pleasures in reading this astonishingly nimble book is watching to see where this consciousness will take you. There are so many surprises here, so many things seen afresh with that particular sort of attention that Ezra Pound calls for in ABC of Reading, wherein to know a fish really well is to know it back and forth, to study it for weeks until it is a moldering pile of bones, but one has learned something about it. The thing that’s known in this case is the way the mind works, the tortuous byways one’s thoughts can wend on the path to an ever-receding but tantalizing total understanding of the workings of the universe for a fleeting moment. Lerner gives his narrator extreme perceptiveness, hyper-articulacy, great curiosity, and a laconic voice that suggests more emotional exposure at any given moment than he is prepared to handle. The triumph of this book — with its impacted sentences that involute on themselves and interrogate the meanings of words and pack as much signification as possible into each unit of cognition — is to present observations of such freshness, originality, and vivacity that they instantly feel like old wisdom one has had access to for years. Everything in this book one hadn’t seen before Lerner wrote it suddenly becomes an article of longstanding faith, a core principle one has lived by. I was particularly captivated by his discussion of the numinous power in “totaled” art, damaged works that have been declared valueless by an insurance company. Lerner spins the word “totaled” into a captivating riff that extends in several meditative directions. Seeing that art for what it was was just one of many new ways of perceiving the world that this book gave me as gifts. But the greatest gift this book gives is its willingness to slow everything down, to stop time for long enough to get everything thought and everything said that can be thought and said in a given moment. This preoccupation with accuracy and comprehensiveness makes the narrator a prison of his perceptions at times, because he sees with a fly’s eyes, taking in every stimulus around him and folding it into whatever thesis he is constructing in his mind at a given moment. In a culture that insists on speed and thoughtless consumption, Lerner’s willingness to parse a moment down to its component parts is a welcome corrective.
My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh:
This gutsy book (coming in 2015) examines the effects of a rape on both the victim and the community she grows up in in Louisiana. The identity of her attacker is unknown. The narrator is a classmate of hers who also happens to have had an obsessive crush on her for years. Right away, we know we’re in complicated territory. Like Lolita and The Stranger before it, My Sunshine Away understands that every confession is also an attempt to convert listeners to the speaker’s worldview. We’re not sure whether this confession will end in a revelation of evil or renew our faith in humanity, but the deft structural control, artful prose, and extraordinary psychological acuity on display mean we’re riveted either way. As we parse the narrator’s words to determine what he’s capable of, we conspire with him to direct attention away from the person who needs it the most, namely the victim. Walsh captures how the fear of discovery in untidy urges can turn ordinary people into monsters of pragmatism. The last third snaps with a tautness of a thriller, and Walsh keeps the reader guessing until the very end, as the best mystery writers do, but this is literature of the highest order, an elegy for lost youth everywhere and an argument for empathy at all costs. This book asks the essential questions: How much responsibility do we have to each other? Can we reassemble the pieces of broken lives? Walsh hints at answers, but none is more potent than the fact that he’s engaging such profound questions in the first place.
Small Mercies, by Eddie Joyce:
Small Mercies, also coming in 2015, is the Staten Island novel you didn’t know you were waiting to read. It’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Rather than writing a safe-remove “systems” novel about the roots and impacts of the attacks, Joyce takes on the more ambitious task of bringing vividly into focus one of the 3,000 people who died that day and the family members and friends who pressed on in the wake of their unspeakable loss. In telling the story of the demise of beloved Bobby Amendola — son, brother, husband, friend, lover of life, Staten Islander, firefighter — and the divergent ways his loved ones responded to it, Joyce tells the story of all New York during that heartbroken, haunted period. Joyce understands the role one’s native place plays in the development of one’s character, and he has a gift for choosing resonant details and peeling back the layers of emotion in ordinary moments. He builds his story around the negative space created by Billy’s absence, alternating perspectives throughout to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of a people in grief. Small Mercies effortlessly tackles weighty subjects — the value of the bonds of family in changing times, what debts we owe the dead and ourselves, what to make of the American Dream of prosperity in an era when America’s influence is on the wane — without being weighed down by its own seriousness of purpose. The high-spirited characters in this book have such a good time even when grieving that it’s easy to fall in love not only with Billy’s memory, but with most of the flawed-but-human people who will carry that memory around in them for the rest of their days.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay:
Klay does outstanding work to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. We think we know war stories, and he makes us see that we don’t know these war stories. Whatever our preconceptions about war are, Klay estranges us from them. The bewildering array of technologies, the arcane system of acronyms, the rules of procedure in the contemporary theater of war, with military contractors, ubiquitous improvised explosive devices, and a direct engagement with civilians that dwarfs even that in Vietnam — all these are, for the reader who has never seen them personally, deeply unfamiliar, and Klay makes that unfamiliarity palpable.
In the end, though, war stories or not, these are stories about people in different states of crisis on either side of a divide, American or Iraqi, and Klay makes their experiences feel familiar enough to allow an enormous transference of empathy. The way the soldiers eat cobbler at the end of “Frago” stands in for so much about the way they try to preserve their humanity in the midst of inhuman psychological challenges. And the end of the title story, “Redeployment,” is a heartbreaker, with the narrator’s mind fuzzy as he tries to remember what he was going to do with the body of the beloved dog he has killed. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mental disturbance he is going to have to deal with going forward, as he tries to live a normal life.
When the narrator of “After Action Report” says, “It was another three weeks before I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for,” it captures the predicament of civilians dealing with veterans in an era when there isn’t pervasive military service, and wars are fought on distant shores for reasons that remain abstract or inscrutable to ordinary people, and the experience of war, in part due to the technological advances, departs so radically from the one described in history books or movies. Part of this book’s argument is that the story of the senselessness of war needs to be told afresh in every generation for it to be heard at all.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
For anyone following the career of The Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel, her new novel Station Eleven is exceptionally satisfying.
Station Eleven jumps back and forth between the events leading up to a flu epidemic that wipes out 99 percent of the population and 20 years later in the post-apocalyptic world. One character, a famous actor, connects a large cast that at first seem disconnected. As time and events weave together, we start to understand the links between them. The result is a beautiful, dark, and gripping look at art and survival. The novel was recently shortlisted for the 2014 National Book Award. All that sounds satisfying, doesn’t it? For me, there is something more.
I loved St. John Mandel’s first three books, Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet. Each share a unique feel that could perhaps be described as literary noir. Station Eleven has much of the same intrigue, but it also is a more developed work. It is spectacular in a way that can only come with years of practice.
And maybe, as a writer myself, that is what I find so satisfying. There are so many things that can get in the way of a writer and her career. It’s nice to think that it might be possible to work hard and arrive somewhere better, isn’t it?
Hopping from David Mitchell to story structure to Boyhood and an Excel spreadsheet, I interviewed St. John Mandel by email, while she crisscrossed the country on her book tour.
The Millions: In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Mitchell talked about how he makes the future feel immediate. His trick is to, “try to work out what people in that future point will be taking for granted.” Your future world feels fully realized and plausible. Did you think along similar lines to Mitchell for finding the right mindset?
ESJM: Thank you, I’m glad it feels plausible. I haven’t read that article in The Atlantic, but Mitchell’s formula rings true. When you’re writing a future that’s post-apocalyptic, creating a plausible world is largely a process of subtraction, i.e., what things that we take for granted now will have been lost in the future? And since so much has been lost, how will people in that future view the present day, if they think of it at all?
It’s interesting to think about what the artifacts of the present would look like to someone with little or no direct memory of the lost world. Knowing intellectually that the airplanes rusting on runways once flew is something very different from knowing what an airplane in flight would have looked like, for example. If what you knew of night airplanes was that they’d traveled high and very fast and that they were lit up, would you think they’d looked like shooting stars?
TM: Did you find the future more difficult to write than the sections that were set in our more immediate world?
ESJM: I actually found the sections set in our era more difficult, I think because the future in Station Eleven is a fairly pared-down place. The focus is on a group of people walking down the shore of a Great Lake. While that group struggles with the same things all of us struggle with — maintaining relationships, trying to be a good person, trying to find some meaning in life — the contours of their lives are fairly straightforward and, until they’re threatened by an apocalyptic religious group, fairly unchanging: they hunt constantly, they stop in towns where they give performances, they boil lake water for drinking, they continue onward. Those are the most focused and perhaps the simplest parts of the book.
I found the present day sections to be somewhat more complicated to write, perhaps because the action in those sections is somewhat more subtle — the nuances of depicting the way a marriage fails, or the generalized dissatisfaction that can come over a person in adulthood, or the way a friendship changes over decades — or perhaps just because life in the modern world is infinitely more complex than life in a world of horse-drawn caravans and candlelight. My characters in the present-day sections are forever hopping on airplanes and having conversations with people on the other side of the planet and receiving emails and such, all of these complicating things that are no longer possible in the post-apocalyptic world.
TM: In my review of Station Eleven in The Globe & Mail, I mentioned something that Lana Wachowski, who adapted David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the screen, said in The New Yorker that the novel “represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.” You connect themes across time, which allowed you to build an incredible emotional depth into your characters. Was this what you intended?
ESJM: Yes. The other reason is that I’m interested in memory. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon where three people will witness the same event and remember it in three completely different ways. Structuring a book in a non-linear fashion with multiple points of view allows me to revisit the same plot points from completely different angles.
I like that Wachowski quote a great deal. As a reader, I often love stories with very uncomplicated, very linear structures and a clear beginning, middle, and end. I’d like to write one someday. I often find myself thinking about John Williams’s Stoner — one of my favorite novels — as a perfect example of this kind of storytelling. As a writer, I’m drawn to fractured narrative structures.
TM: Why did you structure the novel as you did, rather than following a more linear plot?
ESJM: It’s just the structure that I find myself drawn to most strongly. I’ve structured all of my books in this fashion, starting with my first novel, Last Night in Montreal. My thinking with that book was that a non-linear structure would be helpful in terms of creating and maintaining tension throughout the novel. I liked the idea of moving the novel toward the moments of greatest tension in the plot, even if those points of tension were two moments that took place, say, 10 years apart in the timeline of the novel.
I’ve been working with that structure and trying to push it further with each successive book. I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story, and I truly enjoy the challenge of putting together a non-linear book; it’s something like putting together a complicated puzzle.
TM: To me, Station Eleven captures a feeling that is similar to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood. Both show how small moments in time link together and add up to make a life. Does the comparison to Boyhood resonate for you?
ESJM: I loved that movie and am flattered by the comparison. The comparison resonates in the sense that, as you say, I’m trying to convey how small moments add up to a life, but the structure of Boyhood is relentlessly linear, and the focus is so much tighter, the way the film concentrates almost entirely on one character. I think for those reasons I might be more inclined to compare Boyhood to a book like Stoner, personally.
TM: Did you carefully plot to achieve the effect of time passing?
ESJM: Yes. It was important to me to try to show the way people change over time, the way our personalities and outlooks are altered by experience and circumstance. This was most explicit in the case of Arthur, I think, the actor who dies on stage in the first chapter. I was trying to show how a kind and talented and insecure 19-year-old might become a kind, talented, and also somewhat vain and self-absorbed man in his 50s.
There are also a lot of places where I just tell the reader that time has passed, because it was important to me that readers not be confused by the jumps around in time. This is why I have a few chapters that begin with lines like “Twenty years after the end of air travel,” for instance.
TM: How did you manage so many strands of the story while writing?
ESJM: I took a lot of notes as I was writing the book, and wrote out a detailed timeline. Later that wasn’t enough, so during the later revisions I put together a map of the book in Excel. This was in the final stretch, when I had the basic components of the novel and I was just rewriting and moving pieces around to try to find the best possible structure. The Excel map had notes on what was happening in each chapter, who had the point of view, the page count of each major section, etc. The book has an awful lot of moving parts, so I found the map invaluable in keeping track of everything. I was changing the order of chapters and sections right up until the end.
TM: Was your process for writing this book very different from or similar to how you wrote your previous three novels?
ESJM: The process was almost identical. I think it’s fair to say that Station Eleven is more complex and has a larger scope than my previous novels, but I set about writing it in the same way as the previous books. I never know how the story’s going to end, and I don’t work from an outline; I just start writing various scenes and figure out how they go together later. After a year or so, I have a colossally messy first draft, and then there’s another 18 months or so of revisions until it’s coherent enough to send out to early readers.
Image Credit: Emily St. John Mandel
There are precious few things David Mitchell’s latest opus The Bone Clocks isn’t about. Across centuries and continents, Mitchell works the literary magic that has earned him a unique place in contemporary fiction—an author unbound by genre or expectation. The Bone Clocks was birthed onto bookshelves already longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, a daunting pedigree for a novel to embrace on its publication date, but Mitchell is already thinking two books ahead. Like the Horologists that feature in his new book, he can’t be bound by the constraints of time. Mitchell has authored six novels, and each one is a puzzle of narratives, characters, and plot. These elements leap between texts, taking minor roles in one novel and major turns in the next. The world of David Mitchell’s prose is immense. Speaking with him in person before a stop on his recent book tour, I decided to play Royal Geographic Society explorer and map out the vast expanses of his latest fictional universe.
The Millions: Do you see a book like The Bone Clocks or Cloud Atlas in part as an exercise in story architecture—dovetailing narratives, time jumps, callbacks, and so forth. How many blueprints do you need to draft before you build the final versions of your novels?
David Mitchell: An exploratory blueprint is to the finished book what a doodle might be to an oil painting, but you need somewhere to start. A vague, rough, approximate, sprawling, first something. From that you get an idea of how many parts there’s going to be—you’ve got to break it down into parts—six, in this one. Then once you know what the parts are, I draw a herringbone diagram, a horizontal line with limbs coming off it, and each limb is where I write ideas down. Each limb is essentially a scene, so you get to see all the scenes in the part and in the right order. More lines can come off the subspines—it gets quite hairy—and then a column of dialogue goes off in one direction and then another one underneath because there’s more space down there and then I might draw the face of a character because I’m stuck for a bit. That is the blueprint for what I write. What I end up writing may conform to that blueprint, or it may vary from it, but at least you are not dealing with a void. The blank screen is the enemy. You can’t improve on nothing. You have to improve on something, however bad, and patchy, and incomplete it is. Once you have something, you begin to work.
TM: The Bone Clocks deals with Atemporals, who are beings that either reincarnate or never truly die. In creating the Atemporals, you either appropriated or invented words like “scansion” and “psychosoterica”. What is the etymology of this vocabulary?
DM: Some Jung. Some what I imagine might be Greek, but I don’t speak any, so it’s only an imagined Greek. Some 21st century West Coast computer talk—some IT terms. “Redact” is probably a mid-20th century term. I see it in the Cold War sense: the redacting of documents.
TM: It immediately conjures an image of thick black lines on legal papers.
DM: Exactly. “Psychosoterica” I thought about long and hard. It is a relatively modern version of an old occult practice in the cosmology of the book. The Anchorites have fallen into a branch of the occult called The Shaded Way and the Horologists have followed a less predatory version called The Deep Stream. I made those terms up. I suppose there are echoes of how western Buddhism names the various branches of Buddhism, of which there are many. It is not a religion of the text, or a single book, that lays down the rules. It has morphed in many parts of the world into contradictory sets of beliefs in many areas, such as what happens to us after we die. A Sri Lankan Buddhist would give a very different answer then a Zen Buddhist. The thing I like about it is…that’s ok. No one has a real problem with it; they don’t go to war with each other about it.
TM: Your book features five narrators across six distinct novellas, with each section leaping forward a decade or so from the last. How did you decide what not to include from the missing years between each section?
DM: What would have skewed the novel. That’s what I left out. What would have stopped the novel taking off. I omitted what would have bent it out of shape. Watching what you’re making is what informs you about what you can and can’t include.
TM: A novelist, Crispin Hershey, narrates the third section of The Bone Clocks. In writing the character, did you gift him any of your creative leftovers like rejected book titles or abandoned story ideas?
DM: No, I think made everything up just for him, because he isn’t me. Well,he is me in terms of where the raw material comes from, but he’s a slave to his vanity in a way I try not to be. And that’s what generates, say, book titles I wouldn’t choose for my own. He’s a fictional creation and his oeuvre is tailored for him. It’s a bespoke oeuvre with him in mind.
TM: Holly Sykes is the heroine of your book, appearing in some form in each of its six segments, beginning in 1984, and stretching to 2034. How do you keep a character’s voice consistent across that time span while still allowing it to evolve with age?
DM: You are right in identifying a technical challenge. You do have to do that. The nature of the challenge changes a little big depending on what decade of her life she’s in, and what decade of the world’s life she’s in as well. First in the 1980s, you have to include a few 80s-isms and make sure that no recent developments in English slip into what Holly is saying. For example, “that’s so not what I’m going to do Mum.” We didn’t say that in the 80s. “So” was not an adjectival modifier in that sense. You make it decade appropriate. And you do that for all of the characters, of course. I factored in that at some point Holly got an education—a degree in Psychology—that would’ve upped her register away from demotic and more towards the hieratic. She learns to speak posher. That gives her a greater eloquence later in life. I needed her to be a writer, or at least a memoirist. I needed to enrich her relationship with language from the 1980s Holly. Alongside her own story, and in parallel to it, is the story of her relationship with language, which gets a bit richer the older she gets. She’s still using “sort of” to the very end; those are the last words of the book. I think it’s there in the first sentence as well. There are a few of those verbal tics, no matter how acrobatic with language we become, that stay with us. It’s hard to get it right, but it’s my job to get it right. If I got it wrong, it would endanger the fictional credibility of Holly, and then I’d have a broken book. So you think about it.
TM: The sixth and final portion of The Bone Clocks imagines a frighteningly possible near future in which an Endarkment has, in so many words, reset the world into barbaric times. Did any specific sources inspire your vision of how the world may look in twenty years?
DM: Any copy of a relatively highbrow newspaper will do it. I can’t remember exactly which news stories—it’s been a lousy summer for news, with Palestine and ISIS and Ukraine—just monstrous this year, but I’m sure there were equivalents last year too that bled into it. Actually, I read a really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass, where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans, as they do in many contemporary stories, but it gets the crops we eat. That’s more interesting to me. Wholesale zombie apocalypses in six days makes for a few good scenes in movies, but we’ve seen those films already. But when food becomes scarcer and scarcer, and it’s moving closer and closer to your part of the world, and first rice goes, but it’s ok, because we’ve still got wheat, and then wheat turns into a brown mush in the fields, and then barley, and then oats, and then everything? Christ, what are you going to eat? What are you going to feed the animals? It gets very serious very quickly, but not so quickly that you can’t have interesting metaphysical discourse along the way. Another book, the one that Holly is reading to the kids in the last section, is The Eagle of the Ninth series by Rosemary Sutcliff. She was an English, wheelchair-bound classicist in the 1950s who wrote about the Romans leaving Britain and the collapse of Roman civilization. The series focuses on the power vacuums a collapse of that magnitude leaves, and how the innocents always end up having to pay more then the soldiers. Those books are colossal. They are fantastic. In the third book of the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, the best of the three, there is a scene where the Roman ships leave the shores of Britain for the last time, and they know it’s the last time. What are they leaving behind? What’s going to happen to these people? That’s what was at the forefront of my mind—really how our world will look to my daughter as she grows—as I was writing that last section. What do you think, am I too gloomy, or might it happen?
TM: What scared me most was how possible it seemed to me, especially the idea of everyone trusting their devices to digitally store the history of their lives: their writing, their photographs, their memories. Everything that we think is safely stored on servers and drives is gone in an instant.
DM: It’s like a cyberstroke. And what about scientific research? What about the Hadron Collider stuff? Is anyone printing that out onto pieces of paper? I rather doubt it. Our grandchildrens’ lives are going to be a whole lot rougher then ours if I’m right. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
TM: Does the book on your bedside table often influence your works in progress?
DM: Yeah, usually, because I’ve chosen it to do just that. I read a book called The World Without Us about what would happen if humanity ceased to exist, and how long it would take to recover itself. Not long! I learned all sorts of things, like there is still a river flowing right through New York—there always was—but now it gets pumped out, except when it rains. But it just takes those pumps being stopped for 48 hours and there would be a river running down Fifth Avenue. I find that strangely comforting. The only problem is our plutonium dumps and deposits of radioactive material. We’ve damned ourselves to needing power grids to keep those cool and safe. When those go, you get what’s happening in Japan, in Fukushima. That would be the only disaster for nature if humans stopped existing. What a legacy to leave to our kids. How dare we. How dare we. Just so we can have our air conditioning and patio heaters. How dare we.
TM: So is it fair to say you choose reading material that vibes with what you’re writing at the moment? Some authors prescribe the opposite approach.
DM: Well I do sometimes go the opposite, because you find stuff there as well, serendipitously. And sometimes you just read great fiction to remind yourself of how high the bar needs to be. Halldór Laxness’s Independent People is a book I devoured. No tricks, just an old-school, somewhat intergenerational novel. It’s set in the poorest possible zone in the world, novelistically: Iceland. But it’s not Reykjavik. It’s Northeast Iceland. And it’s not in a town in Northeast Iceland, it’s in a valley where a farmer is trying to bring an abandoned farmhouse back to life. I was trying to work this out: what’s the most impossible thing to write about and make it interesting? There’s this particular section set in a boy’s head, a half-hour in real time, where he wakes before everyone else, in winter, and nothing could possibly happen. It’s the purest nothing I’ve ever seen encased in prose. But it’s a brilliant, fascinating scene. Laxness is a magician. That’s another reason why I sometimes choose to read something with no connection to what I’m working on. Although, it is Iceland, and Iceland makes two appearances in The Bone Clocks: Crispin Hershey goes there, and it appears not in the last section, but past the last section. That’s my one real moment of self-indulgence in the book. I hacked it down from six pages to about three, but it’s a three page essay on not thinking about Iceland. My editor said, “are you sure?” and I said “yeah, I want one place where Crispin isn’t being a jerk.” This is what he does, this is how he thinks. It lends him some credibility.
TM: The cultural phenomenon of Easter eggs—hidden references inside of books, films, etc.—permeates The Bone Clocks in the form of appearances from characters from your past novels and references to their worlds. What inspired their inclusion?
DM: They’re just the right people for the job. It’s not really inspiration—it’s that they fit and can bring good stuff with them. Hugo’s cool. He’s in a thirteenth of Black Swan Green as Jason Taylor’s obnoxious, precocious cousin. When I wrote that, and I’m sure when readers read it, you don’t think you’re ever going to see him again. He’ll just stay in that book and he’s done. But then here he is in The Bone Clocks as the joint second major character with Marinus. If anything inspires me, it might be that moment when a reader encounters a character they were sure they would never hear from again.
TM: Can readers hope to see any of the characters that were in The Bone Clocks in your future works?
DM: Yes. I’m going to do a book mostly about Marinus in the future, about what happens once she gets to Iceland, and to link that to Meronym, who’s a character at the center of Cloud Atlas. They call themselves the Prescients. That’s how she introduces herself when she arrives in a fusion-powered ship to the post-apocalyptic times and the think tank the surviving Horologists have set-up in Iceland. I’m going to do Hershey’s father as well, the filmmaker. I’m doing something short now, but my next major book, I’ll start that next year.
TM: Short like your recent Twitter story?
DM: Five Twitter stories. They won’t be on Twitter, but five stories of that length. And they’re linked. The first one is the Twitter story. That’s part one, and then two, three, four, five. Really short book. Marinus will appear in the fifth story, in her Iris Marinus form.
TM: You don’t define the title of your book until late into the story. Was this choice an exercise in delayed gratification?
DM: It’s cool, when you’ve forgotten that the title is a puzzle, to then have it explained. Delayed gratification. Ambushed gratification really.
TM: At the point where it is defined, in the fifth section I believe, there’s so much else going on that the last thing you’re worried about is the title, and then you gift it to readers right in the middle of a major action scene.
DM: That inspires me to utter an evil villain type “mwahahaha!”
TM: The Bone Clocks also has more then a few history lessons embedded in its pages. Did you opt to place Marinus and other Atemporals in areas of history that particularly appealed to you, or was the where and when secondary to the character development those scenes afforded the story?
DM: I chose them with thought. I needed Esther Little to be more ancient then the Horologists. Archeological evidence points back—I think the last time I looked it was 80,000 years—to indigenous Australians being the first inhabitants. There are few places as unaltered as Australia, so for deep time, it was good to give her that neck of the woods to call home. The Horologists that can’t chose their hosts, the ones that get reborn according to the laws of demographic probability, are most of the time Chinese. The Chinese population has always been a high fraction of the Earth’s population. Marinus is Chinese in the incarnation before she is Iris, when she’s the doctor who happens to be in England in time to treat Holly. It was almost a process of elimination, that one.
TM: Horology is defined as the art or science of measuring time, and is the name adopted by the group of Atemporals that Holly Sykes encounters early on in her life as well. Do you consider The Bone Clocks to be an extended definition of horology—an examination of an abstract concept that toes the line between science and art?
DM: There’s certainly an academic in Los Angeles who thinks that, Paul Harris, a member of the International Society of Time. Inadvertently, yes. That isn’t where I started though. Character development and narrative. Start there, and then the ideas will appear, like spores turning into mushrooms. I think time is a default theme of all novels. As is memory, as is character, as is identity. You can spot this when editors don’t know what to put on the jacket copy, so they put “a mesmerizing mediation on time and identity”. How can you write a novel that isn’t about those things? Maybe that’s a notch too high, because I needed to show time passing by, on the large-scale temporal arcs that plot the novel.
TM: Your novel reminded me in a small way of Richard Linklater’s newest film, Boyhood, where in the course of three hours, the audience watches a single actor go from adolescence to adulthood. Like Holly in your novel, you see this person at the end of their journey, and you know they’re the same character from before, but they’re nothing alike, not even physically.
DM: Realism, when done well, is more fantastical than fantasy. And you can’t dismiss it, because its happening in your own cells, in your own lives, in your own families. Reality is the ultimate trip.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
The Bone Clocks
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
The Round House
My Struggle: Book 1
Reading Like a Writer
Welcome to the party, David Mitchell! Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “Welcome back to the party.” Mitchell’s no stranger to our Top Ten, you see. Back in May, I observed that Mitchell is part of an elite group of eight authors who have reached our Hall of Fame on two separate occasions. Will this be number three? Every indication so far tells me that, yes, The Bone Clocks will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors — Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet — straight to the Millions record books. (No author has made it to our Hall of Fame for three separate books.)
Why, exactly, is The Bone Clocks so individually appealing, though? Well, as Brian Ted Jones put it in his review for our site, the book serves as a pivot point in Mitchell’s canon:
The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity — the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other — has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters.
In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret.
And, aside from what’s different, the book also displays some of Mitchell’s best writing to date. As Jones explains:
There is a moment in the very last pages — you will definitely know it when you get there — where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one.
I predict we’ll be seeing Mitchell’s name atop our Top Ten for many months to come.
Meanwhile, with the addition of one work comes the graduation of another. At long last, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins has ascended to our Hall of Fame. Walter’s novel represents the first addition to our Hall of Fame since last June.
With the advent of e-readers, books on the subway are getting harder and harder to spot. It takes dedication to get a sense of what people are reading these days. At The Awl, Ben Dolnick sets out to catalogue a week’s worth of sightings, which included a man reading Cloud Atlas and The Stranger and a teenage girl reading Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. You could also read our own Nick Moran on the question of whether e-readers are really green.
Back in January, Casey N. Cep published a delightful essay at Page-Turner, The New Yorker’s book blog. The piece was about maps–particularly, the obvious affection so many writers feel for them. She mentioned, of course, the big-book fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin; but also, the map Sherwood Anderson commissioned of Winesburg, Ohio; the survey done of Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau; and the hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha County signed by William Faulkner (as “sole owner and proprietor”). “Every map tells a story,” Cep wrote, “and writers yearning for new ways to tell stories are drawn to them.”
I was surprised Cep didn’t mention David Mitchell, though. In his Paris Review interview from 2010, Mitchell told this wonderful, on-point story from his childhood, as a way to account for his own beginnings as a storyteller.
[My] parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there?
In his sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has taken this fascination with the characters at the edge of the action and built a book around them. With one very important exception (which I’ll get to shortly), the six novellas that make up The Bone Clocks take place on the margins of a grand, cosmic struggle, and explore the lives of the people who reside there.
In fact, the least interesting and least moving part of the book is the one that doesn’t occupy a point of some distance from the central action. The next-to-last novella, called “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” is set in 2024, and features the climax of a mysterious battle between good and evil, the dimensions of which have only been hinted at in previous chapters.
On the one side of this struggle stand the Horologists, an order of reincarnated immortals who have banded together to oppose the Anchorites. The Anchorites, envious of the Horologists’ natural immortality, have discovered a grisly method of obtaining their own version of everlasting life, one involving “soul-decantation,” and the murder of innocent humans.
Throughout the first four novellas, both Anchorites and Horologists beam in and out of the narrative, never taking up much time or attention (in a detail you might remember from the Men in Black movies, witnesses to horological or anchoritic phenomena find their memories curiously erased).
This fifth section, however, belongs entirely to the immortals, and the novel frankly suffers for it, particularly because Mitchell plants a stylistic belly-flop into one of the more egregious cases of Sci-Fi technobabble you are likely to witness this side of a Star Trek fan-fiction site. The immortals’ speech is full of these little idiosyncrasies and special meanings that don’t serve to make the story any more vivid–they’re more like the lumps left in a salad dressing after you’ve gotten too fancy with the spices.
“As I ingress, I hiatus her,” goes one sentence. “You could’ve suasioned me, if you cared so much,” goes another. “I’ve eaten trays of dim sum with more psychosoteric potential than you”–that’s Horology shit-talk, I suppose. And all terms of telepathic communication–the immortals can communicate telepathically, of course–for some reason are prefixed “sub.” All of them. You’ll see “subask,” “subvoice,” “subreply,” “suborder,” “substate.” “Subremark,” for Christ’s sake.
This is uncharacteristically bad, and actually pretty strange, when you consider how world-beatingly good Mitchell usually is at this sort of thing. Mitchell’s talent at using dialogue to flesh out invented worlds is unsurpassed by anyone writing today–compare the stiltedness of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” with the science fiction portions of Cloud Atlas. And consider The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, where Mitchell had to pull off the same basic stunt, while also worrying about historical (semi-)accuracy.
What he’s done here, I think, is failed to avoid a problem he solved while writing The Thousand Autumns, of leaving off that “(semi-)” part. Mitchell has told the story in public several times, of how at first he strove for, and achieved, a truly accurate rendering of late 18th century dialogue. He showed it to his wife, who said, “It sounds like Blackadder!” (And apologies to Rowan Atkinson, but she didn’t mean this to be complimentary.) Mitchell went back in, and contrived a new version of the dialogue, written in a vernacular he nicknamed “Bygonese”–close enough that the spell is cast, not so close that it’s broken.
To put it another way, Mitchell’s failure with these telepathic immortals and their “subs” and “scansions” and “suasions” is actually just a kind of over-success. He renders the Horologists’ language too completely, and strips the threads. Perhaps if this “Horologese” had been dialed down a little, it wouldn’t be a problem; or, if the war of the immortals had taken over a larger part of the book, there’d have been more time to develop the concepts that undergird this techno-dialect.
Of course that would have been to abandon the novel’s organizational subtext, this attention to what happens “in the edges of the maps.” And Mitchell certainly didn’t want to do that. In fact, he found this subtext so important that at one point, he brings it right into the novel, through the voice of one of his characters.
That character is Crispin Hershey, a novelist, who narrates the fourth section of the book, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”; and while you might roll your eyes at a novelist writing a novel about a novelist, rest assured that Crispin is pointedly nothing like Mitchell. Crispin is a former “Wild Child of British literature,” whose first novel was edgily titled Desiccated Embryos. (There’s a reference to Kingsley Amis on the first page of Crispin’s section, and Crispin has a novelist father who was a grand old man of British letters; I think we’re supposed to make of these associations what we will.) Crispin is a terrible man, a dull and vainglorious womanizer, whereas Mitchell seems (to this fanboy at least) sincerely humble, intellectually radiant, and solidly dedicated to his family.
Which makes it all the more striking when Mitchell speaks so transparently through Crispin’s voice. Again, compare this, a portion of a lecture Crispin gives on Auden, to what Mitchell told the Paris Review:
Writers don’t write in a void. We work in a physical space, a room, ideally in a house like [Halldór] Laxness’s Gljúfrasteinn [the home and workplace of the Icelandic Nobel Laureate], but also we write within an imaginative space. Amid boxes, crates, shelves and cabinets full of…junk, treasure, both cultural–nursery rhymes, mythologies, histories, what Tolkien called ‘the compost heap’; and also personal stuff–childhood TV, home-grown cosmologies, stories we hear first from our parents, or later from our children–and, crucially, maps. Mental maps. Maps with edges. And for Auden, for so many of us, it’s the edges of the maps that fascinate…
Forgive me a little digression, but there is something big going on on our planet. We’re the first generation in history for whom extinction is a problem to be solved. And this problem is so big, so all-encompassing, that not one of us can claim to live in the edge of its map.
It’s this sense of global citizenship, I think, which accounts for why The Bone Clocks marks such a change of attitude in Mitchell, a turn toward something grimmer. He’s always been drawn to elements of darkness, of course. Predacity–the animal way humans have of making prey out of each other–has been his primary theme throughout the five novels that came before this. And those novels, to be sure, are all full of monsters.
In The Bone Clocks, though, Mitchell explores a new theme: regret. Previously, if his characters had regrets, they were, for the most part, regrets about how the world had treated them, about the hand they’d been dealt: Eiji Miyake, for instance, the hero of Number9Dream, who sets off for Tokyo after the death of his beloved twin sister, to find the father they never knew; or Jacob de Zoet, the heartbreakingly persnickety clerk for the Dutch East Indies trading company, nursing a forbidden devotion to Christianity while living in the swamp of greed and brutality that was the late-colonial Pacific. (And Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas is not wholly to the contrary–Frobisher is so youthfully rakish, so self-absorbed and talented, that you can’t get too upset with him. He’s a charming, artistic kid hounded by money troubles largely of his own creation, and what millennial can’t sympathize with that?)
But in each of the five novellas leading up to and away from the book’s climax in “An Horologist’s Labyrinth,” Mitchell’s primary characters suffer regret for their own actions. Holly Sykes begins as a lovestruck teenage girl who runs away from home, and isn’t there to stand in the way of the horrifying tragedy that befalls her family. Ed Brubeck is a journalist who goes where the story is (in this case, Iraq), but who knows that his story, as a partner and a father, demands that he stay home with his family to tell it. Crispin Hershey commits a terrible, life-altering prank against the critic who broadsided his “comeback” novel. And the second novella, “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume,” brings back Hugo Lamb, the intensely charismatic (but secretly psychopathic) cousin of Black Swan Green’s Jason Taylor; he drives a friend and classmate to suicide over gambling debts.
The four characters followed in these five novellas (Holly Sykes narrates the first and last sections) suffer the consequences of their own moral failures–failures of lust and self-absorption, of ambition and envy and insecurity. Unlike the characters in earlier Mitchell novels, these people aren’t so much victims of the world as they are creators of their own little world of sorrows, which follows each of them around, reminding them how they went wrong.
This theme is partly why Mitchell made two of his choices in constructing this novel. One, he called it The Bone Clocks, and the reader quickly realizes that he means us, humans–regular-order, plain-Jane, non-immortal human beings; it’s a title meant to remind us that we’re all just stopwatches counting down to some unknowable, but inevitable, zero.
The second choice was to end this story in Ireland (where Mitchell lives with his family), in the year 2043. We are not finding so much in the current fiction any visions of the future that could be called “optimistic,” and The Bone Clocks is no different. It’s not a dystopia–not quite. But it’s a world where precious little civilization remains–and what does survive hangs by a frail and unraveling thread. A world that is, itself, one very big Bone Clock. There is a deep worry about this book; a sense of regret for a planet that may already have passed the point of redemption.
Even so, there is a moment in the very last pages–you will definitely know it when you get there–where Mitchell reaches right into your chest, puts his fingers on your heart, and presses down. The kind of moment you would choose to live inside for all eternity, if you had to pick just one. Our greatest storytellers can remind us that these moments are possible; and perhaps I’m naive, but I think the more we are reminded of this, the more likely it is that we will ultimately gather together and save our world, and ourselves, before the clock runs out.
This week, David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and the forthcoming The Bone Clocks) is releasing a new short story over 280 tweets (which you can read here). Form follows content, he explains, since his narrator is a teenager high on his mother’s Valium. Mitchell joins good company: Teju Cole, Junot Diaz, and other notables have tried their hand with this strange new form. Pair with: a stroll down memory lane with some beloved authors’ very first tweets and their best.
2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we’re especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers — Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel — will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he’s pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill’s essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)
The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)
High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi.” In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)
The Kills by Richard House: House’s vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)
Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)
Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)
Flings by Justin Taylor: “Our faith makes us crazy in the world”; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)
Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they’ve come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)
Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written (“hoodoo” = “how do you do” and “gammy” = “illness,” e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it’s her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel’s intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne)
The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you’re smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)
10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark)
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist’s journalist and one of the New Yorker’s most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he’s written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length.
Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt)
Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael)
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill)
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.)
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known… every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya)
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark)
Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)
My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark)
Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson’s stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes “We Walked on Water,” winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and “L’Etranger,” shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)
On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg’s first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)
On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we’re interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily)
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America’s most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne)
The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.)
Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco’s kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme’s for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories “map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind,” says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco’s latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a “slapstick parable” that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the “unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon” and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can’t think of a better one I’ve read this century.” (Edan)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne)
Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)
Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard’s second novel — her first was 2011’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It’s a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)
A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband’s obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems “mythic and essential.” (Anne)
300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke’s new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70’s Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse’s family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — “We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning” — but they’ve drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)
Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt)
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)
The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey’s Millions essay.) (Thom)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)
Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as “kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together… peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya)
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn’t enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D’Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, “a solace to me like the thought of home.” In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)
Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there’s gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum’s editor in a piece on editors’ first buys. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author’s commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia’s most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author’s. (Anne)
Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard’s star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with “Things I Told My Mother,” an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard’s work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk’s latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg’s fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg’s recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy’s resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King’s The Stand and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne)
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, “The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand.” (Kevin)
More from The Millions:
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
Eleanor & Park
The Good Lord Bird
Jesus’ Son: Stories
In order to graduate to our Hall of Fame, books must remain on the Millions Top Ten for more than six months. The feat has only been accomplished by 82 books in the series’s five year history. Within that subset of hallowed tomes, though, eight authors have attained an even higher marker of success: they’ve reached the Hall of Fame more than once. This accomplishment is remarkable for two reasons: 1) the Top Ten typically favors heavily marketed new releases, so it means that these eight authors have more than once produced blockbusters in the past few years; and 2) because Top Ten graduates must remain on our monthly lists for over half a year before ascending to the Hall of Fame, that means their books must be popular enough to have sustained success. (In other words, marketing only gets you far.)
The names of these eight authors should be familiar to Millions readers, of course. They belong to some of the most successful writers of the past 25 years: David Foster Wallace* (Infinite Jest, The Pale King), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her), Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), George Saunders (Tenth of December, Fox 8), and — as of this month — Dave Eggers (Zeitoun, The Circle).
(*David Foster Wallace has the unique distinction, actually, of having two of his own books in our Hall of Fame in addition to a biography written about him.)
Even money would seem to indicate that Alice Munro is poised to join this esteemed group next. Her Selected Stories graduated to the Hall of Fame shortly after her Nobel Prize was awarded in 2013, and her collection, The Beggar Maid, has been holding fast ever since. Meanwhile, the surprise re-emergence of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which has been hovering at the bottom of the Top Ten lists these past two months, indicates that maybe he’ll reach that group soon as well. His novella, Train Dreams, graduated in August of 2012.
Changing gears a bit: the lone new addition to our Top Ten this month in the form of Rachel Cantor’s mouthful of a novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World. The book, which was published last month, was featured in our Great 2014 Book Preview, during which time Millions staffer Hannah Gersen posed the eternal question, “It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for?”
What more, indeed?
I have a long string of past loves, but they’re all bookstores. Depending on what you count, I’ve worked at 8-10 bookstores in the last 13 years. I mark time by which bookstore I was working in the way some people do by where they lived or who they were with, such that my bookstore resume starts to take the shape of a relationship history. Each one attracted me for different reasons, affected my life in different ways, and taught me different things.
My first love: I was a car-hop at a drive-in restaurant all through high school (and the answer is no, I did not wear roller skates), but I was looking to smell like ketchup less of the time. When my dad took me to college to begin my freshman year, we drove through the town and I spied a bookstore from the van. “I want to work there,” I said, unknowingly voicing a wish that would change my life. I did, miraculously, get a job there (I’ve never since seen anyone with so little experience or skills get a bookstore job with the “I love to read” gambit, and I have seen scores try), and started work before I started classes.
As with any first relationship, I was pretty clueless about it and they were accommodating. I hated talking to customers, I read books for class at the register, and I didn’t know who wrote The Corrections.
The rebound: In true rebound fashion, my second bookstore could not have been more different than my first. The store was big, academic, so busy that I had knee problems, and staffed — as my coworker put it — almost entirely by “lazy smart kids.” We had all just graduated from Boston’s various prestigious colleges and didn’t feel like getting real jobs, so we hand-sold Cloud Atlas and talked about this new show Arrested Development and were generally the coolest.
My favorite day at that store was when the power went out for a few hours but we didn’t close. We experienced booksellers manned the computer-less information desk, answering questions using only our amassed knowledge of books in print. It was like bookseller thunderdome, and I have to say that I killed it.
As much as I loved my new bookstore, I was still hung up on my first love. When the fifth Harry Potter came out that summer, I told my boss I wasn’t available, and went to work the midnight release party at the place that still felt like home.
My first serious relationship: I was only there for 3 months before another store wooed me away with the promise of something more serious — and we got serious really fast. I was hired as the assistant events director, but before long I was writing the newsletter, creating the window displays, and redesigning web pages. My life became inseparable from the bookstore. When my shift was over I would stay for upwards of an hour just talking to my coworkers, I was always there on my day off, and outside of my roommate my entire social life was the bookstore.
Those were the golden years of my bookseller life. I eventually left to start grad school in Ireland, but a part of me always wonders if I should have stayed, if I didn’t realize how good I had it. Isn’t your first serious relationship always also the one that got away?
The fancy man: When I moved to Dublin I got a job at my first chain bookstore. I knew I would never really love it, but after Boston it was nice to have something impersonal, uncomplicated. I got a uniform, long breaks, and low expectations. It had no character, I had no emotional involvement, the branch I worked in closed after I’d been there 4 months.
My one-night stand: Listen. We all have things we’re not proud of. When I first moved to Dublin, I got called in for an interview at a charming one-room store that employed one person at a time. I had coffee with the manager and convinced him that working at his store would be a dream come true for both of us. When he called me a day later to offer me a job, I told him that I’d already committed to the fancy store. Four months later, when the fancy store closed, I rang his bell again. He mercifully offered me the job a second time, and I started work. On my lunch break that first day I visited another bookstore a few blocks away and hit it off with the assistant manager. I think you already know that my first day was also my last. I never asked him for that job a third time. We’re not in touch.
The abusive relationship: Things didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped with the bookstore down the street. The store was managed bizarrely and in ways seemingly designed to be dehumanizing, but for all that the job paid implausibly well, and 2008 was a great time to be making euros.
Plus, the draconian leadership fostered camaraderie among the staff, and I stayed for that (and the money). We stashed boxes of cookies in random corners of the store, hid in the children’s section to talk about 24, and went out together all the time. We were required to wear all black, and my fondest, most vivid memory of that staff was when we all went out after closing on one of the first warm days of spring. We stopped at an ATM on a busy pedestrian street and, surrounded by Dubliners busting out their shorts and sundresses and florals, the 10 of us stood in head-to-toe black waiting in line to get beer money.
My Grecian fling: I’ve had some good times. After extricating myself from the bookstores in Dublin I spent 2 months in Greece, living in the back room of a bookstore in exchange for a few hours of work a day. I was there during the off season, and on any given week there were 2-5 of us splitting the already light responsibilities, which meant that some days all I did was go to the beach and read Proust. At night we would go to the market, cook dinner, and spend the evening drinking the island wine and playing Shakespearean mad libs. To paraphrase Rachel Green, “I think there was a bookstore. I know there was wine.”
Working in bookstores always felt more like a lifestyle choice than a career path — it’s both why I loved it and why I moved on. But here I sit, sifting through a decades worth of complimentary bookmarks and memories like Grizabella the glamour cat, grateful for how lucky I was.
Image via the author
Pity the novel. Once upon a time it was a big, baggy story told in chronological order by an omniscient narrator. Over time, it’s been marginalized, shunned, belittled, banned, and more recently, broken into pieces that vie with each other to make a cohesive whole. You could blame dwindling attention spans, pared down by digital toys. It’s ancient history that any TV viewer can either reorder or skip scenes at home. Now we spend a day streaming series that took years to air, let alone produce. The consequences of contemporary viewing preferences are the random jumbling of storyline, as well as time’s transposition and compression. Why wouldn’t novels follow suit?
When I first started thinking about this, I looked for parallels with how we share personal stories in our increasingly scarce private lives. Individual narratives are never linear, nor do we recount them to each another in a linear fashion. Small wonder that contemporary novels unfold out of order.
And yet, I’m sure there’s more. Michael David Lukas, reaching into the musical lexicon to examine novel developments, used the term “polyphonic” (referring to a chorus or multiplicity of voices) to make an intriguing argument: “Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze.”
Lukas cites Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Categorized as “novels,” these books are linked short stories with a common item or thread running through the chapters. In Great House, it’s a desk; in The Imperfectionists, it’s the characters’ association with an English language newspaper published in Rome. More recently, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has a character — Hattie — who serves as the common element. Lukas uses “polyphony” to describe novels that further increase structural complexity by inverting time and space. For example, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is populated with seemingly unrelated characters, geography, and time periods. Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul shares similarities. The action is set against historical events that are presented out of chronological order within diverse geographies and between seemingly unrelated protagonists.
Ted Gioia, a musician and writer, followed Lukas with an essay written in fragmented bits of text, probing why the novel is breaking up, accompanied by an ambitious 57-volume booklist.
Gioia places the fracturing novel in a broad cultural context that includes Thelonious Monk as the “jazzman of fragmentation” and Wittgenstein as its philosopher. Applauding the current fragmenters for successfully navigating literary complexity and traditional storytelling (aka plot), Gioia affirms that despite fission, novel craft is improving. Even if master short story writer Alice Munro were not the most recent Nobel laureate, every writer worth her salt knows that writing lean is far more difficult than producing the more leisurely, lazy, lengthy counterpart.
Except that novels are swelling again. Not only did last year’s Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries clock in at 848 pages, but several equally celebrated books boast equivalent heft, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.
Why? Ted Gioia offers a theory. “All experimental approaches in the arts can perhaps be divided into two categories — experiments of disjunction or experiments of compression. Either things get pushed apart, or get squeezed together. Either an aesthetic of disintegration, or an aesthetic of wave-like flow.”
The Grand Experimenter, it turns out, was Ludwig van Beethoven. This musical colossus, completely deaf, his personal affairs in chaos, perennially behind in his finances, unwell and unloved, reworked the string quartet in ways that continue to bewilder and astonish. The six late quartets, for two violins, viola, and cello, were composed within two years of Beethoven’s death in 1827. They are called by their opus numbers: 127, 130, 131, 133, 132, 135 (don’t ask about numerical order). These pieces span the experimental pendulum’s trajectory. The composer not only fractured, he compressed and expanded as well.
Beethoven’s earlier quartets and those of his predecessors and successors as well, generally have four movements: a lively opening, a slow second movement, a “minuet and trio” movement beat in three (the order of the second and third are often reversed), and an authoritative final movement. Around structure, Beethoven went rogue with his late quartets. He took the traditional four-movement quartet, split it up, and then both condensed and augmented it. Opus 130 has six movements as opposed to the usual four; Opus 131 has seven that are played/performed without a break as one long movement; and Opus 132 has five. Opus 133, the Grosse Fugue, is a one-movement leviathan. It was meant to be the sixth and final movement to Opus 130, but was horrendously difficult and got an appalling reception. “I think, with Voltaire, ‘that a few gnat-stings cannot arrest a spirited horse in his course,’” Beethoven said of critics. However, he bowed to outside pressure and lopped off the Grosse Fugue, publishing it as a stand-alone composition. Then wrote a frothy new ending that was the last piece he completed.
Within these overarching structures, Beethoven took traditional form and forged new trails. For example, he quarried the unconventional from the garden-variety “minuet and trio” movement. All but two of the late quartets contain such a movement, beat in three according to the rules, and organized thematically just as Haydn or Mozart would have done. In these movements, however, Beethoven plays with rhythm by blurring the lines between measures. He foreshortens melodic line and accelerates tempo. In other words, most of these movements go at breakneck speed and/or the tune is too fractured to sing along.
Beethoven took another well-known form, the theme and variations movement, and stretched and deepened it in new ways. Opus 127’s second movement opens with an austere violin melody that sets the theme for the variations that follow. The movement is immense, vastly longer than the slow movements of string quartets that preceded it, including previous slow movements that Beethoven had written. Here the composer takes his time on a grand scale, luxuriating in the breadth and depth of his melodic creation.
The fugue, a melody introduced by one instrument that is subsequently taken up by another instrument, appears in many string quartet movements. (Think of a round, where the melody travels through various voices and is inverted and lengthened throughout the course of the piece.) Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, however, is in a class by itself. It is the longest of Beethoven’s late quartet movements. Talk about dense. With its abrupt, ruptured bursts of sound, the Grosse Fugue is virtually inaccessible on first hearing. Like the 20th-century music that was to follow, the Grosse Fugue is dissonant. There are long stretches where rhythm elbows out melody, relentless beats without much tune.
One hundred ninety years ago, Beethoven was covering the experimental spectrum, fragmenting and enlarging within the space of a few short years. His late quartets fluctuate between slower, lyrical movements and faster movements with short, chopped up melody, compacted rhythms, interrupted tempos, and challenging key signatures. He deployed the four instruments (voices) in novel ways, assembled new harmonies, smashed rhythmic convention, messed with dynamic (volume) markings, upended time signatures, and a whole lot else. Including inspiring countless artists; for example, T.S. Eliot and the Four Quartets.
Beethoven may have turned out to be the Grand Experimenter, but did he actually set out to experiment? Radical innovation may be the consequence, rather than the cause, of self-expression at this stratospheric level. Some combination of genius and drive spurred Beethoven’s compositional feats. To satisfy the demands of his genius, Beethoven tilled new musical ground.
His deafness must have played a central role. Beethoven’s ability to compose through the deafness does not speak to his musicality per se. Any well-trained composer can pick up a score and understand what’s on the page without playing it. Beethoven’s deafness speaks instead to something deeper. In his early 30s, 15 years before his death, Beethoven prepared a document for his brothers. Named for the place it was written, Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” bears witness to the despair and isolation caused by his deafness, as reprinted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven:
Though born with a fiery, active temperament…I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed…For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone like one who has been banished…
Despite being the most accomplished musician of his day, Beethoven became unable to perform his piano concertos because he could not hear the orchestra. He was thwarted from conducting his symphonies and from playing his chamber music. In short, at the apex of his musical powers, he was prevented from participating in the joy of his own creation, forced to plumb the music in silence.
Silence birthed late Beethoven — music of profound and unparalleled emotional range. What did Beethoven discover within the silence? Certainly he found the freedom to buck convention and strike out on his own. But within the silence, he accessed something more: the arduous, agonizing road to his own mortality. The late quartets contain movements of such introspection and depth that to partake in the composer’s grief becomes a sublime, transformative experience. This musical giant is frustrated and raging, tormented by illness and loneliness, wrestling with the divine. We hear him grappling to make his peace.
There isn’t a more majestic, reflective hymn than the fifth “Cavatina” movement to Opus 130. Beethoven himself said that nothing he had written so moved him; in fact “merely to revive it afterwards in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears,” according to Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Or the transcendent otherworldly opening of Opus 131. And Beethoven’s rare commentary to Opus 132’s third movement summons the divine directly, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” — “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian mode.” The spare, deliberate simplicity of this movement is music of the spheres. The quartet’s final movement combines longing with agitated dissonance, delivering a sense of cosmic urgency.
In the last substantial work Beethoven finished — Opus 135 — the listener travels through sanctified territory, accompanying Beethoven to his death. Beethoven’s notes to Opus 135’s fourth movement, printed in the final manuscript above a nine-note tune, read: “’Der Schwer Gefasste Entschluss.’ Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!” — “‘The Difficult Decision.’ Must it be? It must be! It must be!”
Except that these words are not what they seem. A story that circulated during Beethoven’s time was that the tune came from a canon Beethoven had penned to capture a patron’s reaction to unwelcome news; Herr Dembscher had been told that to obtain a quartet manuscript for a party he wanted to host, he would have to pay 50 florins.
Perhaps these imponderables are meant to remain so; for example why the novel is shrinking or fracturing or expanding or twisting itself into something else. No matter. Writers pursuing their creative ends are apt to reinvent the medium for a long time.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Recently (this fall—autumn being more tangible to me than the integer “year”) I have read, and been amazed by Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which a friend in the collective Endnotes (whose new issue was just published) recommended to me. This book provides a detailed structural account, and analysis, of how, and why, the prison system in California has grown so massive, and so “modern.” And come to think of it I also read Angela Davis’s dagger of a book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, which does in 128 pages what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow does in several hundred, but to be Davis’s reader and have that effect produced you probably need to either have already read Alexander’s excellent and very important book, or to be already a yes in response to Ms. Davis’s eponymous question, or both. Now that we’re creeping into the thick medium of a certain terrible reality, I also read Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, and was thunder-struck by it, page by page and cumulatively. I went from there to Loic Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor and Prisons of Poverty. And then to Saint Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre’s beautiful “biography” of Genet (more biographies should be poetic-philosophical treatises that foreclose morality in favor of essence). Around that same time I “read at” Victor Hugo’s autobiographical/diaristic Things Seen, in which Hugo gives us his own lived encounters with History and World-Historical Individuals, as Hegel would call them, in moments like this one: “They executed the king with their hats on, and it was without taking his hat off that Sanson, seizing by the hair the executed head of Louis XVI, showed it to the people, and for a few moments let the blood from it stream onto the scaffold.”
Moving on from that encounter with the “real,” I was eager for the long-awaited October release of Frederic Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism. In fact I remember even kind of revving up for it by producing my own semiotic square for Michel Houllebecq’s The Map and the Territory, as I read that novel in late summer (the four sides being Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, The House of Prostitution, the House of Euthanasia). Anyhow, Jameson’s new work was foreshadowed by Perry Anderson’s article in the LRB in 2011, interrogating the “postmodern revival” of the historical novel. Lukács, who perhaps invented this literary category, pointed toward realism as the only legitimate novelistic mode into which to summon “History.” In that, all novels become historical novels when and if the present can be sufficiently apprehended as history by their authors. Jameson’s book, dense and meandering as it is, seems to offer multiple crucial antinomies. His conclusions are too complicated to get into here, but Cloud Atlas figures prominently among them, a book that greatly interests Jameson for its formal inventiveness, its pastiche of periods and styles, and for the fact that when all is said and done, despite its relativizing panache, it seems to transform history and ideas into meaning, and in particular, to have something to say about enslavement and emancipation. Thusly, the joyousness of art and the slaughterhouse of humankind both shine through. And Jameson seems to have enjoyed the movie version, too.
(Which I myself have not yet seen, but . . . there is always next year.)
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres.
In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre — let’s call it the polyphonic novel — uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.
Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century.
Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices.
Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.”
Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators — an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few — McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself.
But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.”
Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator.
It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.”
Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin).
While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape.
With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
Another year, another Year In Reading. Another year, a bigger Year In Reading. The site gets older, the site continues to grow – for that we thank everyone who wrote and shared the pieces in this series, as well as everyone who read along.
The numbers this year were simply bonkers. Up from 2011, our 2012 totals amounted to a whopping 74 participants and 261 different books. These books run the gamut from graphic memoirs to cookbooks, and they were written by 238 authors – we’re happy to note that 15 of those authors submitted their own pieces in the series.
Our participants included a finalist for this year’s National Book Award; a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize; not one, but two authors whose books appeared on The New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2012” list; a longtime New Yorker staff writer; and a comedian who, for a few incredible months, made the life of Mitt Romney’s social media director into a living hell.
The mission of the series is to put good books – regardless of publication date – into the minds of our readers. In that regard we’ve succeeded. The “average” year of publication for all 261 books was 1992. (No doubt that date has something to do with Michael Robbins’s recommendation of The Temple, which dates back to 1633.) But in order to highlight the true range of the books selected, I feel there are some awards in order. So here we have it.
Presenting the 2012 edition of The Millions’s annual Year In Reading Wrap-Up Awards:
The Golden TARDIS for Excellence in Time Travel is hereby bestowed unto Emma Straub. We recognize Emma’s ability to read in the past year four different books that will not hit shelves until 2013. Tell us, Emma, where do you keep your flux capacitor? (I know, I know, I’m mixing time travel references here. Apologies to the nerds.) Runner-up: Michael Robbins, who went the other way and tapped two books from the 1600s.
The George Wallace Commemorative Airhorn for Multiple Shout Outs goes to none other than Alexander Chee, who, before settling on Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai as his favorite read of the year, gave much-deserved props to no fewer than twenty-three different books and authors. Runner-up: Kate Zambreno, who named fifteen texts – two of which are actually blogs, which is awesome – in her Year In Reading (Apparently Everything there is to Read).
“Mr. Consistent” is from now on the epithet we’ll use to describe Scott Esposito, who recommended fourteen different Oulipo books. (Out of respect for Scott’s theme, none of the words in that first sentence included the letter “a”.) Runner-up: David Haglund, who laid out a literary and historical tour of the real Mormon faith.
The Bob Ross Memorial Golden Paintbrush is awarded to Matt Dojny, whose Year In Reading entry is beautiful and succinct, but also comprehensive and fresh. That book on his list from The RZA? It wasn’t a mistake. There aren’t mistakes. Just happy accidents. Runner-up: Chris Ware. (Duh.) Not for his text-based Year In Reading post, but for his most recent book.
The George Washington Cup for Honesty goes, of course, to Michael Schaub for his elegant, heart wrenching essay about his brother, his family, and A. M. Homes’s latest book. Thank you for this one, Michael. Runner-up: Mark O’Connell, who finally came clean. Those books on his shelf? Hasn’t read most of ‘em. (One additional prize is in order as well. The “Oh Man, Please Don’t Accuse Me of Stealing Your Idea” Memorial Fruit Basket should go to Janet Potter, whose list of literary awards served at least in some way as inspiration for this post.)
Overall, a collection of seven books were named by more than three Year In Reading participants. These lucky few are: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (picked by Edan Lepucki, Janet Potter, Ed Park, Michael Bourne, and Jennifer duBois); Chris Ware’s Building Stories (picked by Zadie Smith, Mark O’Connell, and Reif Larsen); David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (picked by Janet Potter, Matt Dojny, and Elizabeth Minkel); Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (picked by Meg Wolitzer, Elliott Holt, and Alix Ohlin); Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (picked by Emma Straub, Roxane Gay, and Robert Birnbaum); Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians (picked by Alexander Chee, Ed Park, and Antoine Wilson); and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (picked by Alexander Chee, Emily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter)
And so we come to the end of 2012. May 2013 be better than the year that led into it. May your eyes fly quickly over the page. We hope you enjoyed the time, and we’ll see you again next year.
P.S. Special shout outs are due to C. Max Magee, founder of The Millions, without whom none of this would be possible – and also to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, without whom all of these posts would look horrendous. Last but not least, shout outs are owed to Rhian Sasseen and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped make this our biggest Year In Reading to date. Thanks to you all, and to all a Happy New Year!
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
My year in reading has been a lesson in letting go. It began with the physical: when my apartment building was sold in January, I began a series of culls of my unwieldy book collection, of a set of shelves I’d so carefully organized when I moved in, now obscured by random stacks of cheap paperbacks, uncorrected proofs, impulse purchases, unwanted offerings from friends — so many books I’d never read, would never read, and simply couldn’t bring myself to pack up and unpack again somewhere else. I’ve always tended towards nesting and collecting — this is the kindest possible way to describe my perpetual state of clutter — but for once, I did it, discarding without mercy, hauling big bags of books into the office and depositing them on our communal bench for the next unsuspecting hoarder. I found a new apartment, and I swore I’d do the same for all the other unwieldy piles of things in my life before moving day arrived, but in the end, I never did. They were unceremoniously dumped into boxes and trucked a few exits down the BQE, then shoved into closets and corners; I have yet to fully finish unpacking them all.
But there was more to the great book giveaway than simple space: I have been slowly learning to let go of books on another level — something less tangible, I guess, maybe intellectual, or emotional, or spiritual. I am learning (just now!) to shed the guilt that keeps me turning the pages of books I honestly cannot stand; I am working to tell the difference between a book that is worth the struggle and a book that simply isn’t for me. This is, I suppose, all part of growing older: establishing and developing taste, learning to define and hone it, and being careful not to let your mind narrow — or to snap shut — in the process. And even as I joined this site as a staff writer a few months back, I was busy practicing reading books not for work, brushing off a whole different subsection of guilt, where I read classics, or books that came out three years ago, or something trashy, or novels I’ve come back to more times than seems healthy, and that was all OK, because, after all, there was a reason I’d become an English major in the first place.
But here, at the end of all this, I’m left with an incredibly scattered year in reading — I’m scratching my head and looking back at the last 11 months and wondering what the hell I was thinking through all of this. In the spring, I took a course in literary theory, filling in a gap in my undergraduate education, I thought, which meant rereading Frankenstein and The Tempest and then sighing a lot through Jacques Derrida & Co. before picking my own book — A Passage to India — for the final paper. It was my third time around, and I found it so different to when I read it last — five years ago — that it was kind of astounding. Who knew there was so much nuance! (Most people.) When I later revisited Netherland, for an essay on cricket, my memory of it held up better. I read Cloud Atlas sitting at a sidewalk café, and marveled at the number of people who stopped in their tracks to talk to me about it. There was some great new stuff — Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, for one, around which I built an argument about modern-day slacker literature for my first Millions piece of the year. There was some not-so-great new stuff — much of that gave me the chance to practice the whole “putting down and not feeling guilty” thing.
It mostly felt like I was reading a bunch of the not-particularly-new-but-largely-wonderful, like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, followed by his earlier Blood Horses, part history, part mythology, part memoir, meandering and powerfully direct all at once. There was something slowly intoxicating about English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee, which I picked up for the aforementioned slacker lit piece and with which I easily fell in love. And then there was my favorite book this year, hands-down — Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, published elsewhere as Chinaman, a reference to the left-armed bowl for which Mathew, the elusive cricketer at the heart of the story, is known. It’s the sort of book that turns you into an evangelist, in an almost embarrassing way, like, reaching into your purse to wave a copy in peoples’ faces when someone casually mentions, “I hear you’re writing about cricket?”
But even as books come and go, loosened and removed from the physical and metaphorical shelves, the ones that stay get stickier, and I’ve got a very sticky shelf full of the collected works of Stephen Fry. I started the year with Fry’s new memoir, The Fry Chronicles, which I enjoyed, though not nearly as much as the first installment, Moab Is My Washpot. When he came to America to promote it, I waited for hours to ask him to sign a copy of his first book, The Liar, which I have read approximately one million times. As I handed him the world’s crappiest, most yellowed paperback, dog-eared and spine heavily creased, already shamefully beat-up probably a decade before I paid £3 for it at that permanent used book sale under the Waterloo Bridge, I blurted out how many times I’d read it and how much I loved it. He looked utterly exhausted, but he smiled brightly as he signed the title page, exclaiming, “Oh, well, thank you!”
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
There’s something sort of funny about listening to someone try to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Walking out of Symphony Space one evening last week — David Mitchell was the shy and extraordinarily charming guest of honor at the opening night of PRI’s “Selected Shorts” — I heard lots of people try to explain the book to their companions. “With the ship, and the Pacific, it feels like the last one,” a woman said as we shuffled towards the exits, referencing the first (and final) section of Cloud Atlas and Mitchell’s most recent novel, A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. “Ah, well.” Her friend leaned in and said in a knowing tone, “I can see that, but once you get to Sonmi…” The same phrases spilled out onto 72nd Street: “story-within-a-story;” “Russian dolls;” “a bunch of cliffhangers!” One man shouted at his date, “And that leads to the next section!” People were waving their hands in the air, evangelizing a book and its concepts that, at first glance, could strike the uninitiated as inventive or contrived. I’d gone to “Selected Shorts” alone that evening, but had I brought along someone to whom I could evangelize, I’d have described Cloud Atlas as a pyramid — six different novellas set across six different points in time, building up chronologically. Each story is cut in half, and we must climb to the peak, to a dystopian far future (which is presented without pause) and climb back down to reach the conclusion of the other five stories. We begin and end in the mid-19th century. Narrative threads, from big themes to small gestures — the act of drawing a map, for example, or certain words that crop up again and again — extend and echo up and down the pyramid.
One protagonist of the six, crotchety vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, expresses disdain for “flashbacks, foreshadowing, and tricksy devices” (the same character — he gets all the good lines — says that a critic is, “One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely…”). If you’re disinclined to appreciate tricksy devices, you might dislike the book outright; there are, as you can imagine, a lot of coincidences. Mitchell himself was surely aware of the risk: he references it in several self-conscious turns, like when Robert Frobisher, the troubled young composer at the center of the epistolary second (and then, the penultimate) novella, structures his masterwork, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” in a similar fashion:
Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ’cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…
But by and large, Mitchell’s gamble paid off: Cloud Atlas has been widely acclaimed in the near-decade since its publication, not least of all here at The Millions, where it was retired from the Top Ten a few years back and voted #3 in a survey of the best books of the millennium so far. You’ve probably been seeing a whole lot of the book around recently, or of Mitchell himself, who’s been shuttling back and forth between New York and Los Angeles talking to the press. It’s all, of course, because of the film, the publicity for which has been hard to ignore, from the five-and-a-half-minute behemoth of a trailer released this past summer to the completely unhelpful teaser trailer that’s been running in heavy rotation on television (it’s 10 percent crazy sci-fi special effects and 90 percent Tom Hanks saying something folksy). The project is a collaboration between the Wachowski Siblings, Lana and Andy, of Matrix trilogy fame, and Tom Twyker, the German director of films like Run Lola Run.
Much has been written about the filmmakers’ struggle to find financial backing for the project: six storylines set in wildly different time periods and genres — it’s a hard sell however you spin it. And much, in turn, has been written about how they spun it: the process by which such a structurally unique book could be transferred to the screen, and if it could survive such a translation. Mitchell himself told Aleksandar Hemon, for a profile of the Wachowskis in The New Yorker last month, that, “As I was writing ‘Cloud Atlas,’ I thought, It’s a shame this is unfilmmable.” Some portions of the book — most notably, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” a thriller set in the 1970s that’s the pulpiest of the bunch, complete with a ton of internal monologues — are fairly cinematic to start with. But it’s one thing to ask a reader to stop and start six times, and then repeat it all over again on the way back. In a movie, everyone agreed, this structure would never work.
But all three directors were so enamored of Cloud Atlas that they decided to give adaptation a go. They broke the book into plot points — “hundreds of scenes,” Hemon writes. “[They] copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period.” They pulled out arcs, drew connections, and read the reconstructed stories aloud. Then the cards went back on the floor, and were reshuffled and rearranged. They found an initial way into the eventual restructure with Dr. Henry Goose, a major character from the first novella, which is set aboard a ship in the South Pacific in 1849, and Zachry, the protagonist of the far-future dystopia, set a good deal after “the Fall,” when modern civilization seems to have totally collapsed. Henry is morally weak, cowed easily by greed and violent urges; Zachry spends most of his story struggling to throw off these same human impulses, cloaked in ignorance and fear. Mitchell’s six main characters are loosely linked by destiny, physically manifested in comet-shaped birthmarks and half-found (well, half-lost) works of art; the directors wanted to draw links between major and minor characters across every era, linked by common ideals and struggles.
And thus what Mitchell has characterized as the “‘transmigrating souls’ motif” was born: a single actor for multiple characters, certainly one of the most publicized elements of the film. Tom Hanks plays the two aforementioned characters, as well as a blackmailing manager at Frobisher’s hotel, conflicted nuclear engineer Isaac Sachs in the ’70s, and in the modern era, Dermot “Duster” Hoggins, a thug who throws a book critic off a balcony (at a screening of film critics, this earned some seriously awkward laughs). If you’ve read the book, you’ll be able to line these characters up side by side: it’s easy to see the moral arc here, and as a reader, it’s an interesting exercise to re-cast the book, as it were. Some actors — Hugo Weaving, as unwavering evil, and Hugh Grant, as an eternal sleazebag who always succumbs to it — play stagnant foils. Others — Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw — dance around each other in delicate balances of power. But the repetitive casting, the filmmakers’ big tricksy device, is one that, with the movie’s release, has drawn more ire from critics than praise. Many early moviegoers were distracted by the frankly bizarre-looking prosthetics, particularly in 22nd-century Nea So Copros, re-named in the film world a more recognizable “Neo Seoul,” where genetically-engineered clones, or “fabricants,” are bred to do humanity’s dirty jobs without complaint. And some of the accents — Tom Hanks is certainly the biggest culprit here — are distractingly poor as well.
There’s an obvious futility in comparing a book to the subsequent movie, but Cloud Atlas is no mere adaptation: it’s a big, ambitious structural overhaul, one that has been likened by Mitchell, amongst others, to a mosaic, all of his Russian dolls smashed to pieces and carefully reassembled. The plotlines are interspersed, with tight transitions between moments that often mirror each other in action or in theme. Sometimes that’s rewarding — it’s easy to get mired in a single section of the novel, and the quick steps between eras feel freeing by comparison at times. But we lose a fair amount of breathing room in the process, and fans of the book may mourn that loss. Sonmi~451, the fabricant hero of the Nea So section, still gives her orison to the archivist, but many of the meditative qualities of the year-long storyline are gone, replaced by fast and loud action sequences that boil down the sharp edges of what is in the book a deeply complicated narrative. In fact, grey areas turn black and white all across the six stories, either altered or overshadowed by the movie’s broader themes, or shortened for time’s sake.
And then there are the moments when Mitchell calls his own narratives’ truthfulness into question. Sonmi~451’s first words are, “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.” But Mitchell enjoys undercutting this idea, like early on, when Frobisher discovers half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the account of the first novella, and writes, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity — seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t quite ring true — but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The film is always pressing forward in time, and is largely, unflinchingly earnest — there’s no halting for the novelist’s tricks, and the storylines seem shallower for it.
Despite all this, Mitchell has given the alterations his blessing, telling The Times:
None of the major changes the film made to my novel “threw me off” in the sense of sticking in my craw. I think that the changes are licensed by the spirit of the novel, and avoid traffic congestion in the film’s flow. Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable…[The filmmakers] want to avoid melodrama and pap and cliché as much as I do, but a film’s payoff works differently to a novel’s payoff, and the unwritten contract between author and reader differs somewhat to the unwritten contract between filmmaker and viewer. Adaptations gloss over these differences at their peril.
But the language of the adaptation — and yes, it’s a little shameful to turn Mitchell’s well-crafted metaphor into something so literal, and I apologize for that — does leave something to be desired. Mitchell is a brilliant linguistic shape-shifter. In the South Pacific, Ewing’s Victorian diary entries are both lively and endearingly stiff. In the 1930s, Frobisher’s sentences fly past like whip-cracks, and the lyricism is oftentimes so charming that we’re distracted from his prejudices and his flippancies. Some of the lines remain, but the narrative voices are mere echoes of their originals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Neo Seoul: in the book, in a world where people worship fast-food mascots and project advertisements onto the moon, language has been deviously corporatized — citizens are consumers, fabricants like Sonmi~451 are servers, and they all read sonys and watch disneys and drive fords and remove their nikes at the door. I imagine legal complications kept these terms out of the film. But even the language that carries over loses its impact aloud: Xultation is much more strikingly written. And in the far future, where English has shriveled to a bastardized pidgin strain — “Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekkin’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies.” — it’s often much harder to follow the words aurally, rushing so quickly out of the actors’ mouths, than it is to read and translate for yourself on the page.
In the end, it’s a question of mosaics and Russian dolls — of a set of stories, a pile of reshuffled index cards, and the new stories that emerge. If the film is the book distilled, its characters and their choices are sometimes easier to follow and appreciate. But the depths and complications of the novel must lie at the heart of why so many readers — including the filmmakers themselves — loved it to begin with. We are told, for the entire duration of the movie, that everything is connected. But Mitchell doesn’t have to tell us outright: the six stories are, at their hearts, the same.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
You’ve probably noticed that Amazon, like many sites, employs an “auto-complete” feature on its search box. When you start typing in letters, it suggests things that begin with those letters. It’s probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon’s book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Last time we did this, about a year and half ago, the results were fairly literary and 18 months before that, vampires reigned. This time around, Fifty Shades has ushered in an era of erotic-inflected popular fiction, and diet books and YA lit figure prominently as well. You might consider this exercise, the ABCs of Amazon, to be a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what’s popular in the world of books:
Bared to You (erotic fiction by Sylvia Day)
Cloud Atlas (by David Mitchell thanks to the upcoming feature film)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the very popular children’s series by Jeff Kinney)
Eat to Live (a diet book)
Fifty Shades of Grey (The erotica that launched a publishing trend)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster)
Hunger Games (Replacing “Harry Potter” as the top “H” search in YA lit)
ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box)
Kindle (no surprise here)
No Easy Day (The book about the bin Laden raid)
Organic Chemistry (A textbook search)
Psychology (More textbooks)
Quiet (a book about introverts by Susan Cain)
The Hunger Games
Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand)
Wheat Belly (a diet book)
Zoo by James Patterson
(Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)
The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby?
Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so.
That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him.
The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year — in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that.
Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard.
Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity — both in size and subject matter — every 10 years sounds just about right.
Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?)
Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.”
So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share.
Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.
David Mitchell, when questioned about his language and genre experiments, particularly in Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, responds: “It’s a bit like asking a duck billed platypus if it should be considered a mammal or a bird.” The Millions also profiled Mitchell, though we never settled either way on the bird/mammal issue.
Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel is his most ambitious yet. Like its predecessors it is a sprawling work that refuses to be bound by a straight, linear narrative, one-stranded plot or minimal cast. On this occasion, however, Kunzru has upped the ante to a dizzying degree. Gods Without Men revels in its multifariousness: we come up against a myriad of characters of diverse cultures, warped ideologies and clashing faiths; we skip time-zones and surf alternate realities. “Emotional teleportation” is what one character feels when blotting out his senses – “like staging his own extraordinary rendition, grabbing himself out of one time and place, hoping to land in another.” Kunzru inflicts a similar disorientation on the reader, playing a headshrinker who at the same time expands our mind. The effect is exhilarating.
Due to its ambition the novel resists a neat précis. At its center are Jaz and Lisa Matharu, he Sikh, she Jewish, and their severely autistic son, Raj. When the boy vanishes in the Mojave Desert the parents are flung into turmoil. Privately their cultures clash, impeding their course of action; publicly they suffer from the media feeding-frenzy, eventually becoming accused of murdering their son. Their marriage deteriorates in a storm of acrimony and guilt, and after Raj miraculously reappears it is all they can do to repair the rift between them. With a nod to the real-life Madeleine McCann disappearance, Kunzru convincingly paints the relationship’s breakdown and each individual’s personal meltdown. When the couple are at their lowest ebb and merely going through the motions Jaz describes them both as “priests of a faith they no longer believed in.”
Around them, Kunzru weaves a fiendish web of plots and subplots, always employing the desert as stage or backdrop. There is Nicky, the louche London rock star, “a scabrous cockney vampire” trying to break America, who needs a time-out from creative differences in the recording studio, not to mention his psycho, gun-toting producer; we are initiated into a mystical cult called the Ashtar Galactic Command which has set up base at the “Pinnacles” in the desert to commune with extraterrestrial forces; and in one of the novel’s virtuosic set-pieces we meet Laila and a group of Arab Americans who have elected to play the role of insurgents in a “fine grained simulation” to give Marines a foretaste of what deployment to Iraq will be like. (In this last section there is even a mock-beheading, all the more mocking and blackly comic because one of the executioners loses his dishdasha and has to improvise by wearing a Little Mermaid beach towel round his waist.) In the main Kunzru excels with his kaleidoscopic storytelling. When Jaz’s boss expounds on a new financial model his words double as justification for Kunzru’s choice of splintered narrative:
There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what once was whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable, but a few of these fragments contain faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world. This is just a glass case of wreckage. But it has presence. It’s redemptive. It’s part of something larger than itself.
Kunzru’s second novel, Transmission, was told from the perspective of three characters. By employing far more, some of whom we meet, some not, the reader is tasked with making sense of those “scattered fragments” and working out how, if at all, they interconnect.
While the fate of the missing child is the novel’s epicenter, the Pinnacles is its geographical hub, a meeting-point for each of those seemingly disparate plot strands. Schmidt, the founder of the UFOlogist sect, seeks to harness the “paraphysical energies flowing through the rocks.” Kunzru has mixed success with the exploits of his cult. Its members, led by Wolf and the slippery shape-changing Coyote, proclaim themselves not settlers but “unsettlers.” At the outset we see them attempting to subvert “negative energy vibrations” and prepare mankind for “full galactic consciousness;” later they are dabbling in drugs and reaping the benefits of free love. The manipulation of the duped followers is effective, but getting there means wading through agonizing chunks of cosmic gobbledygook concerning Space Brothers, Oracles, plus a machine called the Mux. “Under the guidance of Merku, Voltra and the other members of the Command, including Aleph, Lord Maitreya, Sananda-Jesus, the Comte de Saint-Germain and on occasion Director Ashtar himself, I have worked tirelessly to spread the word” – and so on. We return to familiar ground with Jaz and Lisa, before being swept off again to be introduced to a friar in 1778 and later a pilgrim in 1871.
Such to-and-fro scene-shifting and time-traveling demonstrate Kunzru’s inventiveness while simultaneously evincing a kind of novelistic restlessness. Each new tale is the equivalent of watching a child prodigy playing one instrument after another, each one swapped calmly for the next, with seldom a duff note produced. We watch, we marvel, but we occasionally grow irritated by the showmanship and jarring of sounds. In Gods Without Men it is the voices that jar, simply because they are too many. Just as we are becoming engrossed in one of those scattered fragments, the section ends and the next tale picks up the baton and whisks it off in a completely different direction. What is intended as variety can seem instead rag-bag miscellany. We don’t mind floundering like so many of the drug-addled characters – the cult members on sugar cubes and blotters, Nicky’s artistic highs from his psychoactive peyote kicks – but the sheer busyness of the novel engenders a peculiar claustrophobia, its clutter hampering us from truly engaging in plots or connecting to characters.
Mercifully, Kunzru is still, in the last analysis, able to rein in some of that abundance so as not to mar the entire novel. James Wood’s charge of hysterical realism has cut down a few literary reputations, and felled novels crammed with facts and hyperbolic happenstance but which do not know “a single human being.” Kunzru’s novels are packed with such vitality but ultimately he escapes censure by knowing when the facts clog the narrative’s impetus, and so when to quit. We hear that Deighton, an expert on the ethnology of the Mojave, “had worked with coastal tribes in Oregon and Washington State (it was his proud boast that he knew more about the mythology of salmon than any white man alive).” It is tempting to believe that Wood’s guilty parties, writers such as Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith, might have gone off on some tangent to embellish Deighton, authenticate him with fishy back-story. But for Kunzru this bizarre boast stays incarcerated in parentheses, and rightly so.
Kunzru has been compared to DeLillo, if not for style then certainly thematic interests – conspiracy theories and apocalyptic cults, the function of terror, the disintegration of family and its dubious reassembly. My Revolutions, Kunzru’s 2008 novel about a man’s extremist past and its effect on the present, bears this out; as does Transmission from the moment an insidious computer virus is unleashed to wreak havoc on the world. Gods Without Men’s more immediate cousin is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. That novel was compared to a Russian doll, spawning tales within tales; Kunzru’s narrative, also fractured, is however more intricate, and resembles the description of his Arab actors in the desert – “tiny moving parts, like cogs in a watch.” Both writers operate like Kunzru’s coyote: “He had to mess with stuff, connect things together. He had a rage for transformation.”
Kunzru used transformation as a conceit is his masterly debut, The Impressionist, in which his protagonist sloughed off and assumed a series of identities. In Gods Without Men Kunzru puts his whole cast through one transformation or another, whether as signed-up disciple in a cult or anguished parent sliding into madness and despair. It is an extraordinary novel. Closing it, we can be satisfied that the better sections easily outweigh those that are more whimsical and loose-ended. And we can only applaud Kunzru for that ambition and scope. Dawn, one of the disciples, learns, albeit with help from acid punch, “how to open up the world of existence and let the vastness of the Universe enter in.” Kunzru sets himself the same gargantuan task and succeeds, aided only by his considerable talent.
The ultimate in writing spaces seems to be the writing shed, a spare, distraction-free room set in some verdant landscape, where, in fertile solitude, the writer may create worlds out of nothing. Roald Dahl had one, so did Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps one day, we’ll each be writing in our own. Until then, as our Millions staffers share in their illustrated entries below, we’re making do (often happily!) with offices, studio apartments, coffee shops, and guest bedrooms. Share a photo of your own writing space using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter and we’ll repost some favorites on our Tumblr.
Michael Bourne: That’s right, I write in bed. I used to have a desk, one of those hideous pasteboard rolling-keyboard-drawer deals, but this being Brooklyn, when we adopted our son five years ago, my “home office” became his bedroom and I was relegated to the guest bed. But now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The big stack of paper in the foreground is my recently finished novel, which I’m now reading one last time before sending out. The yellow legal pads are where I take notes for my reported pieces (yup, I do most of my phone interviews in bed, too). There’s also some old New Yorkers and a Toy Story comic book that I read to Luke before he goes to bed. (Also, I now see peeking out from the Thomas the Tank Engine blanket, a big black motorized toy car, whose provenance I cannot fully account for.) What the photo doesn’t show is the built-in bookshelves that cover the far wall and the prints of Impressionist paintings on the other walls. It also doesn’t show the cats – one ginger tom and a silver-and-black girl cat – who snuggle around me as I write. I thought about cleaning it up, but that would not only present me as a neat freak, which I am not, but more importantly it would convey the wrong impression. This isn’t a work space so much as a work nest. Like a lot of writers, I write a ton of bad stuff. Really bad stuff. Embarrassing bad. But here, behind closed doors, in my messy bed in my son’s bedroom, with the big wall of my favorite books smiling down at me and the cats curled up in purring puddles at my side, I can be my fraudulent self and no one will ever have to know.
Sonya Chung: I live in a studio apartment with one other human and two dogs. It’s pretty crowded. I work at a long table that is divided from the sleeping/TV area by bookshelves. I straightened up a little for this photo, but generally, I work, and think, in piles. Writing pile; teaching pile; life administration pile. On the far right end of the table is the miscellaneous crap/mail pile (and, of course, dog biscuits). I included my knitting-in-progress in the photo (a scarf) because it’s a strategy I’m trying out, i.e. I’m teaching myself to knit and hoping (as many people have told me) that it helps to de-stress and focus scattered thoughts. The kneeling chair recently replaced an exerball-as-deskchair (which gradually deflated) — back pain, anyone? The lamp is a Kmart special that was originally all-white, but we spray painted the shade hot pink, couldn’t tell ya why…
Garth Hallberg: This probably isn’t the messiest workspace you’ll see, though the handprints I’ve left in the laptop grime are pretty gross. Still, when I behold The Desk objectively like this, any pleasure I might take in the externalization of my own mind loses out to my chagrin at all the work remaining to be done. Atop the compact O.E.D. are six books I’m currently supposed to be writing about – one of them a three-novel omnibus, another a year past deadline. To the left of that, bits of my wife’s dissertation have drifted down on top of the desk references (Shakespeare, Hobsbawm, Trucker’s Atlas, Complete New Yorker). Multiple drafts from my own work in progress lie atop books unread (Juan Jose Saer) and un-reread (Joseph Mitchell), because there’s no open space on the desktop. To the front right looms…well, the less said about that, the better.
The picture of my son is for inspiration. The knife is to be used against hostile invaders. The envelope of inspirational quotations has yet to be unpacked, a year-plus after we moved. The coffee right now is what is keeping me going. If you look closely in the glass of Amos’ Ab/Ex masterpiece, on the wall, you can see me shadowed against the awful pink bathroom tile, camera to eye, heavily caffeinated, but, for a moment at least, no longer quite so hard at work.
Kevin Hartnett: Whenever I start focusing on the less desirable features of where I work I remind myself of this: It’s an upgrade.
I started as a freelancer three years ago. At the time, my wife I were living in Philadelphia in a one-bedroom apartment. We got on all right in our small space. Then we had a kid. And another kid. By the end of our time in Philadelphia I had to move two piles diapers and a changing pad just to find a place to put my laptop down.
Now we live in Ann Arbor. I work on the second floor of our house, at an antique secretary, in a room with sliding glass doors that lead out to a deck in our backyard. It’s not strictly speaking “my office,” but from 9am-2pm everyday, when my wife is at work and our kids are with their nanny, I have the space all to myself.
My idée fixe of office spaces is a clapboard shed that overlooks Buzzard’s Bay on the front lawn of a friend’s house on Cape Cod. My present situation is a far cry from that. The sliding glass doors face west, which means I work in dimness. And the view out my window is just a boring suburbanish backyard. Occasionally a scrum of kids will burst into view, toting sleds or soccer balls. More often it’s just me and the squirrels who are so obviously fat and healthy it’s off-putting.
But overall I try not to fetishize where I work. All I really need is quiet and enough light to see by. When I find myself longing for a New England sea breeze I try to remind myself of this: The most consequential feature of any potential office is that I’ll be the one sitting in it.
Lydia Kiesling: Before a friend moved and bequeathed us the coffee table, the workspace was just the couch, where I sat with computer perched on lap and fretted about irradiating my womb and/or femurs. Now that we have the coffee table, my womb and femurs are presumably okay, but my back suffers. For now, this is where I do everything that I routinely do–homework, writing, cat-hugging, facebook-creeping, school reading (I prefer to read novels before bed, in bed). Most important: My betrothed, knowing this to be the lint-filled navel of my universe, pried the leftovers from my hands and proposed marriage in this very spot.
Edan Lepucki: Last summer I wrote about my workspace for the deliciously voyeuristic Tumblr site, Write Place, Write Time. The photos show my desk at home, which is my preferred place to write. Since having a baby, though, my apartment and the desk within it are far less calm and tidy, and I’ve had to go elsewhere to work. Most days I write fiction at my neighbors’ kitchen table while the baby plays and eats furniture next door. (Don’t worry, someone is watching him.) Since it feels weird to post a photo of my neighbors’ place, I present you instead with a picture of their dog, Saul. He is my muse. He understands only Spanish. His mohawk is growing out. Que lindo, no?
I write most of my essays for The Millions at Paper or Plastik Cafe, the coffee shop down the block from me. The place boasts excellent coffee, friendly baristas, beautiful high ceilings, and internet access, which I need for all these damn links. Here is a shot of my most recent camp-out. Mine is the only Toshiba on the block, but it’s proud not to be a fancy-pants Mac. Who cares if the bottom is duct-taped together?
Emily St. John Mandel: I’ll be the first to admit that my workspace is looking a little strange these days. It used to be much less eccentric, but then I decided that I wanted a standing desk, and, since all the standing desks I saw online were either hideously generic or too expensive, I made some improvisations involving a couple boxes, an unused Ikea shelf, and a two-volume dictionary. It isn’t beautiful, but I like it, and I find that I much prefer to work standing up. Other details: that’s Ralph in the desk chair, the papers taped to the wall are notes for current and future projects, and the window looks out on rooftops.
Nick Moran: My desk is full of nomads, and much of its population changes regularly. To wit: the five different histories of Russia. Though I minored in the stuff as an undergraduate, and I’ve always been drawn to the place, those are only visiting until I finish something I’m writing. (I don’t always use Red Star Over Russia as a mouse pad, either.) The rest: the asthma inhaler, the little wooden box from an Amman bazaar (labeled, adorably “Cofee”), and the Real Housewives-noise-canceling headphones are permanent residents. So, too, is the stack of aborted articles beneath the VQR. And the computer, of course. There’s also a Qur’an left over from a recent trip I took to visit my mother in Jordan. An exercise in immersion, that was, and a longtime desk resident it’s become. Finally, there’s the art on the wall above, a relic from my AP art class in high school. My theme was “breakfast.” That one you see is a diptych of a pig turning into a slice of bacon.
Bill Morris: I like a short commute. So I made an office out of the second bedroom in my apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. Normally the place is not such a pigsty – honest! – but at the moment I’m working on a long magazine article about the future of my hometown, Detroit, and my notes, tape transcripts and drafts have taken on a life of their own. In case you’re curious, that Royal manual typewriter is not a prop. I still write on the gorgeous beast, then use the Mac for editing and sending my stuff.
Looking at this picture reminds me of the beautiful simplicity of the writing life: all you need is a table, a chair, a writing tool, a stack of blank paper (optional), and an idea. How much less could anyone ask for?
Mark O’Connell: My desk is normally a lot more cluttered than this, but I didn’t want to let the side down, so I did a little spring cleaning before taking the photo. I work in Trinity College Dublin, where I’m doing a postdoctoral research fellowship; I’m in an open plan office in a snazzy new building dedicated to interdisciplinary research in the humanities. On the right, my desk overlooks an atrium where book launches and wine receptions for academic conferences are often held. As a result, I’ve become a connoisseur of awkward standing. I also get to see a lot of surreptitious lunging (for plates of sandwiches) and timid but determined sidling (toward established clusters of interlocutors). That can be fun to watch, and is often a reason in itself to work late.
On to the desk proper: the obvious centerpiece here is the nifty set-up with the elevated laptop, wireless keyboard and trackpad: this discourages slouching and does wonders for the lower lumbar region. Those books lined up at the back are mostly by or about Walter Benjamin, who might have something to do with something I might end up writing (that’s about an average number of mights for me). A lot of them I haven’t so much as opened, but I feel significantly smarter just having them there in front of me. In that sense they’re like a sort of bibliographic mascot or talisman. On the right of the laptop is a hybrid pencil sharpener/rubber I picked up earlier in the week. I probably paid more for it than I should have (€3), but you’ve got to spend money to make money in this business. I don’t mean for this to turn into a bragging session, but I do also own an electric pencil sharpener. It’s a very high-end machine. I keep it at home, though, because in an academic work environment, a thing like that can be viewed as a vulgar display of status.
Janet Potter: Four minutes after this photo was taken, I started packing everything pictured into boxes. I’m moving this month, so my work area will soon be reconstructed in another Chicago apartment with a bigger kitchen and walk-in closets. I can say with some confidence, however, that it will look a great deal like this, because the iterations of my work area in each of my post-college apartments have been built around the following, horcrux-esque elements:
#1 – The Big Blue Desk. How great is that desk? It’s royal blue! It’s a solid wood secretary desk (with the flip-up thing for a typewriter) that I bought on craigslist for $30 in 2005.
#2 – The Posters. The signed cover prints of On Beauty and Ghostwritten were going away presents when I left my old job at Brookline Booksmith, and the signed print of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a gift from a friend at Random House.
#3 – The Chair. That stool with the ugly green cushion was the bench to my grandmother’s vanity.
#4 – The Formative Books. The bookshelf that sits to my back holds only the best of my childhood, teenage, and college reading. The Hedgehog and the Fox, Cloud Atlas, The Harry Potter series, Proust, Natasha’s Dance, Banvard’s Folly. Only the best.
#5 – The Presidential Biographies. Each time I finish another biography in my project, I add it to the ranks lined up on top of the bookcase, supported by Abraham Lincoln bookends that used to be in Conan O’Brien’s New York office (long story).
Show us photos of your writing spaces using the hashtag #writespace on Twitter!
2012 is shaping up to be another exciting year for readers. While last year boasted long-awaited novels from David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Jeffrey Eugenides, readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer. Riches that we have tried to capture in another of our big book previews.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 8,400 words strong and encompassing 81 titles, this is the only 2012 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life. (Anne)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson: One of our most prescient and tuned-in writers of science fiction is coming out with his first collection of non-fiction. Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers together articles and essays William Gibson wrote, beginning in the 1980s, for Rolling Stone, Wired, Time, The Whole Earth Catalog, The New York Times and other publications and websites. There are also forewords, introductions and speeches, even an autobiographical sketch. While these pieces offer fascinating glimpses inside the machinery of Gibson’s fiction writing, their central concern is technology and how it is shaping our future, and us. “What we used to call ‘future shock,'” Gibson writes, “is now simply the one constant in all our lives.” (Bill)
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: With starred reviews from both Booklist and Library Journal, Ellis Avery’s second novel The Last Nude imagines the brief love affair between the glamorous Art-Deco Painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young muse for her most iconic painting The Beautiful Rafaela. Set in 1920s Paris, among the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and a fictional American journalist named Anson Hall (a sort of Ernest Hemingway type), Avery explores the costs of ambition, the erotics of sexual awakening, and the devastation that ensues when these two converge. Critics have praised The Last Nude as riveting, elegant, seductive, and breathtaking. (Sonya)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: Auslander has made a name for himself with side-splitting appearances on This American Life and his equally funny memoir Foreskin’s Lament that have marking out a fruitful career as a Jewish humorist. Auslander’s new book is his first novel, which New York says is “kind of about the lighter side of collective Holocaust guilt” Kirkus, meanwhile, has called the book, which explores the Holocaust as “an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew,” “Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.” (Max)
Smut by Alan Bennett: Given the existence of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a new book entitled Smut would seem to have a lot to live up to—at minimum, it should descend into dimensions so filthy and moist that they would cause Baker’s own thunderstick to droop in disgusted admiration. Instead, the absurdly prolific, versatile, and esteemed writer of The History Boys and The Madness of King George provides a pair of very English stories about the sexual adventures of two middle-aged, middle-class British women. So, rather than a lightspeed journey smack into a rigid “Malcolm Gladwell,” Smut is, in the words of the Guardian, a “comedy of false appearances.” And that’s probably not such a bad thing. (Jacob)
Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass: Random House will publish Gass’s latest collection of non-fiction this January. In Life Sentences, his tenth non-fiction book, Gass explores the work of a number of his own favorite writers, with essays on Kafka, Proust, Stein, Nietzsche, Henry James and Knut Hamsen. Gass, the author of Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, is a central figure in postmodern literature, and his critical essays have been hugely influential (he coined the term “metafiction” in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”). (Mark)
At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is probably neck-and-neck with Alan Hollinghurst for the title of “purest living English prose stylist.” However, where Hollinghurst traces a line of descent from the prodigious Henry James, St. Aubyn’s leaner style harkens back to the shorter comic novels of Waugh and Henry Green. For 20 years, he’s been producing a semiautobiographical series whose chief interest – one of them anyway – is seeing all that fineness applied to the coarsest of behaviors: abuse, addiction, abandonment. Booker nominations notwithstanding, readers on these shores have paid little attention. Then again, Hollinghurst took a while to find his audience, too, and with the publication of the final “Patrick Melrose novel,” At Last, St. Aubyn should finally get his due. Latecomers can prepare by immersing themselves in the new omnibus edition of the previous titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. (Garth)
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: In addition to being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Edugyan’s sophomore novel was and nominated for all three of the major Canadian literary prizes, and won the Scotiabank Giller award for best Canadian novel published this year, whose jury said “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Praised by The Independent for its “shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang,” Half-Blood Blues follows the dangerous exploits of an interracial jazz band in Berlin, Baltimore, and Nazi-occupied Paris. (Emily K.)
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Dalkey Archive Press reissues William Gaddis’s classic with a new introduction by William H. Gass. Gaddis’s mammoth work of early postmodernism (or very late modernism, depending on who you ask) is one of the key entries in the canon of American postwar fiction, and a major influence on the likes of David Foster Wallace. Set in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the novel is a thoroughly ruthless (and ruthlessly thorough) examination of fraudulence and authenticity in the arts. Given its influence on postmodern American fiction, Dalkey Archive Press seems a natural home for the novel.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Nathan Englander, 41, burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his widely praised collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This February he releases his second collection of stories, eight in all, that draw on themes from Jewish history and culture. The title story, about two married couples playing out the Holocaust as a parlor game, appeared in the December 12 edition of The New Yorker. The collection as a whole is suffused with violence and sexual desire. In a starred review Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Englander] brings a tremendous range and energy to his chosen topic. (Kevin)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes: What is it with Hungary? It may not have produced the highest number of Nobel Peace Prize candidates, but it almost certainly boasts the highest population-density of contenders for the Nobel in Literature. There are the two Péters, Nádas and Esterhazy. There’s Imre Kertesz, who deservedly took home the laurels in 2002. More recently, English-language monoglots have been discovering the work of László Krasznahorkai. Susan Sontag called The Melancholy of Resistance, “inexorable, visionary”…(of course, Susan Sontag once called a Salade Nicoise “the greatest light lunch of the postwar period.”) More recently, James Wood hailed War and War and Animalinside as “extraordinary.” Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first novel, from 1985, now reaches these shores, courtesy of the great translator George Szirtes. Concerning the dissolution of a collective farm, it was the basis for Bela Tarr’s 7-hour movie of the same name. (Garth)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an astute chronicler of America’s poor, turns to India for her first book, a work of narrative nonfiction exploring Annawadi, a shantytown settlement near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Flowers follows the lives of a trash sorter, a scrap metal thief, and other citizens of Annawadi, and delves into the daily life and culture of a slum in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Boo’s commanding ability to convey an interior world comes balanced by concern for the structural realities of India’s economic liberalization…and her account excels at integrating the party politics and policy strategies behind eruptions of deep-seated religious, caste, and gender divides.” (Patrick)
Varamo by Cesar Aira: With a new book out in translation seemingly every time you turn around, the Argentine genius Cesar Aira is fast achieving a Bolaño-like ubiquity. And with more than 80 books published in his native land, there’s more where that came from. Aira’s fascinating writing process, which involves never revisiting the previous day’s writing, means that his novels lack the consistency of Bolaño’s. Instead, you get an improvisatory wildness that, at its best – as in Ghosts – opens up possibilities where there had seemed to be brick walls. Varamo, recently reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation, features “a Panamanian civil servant [who] conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde.” The great Chris Andrews translates.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson: “But maybe Mom’s not the place to start…” So begins the fast, funny debut of Adam Wilson, who’s recently published fiction and criticism in The Paris Review and Bookforum. The story concerns the unlikely…er, friendship between ADHD adolescent Eli Schwartz and one Seymour J. Kahn, a horndog paraplegic and ex-TV star. In the channel-surfing argot that gives the prose much of its flavor: Think The Big Lebowski meets Catcher in the Rye meets that old cable series Dream On. (Garth)
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel: A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, Ramona Ausubel brings us a debut novel about a remote Jewish village in Romania. The year is 1939, and in an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching war, its residents—at the prompting of an eleven-year-old girl—decide to tell a different story, to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world. Last April, Ausubel published a strange and beautiful story called “Atria” in The New Yorker, and I’ve been anticipating her novel ever since. (Edan)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: Once called “a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness” (SF Chronicle), the author of Await Your Reply has slowly built a reputation as one of the most incisive writers of our time, specializing in characters who are dark, damaged, and perplexing, but making the reader feel protective of and connected to them. Populated with night terrors, impossible memories, ghosts, mysterious messages, and paranoia, Stay Awake heralds Chaon’s return to the short story with delicate unease. (Janet)
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It’s a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy. (Bill)
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal: A book in the form of a duel. In 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a young man who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel. The magazine that commissioned the story ultimately rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. Is there a difference between accuracy and truth? Is it ever appropriate to substitute one for the other in a work of non-fiction? The Lifespan of a Fact examines these questions in the form of a seven-year correspondence between D’Agata and his increasingly exasperated fact-checker, Jim Fingal; the book is composed of the essay itself, Fingal’s notes on the essay, D’Agata’s responses to the notes, Fingal’s responses to the responses. (Emily M.)
Dogma by Lars Iyer: Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious was published last year to considerable acclaim, and was short-listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Spurious concerned a narrator named Lars Iyer, also a writer, his friend W., their certainty that we’re living in the End of Times, their longing to think a truly original thought, the mold that’s taking over Lars’ apartment, their parallel searches for a) meaning and b) a leader and c) quality gin. Dogma—an altogether darker work, the second in a planned trilogy—picks up where Spurious left off. (Emily M.)
The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso: In this brief book, Manguso, who already has a memoir – the acclaimed Two Kinds of Decay – two poetry collections and two short story collections under her belt, offers a rumination on a friend named Harris who had spent time in a mental institution before killing himself by stepping onto the tracks in front of a commuter train. Kirkus says the book asks the question: “How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?” (Max)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature. (Janet)
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: In his new book, Alain de Botton argues for a middle ground in the debate between religious people and non-believers: rather than dismiss religion outright, he suggests, a better approach would be to steal from it. de Botton, himself a non-believer, suggests that “while the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false,” religious doctrines nonetheless contain helpful ideas that an atheist or agnostic might reasonably consider borrowing. (Emily M.)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Previewed in our July 2011 round-up of most anticipated books, Arcadia follows Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. The second half of the novel charts Bit’s life as an adult, showing how his upbringing influenced and shaped his identity. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says, “The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.” Hannah Tinti calls it “an extraordinary novel.” (Edan)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru: Hari Kunzru’s always had an interest in counterculture. His last novel, My Revolutions, concerned ’60s-era unrest and its consequences. That countercultural energy not only pervades the plot of his new novel; it explodes its form. Structured in short chapters ranging over three hundred years of history and several dozen different styles, Gods Without Men has already been likened to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – but with “more heart and more interest in characterization” (The Guardian.) And the centrifugal structure gives Kunzru license to tackle the Iraq War, Eighteenth Century explorers, hippie communes, and UFOs. (Garth)
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret’s choice of position while writing–facing a bathroom, his back to a window–reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he’s unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view. (Anne)
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: As a young writer, Harrison gained fame for her tales of incestuous love, which turned out to be based in part on her own liaison with her father, which she described in her controversial memoir, The Kiss. Now, Harrison tackles a different kind of troubled family in this tale of doomed love between Masha, the daughter of Rasputin, and sickly Aloysha, son of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, while the Romanovs are imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Palace in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution. (Michael)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: Nick Harkaway’s second novel—his first was the sprawling and wildly inventive The Gone-Away World—concerns a clockwork repairman by the name of Joe Spork, a quiet single man in his thirties who leads an uneventful life in an unfashionable corner of London, and a nearly-ninety-year-old former spy by the name of Edie Banister. Their worlds collide when Spork repairs an especially unusual clockwork mechanism that effectively blows his quiet life to pieces and immerses him in a world, Harkaway reports, of “mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe.” (Emily M.)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality. (Michael)
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: It’s been 14 years since Leyner’s last literary release, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, though he’s been busy co-authoring the series of ponderously quirky human anatomy readers that started with Why do Men Have Nipples: Hundreds of Questions you’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. With The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner returns to fiction, takes on the geographical and cultural contradictions of Dubai, and writes down the mythology of what he’s calling our “Modern Gods.” Also included: a cameo from the Mister Softee jingle, and a host of “drug addled bards.” (Emily K.)
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits: The fourth novel from Believer editor Julavits tells the story of an academy for psychics and the battle between two powerful women, the masterful Madame Ackermann and her most promising — and hence threatening — student Julia Severn. After Ackermann forces Julia to relive her mother’s suicide, Julia flees to Manhattan where she works a humdrum job in exile. Soon, her talents are needed to track down a missing artist who may have a connection to her mother. Powell’s Bookstore included a galley of the book as a pairing with Erin Morgenstern’s enormously popular The Night Circus, noting that The Vanishers “has magic, darkness, whimsy, and flat-out great writing.” (Patrick)
New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: This new translation, brought to us by Foer and Englander (with design work by the Israeli “typographic experimentalist” Oded Ezer), represents an unusual confluence of youthful, modern American Jewish thought. Featuring essays and commentary by an intriguingly diverse group (Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Lemony Snicket), the New American Haggadah should deliver an infusion of fresh intellectual energy into the traditional Seder narrative. (Jacob)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here. (Mark)
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard: For anyone who aspires to write book reviews – that orphaned form stranded halfway between Parnassus and Fleet Street – the late John Leonard was an inspiration. Tough-minded, passionate, at once erudite and street, he was something like the literary equivalent of Pauline Kael. I’m assuming here we’ll get a nice selection of his best work. (Garth)
The Cove by Ron Rash: For the poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, this could be the break-out novel that gives him the name recognition of such better-known Appalachian conjurers as Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell and Charles Frazier. The Cove, set in the North Carolina mountains during the First World War, is the story of Laurel Shelton and her war-damaged brother Hank, who live on land that the locals believe is cursed. Everything changes when Laurel comes upon a mysterious stranger in the woods, who she saves from a near-fatal accident. “Rash throws a big shadow now,” says Daniel Woodrell, “and it’s only going to get bigger and soon.” (Bill)
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen: From Franzen, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily in the last five years. The title essay generated considerable attention when it appeared in The New Yorker in April. In it, Franzen told of his escape to a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific following the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. Two pieces in the collection—“On Autobiographic Fiction” and “Comma-Then”—have never been published before. Others focus on environmental devastation in China, bird poachers in Cyprus, and the way technology has changed the way people express intimate feelings to each other. (Kevin)
Immobility by Brian Evenson: Genre-bender Evenson (Fugue State, Contagion) returns with an inventive mystery centering around a brilliant detective wasting away from an incurable disease and, consequently, frozen in suspended animation for years. Thawed out by a mysterious man, he must solve an important case with enormous stakes, and he must do it all in time to be frozen again before his disease kills him. There’s little information out there on this book, but he has described it as “another weird noir.” (Patrick)
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño: Published in 2007 as El Secreto del Mal, The Secret of Evil is a collection of short stories and essays culled posthumously from Roberto Bolaño’s archives. Due this April, the collection joins the steady torrent of Bolaño material that has been translated and published since his death. The stories revisit characters from The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and feature other members of Bolaño’s now familiar cast. Some have argued that the embarrassment of posthumous Bolaño riches has occasionally bordered on, well, the embarrassing, but Bolaño’s English-language readers hope for the best. (Lydia)
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag: Susan Sontag said that her books “are not a means of discovering who I am … I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.” Despite her dismissal of the personal in her own writing, Sontag’s life has become a subject of cultural obsession. The first volume of her journals captivated readers with tales of youthful cultivation, spiced with reading lists, trysts, and European adventures. In the interim since, we’ve fed on reflections like Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan and Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Sontag’s second volume of journals, picks up in 1964, the year of “Notes on Camp” (which also marked her debut in the Partisan Review) and follows as she establishes herself as an intellect to reckon with. (Anne)
HHhH by Laurent Binet: Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Laurent Binet’s first novel was recommended to me by a Frenchwoman as an alternative to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel. In fact, it sounds like a blend of the two. It concerns the assassination of Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich – and a writer’s attempt to navigate the straits of writing about the Holocaust. (Garth)
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald. This collection was published last November in the UK to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Translated and edited by Iain Galbraith, it brings together much of his previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Motion cautioned against seeing these poems as having been “written in the margins” of the novels. The collection, he wrote, “turns out to be a significant addition to Sebald’s main achievement–full of things that are beautiful and fascinating in themselves, and which cast a revealing light on the evolution and content of his prose.” (Mark)
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift: With promising reviews from The UK — “… an exemplary tour guide of unknown English lives, a penetrating thinker, a wonderful writer of dialogue and description, a nimble craftsman” (The Telegraph), “ quietly commanding… burns with a sombre, steady rather than a pyrotechnic flame” (The Independent) — Swift’s ninth novel signals a return to the themes of his 1996 Man Booker prize winning Last Orders: Wish You Were Here chronicles a man’s journey to Iraq, in 2006, to collect his estranged soldier brother’s body, and examines the resurfacing of a both personal and international history. (Emily K.)
Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin: In the grand expatriate tradition, Baldwin went to Paris looking for la vie en rose and found himself in a McDonald’s. The editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There moved his family to Paris for a copywriting job and soon learned that it’s not all croissants and cathedrals. Learning to live with constant construction, the oddities of a French office, the omnipresence of American culture, and his own inability to speak French, Baldwin loses his dream of Paris but finds a whole new reality to fall in love with. (Janet)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller: Nobel winner Herta Müller has written a novel about a young man in a Soviet labor camp in 1945. Müller’s own mother, a Romanian-born member of a German minority in the region, spent five years in a Soviet camp, although Müller’s novel is based upon the accounts of other subjects, particularly the poet Oskar Pastior. Despite its provenance and heavy subject matter, the novel, which is already out in German, has received middling reviews from German critics. (Lydia)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd: Out in April, Waiting for Sunrise, the newest novel from British author William Boyd will take readers to pre-WWI Vienna and on to the battlefields of Europe. The novel follows the fortunes of a British actor cum spy, as he visits the analyst’s couch, meets intriguing beauties, has coffee with Freud, and battles ze Germans. Exciting stuff from the author of Any Human Heart, a Whitbread winner and Booker shortlister. (Lydia)
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens: Perhaps because Christopher Hitchens was writing so honestly and movingly of his illness right up until his death, we were surprised when it came, even though it seemed clear all along that his cancer would be fatal. Hitchens’ essays, in his final year, helped humanize and soften a writer who welcomed conflict and whose prose so often took a combative stance. This memoir, planned before his death, is based on those last Vanity Fair essays. The UK edition is said to be coming out “early this year” and Amazon has it listed for April, while the timing of the US edition is unclear. (Max)
Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s latest is about a Korean War veteran named Frank Money who returns from war to confront racism in America, a family emergency (Money’s sister, in crisis, needs to be rescued and returned to their hometown in Georgia), and the after effects of his time on the front lines. Morrison, 80, has been reading excerpts from the novel at events since early 2011. At an event in Newark in April, she read a few pages and remarked, “Some of it is soooo good — and some of it needs editing.” (Kevin)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Those of us who gobbled up Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall eagerly await the release of its sequel, the ominously-titled Bring Up the Bodies. In Wolf Hall, we saw the operatic parallel rise of both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. In Bring Up the Bodies, Anne’s failure to produce a male heir, and Henry’s eternally wandering attentions, present Cromwell with the challenge of his career: protecting the King, eliminating Anne, and preserving his own power base. How we loved to hate Anne in Wolf Hall; will her destruction at the hands of the king and his chief minister win our sympathies? If anyone can effect such a complication of emotional investment, Mantel can. (Sonya)
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father’s Day. This volume, covering LBJ’s life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller. (Michael)
Canada by Richard Ford: Richard Ford fans rejoice! A new novel set in Saskatchewan is pending from the author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. The first of Ford’s novels to be set north of the border, Canada will be published in the U.S. by Ecco, with whom Ford signed a three-book deal after his much-publicized 2008 split from Knopf. The novel involves American fugitives living on the Saskatchewan plains, and according to Ford it is inspired structurally by The Sheltering Sky. Ford, who calls himself “a Canadian at heart” talked about the novel and read an excerpt on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program Writers and Company. (Lydia)
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger: Freudenberger is famous for taking a knockout author photo and for catching all the breaks (remember the term “Schadenfreudenberger”?), but she has turned out to be an interesting writer. The Newlyweds, which was excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, is loosely based on the story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger met on a plane. The woman, a middle-class Muslim, married an American man she’d met through the Internet, and the novel follows their early years of marriage in fictional form, marking Freudenberger step away from stories about young women and girls and toward those about grown women living with the choices they’ve made. (Michael)
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey: Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey returns in May with The Chemistry of Tears, his first novel since 2010’s much-loved Parrot and Olivier in America. As in Parrot, Carey again stokes a conversation between past and present, albeit more explicitly: in the wake of her lover’s passing, a present-day museum conservator throws herself into the construction of a Victorian-era automaton. If the parallel between the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth might seem a tad “on the nose,” expect Carey, as always, to swath the proceedings with sharp observation, expert stylistics, and a sense of genuine sorrow. (Jacob)
Railsea by China Mieville: The British fantasy writer China Mieville, as we noted in a recent career retrospective, is an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, everything from fellow fantasy writers to mythology, folklore, children’s literature, epics, comics, westerns, horror, Kafka and Melville. Never has his kinship with Melville been more apparent than in his new young adult novel, Railsea, in which a character named Sham Yes ap Soorap rides a diesel locomotive under the command of a captain obsessed with hunting down the giant ivory-colored mole, Mocker-Jack, that snatched off her arm years ago. Fans of Mieville’s previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, should brace themselves for another whiplash ride. (Bill)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava: Is self-publishing the new publishing? Not yet. Still, De La Pava’s audacious debut, called “one of the best and most original novels” of the last decade by Open Letters Monthly and subsequently heralded by the blogosphere, may upend some assumptions. This one began life as a self-publication, and though many self-published authors seem to feel they’ve written masterpieces, this might be the real thing. It’s simultaneously a Melvillean tour of the criminal justice system, a caper novel, and a postmodern tour de force. Now that University of Chicago press is reissuing it, heavy-hitting critics like Steven Moore are starting to take notice. (Garth)
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel: This spring brings a third, dazzling novel from our very own Emily St. John Mandel. It’s 2009, and disgraced journalist Gavin Sasaki, “former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends,” returns to his native Florida where he gets embroiled in the mystery of an ex-girlfriend and her missing daughter—who looks a lot like Gavin. The Lola Quartet has garnered high praise from booksellers like Joe Eichman of Tattered Cover, who says, “This sad, yet sublime, novel should bring Emily St. John Mandel a widespread readership.” (Edan)
The Lower River by Paul Theroux: Theroux’s latest is about sixty-year-old Ellis Hock who retreats to Malawi, where he spent four Edenic years in the Peace Corps, after his wife leaves him and his life unravels back home in Medford, Massachusetts. The book appeared first as a short story in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux returns to a theme he’s mined so successfully throughout his prolific career—the allure of ex-pat life, and the perils of living as an outsider in a foreign country. (Kevin)
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: In this follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award-winning short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Fountain delivers a satirical novel about a 19-year-old soldier from Texas, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, calls it “A Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Here’s a more in-depth description of the novel. (Edan)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif: Booker longlister Mohammed Hanif wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti on the heels of his celebrated debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His second novel, also set in Pakistan, tells the story of Alice Bhatti, a spirited crypto-Christian nurse of lowly origins who works at the Karachi Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments and endures all manner of indignities at the hands of her colleagues and compatriots. Part absurd and unfortunate love story (between the titular Alice and a body-builder ruffian), part searing social commentary from a promising writer. (Lydia)
In One Person by John Irving: Irving returns to first-person voice for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany to tell the story of a lonely bisexual man working hard to make his life “worthwhile.” The story is told retrospectively as the man, approaching 70, reflects on his life and his early years growing up in a small Vermont town in the 1950s. The novel is being described as Irving’s “most political novel” since The Cider House Rules. (Kevin)
The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: This historical novel by the Nobel Laureate “sits in the tradition of Vargas Llosa’s major novels […] in its preoccupation with political issues and its international scope,” according to Faber, who released it in Spanish this past fall. The Dream of the Celt explores the life of Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted by the British Crown in 1911, hanged five years later for treason, and disgraced as a sexual deviant during his trial. His crime: mobilizing public opinion against colonialism by exposing slavery and abuses in the Congo and Peru to the world. At a lecture, Vargas Llosa said that Casement made for a “fantastic character for a novel” — if for no other reason than the influence he had on the eponymous dark view that filled his friend Joseph Conrad’s own best-known novel. (Sonya)
The Red House by Mark Haddon: Early reviews tell us that Mark Haddon’s The Red House renders modern family life as a puzzling tragicomedy. Enough said for this reader, but here’s a little more to entice the rest of you: a brother invites his estranged sister and her family to spend a week with him, his new wife and stepdaughter, at a vacation home in the English countryside. Told through shifting points of view, The Red House is “a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires” with the stage set “for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.” Just what we all need (a little catharsis, anyone?) after the holidays. (Sonya)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: In spite of its name, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is neither etiquette book, self-help manual, nor philosophical tract. It’s a novel and yet it’s a novel in the way that reality TV shows are fictions, with Heti as the narrator and her friends as the cast of supporting characters (even some of their conversations have been transcribed). With the Toronto art scene as the backdrop, Heti ponders big questions by way of contemporary obsessions–genius, celebrity, blow jobs, what is the difference between brand and identity, how is a story told? Read an excerpt (via n+1) to whet your appetite. (Anne)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Jess Walter’ 2009 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of the funniest books ever written about the assisted suicide of the newspaper business. His sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, unfolds in 1962 when a young Italian innkeeper, gazing at the Ligurian Sea, has a vision: a gorgeous blonde woman is approaching in a boat. She’s an American movie starlet. And she’s dying. Fast forward to today, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a Hollywood studio’s back lot searching for the mystery woman he last saw at his seaside inn half a century ago. The publisher promises a “rollercoaster” of a novel, which is the only kind Jess Walter knows how to write. (Bill)
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín: Family has always been a presiding theme in Colm Tóibín’s fiction. With this forthcoming essay collection, he explores discusses its centrality in the lives and work of other writers. There are pieces on the relationship between W.B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, J.M. Synge and his mother, and Roddy Doyle and his parents. The collection also contains discussions of the importance of aunts in the nineteenth century English novel and the father-son relationship in the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama. (Mark)
Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson: Johnson is, of course, best known for beloved and award-winning fiction like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, but he also spent a decade (2000-2010) as the playwright in residence for the Campo Santo Theatre Company in San Francisco, a relationship that began when the theater staged two stories from Jesus’ Son. While there, he wrote six plays that premiered at the theater, two of which are collected here. Soul of a Whore is about the Cassandras, a classicly Johnson-esque family of misfits and outcasts, while Purvis is about the real FBI agent Melvin Purvis who went after John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. (Max)
Broken Harbor by Tana French: According to this goodreads interview with the author, Broken Harbor will be the fourth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; this time it’s Scorcher Kennedy–a minor character from Faithful Place–whose story takes center stage. On Irish writer Declan Burke’s blog, French summarizes the premise this way: “A family has been attacked and the father and two children are dead, the mother’s in intensive care and Scorcher, who is still not one hundred per cent back in everyone’s good books after making a mess of the case in Faithful Place, has been assigned this case with his rookie partner.” (Edan)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. Watched from afar by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel, Brandon’s collection of the downtrodden and the hopeful become a community. (Janet)
Office Girl by Joe Meno: At a glance, Joe Meno’s Office Girl might seem like something you’d want to skip: there’s the title, which calls to mind the picked-over genre of office dramedy, with its feeble gestures of protest beneath fluorescent lights. The doe-eyed specter of Zooey Deschanel somehow also looms. But you’d be wrong to dismiss anything by Meno, author of The Great Perhaps, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails. His latest promises to return us to a postcollegiate moment when a simple sideways glance can reveal the fallacy of our dreams—and how we stubbornly choose to focus instead on the narrowing path ahead. (Jacob)
Mother and Child by Carole Maso: Carole Maso houses beautiful American sentences in unusual, experimental structures – her masterwork, AVA, is an underground staple. The forthcoming Mother & Child is apparently a collection of linked short-shorts, whose two protagonists are, one has to figure, mother and child. (Garth)
You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell’s eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as “a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot.” Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill)
Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: A short story collection from the author of the highly praised debut novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, involving a computer-generated landscape, a zombie that appears—inconveniently—during a big-box store employee’s graveyard shift, a company that outsources grief for profit (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you”), and the difficulty of asking one’s coworker out on a date. (Emily M.)
Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: Martin Amis is dedicating his new novel to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December at 62 after a much-publicized battle with cancer. Amis’s title character is a skinhead lout who wins the lottery while in prison, and a publishing source tells the Independent on Sunday that the novel is “a return to form” that is by turns “cynical, witty, flippant, cruel and acutely observed.” Among the plump targets of this dark satirist are the British press and a society in thrall to sex and money. Sounds like we’re in for a straight shot of 100-proof Amis. (Bill)
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: Victor LaValle, the award-winning author of Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, as well as the ambitious and monster-fun Big Machine, returns this August with a new novel, The Devil In Silver. In 2009, LaValle told Hobart Literary Journal: “It’s the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one’s ever written a haunted house story quite like this.” Sounds like another genre-bending delight to me. (Edan)
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: In 2001, the acclaimed English novelist Rachel Cusk published a memoir called A Life’s Work, a highly praised – and vilified – examination of the pitfalls of becoming a mother. At the time she said, “I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like.” Now comes Cusk’s third work of non-fiction, which flows from A Life’s Work and examines marriage, separation, motherhood, work, money, domesticity and love. The British publisher says, “Aftermath is a kind of deferred sequel, a personal/political book that looks at a woman’s life after the defining experiences of femininity have passed, when one has to define oneself all over again.” (Bill)
Fall 2012 or Unknown:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: East Bay resident Michael Chabon has spent the past several years working on his novel of Berkeley and Oakland, titled Telegraph Avenue for the street that runs between the two communities. Chabon titillated readers with an essay on his adopted hometown for the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, which reveals nothing about the plotline but assures us that the new work will be, if nothing else, a carefully conceived novel of place. Chabon had previously been at work on an abortive miniseries of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley. (Lydia)
Ancient Light by John Banville: Having published a string of popular crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black over the last five years, John Banville returns again to serious literary fiction with Ancient Light. In the novel, the aging actor Alexander Cleave remembers his first sexual experiences as a teenager in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and tries to come to terms with the suicide of his daughter Cass ten years previously. With 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud, Ancient Light will form the third volume in a loose trilogy featuring Alexander and Cass. (Mark)
The Book of My Life by Aleksandar Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon (MacArthur Genius, PEN/Sebald winner) is reported to be working on his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces. The title, The Book of My Life, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name–a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon’s first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay “The Aquarium,” also for The New Yorker. (Lydia)
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: If you spent any time on the literary part of the internet in the past year, the name Emma Straub will ring out to you. She’s a regular contributor to Rookie Mag, among other places, and Flavorwire called her “The Nicest Person on Twitter” (Sorry, Bieber). Her debut novel is about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood. Straub’s story collection Other People We Married, originally published in 2011 by 5 Chapters Press, will also be rereleased by Riverhead Books early in 2012. (Patrick)
Alt-Country by Tom Drury: There isn’t much information on Drury’s fifth novel, but rumor has it that Alt-Country will be the third installment of tales about the residents of fictional Grouse County, Iowa, where The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams are set. The book is tentatively slated to come out in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope Drury revisits not only Tiny and Joan, but also Dan and Louise, as well as the many odd and memorable minor characters that people his fictional Iowan landscape. (Edan)
Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt with Ilya Gridneff: This long, compendious, delirious “novel” – co-authored with a rakish Australian journalist – should by all rights have been DeWitt’s follow-up to The Last Samurai, but publishers apparently balked at the novel’s enormous formal dare. So the enterprising Miss DeWitt simply began selling .pdfs on her website – a kind of late-capitalist samizdat. Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books wrote a long review of the novel a couple years back that makes it sound like absolutely essential reading. And N+1 ran an excerpt. Now Noemi Press has shouldered the considerable challenges of publishing the whole thing. And if you’re one of the lucky few who has the .pdf already, the money you PayPaled to Helen will be deducted from the cost of the printed book. There’s no telling how many complications are involved in getting there, but in the end, everybody wins! (Garth)
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Atlas of Remote Islands
Super Sad True Love Story
The Finkler Question
During the month of December, The Millions was flooded with book recommendations thanks to our Year in Reading series. Many of these recommendations piqued the interest of our readers, and a pair of hidden gems were intriguing enough to make it into our Top Ten. One was Anthony Doerr’s effusive praise for Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, and the other was Sam Lipsyte’s unearthing of the late and little known Hob Broun and his Gordon Lish-edited book Cardinal Numbers. A third debut in December was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, her hotly anticipated follow up to Seabiscuit that was noted with an “AAAH!” in December by Sam Anderson.
December also graduated a pair of books to our Hall of Fame, the second such honor for each of the authors. Joining Cloud Atlas as an all-time Millions favorite is David Mitchell’s newest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Meanwhile, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a second inductee from the late Stieg Larsson’s global sensation, the Millennium Trilogy
Finally, it’s worth noting that after many months of skewing male, our list has acheived gender parity, with four of the top five books penned by female writers. Don’t be surprised if Jennifer Egan’s breakout hit A Visit from the Goon Squad eclipses Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom next month for our top spot. Near Misses: Skippy Dies, The Imperfectionists, The Hunger Games, The Autobiography of Mark Twain , and Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. See Also: Last month’s list
March 12, 2010
Five months from today, my first novel, You Lost Me there, is being published. Max from The Millions emailed me today wondering if I’d write something come publication time. I stared at the kitchen table. I drank a delicious Diet Coke. (Superfluous—all Diet Cokes are delicious.) How about, I suggested, a pre-publication diary?
I’ve always been curious about what it’s like for writers in that period before a first book appears. The back-room deals, the marketing plans. Perhaps, I suggest to Max, the subhed could read, “The Ecstasy and Agony of My First Novel Being Published.” Ecstasy because getting a novel published is an extraordinary thing! It’s a meteor landing in the backyard. It burns down the swing-set. It completely freaks me out. And agony because, obviously, such a thing would be terrifying. JEREMY WHO THE FUCK BURNED DOWN THE SWING SET.
You Lost Me There took me four years to write. Before it, I wrote two other novels, one that was junk and another that received many polite rejection notices from big publishers. What happens if this book is judged to be corrosive to the Earth? What if little girls cry when they read it?
This summer, a new David Mitchell novel and a new Gary Shteyngart novel will arrive on shelves, both of which I will rush out to purchase. A new Andrea Levy, new Tom McCarthy (Remainder—!!!), new Jennifer Egan. Six billion terrific “debut” novels will appear, I’m sure, in a year when many terrific novels have already been published. And then there’s Franzen. Franzen. For years, publishing executives have stage-whispered over lunch, “When will Franzen return to rezap our cojones?”
I am ridiculously lucky and deliriously happy to be so seriously fucked.
March 13, 2010
I’ve never kept a diary before. My wife and I live in the woods on the rural fringe of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We moved here after stints in New York and Paris because we wanted to be around nature again. We have blueberry bushes, a gigantic fig tree, and thousands of ticks. Behind our house is an acre of forest. On its back side, there’s a guy with a lumber business who wields a much bigger, louder gun than I do. Mine is my wife’s dead grandfather’s BB gun, which we use to frighten away deer, whereas the neighbor’s gun is a shoulder-mounted cannon that he fires whenever he likes. Eleven o’clock tonight, I’m reading on our porch and the neighbor blasts five shots in a row. KAPLOW5. Does he wear night-vision goggles? In my fantasy he says to himself while reloading, in a Rue McClanahan voice, You sweet little motherfucker.
March 15, 2010
Nice day. Brisk. This afternoon, I submitted the final changes to the novel’s manuscript. My editor’s assistant bears with me. After this, I’m warned, I’ll be charged for every changed word, something like $20/sentence. I need to send brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 16, 2010
I’ve been working on two other books for two years. One’s a novel about Tijuana. It will be completed in 2044, by which time David Mitchell will have already written it and written it better. Also working on a nonfiction book about Paris, or at least a proposal for one. I can’t seem to get it right, the proposal. It propels me away from my desk. Today I called a local author who’s become a friend. “Book proposals are hell,” she said. “They fuck you.” “Fuck you up?” I said. “No,” she said, “they fuck you.” She didn’t want to talk about it after that.
March 18, 2010
Worked late last night and went to bed happy. No crickets, no frogs, dead silence. Then this morning I erased the file I’d been working on. Who needs book proposals when I’m so competent at self-fucking? I should begin sleeping with a caffeine drip.
March 19, 2010
Sent brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 20, 2010
Played tennis with another local author, Nic Brown. Per capita, I believe the Raleigh-Durham area to possess more writers than Brooklyn. Nic’s second book, a wonderful novel, Doubles, comes out in July. At one point in his book, there’s a doubles tennis team named Brown and Baldwin who aren’t very good. Today, Nic beat me 6-0. During a break I socked him in the head with a ball. I felt bad about that until bedtime.
March 21, 2010
If I’m not writing, reading, exercising, or talking on the phone, I worry about money. Ergo, I really, really love writing, reading, exercising, and talking on the phone.
March 22, 2010
7:43 a.m., the neighbor with the shotgun was out pounding squirrels. I saw him through the trees. Black cargo pants, tall desert boots, no shirt, American eagle/flag bandanna skullcap, and a pair of mirrored yellow Oakley sunglasses. Like he’s defending America while playing right field. Twice at night I’ve see him across the road in the woods, feeding trees into a big red splitter under construction lights.
Inchworm snuck into the picture
March 23, 2010
My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby. Wonderful day.
March 24, 2010
Awful day. Lost six hours to a panic meltdown. Anxiety is a future that hasn’t happened yet, but makes no other future seem possible. I made coffee, did some push-ups, and went for a walk. No problem can’t be solved by caffeine, push-ups, and a long walk in the woods.
March 25, 2010
Drizzling rain and severely windy. Did a lot of email, including asking an artist to help me make a video trailer for my book, Aya Padrón, a wonderful photographer based in Maine. Perhaps her pictures, I suggested, will get people excited about reading my novel, once rendered into YouTube format? Though, really, who the fuck knows. Does anyone know how to flog books online? Social-media flavor crystals don’t seem to be the answer.
March 26, 2010
No expression on America’s Defender today. Maybe he’s sad. He’s standing there holding some type of shotgun, staring at me. He pumps the gun, turns around, and goes back into his house.
March 29, 2010
Lovely spring weather. Spent an hour writing thank-you notes to various people at Riverhead, my publisher. I’ve heard nightmare accounts from other writers about their publishers. Let it be said, Riverhead is a dream, every employee.
March 31, 2010
On my birthday I have a tradition of taking the day off to bum around and get drunk and read stuff. I keep it classy. This year, my friend Melissa asked me to keep tally of what I consumed in chronological order. It went:
– 4 coffees
– 2 paper newspapers (News and Observer, Wall Street Journal)
– 1 Diet Coke
– 2 breakfast tacos
– 3 slices of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 turkey, avocado, bacon sandwich
– 1 espresso
– 1 novel (The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri)
– 2 shots of tequila, 2 beers, 2 glasses white wine
– 1 cheese plate
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 magazine (The Atlantic Monthly)
– 1 coffee
– 1 glass of champagne, 2 glasses red wine, 2 glasses white wine
– 4 rounds of tapas
– 1 shot of tequila, 1 beer
– 1 college basketball game
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– Half of Inspector Morse episode #31
April 2, 2010
Panic about the novel is set to low simmer. The next novel and the non-fiction book proposal aren’t flying, they’re flunking. Anxiety is causing my fingernails to reverse course and grow inward. What if You Lost Me There is perceived to be a bomb, would it be so bad? Playing around today, I figured out that Michiko Kakutani is an anagram for “Atomic Haiku Kink.” Michiko alone becomes, “Hi I Mock.”
April 4, 2010
Sunny day. Spotted two snakes, several lizards, and a pie-sized snapping turtle under our fig tree. Went to mow the yard, but the mower crapped out, so I called my wife’s uncle, a race-car driver with an elaborately equipped garage, and we threw the mower in his truck, grabbed some tools, cut a new spring, and refit the mower cap. Very satisfying afternoon.
April 7, 2010
Dread, the proper noun, is a pussy. Dread can’t stand Real Shit. When Real Shit turns up at the party, Dread resumes playing wall-flower, all envy. In a way, I’m thankful for today’s Real Shit, of a private nature that I’m not comfortable revealing here, but anyway, it’s a reminder. A novel’s only a novel. I’m extremely grateful for what I’ve got here in this world. My wife, my family, my health. And I am also thankful for Diet Coke and András Schiff.
April 8, 2010
Got off the phone. It happened again. In conversation and correspondence with other writers, two books routinely come up from the last couple years, as in, Dude, have you read this yet? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. To the list, I would add Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.
I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks. Look at all the thug authors, unsmiling and posing so hard on their book jackets. I spent way too many afternoons in seventh grade reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books (and every one of my sister’s Babysitter Clubs) to pretend I’m a thug.
I just remembered I’m neither smiling nor appearing particularly thuggish in my own author photo. What’s really happening in that photo is I’m trying not to laugh, which is what happens when you’re trying to obey instructions not to smile or frown but to smile with your eyes and seem appealing. Not easy!
April 11, 2010
Dark outside. Woke up at four a.m. during a panic attack. Rocked myself back to sleep with visions of Andy Murray’s service returns.
April 13, 2010
Today I spoke to Daniel Wallace’s class of fiction-writing students. Daniel Wallace is the local king of novelists and a very nice guy. One of his students, after hearing about my work schedule, asked when I sleep. I told them something eloquent like, “Sleep is dumb.” Which is me paraphrasing Diddy, who says things like, “Don’t sleep, there’s too much to do,” and “Let’s go!” However, let’s call bullshit, bullshit. These poor kids only had a Pepsi machine in the lobby of the building, no Coke. Who could blame them for napping?
April 16, 2010
Ahoy! You Lost Me There was chosen by Entertainment Weekly for their summer list. I yelped when I received the news. My publicist and editor were as surprised as I was, especially by the caption, “a much-hyped debut novel,” since this is the first piece of “hype” we’ve seen. My book won’t appear for another four months. Have I already jumped the shark? I wet myself. Nearly.
April 19, 2010
First gunshot of the day, 8:42 a.m. Lesson relearned by the end of the day: nonfiction book proposals are hell. Very long walk followed by tequila.
April 29, 2010
Today we received the following email, from a newsgroup for people in our area:
A friend moved to a cabin across the road. On Monday afternoon she and her father were in her yard when they heard some close-range gunfire, said it sounded like a semi-automatic. Bullets were hitting the trees and even the house. She and her father lay flat until the shooting stopped, then called the sheriff’s department. If you have any information, could you please call the County Sheriff’s Office?
May 3, 2010
Finished Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano today walking around a New Urbanist community while Rachel went to the gym. Hard to imagine Lowry, with his extremely powerful imagination, imagining someone finishing his book in these circumstances.
May 4, 2010
9:43 a.m., first shot of the day. Ran into the squirrel hunter on the road yesterday. He waved. Warning sign of impending assassination? Vultures circled the house this afternoon, at least thirty of them.
May 12, 2010
Vultures are circling the house again, which means something died in the woods. After four hours, I’m nowhere with writing. Maybe ten satisfying lines. I wrote on my left wrist, WWDJD? (What Would Denis Johnson Do?)
Caught myself in the afternoon chasing a squirrel down from the side of the house while yelling Old Dirty Bastard lyrics at him, “Shame on you, if you step to!” First gunshot today, 10:12 a.m.
May 15, 2010
Finished the non-fiction book proposal and shipped it. Good riddance and good luck, dear proposal. Had drinks tonight with another writer, a friend of a friend swinging through town. I asked him what he writes. Among other things, he said, he’s the author behind a much beloved children’s series (that shall remain nameless). I.e., he’s the most current ghostwriter handling the work. I told him how I used to love the series when I was a kid. “Oh it’s different now. You’d hate it. The main characters are hackers,” he said. “They bust terrorists.”
May 16, 2010
Half the day I spend in my imagination, half I spend in car repair.
May 17, 2010
First advance review of You Lost Me There appeared today, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly. They’re giving it a pass. The anonymous critic found my book, among other things, to be “a highbrow melodrama.”
Afterward, my head’s hitting the kitchen table every ten minutes, spilling brain fluid. I’ll be thinking something else, then wham, my head hits the table. Melodrama? What’s so wrong with melodrama anyway? I told my editor never to send me another review, good or bad. Full of self-pity, I wondered, what do reviews offer anyway other than fluff jobs or despair? I moped until lunch, then I really started feeling bad for myself. In one month’s time my book had gone from “much-hyped” to passé. Maybe there’d still be time for a comeback?
The hardest part about jumping the shark is getting humped by its mouth.
May 21, 2010
Aya Padrón, the Maine photographer, loved the book and has decided to go shoot some pictures on Mount Desert Island, where the novel’s set. Wonderful news. Then I found out that You Lost Me There was recommended by TIME magazine for summer reading. Well, we flipped out.
May 24, 2010
Three days in New York with my sister. My sister lives in Brooklyn and we spent the weekend eating and drinking. Deviled eggs, I discovered, are in vogue in Manhattan right now, and now there’s a hatchery in my lower intestine. Diary note from the return flight, “New York is an office-park with a very good food court.” First gunshots this morning at 8:28 a.m. Good to be home.
May 25, 2010
Two events occurred simultaneously. 1) I found an egg on the counter; 2) a squirrel appeared on the window, clawing at the screen. I went outside and threw the egg at the squirrel. I hit a tree.
June 7, 2010
Woke up with dread around my neck like a chinstrap. Terrible hangover gave me a pork brain. Everything is horrible, only Publishers Weekly knows the future. I made coffee and it tasted like balsa wood. Worked from 6-10:30 am, then went back to bed to take a nap, but I couldn’t sleep for a panic attack about bad reviews to come, i.e., the end of the universe. (God, I’m pathetic.) Called my wonderful agent, PJ Mark, and if you account for our conversation based on what was actually said, rather than what was meant, I called PJ in order to apologize for calling him.
Went for a walk and listened to a radio show about tumors. Tumors are endlessly fascinating. Everything is interesting, inside I’m blank and unknowing.
June 9, 2010
Threw a can of generic diet cola at a squirrel because I hate both the fuckers, squirrels and generic diet sodas.
June 14, 2010
A week since I opened this diary. Well, diary, I spent the past week floating on air. Really floating. Received an offer on that nonfiction book and I’m still floating. Wolves briefly held at bay for a few more months. Writing is my peppermint-flavored heroin.
June 21, 2010
Yesterday something died in the woods. We could tell by the smell. This morning, Rachel barely made it to the car without barfing. It’s the smell of rotting flesh, of ninety-six-degree heat producing cheeseburger. I spent half an hour this morning beating the undergrowth for Death. Quite a sight, I had a black and white winter scarf wrapped around my head for a makeshift mask. Didn’t find Death.
June 22, 2010
Smell’s gone. Goodbye, Death. Thank you, vultures.
June 28, 2010
Had an article published on Slate about how frequently the phrases “a dog barked in the distance” and “somewhere, a dog barked” appear in novels, something I started noticing in college. Today, @dankois wrote on Twitter that he loved the new David Mitchell novel except for two instances where “a dog barked in the distance.” He added the hashtag, #thanksalotrosecransbaldwin. I felt the need to apologize.
July 7, 2010
There are endless sneaky ways to feel no good. Especially in the early hours, when Despair hides surface-to-air missiles in the couch and aims them at my amygdalae. This morning, I read a letter Nicholson Baker wrote to John Updike twenty-five years ago and I just felt awful. It’s one hell of a letter. Very Bakeresque. Me, I admire authors who keep digging after the same thing book after book. Baker, Ishiguro, Greene, Murakami. I mean, none of them’s a Philip Roth, a Coetzee, but who is? I go out into the woods and dig a hole with the toe of my boot to bury some coffee grounds and egg shells. No gun blasts.
July 12, 2010
Shotgun man just rode by my kitchen window on his motorcycle, stars and bars flying off the back. He was wearing tiny running shorts, tennis shoes with socks pulled up to his knees, and that’s it. Moustache blowing in the wind.
July 14, 2010
This afternoon, there was a thump on the front porch. The FedEx guy was walking back to his truck while I eyed the package. I knew what it was. Can I be a thug about this and still say I cried when I opened it and saw my book for the first time? Do thugs never cry? Who said thugs can’t be happy, can’t be true to themselves and their Lucy Lius?
July 20, 2010
Great advance review came in from the American Library Association. Thank you, Booklist! Libraries and librarians the world over, I honor you. Otherwise, my anxiety is causing acid reflux. I’ve started buying big bottles of chocolate milk. It is delicious, so sweet and so cold, and so fatty.
July 23, 2010
Book trailer went live today on YouTube. I love the novelty of book trailers. Why not? Why shouldn’t novels be sold every which-way? Look at the Shteyngart trailer, look at Sloane Crosley’s videos. We need more of this, not less.
Three years ago, I worked in advertising for 18 months and participated in a few big-scale shoots. One involved me interviewing Sir Sean Connery at his private Bahamas retreat. Highly ulcerous. Beforehand, the island faxed us a dress code requiring that men wear slacks and keep their shirts tucked in at all times. The filming was done in the afternoon after the photo shoot, and I can testify that the dock in the following picture was constructed that morning. I can also say that Sir Sean Connery was extremely nice. I’d say he was more nervous than me, but then he’d also been posing on a beach for three hours in ninety-degree weather in a wool sweater and a tuxedo.
July 26, 2010
Only way to get up in the morning and work steadily is to imagine there aren’t six million writers doing the same exact thing at the same moment with more imagination. That is one reason why I no longer live in New York.
July 29, 2010
Shit is really swinging. Reviews, interviews, news of reviews slated, online thingies solicited, and all are wonderful! I say yes to everything! And when I run my tongue over the gift horse in my mouth, I swear it’s chocolate and I pray it’s not squirrel inside. As you read these words I am very likely somewhere south of you, breathing into a paper bag. I am the luckiest bastard in the world.
August 3, 2010
We invited a farmer to visit and have his way with our fig tree. He brought a stepladder about sixteen feet too short; our fig tree is as tall as the house. He climbs up the tree and picks eight baskets full. The plan, he tells me, is to sell everything at a nearby farmer’s market, and in return he’s offering me trade in homemade sausage and cheese. Ne Fuck Pas Avec Les Benefits de La Semi-Rural Life. Evening lesson: Chocolate milk and tequila do not mix.
August 5, 2010
Self-Googling is never not shameful. Lots of push-ups today, some not very good work, a not very good nap, and I read a very good novel by Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. Can NYRB Classics publish no wrong?
August 8, 2010
No gun shots in a week. Non-book stuff today: caught a pro-am tournament in Durham and watched NBA players battle in a tiny gym while listening to Gucci Mane. Man—or, as pronounced down here, mane—I wish I were athlete enough to get away with wearing shower sandals with dark socks pulled up to my knees.
August 10, 2010
So, this is what they call sleep deprived. Interviews have gone strangely, some wonderfully, some odd. One reporter called and we immediately went to tape for a radio broadcast while my mouth was full of a tomato sandwich. Most common question I’ve heard when people learn I’ve got a book coming out, “Are you touring?” The answer is, not really. I.e., I’m doing three readings in North Carolina and one in New York in September. But I wonder about the impulse behind the question. When did “author tour” become so popular a notion? What does happen when authors tour? I have no idea. Backyard amateur wrestling? Masked group sex? Eyes Wide Shut recreated nationwide in English department conference rooms? Diary, if I ever author-tour, it will be all of that, and commemorative T-shirts will be given out for free.
August 11, 2010
Last day of the diary. Diary, it’s been fun. To anyone reading, I hope you were entertained, I hope you laughed and cried, and I hope that was enough. Tomorrow my book will be published and shelved in stores, and we can socially-communicate regarding its inability to out-swim the hype shark. In the evening, I will visit one of my local bookstores, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (one of the events I’m doing), and they will serve (red) wine, (white) wine, and pabst (blue) ribbon. Perhaps I should invite my neighbor, America’s Defender.
I went running this afternoon to burn off some nerves. I saw him, my shotgun-toting neighbor, drinking beer outside his buddy’s trailer. He waved. I waved. I called out, “How you doing?” He yelled back, “Good man, good.”
Well, that’s exactly how I’m doing, times a thousand.
Although many readers at The Millions are likely to have at least one David Mitchell book under their belt (Cloud Atlas was admitted into The Millions Hall of Fame earlier this year, after all), I’m sure most of you remember what it’s like for the uninitiated. Everyone tells you that you must read Cloud Atlas, and you buy it and it sits on your shelf for three years. You assume that his work is intellectual, serious, complicated, experimental; a multi-voiced beast that is said to be amazing, but that has to be heavily grappled with in order to appreciate. However, spending even a couple of minutes with David Mitchell — the man — made me realize that neither he nor his work should be approached with the kind of hesitation or trepidation that some readers have.
Just before his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell tiptoed down the stairs from the mezzanine office. He sat on the third step clutching his cup of tea, hidden from the adoring masses by a waist-high wall that serves as a railing. From my chair at the back desk, I had the perfect angle for a photo opportunity: the big author mentally preparing for his last reading before heading home. Instead, when he noticed me with the camera, he started making faces at me and mock-scowling. During his reading, he paused mid-sentence to tell anecdotes, he told us that he likes to create onomatopoetic verbs to mess with his translators, and he occasionally provided sound effects to go with his metaphors. This was not the brooding intellectual one might have expected. This was not the “serious author” whose books are to be spoken about with mountainous respect in hushed tones. This man was playful, and instantly open, and remarkably nimble.
Although David Mitchell is almost universally hailed as a creator of literary fiction, it is the lens of games and child-like amusement that often sharpens his work into focus. Michael Chabon described Cloud Atlas as “the novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book.” Mitchell has been called a ventriloquist for the way that he inhabits voices and “does” other genres so well. Even his naysayers use this lens: in the LA Times, reviewer Eric Banks described the second section of Mitchell’s new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as a foray into “comic-book Japonica.”
I asked Mitchell what his favorite game was growing up, hoping it might tell us something about his writing as a whole. He described a loose kind of game that most of us probably played in some form or another: an improvised war-type game with two opposing sides and rules and goals that you kind of made up as you went along. You would advance into each other’s territory, set ambushes, and try to spring your own men who’d been captured. Guns were made up of two fingers and a thumb, and there was a sort of honor system when a confrontation occurred. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I think that it can describe what Mitchell has done in his books – he makes up a new set of rules each time, and he treads into territory that you might not expect in terms of genre, voice, and style. There are usually opposing forces at play, though who is playing for which side can be ambiguous and shifting.
From the micro-view of his own memory, Mitchell quickly waxed analytical. He suggested that games allow us a small view into how the mind works:
We don’t have an effective vocabulary of the mind, because we don’t really know what it is. And we need a couple of Newtons or Darwins or Einsteins–in neurology–before, I think, we’ll begin to “get it”… We know much more about [the mind’s] pathology than we do about its anatomy. But it becomes visible in games. Games gives us a vocabulary of mind that we otherwise lack… Patterns can be made manifest in one form.
Fiction can also “do the mind” — it picks up on patterns like games do. Towards the end of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Jacob fleshes out the story of Phoebus in Greek mythology and then says: “The truth of a myth, Your Honor, is not its words, but its patterns.”
Several of Mitchell’s novels use games to show macro tendencies: he uses a rugby match to ruminate on chance and fate in Ghostwritten, in Black Swan Green it’s something called British Bulldogs that sheds light on growing up in Thatcher’s England, and in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the Japanese game Go provides the ripples and layers. In the final section, after we’ve gotten some sense of the relative equilibrium between the Dutch and the Japanese on Dejima (the Dutch East India Company’s outpost off the coast of Japan in 1799), in comes the English ship, bringing with it global machinations and the need for shifting alliances and multilayered strategies. It is immediately followed by an actual Go match, also full of machinations and strategies, which has taken on all sorts of significance of its own. Not only does it illustrate the power play happening between the Magistrate and Lord Abbot, it foreshadows the waning strength of Japan’s isolationist policies in the face of global advances.
In the present day, interestingly, Go has the opposite role to play in the global advance of technology — Mitchell told me that an algorithm is no match for a master Go player, and the game is “one of humanity’s last strongholds against the computer.”
Perhaps Mitchell is aware of these tendencies, for even he uses toys and games of childhood to describe his writing process. On the recent challenge of writing a libretto for an opera, David wrote that “packing so much human luggage into so few syllables” was similar to sudoku.
When I asked him whether one needs to live in a place in order to write about it, he said it’s hard to make it smack of authenticity if you haven’t. You need more tricks and sleight-of-hand to mask the fact that you haven’t been there. For example, Mitchell had never been to New York when he was working on Ghostwritten. One of the sections is takes place there, so he set it in winter, when windows are hard to see through and details are muted by snow. And then he made the bulk of the action occur on a radio show. How’s that for literary prestidigitation! Historical fiction, however, tends to thrive on rich detail, and after reading his latest novel, no one would doubt that Mitchell spent nearly a decade living in Japan.
Finally, I asked him how, after observing a place in the present, do you access its past or imagine its future? I’m sure that there is some element of Faulkner’s famous quote at work, that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” David also suggested that first you gather the bits. Then, essentially, you’re playing dress up with dolls:
You just think about the story first. And… the people. But they are, as it were, naked. Temporally naked. So you just think about the story and the relationships and… what their hearts want. And how these wants bounce off each other. Then when you’ve got those, then you clothe them. Literally clothe them in appropriate period costumes, but also sort of… attitudinally clothe them.
While answering questions after his reading at Skylight Books, Mitchell got into a groove and offered, in rapid succession, three extended metaphors for his writing process. The best one, the one that can help both writers and readers, came to him just a few weeks ago. He said that writing a novel is like an amusement arcade horse race game with five horses – character, plot, theme/ideas, structure, style – and the goal is for them all to finish at once. For example, you develop the character horse, his history and his personality, and then you ask “What would he do in this situation?” Then the plot horse catches up. I found this metaphor to be useful to me as a reader as well, in terms of describing what does and doesn’t work in a novel. I asked Mitchell whether one of his horses needed more training, or whether one came more naturally than the rest.
It varies from book to book. I would say that generally, my themes/idea horse probably hasn’t much rider. I don’t really think “This book is going to be about this,” ahead of time. Or perhaps, specifically, it sort of leaves on its own sweet time, late and last. And at some point, after the others have streaked ahead, the rider sort of hops over the barrier from the crowd and then sort of jumps on …[here Mitchell made leaping gesture with his hand];. And then, “Okay, this is what you’re about. Now I see, now I see…”
The other metaphor that Mitchell threw out there was one that helped him finally master writing in the third person: that of the “narrative helmet.” One character wears it at a time, and it’s got a “camera filming the action but with a spike going into the brain so you can get that character’s thoughts but no one else’s.” He then told us that the plot of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is perhaps more complex than it seems: in the first act, only Jacob wears the helmet. In the second act, the helmet alternates between Orito and Ogawa. In the final act, Jacob, the Magistrate, and the English sea captain wear the helmet. By doing it this way, the momentum increases as you progress in the book.
With building blocks, some children build simple walls and steps, and others build castles with moats and turrets using the exact same materials. Mitchell must have been one of the latter — he recently described his books as “Lego-novels,” made up of component pieces. After spending a few hours in his presence, it is clear that he thinks of language and literature in degrees of magnitude. “A word is a musical note, with its own timbre and attack and fade,” he said at the reading. “And a sentence is therefore a musical phrase, and a paragraph, therefore, is something like a song.” He’s written several novels of interconnected stories and his latest is really more like three successive novellas.
But we’ve all built towers that collapsed, and even David Mitchell can attempt too much. He told me that Cloud Atlas was originally going to have nine parts, not six, but it got unwieldy. One of the narratives was to be from a Korean rock star who was watching a video cassette that (of course) broke in the middle. But when Mitchell sensed it wobbling, he realized that he already had a young musical prodigy in Frobisher. He couldn’t bear to waste the time and money spent on researching Korea, so he set “An Orison of Sonmi-451” there instead.
Mitchell brings to his work the fine balance of playfulness and complexity. I think what turns some people off from “postmodern” writing in general, and something that Mitchell manages to avoid, is a feeling of being toyed with, a feeling that the writer knows something that the reader doesn’t. When you finish, you want to feel as though your mind has been engaged, not as though you’ve been had. Mitchell teased out the distinction a bit:
Maybe it’s the difference between, in the former case, being obliged to be the victim of a practical joke, where it’s not fair because you don’t know what the terms are, and it’ll happen to you and you just have to sit there and take it. Which is really annoying. As opposed to sort of being taught the rules of the game, and sort of being given an invitation, “Would you like to play, too?
Mitchell invites us to play with him, to enjoy the stories he writes, and to have fun trying to figure things out. He also invites us to think hard, and to grapple with the challenges of civilization. As a culture, we could use a bit more of that playfulness and complexity.
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.
I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.
On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.
It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.
No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.
But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.
He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.
But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.
Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.
So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.
And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.
This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.
All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)
Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.
Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.
[Image credit: Tim]
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Let the Great World Spin
The Big Short
The Interrogative Mood
The Mystery Guest
Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which was the readers’ favorite in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. That allows our panel’s winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, to take over the top spot. Of late, readers have begun looking forward to Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, out later this year.
Our only debut this month is Michael Lewis’ look at the financial crisis of the last two years, The Big Short. Of the hundreds of books on the topic, Lewis’ was one of the most widely anticipated, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis.
Near Misses: Asterios Polyp, The Known World, War and Peace, Then We Came to the End, Union Atlantic
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.
The Interrogative Mood
Let the Great World Spin
The Mystery Guest
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
New to the Top Ten list this month is Reality Hunger, a book by David Shields.. We had an early look at the book, a two–part interview with Shields, and Shields’ shared his Year in Reading in December. Dropping from the list is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli.
Meanwhile, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections stayed atop the list, but that top spot will open up next month as Cloud Atlas is poised to join the Hall of Fame.
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.
The Interrogative Mood
The Mystery Guest
Let the Great World Spin
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
January saw two more books graduate to The Millions Hall of Fame, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Larsson’s books have been the beneficiary of a surge of interest in the late Swedish writer’s series of thrillers. Eggers’ Zeitoun has won much praise for its nuanced look at one immigrant New Orleanian’s Katrina story.
New to the Top Ten list this month is Stoner, a book by John Williams from NYRB Classics. The novel was singled out for praise as part of our Year in Reading series by Millions contributors Patrick and Edan as well as by Conversational Reading’s Scott Esposito. Also debuting is Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The book was also named a finalist recently for a National Book Crtics Circle Award.
See Also: Last month’s list
Update: Don’t miss our newest “Most Anticipated” list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond.
There’s something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño’s relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available)
Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison’s unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison’s death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it’s the masterpiece they’ve been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim’s affliction is that he’s unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says “Ferris possesses an overriding writer’s gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement.” See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone’s first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth’s review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd’s novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. “There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd’s wide-ranging new thriller,” said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, “It’s a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it’s also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city.”The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – The follow-up to Kostova’s big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says “lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers.” PW adds “The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer.” See Also: Elizabeth Kostova’s Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss’ Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel’s appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg’s translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February
Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo’s forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book’s surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book’s slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says “Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur.”Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We’ve already discussed Shields’ forthcoming “manifesto” quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited “the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010].” The book now sits on my desk, and while haven’t yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in – British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield’s Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, “Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that’s not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited.”Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort – a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here – was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel’s prologue. It begins, “Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral’s staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each.”March
Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book’s protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book’s chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change “debate.” The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan’s books have elements of satire, it’s unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it’ll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says “let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?” Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask “isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness.”The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee “offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story.”Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash’s follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book’s title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote “The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.” The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze’s new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, “the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease.”So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan’s forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver’s latest takes on the healthcare debate.
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, “It is the author’s mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat’s cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision.”Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG’s promotional material calls “McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing.” “Silk Parachute” is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It’s available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee’s recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, “long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe ‘on the chalk’ from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France.” Since McPhee’s most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April
The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do “blooks” too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago’s blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, “which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street,” according to the Independent, in its report on the book’s Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there’s an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant’s Journey, which “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria,” and Cain, “an ironic retelling of the Bible story,” was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey’s new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville “character” is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache.”The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle’s The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: “The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy… is the search for synonyms for ‘brilliant.'”Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel’s previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel’s follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It’s Canadian publisher has called it “shocking.” And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by “pioneering postmodernist” Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: “Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008.”May
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, “blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme.” As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, “it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one.” Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan.
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis’ first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? “They had made a movie about us.”The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It’s looking like that promising first effort may translate into a “big” novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge – the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II – and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon (“To bring an entire lost world… to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul… takes something more like genius.”)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson’s nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn’t exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions’ readers get behind a book, it’s often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the final book in Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson’s sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There’s not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman’s life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children’s series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, “The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul.” In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate’s “Myths” series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser’s Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: “Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper… covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card… Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.”June
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It’s long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, “Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire.”An American Type by Henry Roth: Here’s another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s “comeback” effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, “discovered,” according to the publicity materials, “in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor,” will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: “Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West.”A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it’s as ambitious and layered as Look At Me–and I’m sure it’ll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, “an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs,” and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, “from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future.” Color me intrigued. (Edan)July
Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: “His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in ‘a completely illiterate New York,’ he said. ‘In other words, next Tuesday.'”
Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it’s hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.”
C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: “What are you writing now?” And McCarthy responded: “Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon.”Unknown
Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it’s “a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children.”Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives – the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash – will be the length of the novel’s gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip – particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel’s content. From various obscure interviews, we’ve managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen’s original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an “inside baseball” look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, “will play an important role in the novel.” 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our “Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel.” (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace’s unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears – April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: “The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it’s all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity.”There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.
The Interrogative Mood
Let the Great World Spin
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
The Mystery Guest
December saw a flurry of activity as four books made their first appearances on the list. Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, endorsed by both Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody, caught readers’ interest. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin has been building momentum since its National Book Award win. I also reviewed it here and last month, Reif Larsen wrote glowingly of the book. Our recent interview with superstar translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky clearly got readers interested in their latest effort, a Tolstoy collection. And David Shields’ Year in Reading contribution, while eclectic, nonetheless drew readers’ focus to Gregoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest.
Powered by continued interest in The Millions’ Best of the Millennium series, where the book had a strong showing on both out panel list and our readers’ list, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas took over the top spot in the Top Ten.
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Skating Rink
The Year of the Flood
The Wild Things
Dave Eggers bookends our list as Zeitoun moves into the top spot and The Wild Things lands at number 10. Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections hits our list two months after a panel of writers, editors and critics assembled by The Millions named it the Best of the Millennium (So Far). The book joins Cloud Atlas and Austerlitz, which both figured prominently in the series as well. Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood has re-entered the list after falling off last month. And dropping from the list are Felonious Jazz by Bryan Gilmer and Imperial by William T. Vollmann.
See Also: Last month’s list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Wild Things
The Skating Rink
Dave Eggers lands a second book on our Top Ten with his novelization of the Spike Jonze movie The Wild Things. (Eggers is having similar success on some other distinguished lists.) Here at The Millions, Wild Things was a Most Anticipated book and Emily recent revisited the beloved children’s book that started it all. Also debuting is Austerlitz, the 2001 novel by W.G. Sebald. The book recently landed at #7 in our “Best of the Millennium” series.
We didn’t have any new Hall of Fame inductees this month, and falling off the Top Ten were The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, and Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.
And, finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their top positions.
See Also: Last month’s list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Skating Rink
The Year of the Flood
The White Tiger
Future Missionaries of America
Four inductees to The Millions Hall of Fame plus gridlock in the tenth spot on our list meant room for plenty of new titles on the list in September.
Graduating to our Hall of Fame were four illustrious titles, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, Matthew Diffee’s The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker, and Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. The former two titles are good examples of our readers’ taste in fiction (Wao in fact won our recent readers’ poll of the best fiction of the decade). The latter two are niche titles that sparked an enduring interest in readers despite relatively minor mentions at The Millions.
Newly appearing on the list are some recently published titles. Asterios Polyp, which we reviewed not long ago, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and William T. Vollmann’s Imperial, which were both on our most recent Most Anticipated list, and Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer, who was an interviewer and an interviewee for us in June.
Also debuting are Cloud Atlas, which emerged as a big favorite in our Best of the Millennium project, and The White Tiger. That one’s a bit of a mystery because we haven’t talked about it much, but it did, of course, win the Booker Prize a year ago.
Finally, Inherent Vice and Zeitoun hold on to their positions, but there are still several new releases on tap for the fall, so they may be challenged soon for the top spots.
See Also: Last month’s list.
One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out.
The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week. Links in our reader list go to Amazon):
by Jonathan Franzen
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
The Known World
by Edward P. Jones
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Roberto Bolaño
by David Mitchell
by George Saunders
by Cormac McCarthy
by Cormac McCarthy
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon
Out Stealing Horses
by Per Petterson
by Jonathan Franzen
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro
by Marilynne Robinson
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Zadie Smith
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami
Twilight of the Superheroes
by Deborah Eisenberg
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
by Norman Rush
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Ian McEwan
by W.G. Sebald
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
by Richard Russo
by Jeffrey Eugenides
by Alice Munro
The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem
by Colm Tóibín
Stranger Things Happen
by Kelly Link
Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
American Genius, A Comedy
by Lynne Tillman
by Marilynne Robinson
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade. Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth). But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows.
With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson’s much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today?
Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I’ve been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that’s always had a lot of support in the online literary community. Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner.
Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed.
We’ll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.
I read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners.
Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come.
Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic.
Here is our methodology:
I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.
I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year’s “Prizewinners” post
*Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year’s IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books.
11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P
9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P
8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo – C, I, N, P
8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P, I
7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P
7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W
7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P
7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, C, W
7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P
7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W
7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W
6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C
6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – C, P
5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – B, W
5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – C, P
5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P
5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P
5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P
5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N
5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W
5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I
5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N
5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I
5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P
5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I
5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P
5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C
5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W
5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N
5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P
5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W
5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P
5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W
5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W
5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P
5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P
4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson – C, N
4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon – C, N
4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – B, I
4, 2007, Animal’s People by Indra Sinha – B, I
4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N
4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I
4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I
4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C
4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W
4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C
4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C
4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I
4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I
4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P
4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W
4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I
4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N
4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P
4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W
4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I
4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W
4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P
4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I
4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W
4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I
4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I
4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W
4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W
4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N
4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I
4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
A while back, I put together a post called “The Prizewinners,” which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the “best” books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the “canon” and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original “Prizewinners” post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow – C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz – C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai – B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy – C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann – C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith – B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin – B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry – B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, W
Now that the 2006 Booker Prize longlist has been out for 24 hours, we’re seeing the commentary roll in. So far, the big story shaping up appears to be Peter Carey, who could win for a record third time with Theft, versus Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, who many believe was robbed when his novel Cloud Atlas failed to win a couple years back. Also getting talked up as potential favorites in the early going are Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan and Sarah Waters for The Night Watch.Looking at the media coverage, The Guardian highlights the difficulty that the judges reportedly encountered in assembling the longlist, taking “more than six hours to pick 19 authors, a length of debate far longer than that taken by previous judges to choose most eventual winners.” The Times leads with Andrew O’Hagan, who lost out to J.M. Coetzee five years ago. Metro notes that Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men is the only debut novel on the list. At the Literary Saloon, Michael looks at the total number of books considered for the prize this year and in years past, while lamenting that this even longer list isn’t made public.Of course, the most amusing part of the annual Booker frenzy is the role of the oddsmakers, who take bets on the prize. Nearly all of the Booker commentary mentions these odds in gauging who might be favored, and the BBC rounds up the details on that front. Serious gamblers, meanwhile, should head straight to William Hill, where the latest odds are posted. As of this writing, Black Swan Green is the favorite at 6 to 1, while Nadine Gordimer’s Get a Life brings up the rear at 26 to 1.
The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one’s yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year’s National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of “big name” literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I’d love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)
If you’ve ever been to a bookshop in the UK (or to one of the few bookstores in the States that imports British books), you’ve probably noticed that the books on the shelves look stunning compared to their Yankee counterparts. At the bookstore where I worked in LA, I encountered authors who hated their American book covers but adored the British ones. Why the discrepancy? I don’t know; I suspect it has to do with the fact that books are marketed by entertainment companies as “entertainment products” here in the US, while elsewhere, books are treated simply as books. To illuminate the differences in book design, I’ve placed some American books (on the left) side by side with their British versions (on the right). (click on the images to enlarge).Freakonomics by Steven LevittThe American cover looks like an ad for insurance, while the British version is more vivid and features nifty pixel art.Until I Find You by John IrvingThe American version is flat and looks like a promotion for the “John Irving brand,” while the British version is slick and sexy.Cloud Atlas by David MitchellUS version: as dull as a textbook. UK Version: so groovy, you want to dive right in.On Beauty by Zadie SmithThe US versions of Zadie Smith’s books look nice, but they are quite pale compared to their British counterparts.Slow Man by J. M. CoetzeeThis time the US version gets the better of the British one with mysteriously iconic silhouette of the broken bicycle.If you are interested in book design have a look at my long ago post about superstar book designer Chip Kidd, and you’ll also enjoy the book design blog Forward.
Check out some of the good stuff floating around:A bookstore on a boat at The CS MonitorSimilarties between David Mitchell’s Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas at Conversational Reading.Tingle Alley discovers that Zadie Smith’s hubby Nick Laird may be getting preferential treatment in the book pages.Aelfred of Dunwoody Recalls a Viking Incursion at Wal-Mart, 848 AD. You can’t really beat this.
Much as The 9/11 Commission Report made big headlines for its non-fiction National Book Award nomination, the nomination of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Vol. 1 for best biography by the National Book Critics Circle (though I’m told the book is deserving of this honor) will likely steal the spotlight in terms of news coverage of the prize. There seems to be a subtext to those fiction finalists, though. In contrast to the NBA brouhaha, the critics’ finalists for fiction aren’t likely to cause much of a stir. In fact, the list of nominees, topped by Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, looks very much like the set of books that most “critics” were hoping for when they decried the NBA finalists and their obscurity. The AP’s book guy Hillel Italie also notes the switch that the NBA and the NBCC have made this year: “Critics are known for championing the obscure, but this year’s list was filled with prominent names and titles, especially compared with last fall’s National Book Awards, a supposedly more glamorous affair.” I’m wondering if the NBCC is trying to prove a point here. Here are all the finalists:Fiction:The Plot Against America by Philip RothGilead by Marilynne RobinsonThe Dew Breaker by Edwidge DanticatThe Line of Beauty by Alan HollinghurstCloud Atlas by David MitchellNon-fiction:Arc of Justice by Kevin BoyleBlue Blood by Edward ConlonThe Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCullochThe Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. ShiplerBlood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. TysonBiography:Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob DylanAlexander Hamilton by Ron ChernowWill in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen GreenblattQueen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John GuyDe Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn SwanPoetry:The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004 by Adrienne RichDanger on Peaks by Gary SnyderCocktails by D.A. PowellThe Orchard by Brigit Pegeen KellyInterglacial by James RichardsonCriticism:Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003 by Richard HowardThe Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel by James WoodSontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me by Craig SeligmanWhere You’re at: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip Hop Planet by Patrick NeateStrangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb A lifetime achievement award will be given to Louis D. Rubin, Jr., the founder of Algonquin Books. The winners will be announced March 18.
You may have heard. In a surprise upset, the Booker Prize was awarded to Alan Hollinghurst for Line of Beauty. Oddsmakers, literary professionals, and speculating bloggers all considered David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to be a lock, but the Booker, as is so often the case, proved too wily to predict. The award will lead to many newspaper write-ups (NYT reg req’d), and a big boost in sales, although, from the looks of things, I would expect relatively modest Vernon God Little numbers rather than blockbuster best seller list Life of Pi numbers. With the Booker overwith, all eyes turn towards the National Book Awards, which will be announced on November 17th. A look at the non-fiction finalists.Bookspotting on the ElI meant to link to this post from Conversational Reading a while ago as it really captures the particular afflictions of many book lovers. His first question caught my eye: “Do you surreptitiously observe what people are reading on public transit?” Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I have the odd habit of posting about the books I spot people reading during the course of my day. (Bookspotting I call it.) Some might find this odd, but I think it’s fascinating, and better than any newspaper article or bestseller list at seeing what books people are interested in. Sure you lots of people reading the bestsellers, but you also see a delightfully random sampling of the books that our fellow citizens bury their noses in each day. Some my find this to be an odd hobby, but I it manages to affirm my faith in civilization. Here are the three books that I noticed from my seat on the Red Line today: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Morrison is an essential of American lit), The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (I’d wager that this book has been a huge seller here in Chicago), and Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare (I love seeing people casually reading Shakespeare on their way to work).
The Booker frenzy is reaching a fevered pitch. I’ve scoured the web for the words of the shortlisted authors. Place your bets accordingly.The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall — excerptLine of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst — profileCloud Atlas by David Mitchell — excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin — excerptI’ll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward — excerptBitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor — interview
In a post last December, I briefly explained why books first come out in hardcover and then, nine to eighteen months later, they come out in cheaper paperback versions. This has become a standard in the book industry, and as a result, some readers, myself included, are leery of books that come out in paperback first without ever being released in a hardcover edition. “What is wrong with this book,” I think to myself, “that the publisher didn’t want to release it as a hardcover?” At the same time, many readers, including myself, are frustrated that the book industry is so rigid like this, and that it is so expensive to purchase a brand new book. Laura Miller in the Times Sunday Book Review goes over many reasons why the current setup is counter-intuitive, including this one: “riskier books rely heavily on reviews and other media coverage to attract readers, but the reviews appear when the books are new. By the time the books show up as affordable paperbacks, the spotlight has moved on.” Miller wonders if the industry’s rigid selling strategy might be thawing, and she points to David Mitchell’s popular new book Cloud Atlas, recently released as a paperback original, as a sign. Read the column here.
We are swiftly approaching the announcement of the Booker Prize. Britain’s highest award for fiction, the award is fussed over endlessly by the gossip-hungry British press, and, for the winner, the rewards are plentiful, often turning a book into a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Take Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, for example. This year’s Longlist has been out for a while and the Shortlist will be out in a week. The winner will be crowned on October 19th. For the American reader, it is worth mentioning that this is the first year that American authors are eligible for the Booker. Still, as is often the case, the Longlist includes books that are not currently available in the States, though others have been bestsellers and award winners here. Here are the ones that have excerpts available:The Island Walkers by John Bemrose — excerptHavoc, in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett — excerptA Blade of Grass by Lewis Desoto — excerptThe Honeymoon by Justin Haythe — excerptThe Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard — excerpt, my reviewCloud Atlas by David Mitchell — excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin — excerptThe Brits love to bet, and the bookmakers over there actually come up with odds and take bets on the Booker each year. According to them Cloud Atlas is the big favourite. And if you don’t believe me when I tell you that the Brits (and the whole of the Commonwealth) get really saucy over the Booker, check out The Bluffer’s Guide to the Booker or better yet, Tibor Fischer’s tell-all about being a Booker Judge.