Chris Power’s debut short story collection, Mothers, is not a collection of stories about mothers. At least, not at first blush. Only three of the 10 stories in Power’s collection are anchored clearly—and even then tenuously—in a mother-child relationship: “Mother 1: Summer 1976,” “Mother 2: Innsbruck” and “Mother 3: Eva.” Using a variety of narrators, the three pieces track the life of Eva—a troubled, helplessly itinerant woman who was tragically mothered and who becomes, inevitably, a tragic mother herself. Eva’s impulses are protean. Her global travels both shield her and empty her, the drama of her life waxes and wanes. Her life’s end is a picture of despondency: There are no histrionics, no wild paroxysms—everything is simply bleak.
The three stories that follow Eva’s life—dispersed through Power’s collection as the first, middle, and final story—capture the thematic nexus that hovers under Power’s collection. The trio gets at the elusiveness that travels stubbornly—achingly—along with intimacy. In Power’s stories, as in life, a sense of estrangement begets (the pursuit of) freedom, begets longing, begets loving, begets estrangement… and so on. The strategic placement and probing nature of the pieces on Eva make them the support beams around which Power’s remaining stories take shape.
This is not to say, though, that the remaining seven pieces don’t stand alone. Power, whose column “A brief survey of the short story” has been a hit at The Guardian since 2007, wrote on James Joyce’s Dubliners that each story in the Irishman’s collection “functions perfectly well in isolation.” Power, too, has this writerly strength. His stories each have their own distinct ambiance, their own precise codes. You have the hollow sensuality and the teetering-on-the-cusp-of-breakdown tension in “Above the Wedding”—where Liam watches the man he desperately lusts after marry a woman he reluctantly respects. You have the complex ambivalence of “The Crossing,” where two strangers, after forging a partnership, deal with their profound misalignment; and then there’s the subtle crescendo of tension that blooms into brutal abandonment in “Run.”
You also have pure fun. Power is funny. He puts forth absurdity in the way you’d expect of a more modern (and better socialized) narrator of Beckett’s. The father of two daughters in “The Colossus of Rhodes,” for instance, remembers visiting the island of Cephalonia as a child. The island is impeccable, once the site of an ancient Greek wonder. He’d have written about his visit but his experiences don’t really merit the chore: “Boy gets felt up, sees kitten being kicked to death, then rips penis up in zip? What’s anyone meant to do with a story like that?” At least we as readers are comforted that he still has a bit of evidence in “the scar on [his] penis” which is, evocatively, “a line of raised, caramel-coloured skin as thin as a credit card”—I imagine the long side of a golden Visa, straight down the shaft.
In Mothers there is death—I mean arbitrary, misplaced-foot causing death—but there is also rebirth. In one story we witness a cocaine-induced epiphanic moment, where a struggling comic abandons his crutch act of “impersonating” Johnny Kingdom. He pulls over to the side of the road, tosses his Johnny Kingdom wig, jacket and shoes into the black field, and wipes his mouth with a hank of grass torn from the warm earth. We believe his real career, his real life, will start now. We see birth literally, too: When Eva dies at Mothers’s conclusion, her daughter is several months pregnant. Even in these emotionally wrenching scenes, Power is careful not to over-sentimentalize. Not once does he break the delicate combination of breezy and desperate that constitutes the tenor in much of his work.
One question persists: If Power’s Mothers is mostly populated by a variety of fathers, gay men, and single and searching women—why, then, call the collection Mothers? Joyce’s Dubliners, for instance, is strictly about Dubliners, and Power points this out in his column. But Power also points out that while Joyce’s stories can function independently of one another, “reading each as part of a whole creates unique effects. Their themes, concerns and meanings overlap and reverberate.” This cohesion is true of Power’s work, too: Power’s literary feat in Mothers is in his stretching the hermeneutic bands of the very term mother.
mother, Power shows, is not only to birth and raise a child. When you consider
Power’s work as a whole you’re reminded that to mother is to nurture, sure, but
it is also to be irremediably blind to the object of nurture. It’s to brutally
abandon, as we see in “Run.” It is to agonize and obsess over, as we see in
“Above the Wedding,” and it’s to be utterly, often inexplicably apathetic
toward, even to hate. To mother is do
what’s most banal because it is most primordial, or atavistic, and it is also
to do what is miraculous, what is transcendent. It’s to shed “Johnny Kingdom”
on the side of the road—an act of mothering, even of birthing oneself—and
sometimes it’s to compulsively elude—the way Eva does—that which you’ve brought
into the world.
Readers of James Joyce will be well used to flipping back and forth between the main text and endnotes, or perhaps keeping Google at hand, to find explanation for some obscure reference to Irish politics or a piece of 100-year-old Dublin slang. It is this specificity of setting and precision of detail that Joyce contended was a crucial cornerstone of his work, arguing that “In the particular is contained the universal.”
This point may be made most accessible in “The Dead,” the final short story in his collection Dubliners. Although, like all of his fiction, it is rooted firmly in specifics of Irish culture, it is structured around the universally familiar time of Christmas, and its very meaning hinges upon this seasonal setting.
Even if one is not an active participant in annual yuletide celebrations, popular culture has ensured that we all recognise the greeting card image of the traditional Christmas gathering: friends and family joined in a single warm home, with the snow falling outside, to enjoy food, drink, music, speeches, and general merrymaking. Joyce’s story presents this exact Christmas-time setting. However, his narrative does not move in the same stream of hokey sentimentality that so many Christmas stories do: he keeps the unfortunate exchanges, conversational faux pas, and awkward silences, which are such an inevitability, firmly intact.
Although Joyce may not believe in any notion of idealization of the holiday season, he nonetheless suggests that this Christmas romanticism, that we all on some level buy into, can in fact be the catalyst for moments of profound realization. Indeed, the story ends with the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiencing one of the most famous epiphanies in all of literature, which is directly inspired by the preceding Christmas celebrations: “He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow.” The absence of a question mark in this last sentence suggests that these Christmas celebrations, even if Gabriel does recognize them as “foolish,” are a necessary component in bringing him to his epiphany, by forcing him into a more emotional state of mind.
This emotional resonance of the Christmas season may come in part due to its unique ability to force us to simultaneously confront both the past and future. Situated on the cusp of the New Year, Christmas is a natural time for reflection, whilst also providing a hope of some new beginning. Furthermore, the image of snow — the blank white surface — is suggestive of a sense of optimistic forward thinking, and the nostalgia that comes from bringing family together is bound to force the mind backwards.
This duality implicit in the Christmas tradition is also embodied in the two most enduringly popular Christmas narratives of our time: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these stories take their protagonists on journeys into alternate realities based on decisions they have made in the past, and decisions they might make in the future, culminating in an epiphany of redemption.
While “The Dead” also forces its protagonist to examine the past and an imagined future, its ending is much more ambiguous and has none of the redemptive qualities of Dickens or Capra. This is reflected through the fact that unlike these narratives “The Dead” does not take place on Christmas Eve, which allows an opportunity for change before the day itself, but rather on the final day of the “Christmas-time” period — the day known fittingly as Epiphany.
By setting his story in the wake of Christmas, Joyce implies that it is too late for change, with that possibility lying dead in the past. Furthermore, the fact that he informs us of the story’s Epiphany setting by referring to a New Year’s resolution already broken (the “reformed” drunk Freddy Malins gets “screwed” at the party), reinforces the notion that a failure to self-improve is a theme at the story’s center.
The image Gabriel conjures of his grandfather on horseback, endlessly circling a statue in town on his confused horse, also suggests an inability to move forward, and is part of a larger tapestry within Dubliners that presents all of Ireland in a state of “paralysis.” Likewise, Gabriel’s assured vision of the future, in which he imagines his aunt’s funeral and thinks “that would happen very soon,” suggests a sense of impending death, with no chance of aversion. His prophetic name further implies the certainty of this future, and seems to end the story on a note of undiluted bleakness.
However, although “The Dead” does not offer hope in the straightforward way that A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life do, there is surely some hope in the fact that Gabriel experiences an epiphany at all. If everything in the world were truly in “paralysis,” this moment of transcendence and absolute truth-seeing would not be possible, and although it brings no joy, it is a key moment of recognition and self-understanding; a moment of growth.
What Joyce presents us with in “The Dead” is a true, unidealized epiphany. In the real world epiphanies are hard — we do not have literal ghosts and angels to gently guide us towards them. And that is why Joyce’s story is the perfect coda for the holiday season.
As we leave Christmas, which is a time of fantasy — taking us away from the routine of our normal lives, and saturating us in narratives of schmaltz — “The Dead” represents a return to reality; a reality in which brief moments of self-realization are hard-won, and even when they do come they do not necessarily offer any possibility of tangible change. For Joyce, the true epiphanies do not come during Christmas, amidst wine and tinsel and distant relatives, but after the celebrations have died down, when we find ourselves alone, awake in the witching hour with only our own imagined ghosts of the past and the “shades” of the future to keep us company.
Image Credit: Flickr/formatc1
James Joyce discarded Catholicism, but he religiously observed Groundhog Day. February 2 was his birthday, and Joyce took his birthday seriously throughout his adult life. He didn’t look for the groundhog’s shadow, however. He looked for his own, and believed he’d found it in the person of another, lesser-known Irish writer who he came to consider his spiritual twin. Joyce claimed the other man had also been born on Groundhog Day in Dublin in 1882, just like him, though scholars have been unable to verify the exact birthdate of this other, lesser-known scribe. Little of the other man’s biography is in fact known with certainty.
The man may have been two years old when his father died and possibly six when he entered a Dublin orphanage, never to return home. It’s all a bit unclear; a fog of rumor hangs over his origins as it does over John Henry or Jesus Christ. This much is known: he was very small as a child; when he grew up he was still so short that one journalist said he was no taller standing than sitting; others called him a leprechaun, and he didn’t much like that; he told a cartoonist, “Eh, you want to caricature me, eh? Well, the Almighty beat you to it.” This too is known: notwithstanding his diminutive beginnings, great men would come to worship at his feet.
The Irish playwright Seán O’Casey called him “the jesting poet with a radiant star in his coxcomb.” Eugene O’Neill asked him to name his children and so Oona and Shane O’Neill got their names. James Joyce asked him to complete Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself go blind. He published plays, novels, stories, and poems, including a series of them in The New Yorker in 1929, and his voice once pervaded the Irish airwaves like rainbows south of Skibbereen. This so-called leprechaun with a voice “nimble as a goat’s foot,” as one commentator puts it, was called James Stephens.
Some evidence suggests Stephens was born not on February 2, 1882 like Joyce, but rather on February 9, 1880. Perhaps Joyce asserted they were twins because he regarded Stephens as a particularly worthy rival, and because Joyce conquered his rivals by appropriating them — and because, after being enemies, they became good friends. In a letter dated May 31, 1927, Joyce reports that for years he carried three portraits in his pocket: one of his father, one of himself, and one of James Stephens. When Ulysses was published on February 2, 1922 — on Joyce’s 40th birthday, by his own design — he inscribed a copy to his poetical twin. Stephens in turn wrote a theosophical poem called “Sarasvati” for Joyce’s birthday and for the rest of Joyce’s life gave him the kind of respect that Joyce demanded of every animal, mineral, and vegetable. Stephens called Joyce a king, encouraged him to carry on with Finnegans Wake, and when it was published, told Joyce that its last chapter was the “greatest prose ever written by a man” — praise that deeply moved Joyce, and with which he surely concurred.
But the two men didn’t like each other at first, and one senses that their rivalry forever chafed at Stephens, beginning with their first meeting in 1912, when Joyce feared and envied Stephens. In 1907, Joyce had published a small volume of poetry called Chamber Music that garnered its author little attention; Stephens’s poetry meanwhile had so impressed the famous Irish poet AE (a.k.a., George Russell) that in 1907 Russell adopted Stephens as his protégé. Stephens had by 1912 furthermore upstaged Joyce in prose. When the two first met on Dawson Street in Dublin, Stephens’s second novel The Crock of Gold was already at the printer, while Joyce was still struggling to publish his first prose work, Dubliners. According to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce dumped his publishing frustrations on Stephens, the writer whom Joyce described to his brother as “my rival, the latest Irish genius.” Stephens had of course faced trials and difficulties himself, but Joyce neither knew nor cared. Stephens says that Joyce gazed down at him in Pat Kinsella’s pub with blues eyes so magnified by his spectacles as to be “nearly as big as the eyes of a cow” before commencing a verbal assault. Stephens narrated the meeting thus on the radio in 1946:
He turned his chin and his specs at me, and away down at me, and confided the secret to me that he had read my two books; that, grammatically, I did not know the difference between a semi-colon and a colon: that my knowledge of Irish life was non-Catholic and, so, non-existent, and that I should give up writing and take to a good job like shoe-shining as a more promising profession.
I confided back to him that I had never read a word of his, and that, if Heaven preserved me to my protective wits, I never would read a word of his, unless I was asked to destructively review it.
Stephens had had the upper hand in 1912, but by 1946 Joyce had thoroughly overshadowed his old rival. The word “non-existent” in the foregoing passage calls out the name of another of Stephens’s wounds, a possible turning point in the Stephens-Joyce rivalry. It was in a 1915 essay in The New Age entitled “The Non-Existence of Ireland” that Joyce’s influential champion Ezra Pound dismissed Stephens as “a mild enough writer.” It enraged Stephens, who wrote a bitterly funny letter to The New Age deriding Pound in doggerel form. Stephens concludes that having written Pound’s name, he had to go “fumigate” his sullied pen.
Such injuries were perhaps fresh in Stephens’s mind when, in a 1917 letter, he conceded to his American publisher that Joyce was “a clever, competent writer, but…by no means a great writer.” Stephens went on in that letter to slag Joyce as “a disappointed, envious man” and Joyce’s work as “unpleasant” and “thin.”
In later years, after Stephens and Joyce had become close friends, and after Stephens had affably accommodated himself to Joyce’s international fame, he repented of those criticisms and praised Joyce at every opportunity. And the two friends celebrated their shared birthday together. On February 2, 1933, Stephens wrote from Paris to thank his children Iris and Seumas for their birthday wishes. His letter calls February 2 “that most noble of dates.” “Tis Candlemas,” he writes, “and it is also the end of most things, and the beginning of everything…[W]ill go thence at 8.30 to the Joyces where a party of some kind is to be held to celebrate our mutual birthday…It was bitterly cold here until three days ago, and I had a cold — your mother has it now, but I didn’t need it anyway.”
Stephens was famous for his wit, and Richard Ellmann and others have observed that his humor depended on his modesty and self-deprecation. Being under five feet tall, he identified with the little guy. An editor of Stephens’s letters, Richard Finneran, asserts that Stephens celebrated his birthday on February 2 long before his acquaintance with Joyce; if so, perhaps that’s because, as Ellmann speculates, “Stephens was invariably sympathetic to the intrusions of small creatures into the universe.” Those sympathies are plainly evident in Stephens poems like 1924’s “Little Things” in which Stephens writes, “Little things that run and quail, / And die in silence and despair. / Little things that fight and fail, / And fall on earth and sea and air.”
Ellmann notes that unlike Joyce, Stephens “often chose to appear as elfin.” He was unlike Joyce in his temerity before the possibility of oblivion. David McCord wrote in 1962 of Stephens: “the man put his books out the way one would plant a tree, each to grow to its own size, each to gather in its shade those who have traveled a long way through the mire, the dust and the anxiety of the world.” There is something sagacious and honorable in Stephens’s retiring attitude to posterity, but one sad outcome may be that “the readers of Joyce — a big lot of them too — have overlooked a fellow genius,” as McCord says. Stephens is for one thing much funnier than Joyce, McCord contends, and it’s impossible to disagree with him. “The surrealist in Stephens is always spacious,” McCord goes on, “his hells and heavens (for me at least) have both an altitude and depth that I do not find even in Finnegans Wake.”
Could it be that the shabby, out-of-print volumes that keep custody of Stephens’s legacy are, as McCord argues, “vintage wine in a rain barrel?” Could it be that underneath a homely title like Irish Fairy Tales, which Padraic Colum notes was “never sufficiently praised” and which is now mislabelled as children’s literature, there lies a work of true genius?
Having read Irish Fairy Tales, I add my voice to those who sing in praise of the long-lost leprechaun of Irish literature. For Irish Fairy Tales is more than good. It’s a work of genius on the Joyce and W.B. Yeats level, though stylistically different in almost every way from that of his taller and more famous peers. Stephens writes in that work:
I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above. In these latitudes I moved through a world of amber, myself amber and gold; in those others, in a sparkle of lucent blue, I curved, lit like a living jewel: and in these again, through dusks of ebony all mazed with silver, I shot and shone, the wonder of the sea.
No wonder no one ever wrote Stephens a fitting epitaph; no one could say it quite as well as him! But perhaps what Stephens wrote of the king of the salmon is good enough for himself. He is brave, skilled, honorable, and as unconcerned with either fame or revenge as his hero Fionn.
In “The Boyhood of Fionn,” a piece of magical realism in Irish Fairy Tales to stand aside Gabriel García Márquez and Franz Kafka, Fionn encounters a wise poet sitting on the bank of a wild, remote river. He asks the poet, “Why do you live on the bank of a river?” The poet answers:
‘Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind.’
‘How long have you been here?’ was the next query.
‘Seven years’ the poet answered.
‘It is a long time,’ said wondering Fionn.
‘I would wait twice as long for a poem,’ said the inveterate bard.
Retiring into Joyce’s shadow, Stephens remarked that Finnegans Wake is both “unreadable” and “wonderful.” His own works are readable and wonderful. Groundhog Day seems a fitting time for Stephens to step back out into the light after a long winter of oblivion in Joyce’s shadow. Or, if that’s not to be just now, later then. However long it takes. Stephens would wait twice as long for a poem.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
At Flavorwire Jonathan Sturgeon considers what we’ve learned from Dubliners in the hundred years since it was first published and argues that “when it comes to realism, Dubliners, more than even Chekhov’s short fiction, is the model we routinely fail to live up to.” Sturgeon’s reflections on Joyce’s free indirect discourse pair well with Jonathan Russell Clark’s Millions essay on close writing, and his essay isn’t completely without hope: he concludes with a few books that, “on the surface, look nothing like Dubliners, but, in spirit… show that Joyce’s book still lives 100 years on.”
In 2004, much of the literary world celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday, aka the setting of James Joyce’s Ulysses. This year, we’re celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Dubliners, which our own Mark O’Connell once described as “a collection which writers of the short story form seem basically resigned to never surpassing.” At The Paris Review Daily, Skippy Dies author Paul Murray writes about his history with the book. You could also try to pass our eccentric James Joyce quiz.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr
Haven’t read our own Mark O’Connell’s great new essay at Slate? To mark the hundredth anniversary of Dubliners, Mark paid a visit to the James Joyce House, which led him to reflect on life in his native city. “If you live in Dublin, if you are yourself a Dubliner,” he writes, “no matter how many times you read the book, it will always reveal something profound and essential and unrealized about the city and its people.”
The 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners occurs this month, and the occasion is being celebrated with the launch of Dubliners 100, a “reimagining and rewriting of the 15 original stories by a range of well-established and promising writers.” Among the modern writers lending their talents to the homage is Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Donal Ryan (The Spinning Heart), and Pat McCabe (Butcher Boy).
It’s common for descriptions of James Joyce’s Dubliners to label its stories portraits of Irish life. If you’d like to look at actual portraits of Irish life in 1904, however, you could do a lot worse than this series of old photos of Dublin, available online courtesy of the Google Cultural Institute.
Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand.
Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold.
As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed.
As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story.
And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like.
This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple.
Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.
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.
This past year I read 56 books. That’s slightly off the pace of 60 books a year that I’ve set over the previous 12 years, but then I did read a lot of very long history books this year — yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Caro – and my wife and I did make a very time-consuming move to Canada late in the year. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Maybe the real answer is that I’m just getting tired of trying to read so damn many books.
I know how many books I read because I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve finished since January 1, 2000. As of today, my total for books read in the new millennium stands at 776, of which 368 were fiction or poetry and 408 were nonfiction or memoir. Just less than 30 percent of those books, a total of 229, were written by women. At one point, I tried to keep track of how many of the authors I read were non-white, but the racial demarcations became so tangled — what to make of Bliss Broyard, a white writer who wrote a book about her father, Anatole, who concealed his (nearly invisible) African-American heritage until his death? — that I gave up.
As you can see, I’m a wee bit obsessive about my book lists. I’m deeply competitive, too. Because books are long, and because, in addition to holding down a number of teaching and freelance-writing gigs, I am also the primary caregiver for our six year old, my reading time is limited, which means I have to pace myself. I long ago figured out that to reach my goal of reading 60 books a year, I needed to average five books a month, or a little more than a book a week. For years now, reading has been something like training for a marathon. I keep mental tallies of how many pages I’ve read per night, and how many more pages I need to read in the next few days to keep to my average. In 2011, after years of hovering in the mid-50s, when my annual average hit precisely 60 — that is, 720 books read over 12 years — I did a private victory lap.
And that, finally, is what is so bizarre about my little obsession: I’m competing with no one. No one even knows I keep the lists. Once, some years ago before we adopted our son, I bragged to my wife that I had read 66 books in the previous year. She was appalled. Here she was busting her ass working long hours at her high-level job at the United Nations, and I had time to read 66 books a year? Needless to say, that was the last time I bragged to her about how many books I’d read. In fact, aside from a few deliberately vague references to members of my family, all my mental gymnastics over how many pages I read in an evening and how well I was keeping to my five-books-a-month pace has remained a well-kept secret.
In an odd way, the fact that no one else knows has made me more competitive, not less. I’m sure serious runners are familiar with this seeming paradox. Maybe nobody else knows that you shaved 1.2 seconds off your personal best time for the mile, but you know — and that knowledge, plus the fact that your achievement has brought you no external reward, gives you a perverse sense of satisfaction. Or no, let’s be honest about this: it gives you a perverse sense of superiority.
Because in the end, whether you’re recording how many seconds it takes you to run a mile or how many books you read in a year, what you are really doing is finding a way to quantify your inner sense of self-worth. For some people, their self-worth is bound up in the way they look, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so physical fitness — the number of seconds shaved off personal-best times, the number of reps at a certain weight, and so on — becomes a convenient proxy. In my case, I care about being seen as smart. In our culture, bookishness is a signifier of intellectual capacity, so the more books I read, the smarter I must be. That no one else knows is not merely beside the point; it heightens the sense of achievement. I’m a genius, I’ve been quietly telling myself for the past 13 years, and nobody even knows it.
This is made all the more complicated, and in a certain way more poignant, by the fact that I am a writer, so far not a terribly successful one. The problem isn’t so much that I’ve managed to publish only a handful of stories in literary magazines and have two unpublished novels languishing in my digital bottom drawer. That is galling, of course, but the real problem is that until very recently, my work just wasn’t very good. Unsuccessful writers tend not to say this aloud very often, at least not in public. It’s easier to blame the cruelty of the market and boneheaded editors, but I suspect that when they’re alone at their writing desk most serious writers are like me: for most of their early writing lives, they read their own stuff and cringe.
It is difficult to describe how painful this is. I became a writer not just because I thought I had something to say, but because I love good writing. I care about good writing. I will go so far as to say that, for me, good writing has a moral dimension to it. A great novel like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or a revelatory story like James Joyce’s “The Dead” from Dubliners is like some incredibly fine moral scalpel that can slit me open, turn me inside out, and force me to feel the world in a raw, intimate way that only a great work of art can. A clumsy sentence or an insufficiently explored character in a place where that sort of thing isn’t supposed to occur — in a published novel, say, or a reputable literary magazine — feels not merely lazy or bad, but wrong.
And here I was doing it myself, year after year, story after story, book after book. For years, I had to come at my writing desk sideways, creep toward it inch by inch while pretending to be doing something else — reading the newspaper, checking my email, staring out the window — because I knew that once I sat down and opened up the file of whatever I was working on, it would suck. Worse, I had no idea how to make it not suck. I spent hours and hours — years, in some cases — fiddling with stories and parts of novels, and when I printed them out to read them afresh, they still sucked just as bad as they always had.
Through all those long years, reading — compulsive, competitive reading — was my balm. Early on, when I was in grad school, I told myself that an hour spent reading was as important to my progress as a writer as an hour spent writing. At the time, this was almost certainly true. I wasn’t one of those kids who read books by the bagful and had plowed through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky by the time I was 15. I probably read more books than the average American teenage boy, but I also played a lot of sports and watched a lot of TV. If I’m being honest, I’d also have to admit that I spent a fair amount of my adolescence too high to do anything but crank Pink Floyd and stare at the bedroom wall.
This became a real handicap in my 20s when I started to get serious about being a writer. My earliest attempts at fiction were all transparent knock-offs of early Raymond Carver stories. This was in part because I was in many ways a sad, confused character out of an early Carver story, but it was also because Raymond Carver was one of the very few contemporary writers I had actually read.
This is one of the reasons I started keeping the reading lists in the first place. I told myself I just wanted to keep a record of what I’d read, but, really, I knew myself well enough to know that I would turn it into a competition and start reading more. And I did. The first year I read 40 books. The next year I read 66. After a few years of steep dips following our son’s arrival, my averages boomed again, and by 2011 I had hit 74, my personal best. Keeping a list forced me to read more widely, too. Because I kept track of how many women and non-white writers I was reading, and because I was appalled how many white male writers I found I was choosing to read, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and discovered great women writers like Julia Glass, Kate Christensen, and Edwidge Danticat that I might not have read otherwise.
But that was 13 years ago. I’m in my 40s now, and I don’t feel nearly as much a literary rube as I once did. There will always be people who have read more than I have and who have read more deeply than I ever will, but that doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. I’ve read enough to know what a good book is, and I’ve read widely enough to know that there are many different kinds of good books. More importantly, I think, I don’t hate my own work with same secret passion I once did. True, I’m getting paid to write again for the first time in decades, and serious people are taking my fiction seriously, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being able to scroll down to any page of my own work that I consider finished and say, “Okay, a writer wrote that.” I still have to approach my writing desk crabwise, because this thing we do, this making magic out of words, is hard, no matter who’s doing it. But it no longer seems impossible to me. I no longer feel like I’m just fooling myself.
So in this new year, I am solemnly resolving to read fewer books. I’ll probably still record them because it’s habit now, and it is kind of nice to be able to look back over a year and see what I’ve read. But I won’t be aiming for 60 books a year anymore, and if I see a nice, fat doorstop of a novel I want to read, I won’t stop to check whether I’m far enough ahead for the year to give up the two or three weeks it’ll take to read it. I’ll just read the damn thing.
Image Credit: Flickr/Raoul Luoar
I’m just not a short-story writer, a few fiction writers have said to me recently, young authors who’ve written one or two novels. I’m struck by the statement, because I wonder often about this – the difference between long form and short form, process-wise – and have been tempted to make the declaration (to myself, at least) as well. At this point, I empathize with the statement, but am not quite ready to go there.
I wrote short stories earlier in my writing life because, well, that’s what They told us to do. And They were right. You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter. Of course you can practice and develop all these by writing a novel; but it will take you much much longer. Consider how many story drafts get partially or completely tossed into the literal and/or virtual garbage as you figure out what you are really writing about; how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale.
But I never felt like I hit my stride with short stories. I published several, and even won some awards, but of all the stories I’ve written, I’m probably proud of one, maybe two of them. One story, which won a fairly prestigious award, was so bad in my opinion, that I completely destroyed it – hard copy and digital. (I recently contacted the publication that sponsored the award, and they too have no record of it; poof! – I am not a short-story writer.)
When I happened upon the novel that would become Long for This World, it was liberating and exhilarating. All that room, the freedom to move among settings, cultures, time periods, points of view. The license to spend three or four years working on something, keeping notebooks full of ideas and sketches and scenes, filtering anything and everything through the lens of The Novel I’m Working On; indulging my mind and imagination in layers of world and character and idea. This is my medium, I started to think; this is how I experience life – big and messy – what existence means to me. I am a kitchen-sink writer: throw it all in, everything you care about in one, interconnected world, glorious heterogeneity; then shape something out of it.
But look: I’ve written one novel (and a second monster of a novel draft), and I’m not even 40 yet. Is it really time to decide what kind of writer I am? Developing as a writer is indeed so much about knowing thyself; about riding the tailwinds of your strengths, not spinning your wheels trying to be a different kind of writer than what you are. David Means said recently in a New Yorker podcast, referring to Raymond Carver, “Style is a maneuver around what you can’t do […] around things you can’t deal with.” Barry Hannah said, “Be master of such as you have.”
On the other hand, the sculptor Henry Moore said that contentment is having an impossible goal, the absorbedness (Donald Hall’s word) of pursuing it. To me, the short story is this miraculously compressed form, elegant and complex, small in shape but large and deep in meaning; it has the capacity for perfection in a way that the novel does not. Many writers work their way “up” to writing a novel; perhaps my artistic trajectory will be to work my way “down” to writing gorgeous, perfect short stories. Who knows? I look forward to finding out.
In the meantime, I am lately obsessed with the form we refer to as “linked” stories. Sometimes these are called “story cycles” or “a collection of tales about _____.” As a reader and developing writer, I cannot get enough of this form: compression and vast heterogeneity in one! The stories in this sort of collection may vary widely in style, voice, point-of-view, scope. Often they are held together by a single character, or perhaps a place/culture; or both.
The “link” can be strong or weak, explicit or implicit. From where this writer sits – aesthetically, developmentally – the linked collection is a potential new “home” for development of craft. If 20 pages never quite feels like enough; if you and your world /your character have more business to tend to at the end of this particular narrative arc; or if that minor character got cut from a story but is still breathing and pulsing and waiting to go on stage; well then off you go to the next story in the “cycle.” At the same time, you can work within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity. Ah, the joy, the absorbedness, of the impossible goal.
Some of my favorite linked collections:
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – short “tales” of life in the fictional Midwestern town of Winesburg. We get to know many different characters, and all the stories reveal the essential (and ironic) loneliness of living in a place where everybody knows your name. Haunting, romantic, a masterpiece of the achingly grotesque inner lives of human beings.
Ideas of Heaven by Joan Silber – both form and content are stunning in this National Book Award finalist. The collection is subtitled “A Ring of Stories,” and indeed they are meant to be read in sequence; a minor mention or character in one story becomes the heart of the next (and we start and end with a contemporary character named Alice). In between we traverse centuries and continents, along with the timeless experiences of faith and passion, each story novelistic in scope. Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely,” and there is that delicate, not-quite-taut sense of wholeness in Silber’s work.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx – Proulx’s Wyoming is a brutal and unforgiving place, but not one that we can’t all on some level relate to: you may not be a rodeo bull-rider, but you probably know what it is to feel wounded and constrained by your parents’ flaws; you may not be a gay cowboy, but you may know the pain and dangers of hiding (and revealing) your deepest passions in a hostile environment. I particularly love the diversity of form within the collection; stories range from two to 40 pages long, from sharply humorous flash fictions to vast, novelistic canvasses.
Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant – like many devotees of Gallant, I don’t know what took me so long to get to her. Her stories I suppose are difficult, in the sense that the prose is dense, intelligent, original. This is not “summer reading.” The series of five Linnet Muir stories are the ones I’ve enjoyed most and exemplify exactly what I love about linked stories; each story stands alone, but together they sing. I recommend them for anyone who is weary of mopey-smart-girl stories but wants to be inspired by excellent mopey-smart-girl stories.
Stories by Leonard Michaels — I love the stories about a character named (Phillip) Leibowitz, as both a youth and an adult, including “Murderers,” “City Boy,” “Getting Lucky,” and “Reflections of a Wild Kid.” The character may not be exactly the same character in all the stories, but again that’s the beauty of the form; maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. Michaels didn’t assemble these stories to form a collection, he used the linked form more liberally. Before he died in 2008, Michaels was also working on a series of stories about a mathematician named Nachmann.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson — the nameless through-line narrator of these stories is an excellent study in compelling unlikeability. He sees the world so vividly, and ecstatically; though only when he’s high or experiencing some kind of violence or brutality. The reader lives in that uncomfortable tension throughout, and enjoys it. By the final story, our anti-hero settles down a bit, though (we find ourselves hoping) not too much.
Fidelity by Wendell Berry – in these five stories, Berry revisits the world of Port William, Kentucky, the territory for all his fiction, and even some of our favorite characters like Andy Catlett, Berry’s presumed fictional persona. Berry’s fiction is both warm and harsh, in the way that perhaps only a farmer-poet-essayist-fictionwriter-activist can be.
Stories by Anton Chekhov – Chekhov’s stories are not linked, per se, but as I wrote in a previous essay here at The Millions on the good doctor, there is something to be said for reading them in groups, in succession – as if together they make up his Great Novel, his population of characters all really aspects of One Universal Character. To my mind, the stories are linked by Chekhov’s acute vision of humanity – as flabby and flawed, yet earnestly suspended in perpetual longing. As readers, we recognize that longing, its tragedy and vitality.
Lastly, it’s been many years since I’ve read either of these, but The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro and Dubliners by James Joyce are two widely acclaimed and beloved linked-story collections that are worth mentioning here. John Gardner wrote about the former, which revolves around two characters, Flo and her stepdaughter Rose: “Whether [it] is a collection of stories or a new kind of novel I’m not quite sure, but whatever it is, it’s wonderful.” The latter, of course, is Joyce’s searing portrait of his home city in the early 20th century, captured in 15 stories, one of which, “The Dead,” is considered by some the greatest short story ever written.
Art is long, as they say. Writing well, in any form or genre, is a marathon, not a sprint. Far in the distance, many training miles ahead, I see that perfect gem of a story, those immortal 5,000 words that will leave the hundreds of thousands of others I’ve scribbled and typed, maybe even published, in the dust.
(Image: Chains – rusted from knottyboywayne’s photostream)
The focus of Tom Rachman’s debut novel The Imperfectionists is the men and women immersed in the day-to-day of an unnamed English-language, Rome-based newspaper. Founded in 1953 by a wealthy Atlanta businessman named Cyrus Ott, for reasons that remain a mystery to his family some fifty years on, the newspaper has fallen on hard times. Buffeted by the Internet (and tragically lacking a website well into 2007!), hemorrhaging money, the paper is financially controlled by people who take no interest in it and run by people who are, as the title rather generously observes, “imperfectionists.” Their imperfections are meant to serve the narrative as a propeller.
The territory lying between journalistic idealism, the youthful desire to perfectly capture the world in order to help make that world perfect, and journalistic reality, filled with exigencies and disappointments and countless compromises, together rendering the ideal moot, is ripe and practically begging for novelistic treatment, and Rachman, a correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, according to his book-jacket bio, captures the lay of the land, in prose that is fittingly functional, dispensing, for the most part, with unnecessary flourishes, efficiently doling out pertinent particulars with a simplicity that is so striking as to be deliberate. He fills his fictional paper’s newsroom with editors and copyeditors and reporters, then follows their tangled, intersecting lives out into the streets of Rome and beyond, through a succession of chapters—really, short stories—unfolding in the present tense, interspersed with brief past-tense accounts of significant moments in the paper’s history.
We begin in Paris, where Lloyd Burko, Paris correspondent, desperately searches for a story. This will be the story that restores his career, earns him desperately needed rent money, and brings back his wife, who has slowly begun moving her things across the hall to the apartment of her new lover. The quest yields nothing by way of an article, but it does produce a revelation that might change Lloyd’s life and his understanding of himself.
Back in Rome, we proceed to obituary writer Arthur Gopal, assigned to interview Gerda Erzberger, an Austrian intellectual recently diagnosed with cancer and refusing treatment. Arthur, whose “overarching goal at the paper is indolence,” is the son of a famed reporter, and, rather than competing with his father’s legacy, he dedicates himself to mediocrity, complacently allowing himself to be bullied by the paper’s culture editor. Arthur’s conversation with Gerda, and the phone call that interrupts that conversation, radically alters his world and sets off a chain reaction that will reverberate through the newsroom.
Business reporter, Hardy Benjamin, makes quick sense of the financial news but has trouble with her personal life. After she encounters a young aimless man, the two embark on a tentative courtship, though an accidental revelation compels Hardy to examine her romantic expectation.
Corrections editor Herman Cohen, grammar warrior and producer of the monthly Why? newsletter, which chronicles the most egregious of errors to have made it into the paper, welcomes an old friend, a visit that forces him to reevaluate his past and his present.
Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson discovers her husband is having an affair and reconnects with an old lover, forcing her to confront her romantic history without the comfort of revision and evasion.
In Cairo, having recently quit his doctoral program in primatology, the stringer-hopeful Winston Cheung struggles to file a report while competing with a seasoned newsman for the position, only to learn some unpleasant truths about the profession.
I could go on, as the book does, but the pattern should, by now, be clear enough. Each chapter-story begins with a protagonist stuck in a limbo of sorts, unhappy but not desperately so, unsure about the exact progression that has led him or her to this particular place. Some unexpected event, some surprising encounter, some sudden recognition later, the protagonist acquires a more astute comprehension of the situation, a readjustment that inevitably relates back to the paper, usually validating the series of choices that have, almost imperceptibly, led to this moment. In the meantime, other characters, merely lurking background as shadows in one story, wait for the chance to become protagonists of their own tales, to explain lives otherwise just barely sketched.
Some of the stories are more successful than others in conveying the final insight, though most fall somewhat short of the Joycean epiphany that is the prototype. (The most compelling of the chapters in this respect is, to my thinking, the story of the paper’s CFO Abbey Pinnola, who finds herself seated next to a recently fired employee on a long plane ride; the ensuing account of their tentative flirtation is genuinely revelatory, its conclusion unexpected in the best possible way, simultaneously surprising and, in hindsight, inevitable.) The short stories are meant to tie together through collision of characters, the intersection of themes, the classical unities of time and place; under the auspices of these commonalities, they are, we are lulled into believing, something greater than the sum of their parts. But where this is true in Dubliners, whose deceptively delicate particles, when assembled together, produce a surprisingly robust total, this is rarely the case in The Imperfectionists. The characters—coming in and out of focus, growing more or less important—do not really develop, and the new information we glean about them from story to story is not always illuminating. The change in perspective tends to come off as artificial, lazily telling what was not convincingly shown. Individually, as a short story, each chapter leaves just enough unsaid: we know something of a character’s experience as it is experienced, asking us to imagine beyond the story’s parameters. The revelations in subsequent chapters, matter-of-fact as they are, do little to truly complicate our perceptions. Presumably intended to magnify, the accumulation of detail, in the form of minor references to characters we thought we knew, instead reduces and flattens, unconvincingly extending the storyline. This is particularly glaring in the final summing up, a last entry in the newspaper’s history amounting to a perfunctory conclusion.
I suppose the recent popularity of the stories-as-novel has quite a bit to do with decreased attention spans, allowing readers to pick up and put down the book as needed, all the while believing they are engaged in novel-reading. Or else it is a translation of hypertext into physical text: each character, no matter how minor on this page, has a full story, just a page-turn away! Given that Rachman is clearly concerned with the impact of the web on the traditional newspaper, it seems fitting that he adapt his writing to internet possibility, but, for this reader anyway, the aptness of the adaptation cuts both ways. Yes, it extends the novel’s cultural lease, but something—something intangible but very, very important—is lost in the accommodation. Is a newspaper still a newspaper on the Internet? the newspaper’s staffers ponder. Is a novel-in-stories still a novel?
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]