There’s a comical number of books we are all supposed to read in this age of Donald Trump. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and a legion of others that don’t even include all the books about Trump that are written with Trumpian nuance. Books that announce their souls with titles like Fire and Fury and Unhinged. Both sorts—the classics and the classless—risk domination by Trump’s personality. The pervasive, presidential shag has become his own hermeneutic, a maw of interpretation that reduces the loglines for classics and bestsellers alike to his own favorite paradigm: cheap relevancy.
What people need in this fractured age is a book that can accomplish two seemingly contradictory goals. The first is escape, but not your usual escape. By all means, subsume yourself in far-away worlds or cozy cottage deaths; the news shouldn’t play subtext to every waking hour. Additionally, however, is the escape of concentration, an escape that feels especially rare amidst our collective din of notifications. A friend remarked a year or so ago that she found her usual diet of novels more of a tonic than ever because nowhere else could she find as undistracted a mind in action. That perhaps romanticizes the literary experience. Good. We need brighter and more idealistic visions of reading. Concentrate, we should tell ourselves, and thereby feel a little freedom.
The second and more trumpeted goal for reading right now is that we need books that can give us context or insight into what has been (for many of us) a disorienting time. To what extent should we anticipate political dysfunction collapsing into political violence? What factors have contributed to this era of open corruption and rising tribalism, and how do we search for solutions? Here, we are told in various listicles, are books that have answers. And yet there’s one book that is missing from these types of lists, and it isn’t one of the books folks should read, it is the One Book everyone should attempt for 2019. A distraction, a challenge, a historical saga, a spiritual referee, a book so big that back-cover salesmanship and listicle logic shudder under its romping, magisterial shadow. Considered her magnum opus, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a witty and good-spirited bully, a masterpiece of honest investigation that is as irreducible to the current moment as it is relevant.
Subtitled A Journey Through Yugoslavia, the hulking paperback is often billed as a travelogue. This is technically true, in the same sense that your friend might say, “Meet my cat,” only your friend is a zookeeper. The cat is a lion and perhaps here to eat you. Meet my cat isn’t inaccurate, but neither is it sufficient to explain the situation. Along with her husband and one of Serbia’s leading poets, West tours from Croatia to Montenegro and details an array of pleasant churches, courtyards, sartorial traditions, food, and fertility rites. The book certainly could be used on a journey, or even more likely read as a substitute for one. Its first pleasure is the simplicity of getting away.
But what Black Lamb and Grey Falcon should properly be billed as is an epic of Western history and thought, a book that uses the historical development of the Balkans to investigate nationhood, human violence, spirituality, and the necessity of art. Published in 1941, the post-WWII history of the region does nothing to limit the power of the book’s truths, even when West fails to predict some of the area’s most salient developments (primarily, communism). Never simply one thing, West’s goliath is as interested in the Balkans-qua-Balkans as it is in letting the Balkans’ oppression exemplify humanity’s formal extremes of violence and hate. By formal, I mean the infrastructures that civilizations create to justify, suppress, and foment our basest instincts of annihilation and self-destruction. Caught between the hammer of Austria and the, er, bigger hammer of the Ottoman Empire for most of its history, the Balkans existed in 1937 as a mess of national biases and emergencies. Victims in recovery (one might say), the various nations that composed interwar Yugoslavia indicted at every level the great powers that wrecked them and the spirit behind those powers that wrecked Europe and the world only a few years later. Meet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; it’s a travelogue.
A definitive hatchet job on the values of imperialism, the book unpacks empire’s fundamental lust for erasure on the part of the aggressor by reviewing three main narratives of history, all of which cover decades of struggle and strife. West begins with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; continues with the 19th-century liberation and subsequent struggles of Serbia, which climax with the assassinations of King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga; and concludes with the medieval fracturing of the Serbian empire, which lost the ability to self-govern when the Ottomans beat Tsar Lazar soundly in 1389 on the Kosovo field. Duck if West turns your direction, though, because the too-ready concession to pacifism and purity virtue-signaling on the part of those who might oppose the aggressor is also lambasted. At times she sounds like segments of the current American left when it comes to her progressive pals: “Democrats don’t want to rule,” she might tweet, though only as the final punch-line to a thousand-post thread on the evils of American border camps.
If you want relevancy, then Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is as interested in fascism, the exploited urban poor, the rural disaffected, and the malignant stupidity of the powers-that-be as any book I’ve ever read. It features a horrifying travel companion named Gerda, who if represented even half accurately, is a legitimate approximation for the plain-faced bigotry of Nazi Germany that was so explicit as to be easily doubted. West and her husband discuss, in fact, how no one will believe that Gerda could be so anti-Semitic (she’s married to a Jew!) or anti-Slavic (her Jewish husband is a Serbian!). It’s the banality of evil, in a certain sense, long before Arendt made the term famous. Daily life is full of dullness, and when the exceptional occurs, the dullness is often too established to be disrupted. Gerda couldn’t be that bad, part of us thinks, life is never so bald day-to-day. But for all the complications of history, West assures us that we’re wrong. Gerda’s type of hatred is what makes domination thrum. West ultimately pits imperialism against nationalism, insisting that the horrors of the former not be blindly attributed to the latter. Perhaps nationalism as a concept is beyond recovery for you; read this book and discover whether that remains a viable opinion in the face of cultures who must assert their personality as a bulwark against destruction.
So, the book’s content feels current. Yet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is that much rarer breed, a book of big ideas whose relevancy can’t be draped over whatever fad or crisis is at hand. There are too many facts for such loose abstraction, facts giving birth to other facts at the rate of rabbits. Facts that cast shadows over other facts that all collude to blot out your easy opinions. There are enough facts you wonder if you ever attended a history course or know anything beyond the timeline of your own small life. West opens the book with a reminiscence on the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including an account of Empress Elisabeth’s 1898 assassination. Her son either killed himself or was assassinated some years before. Why does this matter? It put Franz Ferdinand in line to the throne, which might not have mattered if Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga—King and Queen of Serbia (remember?)—hadn’t also been assassinated, giving Serbia over to King Peter, who was a capable and intimidating leader. His rehabilitation of Serbia was feared by Austria, but especially by the blustery, hapless, and somewhat pitiable (only because he died) Franz Ferdinand. Hence why he was on the Serbian border when he was shot, which itself was only accomplished by a comedy of errors pulled directly from the imagination of Armando Ianucci.
The too-muchness of all the facts is the point of the book. In some ways, it’s a tracing of causality so complete that you realize the branching effects of any vital action become opaque in their relationship to each other. Trying to hold the accidents of history in your mind in such a way that their connections and disconnections are plain is an exercise in humility and perspective. West wants the reader to know the particulars, but not so that we can pretend to exhaustive comprehension. She wants to share how much she knows precisely because the facts overwhelm even as they illuminate.
Whatever headlines currently dominate your screens, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon transitions from the metaphysical to the historical to the personal with such grace, but also with such relentlessness, that it demands submission. The book is an uncompromising document of hard-won thought and artful intransigence, one that takes you by the hand and teaches you how to read it. History, I could hear West saying, is shorter than you think, and not neutral. Such guidance is the strength of all masterpieces, I think. They teach us a new way of reading that, if we’re lucky and receptive and not (you know) evil or anything, inaugurates a new way of seeing the world. I’ve never doubted that something like the Civil War was a cornerstone of American strife, but it was only as I was reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that such history felt recent.
While many books attempt to compress the world’s timeline, few, if any, can hope to imitate the way West walks events down a ladder of meaning from the continental to the personal. A perfect moment in one of the historical passages about King Stefan Dusan makes this plain:
In the 49th year of his life, at a village so obscure that it is not now to be identified, he died, in great pain, as if he had been poisoned. Because of his death many disagreeable things happened. For example, we sat in Pristina, our elbows on a tablecloth stained brown and puce, with chicken drumsticks on our plates meagre as sparrow-bones, and there came towards us a man and a woman; and the woman was carrying on her back the better part of a plough.
Comic rather than profound, the movement in this excerpt is a microcosm of the book’s audacity. A king dying in the 14th century in a country distant from her own cannot be impersonal to West if that king’s death not only (in some labyrinth of causality) precipitated the First World War but explains the looming Second World War. Geoffrey Dyer rightly identifies the genius of this passage—and the book—as one of tone. West (the narrator, at least) doesn’t distinguish between persons living or dead, events grand or minimal. They all act upon her, and she unravels their knotted connections with unerring wit.
Perhaps West makes her own case best: “Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tested.” A goblet, a shot, a canteen—a quaff is more than the liquid. A pint of whiskey is still whiskey, but also a cry for help. West’s form is irreducible to scale, although the book’s length makes demands of the reader in and of itself. Her conversations with her husband, her friends, the locals; her forays into art history and craft categorization; her boundless self-deprecation; her insistence that history be viewed intact, every point of the present roped and knotted to leashes reaching out from the past; it’s a grandiose and ridiculous project held together by her casual intimacy with narratives small, epic, and middle-class.
The book is Platonic dialogue, political intrigue, spiritual memoir, vicarious tourism, and not least a polemical tirade aimed at Ancient Rome, Neville Chamberlain, and any idiot in-between. The political history and philosophy the book details are vital, but I can’t think of any other text I’ve either read or even read about that elevates journalism to Homeric proportions. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an argument that news cycles last hundreds of years. Our own moment will pass, but its consequences will remain recent history long after we’re dead. Read anyone else you please in the Year of Our Lord 2019, but Rebecca West is relevance immortalized.
Image: Flickr/Jo Naylor
As you learned last week, The Millions is entering into a new, wonderful epoch, a transition that means fretting over the Preview is no longer my purview. This is one of the things I’ll miss about editing The Millions: it has been a true, somewhat mind-boggling privilege to have an early look at what’s on the horizon for literature. But it’s also a tremendous relief. The worst thing about the Preview is that a list can never be comprehensive—we always miss something, one of the reasons that we established the monthly previews, which will continue—and as a writer I know that lists are hell, a font of anxiety and sorrow for other writers.
That said, the technical term for this particular January-through-June list is Huge Giant Monster. Clocking in at more than 120 books, it is quite simply, too long. (If I were still the editor and he were still the publisher, beloved site founder C. Max Magee would be absolutely furious with me.) But this over-abundance means blessings for all of us as readers. The first half of 2019 brings new books from Millions contributing editor Chigozie Obioma, and luminaries like Helen Oyeyemi, Sam Lipsyte, Marlon James, Yiyun Li, and Ann Beattie. There are mesmerizing debuts. Searing works of memoir and essay. There’s even a new book of English usage, fodder for your future fights about punctuation.
Let’s celebrate very good things, and a lot of them, where we find them. The Millions, its writers, and its readers have been some of my very good things. I’m so grateful for the time I’ve spent as editor, and with all of you. Happy new year, and happy reading. I’ll be seeing you around.
An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: Millions Contributing Editor Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, is a merciless beauty and one of my favorites of 2015. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: The Fishermen garnered universal critical acclaim with its recasting of biblical and African mythos to create a modern Nigerian tragedy. His second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is a contemporary retelling of Homer’s Odyssey blended with Igbo folklore that has received similar glowing notice so far. As Booklist says in a starred review, An Orchesta of Minorities is “magnificently multilayered…Obioma’s sophomore title proves to be an Odyssean achievement.” (Adam P.)
Hark by Sam Lipsyte: In Lipsyte’s latest novel since The Ask, we meet Hark Morner, an accidental guru whose philosophies are a mix of mindfulness, fake history, and something called “mental archery.” Fellow comedic genius Paul Beatty calls it “wonderfully moving and beautifully musical.” While Kirkus thought it too sour and misanthropic, Publishers Weekly deemed it “a searing exploration of desperate hopes.” Their reviewer adds, “Lipsyte’s potent blend of spot-on satire, menacing bit players, and deadpan humor will delight readers.” (Edan)
Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Fever Dream, published in America in 2017 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was, excepting Fire and Fury, perhaps the most frightening book of the last two years. Schweblin has a special knack for blending reality and eerie unreality, and she provides readers more nightmare fuel with Mouthful of Birds, a collection of 20 short stories that has drawn advance praise describing it as “surreal,” “visceral,” “addictive,” and “disturbing.” If you like to be unsettled, settle in. (Adam P.)
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin: VQR columnist and essayist Ruffin now publishes his debut novel, a near-futurist social satire about people in a southern city undergoing “whitening” treatments to survive in a society governed by white supremacy. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls this a “singular and unforgettable work of political art.” For Ruffin’s nonfiction, read his excellent essay on gentrification and food in New Orleans for Southern Foodways or his work for VQR. (Lydia)
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley: It took Hadley 46 years to publish her first novel, 2002’s Accidents in the Home. In the 17 years since, she has made up for lost time, publishing three story collections and six novels, including Late in the Day, about two middle-aged married couples coping with the death of one member of their tight-knit quartet. “Hadley is a writer of the first order,” says Publishers Weekly, “and this novel gives her the opportunity to explore, with profound incisiveness and depth, the inevitable changes inherent to long-lasting marriages.” (Michael)
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma: House of Stone is a debut novel by Zimbabwean author Tshuma. The book opens with the narrative of a 24-year-old tenant Zamani, who works to make his landlord and landlady love him more than they loved their son, Bukhosi, who went missing during a protest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In his book review for The Guardian, Helon Habila praises Tshuma as a “wily writer,” and says that her book is full of surprises. House of Stone not only takes unexpected turns in terms of plot lines, but also bears no single boring sentence. It makes the violent political scenes and circumstance-driven characters vivid on the page and thus renders Zimbabwean history in a very powerful and yet believable way. (Jianan)
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren: In what Publishers Weekly describes as an “impressive debut replete with luminous prose,” Maren’s Sugar Run tells the story of Jodi McCarty, unexpectedly released from prison after 18 years inside. McCarty meets and quickly falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother, and together they set out towards what they hope will be a better life. Set within the insular confines of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing, gritty novel about escape—the longing for it, the impossibility of it—and it announces Maren as a formidable talent to watch. (Adam P.)
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay: Searching for answers about her late mother, Shalini, a 30-year-old privileged woman, travels from Bangalore to Kashmir in search of a mysterious man from her past. In the remote village, political and military tensions rise and threaten the new community she’s immersed herself in. Publishers Weekly, in starred review, wrote: “Vijay’s stunning debut novel expertly intertwines the personal and political to pick apart the history of Jammu and Kashmir.” (Carolyn)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom: A scholar who has earned acclaim both within her discipline of Sociology and outside of the academy for her book Lower Ed, on the predatory for-profit college industry, Cottom has a huge following that looks to her for her trenchant analyses of American society. Now she publishes a collection of essays on race, gender, money, work, and class that combines scholarship and lived experience with Cottom’s characteristic rigor and style. (Lydia)
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rebeah Ghaffari: A story of the family of a retired judge in Iran just before the Revolution, where the events that roil the family are set against, and affected by, the events that will roil the nation. Kirkus calls this “an evocative and deeply felt narrative portrait.” (Lydia)
Castle on the River Vistula by Michelle Tea: Protagonist Sophie Swankowski’s journeys in Tea’s Young Adult Chelsea Trilogy will come to an end in Castle on the River Vistula, when the 13-year-old magician journeys from her home in Massachusetts to Poland, the birthplace of her friend “the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena.” Tea is an author familiar with magic, having penned Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and she promises to bring a similar sense of the supernatural in Sophie’s concluding adventures. (Ed)
Mothers by Chris Power: Smooth and direct prose makes Power’s debut story collection an entrancing read. In “Portals,” the narrator meets Monica, a dancer from Spain, and her boyfriend. “We drank a lot and told stories.” A year later, Monica messages the narrator and says she wants to meet up—and is newly single. Power pushes through the narration, as if we have been confidently shuffled into a room to capture the most illuminating moments of a relationship. Lying on the grass together, Monica stares at the narrator as she rolls onto her back. “It was an invitation, but I hesitated. This was exactly what I had come for, but now the tiny space between us felt unbridgeable.” Mothers is full of those sharp moments of our lives: the pulse of joy, the sting of regret. (Nick R.)
Nobody’s Looking At You by Janet Malcolm: This essay collection is a worthy follow-up to Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In this new collection, readers can catch up on the masterful profiles of Eileen Fisher, Rachel Maddow, and Yuju Wang they may have missed in The New Yorker, as well as book reviews and literary criticism. (Hannah)
Talent by Juliet Lapidos: This debut is a literary mystery/campus novel set into motion by a graduate student, Anna Brisker, who can’t finish her dissertation on “an intellectual history of inspiration.” When Anna crosses paths with the niece of a deceased writer famous for his writer’s block, she’s thrilled to discover that the eminent writer has left behind unfinished work. Anna thinks she’s found the perfect case study for her thesis, but soon learns that the niece’s motives aren’t what they seem and that the author’s papers aren’t so easily interpreted. (Hannah)
Golden State by Ben Winters: With The Last Policemen Trilogy and Underground Airlines, Winters has made a career of blending speculative fiction with detective noir. His next in that vein is Golden State, a novel set in California in the not-too-distant future—an independent state where untruth is the greatest offense. Laszlo Ratesic works as a Speculator, a state force with special abilities to sense lies. (Janet)
Hear Our Defeats by Laurent Gaudé: Prix Goncourt winning French playwright Gaudé’s philosophical meditation on human foibles and violence makes its English language debut. Bracketed around the romance of a French intelligence officer and an Iraqi archeologist, the former in pursuit of an American narco-trafficker and the latter attempting to preserve sites from ISIS, Hear Our Defeats ultimately ranges across history, including interludes from Ulysses S. Grant pushing into Virginia and Hannibal’s invasion of Rome. (Ed)
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian: The short story collection whose centerpiece is “Cat Person,” the viral sensation that had millions of people identifying with/fearing/decrying/loving/debating a work of short fiction last year. (Lydia)
Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen: This writer from Greenland was 22 when she won a prestigious writing prize, and her subsequent debut novel took the country by storm. Now available for U.S. readers, a profile in The New Yorker calls the novel “a work of a strikingly modern sensibility—a stream-of-consciousness story of five queer protagonists confronting their identities in twenty-first-century Greenlandic culture.” (Lydia)
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer: A guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic (please don’t copyedit this sentence). George Saunders calls it “A mind-blower—sure to jumpstart any writing project, just by exposing you, the writer, to Dreyer’s astonishing level of sentence-awareness.” (Lydia)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James: Following up his Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, James has written the first book in what is to be an epic trilogy that is part Lord of the Rings, part Game of Thrones, and part Black Panther. In this first volume, a band of mercenaries—made up of a witch, a giant, a buffalo, a shape-shifter, and a bounty hunter who can track anyone by smell (his name is Tracker)—are hired to find a boy, missing for three years, who holds special interest for the king. (Janet)
Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li: Where Reasons End is the latest novel by the critically acclaimed author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Li creates this fictional space where a mother can have an eternal, carefree conversation with her child Nikolai, who commits suicide at the age of 16. Suffused with intimacy and deepest sorrows, the book captures the affections and complexity of parenthood in a way that has never been portrayed before. (Jianan)
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang: Wang writes brilliantly and beautifully about lives lived with mental illness. Her first novel, The Border of Paradise, traces a family through generations, revealing the ways each becomes inheritors of the previous generation’s isolation and depression. In The Collected Schizophrenias, her first essay collection (for which she was awarded the Whiting Award and Greywolf Nonfiction Prize), Wang draws from her experience as both patient and speaker/advocate navigating the vagaries of the mental healthcare system while also shedding light on the ways it robs patients of autonomy. What’s most astonishing is how Wang writes with such intelligence, insight, and care about her own struggle to remain functional while living with schizoaffective disorder. (Anne)
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson: It’s the mid-1980s and American Cold War adventurism has set its sights on the emerging west African republic of Burkina Faso. There’s only one problem: the agent sent to help swing things America’s way is having second, and third, thoughts. The result is an engaging and intelligent stew of espionage and post-colonial political agency, but more important, a confessional account examining our baser selves and our unscratchable itch to fight wars that cannot be won. (Il’ja)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: The two-time
finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award has written a road novel
for America in the 21st century. In the book, a family of four set out from their home in New York to visit a place in Arizona called Apacheria, a.k.a. the region once inhabited by the Apache tribe. On their way down south, the family reveals their own set of long-simmering conflicts, while the radio gives updates on an “immigration crisis” at the border. (Thom)
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith): In 2016, Kang’s stunning
novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize; in 2018, she drew Man Booker attention again with her autobiographical work The White Book. There are loose connections between the two—both concern sisters, for one, and loss, and both feature Han’s beautiful, spare prose—but The White Book is less a
conventional story and more like a meditation in fragments. Written about and to the narrator’s older sister, who died as a newborn, and about the white objects of grief, Han’s work has been likened to “a secular prayer book,” one that “investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.” (Kaulie)
Bangkok Wakes to Rainby Pitchaya Sudbanthad: NYFA Fellow Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, has already been
hailed as “important, ambitious, and accomplished,” by Mohsin Hamid, and a book
that “brilliantly sounds the resonant pulse of the city in a wise and far-reaching meditation on home,” by Claire Vaye Watkins. This polyphonic novel follows myriad characters—from a self-exiled jazz pianist to a former student
revolutionary—through the thresholds of Bangkok’s past, present, and future. Sudbanthad, who splits his time between Bangkok and New York, says he wrote the novel by letting his mind wander the city of his birth: “I arrived at the site of a house that, to me, became a theatrical stage where characters…entered and left; I followed them, like a clandestine voyeur, across time and worlds, old and new.” (Anne)
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison: A new collection of nonfiction–speeches, essays, criticism, and reflections–from the Nobel-prize winning Morrison. Publishers Weekly says “”Some superb pieces headline this rich collection…Prescient and highly relevant to the present political moment…” (Lydia)
Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolano: Spirit of Science Fiction is a novel by the critically acclaimed author of 2666, Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Apparently it is a tale about two young poets aspiring to find their positions in the literary world. But the literary world in Bolano’s sense is also a world of revolution, fame, ambition, and more so of sex and love. Like Bolano’s previous fiction, Spirit of Science Fiction is a Byzantine maze of strange and beautiful life adventures that never fails to provide readers with intellectual and emotional satisfaction. (Jianan)
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: It’s hard to believe it’sbeen 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House,perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short storycollections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fanswill no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows threegenerations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to acandlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls“almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determineprosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praisesMcCracken’s “psychological acuity.” (Edan)
Good Will Come from the Sea by Christos Ikonomou (translated by Karen Emmerich): In the same way that Greece was supposedly the primogeniture of Western civilization, the modern nation has prefigured over the last decade in much of what defines our current era. Economic hardship, austerity, and the rise of political radicalism are all manifest in the Greece explored by Ikonomou in his short story collection Good Will Come from the Sea. These four interlocked stories explore modern Greece as it exists on the frontlines of both the refugee crisis and scarcity economics. Ikonomou’s stories aren’t about the Greece of chauvinistic nostalgia; as he told an interviewer in 2015 his characters “don’t love the Acropolis; they don’t know what it means,” for it’s superficial “to feel just pride;” rather, the author wishes to “write about the human condition,” and so he does. (Ed)
The Heavens by Sandra Newman: This novel connects analternate universe New York in the year 2000 with Elizabethan England, througha woman who believes she has one foot in each era. A fascinating-soundingromance about art, illness, destiny, and history. In a starred review, Kirkuscalls this “a complex, unmissable work from a writer who deserves wideacclaim.” (Lydia)
All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos (translated by Alice Whitmore): Argentinian writer Dimópulos’s first book in English is a novel that focuses on a narrator who has been traveling for a decade. The narrator reflects on her habit of leaving family, countries, and lovers. And when she decides to commit to a relationship, her lover is murdered, adding a haunting and sorrowful quality to her interiority. Julie Buntin writes, “The scattered pieces of her story—each of them wonderfully distinct, laced with insight, violence, and sensuality—cohere into a profound evocation of restlessness, of the sublime and imprisoning act of letting go.” (Zoë)
The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah: An account of 19th-century Ghana, the novel follows twoyoung girls, Wurche and Aminah, who live in the titular city which is a notoriouscenter preparing people for sale as slaves to Europeans and Americans. Attah’s novelgives a texture and specificity to the anonymous tales of the Middle Passage,with critic Nadifa Mohamad writing in The Guardian that “One of the strengthsof the novel is that it complicates the idea of what ‘African history’ is.”(Ed)
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: This much sought-afterdebut, which was the object of a bidding war, is based on the life of LeeMiller, a Vogue model turned photographer who decided she would rather “take apicture than be one.” The novel focuses on Miller’s tumultuous romance withphotographer Man Ray in early 1930s Paris, as Miller made the transition frommuse to artist. Early reviews suggests that the novel more than lives up to itspromise, with readers extolling its complicated heroine and page-turningpacing. (Hannah)
Northern Lights by Raymond Strom: A story about the struggle for survival in a small town in Minnesota, the novel follows the androgynous teen run-away ShaneStephenson who is searching in Holm, Minn., for the mother who abandonedhim. Shane finds belonging among the adrift and addicted of the crumbling town,but he also finds bigotry and hatred. (Ed)
Adèle by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor): Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourtin 2016, became famous after publishing Dans le jardin de l’ogre, which is nowbeing translated and published in English as Adèle. The French-Morocconnovelist’s debut tells the story of a titular heroine whose burgeoning sexaddiction threatens to ruin her life. Upon winning an award in Morocco for thenovel, Slimani said its primary focus is her character’s “loss of self.” (Thom)
The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung (translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl): Known as “one of the most beloved masterpieces in Korean literature,” The Nine Cloud Dream (also known as Kuunmong) takes readers on a journey reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno combining aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and indigenous Korean shamanic religions in a 17th-century tale, which, rare in Buddhist texts, includes strong representation of women. Accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and an introduction, notations, and translation done by one of my favorite translators, Heinz Insu Fenkl. Akin to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, an intriguing read for readers interested in Buddhism, Korea, and mindfulness. (Marie Myung-Ok)
Notes From a Black Woman’s Diary by Kathleen Collins: Notlong after completing her first feature film, Losing Ground, in 1982, Collins died from breast cancer at age 46. In 2017, her short story collectionabout the lives and loves of black Americans in the 1960s, Whatever Happened toInterracial Love?, was published to ringing critical acclaim. Now comes NotesFrom a Black Woman’s Diary, which is much more than the title suggests. Inaddition to autobiographical material, the book includes fiction, plays,excerpts from an unfinished novel, and the screenplay of Losing Ground, withextensive directorial notes. This book is sure to burnish Collins’sflourishing posthumous reputation. (Bill)
Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper: A collection of essays on therelationships between family members and friends, with background on the author’schildhood in an evangelical family. The collection garnered a starredreview from Kirkus and praise from essayist Leslie Jamison, who calls is “extraordinary.”(Lydia)
A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits: Markovits is aversatile writer, his work ranging from a fictional trilogy about Lord Byron toan autobiographical novel about basketball. He returns to athletics in AWeekend in New York, where Paul Essinger is a mid-level tennis player and1,200-1 shot to win the U.S. Open. Essinger may be alone on the court, but he hasplenty of company at his Manhattan home when his parents visit during thetournament. Upon its British publication, The Guardian praised the “light,limber confidence” with which Markowits handles sporting knowledge and hisacute treatment of the family tensions amid “first-world also-rans.” (Matt)
Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev: This debut is the memoirof a young woman’s life shaped by unrelenting existential terror. The story istold in fragmentary vignettes beginning with Shalmiyev’s fraught emigration asa young child from St. Petersburg, Russia to the United States, leaving behindthe mother who had abandoned her. It closes with her resolve to find herestranged mother again. (Il’ja)
Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina (translated by Lisa C. Hayden): It is 1930 in the Soviet Unionand Josef Stalin’s de-kulakization program has found its pace. Among thevictims is a young Tatar family: the husband murdered, the wife exiled toSiberia. This is her story of survival and eventual triumph. Winner of the 2015Russian Booker prize, this debut novel draws heavily on the first-personaccount of the author’s grandmother, a Gulag survivor. (Il’ja)
The Atlas of Red and Blues by Devi Laskar: This novel’sinciting incident is a police raid on the home the daughter of Bengaliimmigrants, told from her perspective as she lies bleeding and running throughthe events, experiences, and memories that have led her to this moment. KieseLaymon calls Laskar’s book “as narratively beautiful as it isbrutal…I’ve never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages.Laskar has changed how we will all write about state-sanctioned terror in thisnation.” (Lydia)
Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis: Imagine if Malcom Lowry’shallucinogenic masterpiece Under the Volcano, about the drunken perambulationsof a British consul in a provincial Mexican village on Dia de Los Muertos, hadbeen written by a native of that country? Such could describe Aridjis’snovel Sea Monsters, which follows the 17-year-old Luisa and her acquaintanceTomás as they leave Mexico City in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves whohave defected from a Soviet circus. Luisa eventually settles in Oaxaca whereLuisa takes sojourns to the “Beach of the Dead” in search of anyone who “nomatter what” will “remain a mystery.” (Ed)
Elsewhere, Home by Leila Aboulela: The 13 stories inAboulela’s new collection are set in locales as distant as Khartoum and London,yet throughout they explore the universal feelings of the migrant experience:displacement, longing, but also the incandescent hope of creating a differentlife. (Nick M.)
The Cassandra by Sharma Shields: Mildred Groves, TheCassandra’s titular prophetess, sometimes sees flashes of the future. She isalso working at the top-secret Hanford Research Center in the 1940s, where theseeds of atomic weapons are sown and where her visions are growing morehorrifying—and going ignored at best, punished at worst. Balancing thoroughresearch and mythic lyricism, Shields’s novel is a timely warning of whathappens when warnings go unheeded. (Kaulie)
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen: A new title from ShadeMountain Press, Tonic and Balm takes place in 1919, it’s setting a travelingmedicine show, complete with “sideshows,” sword-swallowers, anddubious remedies. The book explores this show’s peregrinations against thebackdrop of poverty and racist violence in rural Pennsylvania. Allen’s firstbook, A Place Between Stations: Stories, was a finalist for the Hurston-WrightLegacy Award. (Lydia)
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (translated by Leri Price): “Most of my friendshave left the country and are now refugees,” Khalifa wrote in a recentessay. Yet he remains in Syria, a place where “those of us who have stayed aredying one by one, family by family, so much so that the idea of an empty citycould become a reality.” If literature is a momentary stay against confusion,then Khalifa’s novels are ardent stays against destruction and decay—and DeathIs Hard Work continues this tradition. The novel begins with the dying hours ofAbdel Latif al-Salim, who looks his son Bolbol “straight in the eye” in orderto give his dying wish: to be buried several hours away, next to his sister.The novel becomes a frenetic attempt for his sons to honor this wish and reachAnabiya. “It’s only natural for a man,” Khalifa writes, “to be weak and makeimpossible requests.” And yet he shows this is what makes us human. (Nick R.)
Aerialists by Mark Mayer. For those gutted by the news ofRingling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closing in 2017, Mayer’s debutcollection supplies a revivifying dose of that carney spirit. The storiesfeature circus-inspired characters—most terrifyingly a murderous clown-cum-realestate agent—in surrealist situations. We read about a bearded womanrevolutionist, a TV personality strongwoman, and, in the grand tradition of petburial writing that reached its acme with Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, thefuneral of a former circus elephant. Publishers Weekly called it a “high-wiredebut [that] exposes the weirdness of everyday life.” (Matt)
Friend of My Youth by Amit Chaudhuri: Published for thefirst time in the U.S., this is the seventh novel by the renowned writer, awork of autofiction about a novelist named Amit Chaudhuri revisiting hischildhood in Mumbai. Publishers Weekly says, “in this cogent andintrospective novel, Chaudhuri movingly portrays how other people can allowindividuals to connect their present and past.” (Lydia)
A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams: An anthology of 25 speculative stories from a range of powerful storytellers, among them Maria Dahvana Headley, Daniel José Older, and Alice Sola Kim. LaValle and Adams sought stories that imagine a derailed future—tales that take our fractured present and make the ruptures even further. Editor LaValle, an accomplished speculative fiction writer himself (most recently The Changeling, and my personal favorite, the hilarious and booming Big Machine), is the perfect writer to corral these stories. LaValle has said “one of the great things about horror and speculative fiction is that you are throwing people into really outsized, dramatic situations a lot…[including] racism and sexism and classism, biases against the mentally ill”—the perfect description for this dynamic collection. (Nick R.)
Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten: Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha,is the first and last Trump novel I’ll ever want to read. Doten started writingthe novel in 2015, when our current predicament, I mean, president, was a mereand unfathomable possibility. Doten’s President Trump brings about the nuclearapocalypse, and in its aftermath a journalist takes an assignment to researchInternet humor at the end of the world. The result? An “unconventional anddarkly satirical mix of memes, Twitter jokes, Q&As, and tightly writtenstream-of-consciousness passages,” according to Booklist. From this feat, saysJoshua Cohen,“Mark Doten emerges as the shadow president of our benightedgeneration of American literature.” (Anne)
Nothing but the Night by John Williams: The John Williams ofStoner fame revival continues with the reissue of his first novel by NYRB,first published in 1948, a story dealing with mental illness and trauma withechoes of Greek tragedy. (Lydia)
Famous Children and Famished Adults by Evelyn Hampton:“[Evelyn] Hampton’s stunned sentences will remind you, because you haveforgotten, how piercingly disregulating life is,” writes Stacey Levine ofHampton’s debut story collection Discomfort, published by Ellipsis Press. Ifirst encountered Hampton’s fictions through her novella, Madam, a story of aschoolteacher and her pupils at an academy, where memory is a vehicle and somuch seems a metaphor and language seems to turn in on itself. Hampton’sforthcoming story collection Famous Children and Famished Adults won FC2’sRonald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and continues with the quixotic. Inthis collection, Noy Holland says, “the exotic and toxic intermingle.” (Anne)
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell: Described as the “Great Zambian Novel you didn’t know you were waiting for,” this debut novel, from the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing, tells the story of three Zambian families—black, white, and brown—caught in a centuries-long cycle of retribution, romance, and political change. Serpell asks, “How do you live a life or forge a politics that can skirt the dual pitfalls of fixity (authoritarianism) and freedom (neoliberalism)? And what happens if you treat error not as something to avoid but as the very basis for human creativity and community?” Recipient of a starred review from Kirkus and advance praise from Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Sebold, and Garth Greenwell, The Old Drift is already well positioned to become the Next Big Thing of 2019. (Jacqueline)
Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi became a criticaldarling in 2014 with Boy, Snow, Bird, a retelling of “Snow White.” She takes usback into fairy tale world with Gingerbread, the story of mother and daughter,Harriet and Perdita Lee, and their family’s famous, perhaps…magical,gingerbread recipe. Along with Harriet’s childhood friend Gretel, the Leesendure family, work, and money drama all for the sake of that crunchy spice.(Janet)
The Reign of the Kingfisher by TJ Martinson: Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’sone of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologuereads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detectivefiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanlystrong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until hismutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once againbegan to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death?If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way,the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of theold one. We must save ourselves. (Emily)
Lot by Bryan Washington: Washington is a talentedessayist—his writing on Houston for Catapult and elsewhere are must-reads—andLot is a glowing fiction debut. Imbued with the flesh of fiction, Lot is aliterary song for Houston. “Lockwood,” the first story, begins: “Roberto wasbrown and his people lived next door so of course I went over on weekends. Theywere full Mexican. That made us superior.” Their house was a “shotgun withswollen pipes.” A house “you shook your head at when you drove up the road.”But the narrator is drawn to Roberto, and when they are “huddled in hiscloset,” palms squeezed together, we get the sense Washington has a keen eyeand ear for these moments of desire and drama. His terse sentences punch andpop, and there’s room for our bated breath in the remaining white space. (NickR.)
The New Me by Halle Butler: If Butler’s first novel,Jillian, was the “feel-bad book of the year,” then her second, The New Me, is askewering of the 21st-century American dream of self-betterment. Butlerhas already proven herself a master of writing about work and its discontents,the absurdity of cubicle life and office work in all of its dead ends. The NewMe takes it to a new level in what Catherine Lacey calls a Bernhardian “darkcomedy of female rage.” The New Me portrays a 30-year old temp worker whoyearns for self-realization, but when offered a full-time job, she becomesparalyzed realizing the hollowness of its trappings. (Anne)
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander: Pulitzer finalist Englander’s latest novel follows Larry, an atheist in a family of orthodox MemphisJews. When he refuses to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead,for his recently deceased father, Larry risks shocking his family andimperiling the fate of his father’s soul. Like everyone else in the21st century, Larry decides the solution lies online, and he makes awebsite, kaddish.com, to hire a stranger to recite the daily prayer in hisplace. What follows is a satirical take on God, family, and the Internet thathas been compared to early Philip Roth. (Jacqueline)
Minutes of Glory by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Thiong’o, the perennial Nobel Prize contender who once got through a prison sentence by drafting a memoir on toilet paper, has collected his best short stories in this collection, which spans half a century. From “The Fig Tree,” which Thiong’o wrote when he was an undergraduate in Uganda, to “The Ghost of Michael Jackson,” which he wrote while teaching at Irvine, these stories affirm the wide range of a global sensation. (Thom)
Guestbook: Ghost Stories by Leanne Shapton: A collection of haunting stories and illustrations from the writer and visual artist Shapton, of which Rivka Galchen says, “Guestbook reveals Shapton as a ventriloquist, a diviner, a medium, a force, a witness, a goof, and above all, a gift. One of the smartest, most moving, most unexpected books I have read in a very long time.” (Lydia)
Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike: A couple of months ago I zipped through this funny and poignant collection of stories about women grappling with motherhood in many different ways: one struggles with infertility, for instance, and another gets pregnant by accident. Throughout, I was struck by the depth of feeling, not once compromised by the brevity of the form. In its starred review, Kirkus calls it “an exquisite collection that is candid, compassionate, and emotionally complex.” Meaghan O’Connell says, “Each story in Look How Happy I’m Making You is a lovely universe unto itself — funny, intimate, casually profound — but there is something transcendent about reading them together like this.” (Edan)
Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Ostensibly a memoir.Yet the idea of a Beat poet rhapsodizing, eulogizing or—God help us—memorizing his life as a Beat would be a defeat difficult to recover from.Don’t worry. There’s plenty of indignation, wry observation, and inevitableprognostication as Ferlinghetti looks back on his near-century on the planet toremind us to—among other matters—stop griping and play the hand we’redealt. (Il’ja)
If, Then by Kate Hope Day: In a quiet mountain town, four neighbors’ worlds are rocked when they begin to see versions of themselves in parallel realities. As the disturbing visions mount, a natural disaster looms and threatens their town. From a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Day’s well-crafted mix of literary and speculative fiction is an enthralling meditation on the interconnectedness of all things.” (Carolyn)
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden: With a sparkling blurb from Mary Gaitskill—“Sad, funny, juicy and prickly with deep and secret thoughtful places”—and a sparkling cover (literally—see her website), T. Kira Madden’s debut memoir, a coming-of-age story set in Boca Raton, is primed for buzz. As a grownup, Madden self-describes as an “APIA writer, photographer, and amateur magician”; as a child, “Madden lived a life of extravagance, from her exclusive private school to her equestrian trophies and designer shoe-brand name. But under the surface was a wild instability . . . she found lifelines in the desperately loving friendships of fatherless girls.” One of the best, most evocative titles of the release season, IMHO. (Sonya)
A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum: Isra, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl in 1990, prefers reading to suitors, but after her family marries her to an American deli owner she finds herself living in Brooklyn, trapped in a losing struggle against his oppressive mother, Fareeda. Eighteen years later, Fareeda attempts to pressure Isra’s oldest daughter into an early marriage, but an estranged family member offers Isra a chance to determine her own life. Rum, who was born to Palestinian immigrants living in Brooklyn, has written that she hopes her debut novel moves readers “by the strength and power of our women.” (Kaulie)
The White Card by Claudia Rankine: The author of Citizen, Macarthur Genius grant honoree, and founder of the Racial Imaginary Institute will publisher her first play, one that examines the concept of whiteness and white Americans’ failures to acknowledge it, through a series of interactions between an artist and an affluent couple. In the play’s introduction, Rankine writes “The scenes in this one-act play, for all the characters’ disagreements, stalemates, and seeming impasses, explore what happens if one is willing to stay in the room when it is painful to bear the pressure to listen and the obligation to respond.” (Lydia)
EEG by Dasa Drndic: I first encountered Daša Drndic through her novel Belladona in June, unwittingly a mere two weeks after the author’s death from lung cancer. I was struck by the character Andreas Ban, and his idiosyncratic reflection upon ears, that “marvelous ugly organ,” accompanied by a diagram of an ear marked with the body’s points. This character Ban continues into Drndic’s next and final book, EEG, where after surviving a suicide attempt he goes on to dissect and expose the hidden evils and secrets of our times. He’s stand-in for Drndic herself, who wrote emphatically and had stated that “Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” (Anne)
Great American Desert by Terese Svoboda: Poet Terese Svoboda brings a lyrical intensity to her collection of short stories in Great American Desert. Svoboda examines the excavations that we perform on ourselves and on the land, with her stories ranging from the ancient North American Clovis people, to a science fiction description of a massive pink pyramid arising from the prairies far into the future. Author of Swamplandia! Karren Russel describes Great American Desert as “A devious and extraordinary new collection of stories from one of our best writers.” (Ed)
King of Joy by Richard Chiem: Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person, which was named one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Essential Books of the American West, and now he brings us King of Joy, an experimental narrative that explores fantasy, trauma, survival, and resilience. The novel follows Corvus, a woman that can imagine her way out of any situation–until she experiences a grief so profound that she cannot escape through fantasy. Foreword Reviews recently gave it a starred review and Kristen Arnette describes the novel as “a brilliant, tender examination of the unholy magnitude of trauma. It shows how pain can simultaneously destroy and preserve a person. Most of all, it is just goddamn beautiful writing.” (Zoë)
Instructions for a Funeral by David Means: Means’s last publication, Hystopia, was a Booker-nominated novel, but he is still best known for his short stories. Instructions for a Funeral is therefore a return to (the short story) form, 14 pieces, previously published in the New Yorker, Harpers, The Paris Review, and VICE, that display the intelligence and questing range for which Means is known. From a fistfight in Sacramento to a 1920s FBI stakeout in the midwest, Instructions for a Funeral invites readers on a literary journey with a master of the modern short story. (Adam P.)
The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor): Writes Priya Parmal in her 2014 New York Times review of Maylis de Kerangal’s first novel translated into English, The Heart, “These characters feel less like fictional creations and more like ordinary people, briefly illuminated in rich language, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, that veers from the medical to the philosophical.” In the The Cook, a “hyperrealist” tale centered around a self-taught professional cook, we are treated to “lyricism and [the] intensely vivid evocative nature of Maylis de Kerangal’s prose, which conjures moods, sensations, and flavors, as well as the exhausting rigor and sometimes violent abuses of kitchen work.” The Cook is her 10th novel, her second translated into English (also by Taylor); Anglophones can be grateful that we’re finally catching up with this many-prize-winning author. (Sonya)
Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan: A speculative novel about the “end of the Internet,” and what comes after for a society increasingly dependent on Big Data, surveillance, and the other sinister trappings of the 21st century. From the author of this vivid take on Santa Claus and his elves in the age of Amazon. (Lydia)
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young: A memoir in essays by the co-founder of VerySmartBrothas.com, heartfelt and bursting with humor. In Young’s words, “it’s a look at some of the absurdities, angsts and anxieties of existing while black in America,” and includes deeply personal material, including about the death of his mother, which was rooted in racism in America. (Lydia)
The Parade by Dave Eggers: No one can accuse Eggers of playing it safe. Last year, in The Monk of Mokha, he profiled a Yemeni American who dreams of reconstituting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee. A couple years before that, he wrote a novel, Heroes of the Frontier, about an American dentist road-tripping around Alaska with her kids. In his latest novel, two Western contractors, one named Four, the other named Five, travel to an unnamed country to build a new road intended to mark the end of a ruinous civil war. It’s “a parable of progress, as told by J.M. Coetzee to Philip K. Dick,” says Richard Flanagan, author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. (Michael)
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: For her seventh novel, the celebrated Siri Hustvedt goes meta. A novelist of a certain age, known as S.H., discovers a notebook and early drafts of a never-completed novel she wrote during her first year in New York City in the late 1970s, some four decades ago. The discovery allows S.H. to revisit her long-ago obsession with her mysterious neighbor, Lucy Brite. Weaving the discovered texts with S.H.’s memories and things forgotten, Hustvedt has produced a rich novel built on the sand of shifting memory. As a bonus, the book includes a sampling of Hustvedt’s whimsical drawings. (Bill)
Sing to It by Amy Hempel: Hempel, the short story legend best known for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” is back with her first new collection of stories in over a decade. From “Cloudland,” which depicts a woman’s reckoning with her decision to give up her child, to “A Full-Service Shelter,” which follows a volunteer at a shelter where abandoned dogs are euthanized, the stories in Sing to It are fitting additions to Hempel’s work. (Thom)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Lalami, whose previous novel, The Moor’s Account, was a finalist for the Pulitzer, returns with a “structurally elegant mystery” (Kirkus). At the opening of this highly anticipated new novel, Morroccan immigrant Driss Guerraoui is killed by a speeding car on a California highway. The book then follows a number of characters connected to and affected by his death, including his jazz composer daughter, his wife, and an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident. J.M. Coetzee says, “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.” (Edan)
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf: When a huge, garish home called the White Elephant infiltrates Willard Park, a quiet suburb, the neighborhood falls into utter comedic chaos. In the shadow of the home, neighbors begin to fight, lives are upended, and their once-peaceful town becomes anything but. Meg Wolitzer calls the debut novel a “smart, enjoyable suburban comedy.” (Carolyn)
The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser: The intellectually peripatetic Brad Leithauser—poet, novelist, editor, translator and MacArthur fellow whose interests range from Iceland to insects, American music and ghosts—has produced a sharp comic novel about a monster of a mid-life crisis. Louie Hake, a 43-year-old professor at a third-rate Michigan college, comes undone when his actress wife is discovered performing acts of “gross indecency” with her director. Bipolar Louie sets off on a tour of great world architecture, but he has stopped taking his lithium (though not all psychotropic substances), so he can get erratic. He can also be very funny—and very touching on those great American taboos, shame and failure. (Bill)
The Altruists by Andrew Ridker: Touted as “an international sensation” and sold in many countries, this debut novel follows the quest of a down-on-his-luck professor to get his mitts on his children’s inheritance. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “a painfully honest, but tender, examination of how love goes awry in the places it should flourish.” (Lydia)
When All Else Fails by Rayyan al-Shawaf: Past Millions contributor and NBCC critic al-Shawaf is out with his own novel, an absurdist tale of a lovelorn and luckless Iraqi college student in the States whose life is upended by 9/11 and who later moves to Lebanon. (Lydia)
Good Talk by Mira Jacob: A graphic novel about raising her mixed-race son in a white supremacist society by the author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, built around conversations with a curious six-year-old. Jacqueline Woodson says “In Jacob’s brilliant hands, we are gifted with a narrative that is sometimes hysterical, always honest, and ultimately healing.” (Lydia)
Working by Robert A. Caro: Widely known—and celebrated—for his monumental biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses, Caro steps out from behind his subjects in Working, a collection of personal writings about, well, working. Here he describes his experiences searching Johnson’s presidential archives, what it was like to interview some of the major figures of the last half century, and how exactly he goes about structuring those massive, award-winning books. Think of it as a behind-the-scenes look at how “the greatest political biographer of our time” gets the job done. (Kaulie)
Morelia by Renee Gladman: It’s been said again and again that no one writes quite like Renee Gladman, whose writing and drawing explore movements of thought. Gladman’s Ravicka series of novels, published by Dorothy Project, traverses the fictional city, where “everything is vivid and nothing is fixed.” In Gladman’s essay collection Calamities, she writes toward the experience of the everyday where nothing of importance happens (which are most days, she has commented). Gladman’s latest, short novel, Morelia, “is an expansive mystery,” Amina Cain writes, “but I don’t think it exists to be solved…. There is a city with structures in it that multiply or are ‘half-articulated,’ where climate dictates how the city’s inhabitants move.” (Anne)
Women Talking by Miriam Toews: Canadians have come to accept that we can’t keep Toews to ourselves any longer. After her sixth novel, All My Puny Sorrows, became an international sensation, the timely and urgent Women Talking is set to do the same. It’s a fictionalized telling of real life rapes that took place in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia. After repeated attacks, a group of women are told they are lying about the violence or being punished by Satan. The narrative unfolds as they meet to decide what they will do: forgive, fight, or run. (Claire)
Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: This story collection by the author of the acclaimed epic novel, Kintu, is centered on the lives of Ugandans living in Britain, where they are both hyper-visible and unseen, excluded from British life as they work jobs in airport security, in hospitals, in caring for the elderly. In the title story, when the protagonist’s husband dies in England, her fellow Ugandans start a fund-raising drive to pay for transporting the body back home. Their motivation beautifully captures the dislocation of exile: “We are not burying one of us in snow.” It has been said that Makumbi has done for Ugandan writing what the great Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian literature. (Bill)
Walking on the Ceiling by Ayşegül Savaş: Of her family, global citizen (of Turkish descent) Savaş writes, “They share a ruthless knack of observation and an eye for the comedic . . . This is a family of runaway bandits and conspiring matriarchs, where uncles swagger around with pistols, illegitimate children emerge at every turn, family heirlooms . . . are nicked from brothel fires.” Evidently drawing on her own life, Savas’s debut novel is set in Paris (where she lives) and features a young Turkish woman who tells her family’s stories to a novelist friend. “Their intimacy deepens, so does Nunu’s fear of revealing too much . . . fears that she will have to face her own guilt about her mother and the narratives she’s told to protect herself from her memories.” Writes Helen Phillips, “This quietly intense debut is the product of a wise and probing mind.” (Sonya)
The Ash Family by Molly Dektar: A story about a young woman who is lured to an intentional community in the North Carolina mountains by an enigmatic man, only to find out that her community members are disappearing one by one. Samantha Hunt says “Dektar’s unstoppable tale of a country beyond is an addictive read so engrossing I forget where I am.” (Lydia)
I Miss you When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott: An debut essay collection from the Emmy-winning TV host and beloved bookseller at Parnsassus Books in Nashville. Philpott’s inspiration came from readers who would beeline to the memoir section to pick up Eat, Pray, Love or Wild, then ask, “What do you have like this, but more like me?” With essays that Ann Patchett calls relentlessly funny, self-effacing, and charming,” the result is a kind of wisdom that comes from making so many wrong turns they strangely add up to something that is exactly right. (Claire)
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead): Critically acclaimed Argentinian writer Maria Gainza’s first book translated in English. The story interweaves the narrator’s fascination and obsession with art and art history and her intimate experiences involving her family, romantic relationships, and work life. Mariana Enríquez declares, “In between autofiction and the microstories of artists, between literary meet-ups and the intimate chronicle of a family, its past and its misfortunes, this book is completely original, gorgeous, on occasions delicate, and other times brutal.” (Zoë)
Naamah by Sarah Blake: In a stunning, feminist retelling of Noah’s Ark, Blake’s debut novel focuses on Naamah (Noah’s wife) and their family in the year after the Great Flood. Full of desire, fury, strength, and wavering faith, Naamah becomes the bedrock on which the Earth is rebuilt upon. Written in poetic prose, Lidia Yuknavitch praises the novel as “a new vision of storytelling and belief” and “a new myth-making triumph.” (Carolyn)
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: With accolades from all-stars like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Joy Williams, Ann Beattie—Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut short-story collection promises to wow us. “Set against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado–a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite–these women navigate the land the way they navigate their lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force.” A two-book deal with historical novel to follow. (Sonya)
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim: This debut has it all—a novel of the Korean immigrant experience, a courtroom thriller, an exploration of controversies over autism therapies (specifically here, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, HBOT). Kirkus calls it “deeply satisfying” and says “it should be huge.” (Marie Myung-Ok)
Phantoms by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s previous novel The Animals, was downright masterful, and I’ve been anticipating Phantoms ever since. In this new novel, veteran John Frazier returns shaken from the Vietnam War to witness a dispute between his family and their former neighbors, a Japanese-American family that was displaced during World War II and sent to an internment camp. The jacket copy calls it “a fierce saga of American culpability.” Luis Alberto Urrea says, “Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” I, for one, cannot wait! (Edan)
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi: In this novel’s opening section, Dave and Sarah, two new students at a prestigious performing arts high school, fall madly in love under the watchful eye of a charismatic acting teacher. But in a second segment, set 12 years later, a change in narrative viewpoint calls into question everything the reader has understood to have happened before. Early reviews are highly polarized. Publishers Weekly says the novel is “destined to be a classic” while a reader on Goodreads, speaking for a number of other dissatisfied early readers, complained “the payoff wasn’t worth the ick.” (Michael)
Normal People by Sally Rooney: Rooney, the Irish author known for the acclaimed Conversations with Friends, has written a second novel about the lives of young people in modern Ireland. The protagonists of Normal People are teenagers named Connell and Marianne, who develop a strange friendship that both are determined to hide. Years pass, and as the two get older, their relationship grows steadily more complicated. (Thom)
The Gulf by Belle Boggs: The author of a trenchant inquiry into fertility and maternity in America, Belle Boggs turns to satire in her debut novel, a divinely witty look at the writing industry and religion. A job is a job, and so Marianne, a struggling Brooklyn poet—and atheist—agrees to direct a Christian artists’ residency program, “The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch,” in Florida. (One of the residents is working on a poem cycle about Terri Schiavo, the comatose woman in the “right-to-die” case that galvanized religious groups in 2005.) There’ll be skewering aplenty, but also a comic hero’s conversion toward acceptance of her new community. (Matt)
A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie: How do our charismatic teachers set the stage for the rest of our lives? That’s one of the questions that Ann Beattie tackles in this novel. When a former New England boarding school student named Ben looks back on his childhood, he starts to questions the motives of his superstar teacher. Later on, his teacher gets in contact, and Ben has to grapple with his legacy. (Thom)
The Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno: Sometimes, you don’t stop being obsessed with something just because the book’s written. The Appendix Project takes up where Kate Zambreno’s last book, Book of Mutter, left off, examining, as Kate Briggs describes it, about “how things – interests, attachments, experiences, projects – don’t finish.” The Appendix Project is a genre-crossing work about grief, time, memory, and the maternal, which is also a work about writing itself. Oh, and she’s also got a collection of stories and a novel coming out this year – no big deal. “I try to work on many books at the same time,” Zambreno has said. Same. (Jacqueline)
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker: Meet the Chandarias. Premchand is a doctor. His wife Urmila imports artisanal African crafts. Their son Sunil is studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard. But for all their outward success, theirs is a family riven with secrets, and when the family is forced to return to Nairobi, where Premchand and Urmila were born, Sunil reveals an explosive secret of his own: his Jewish girlfriend, who has accompanied the family on the trip, is already his wife. (Michael)
Cape May by Chip Cheek: A novel about a 50s couple from Georgia on what turns into a louche honeymoon in Cape May. It sounds like whatever the literary opposite of On Chesil Beach is, with lots of sex, gin, and intrigue. (Lydia)
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate: A collection of essays about subjects too painful or explosive to broach among families. Based on Filgate’s essay of the same name, about being abused by her stepfather, the essay features work from a stellar lineup of writers like Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, Brandon Taylor, André Aciman, and Leslie Jamison, among others. (Lydia)
Furious Hours by Casey Cep: Did you know Harper Lee wanted to write her own true-crime story à la In Cold Blood? That following the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee spent a year living in the Alabama backwoods to report it, and many more years in research, but ultimately never completed the work? In Furious Hours, Casey Cep completes the work Lee couldn’t, writing a vivid portrayal of a killer, but also exploring the effects of fame and success on one of the most famous writers in U.S. history. (Nick)
Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang: Home Remedies, forthcoming in May 2019, is a debut collection of stories by Xuan Juliana Wang. The characters in the 12 stories vary from an immigrant family living in a cramped apartment on Mott Street who tries very hard to fit in, to a couple of divers at the Beijing Olympics who reach for their success. Wang conveys a promising message through her mind-boggling stories that whoever they are and wherever they are from, they have their rights to live extraordinary lives. (Jianan)
Lanny by Max Porter: The follow-up to Porter’s highly lauded Grief Is a Thing With Feathers, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. This follow-up gives readers all the experimental typography and poignant insight they might expect—with a twist of gut-wrenching suspense thrown in. Lanny is a mischievous young boy who moves to a small village outside of London, where he attracts the attention of a menacing force. Porter has done it again. (Claire)
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores: Move over, chupacabra—there’s a new mythical Southwestern beast in town: the trufflepig, a creature worshipped by a lost Aranana Indian tribe in this exuberant novel set on a trippier version of the American border. Drugs are legal in this near-future society, but the new (illegal) craze is “filtered animals,” extinct species revived, Jurassic-park style, and sold at great cost. The novel follows Esteban Bellacosa, trying to live the quiet life amid the region’s traffickers, obscenely rich pleasure seekers and legends. This is Flores’s first novel after a short story collection, wonderfully titled Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas. (Matt)
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin: A Taiwanese family of six struggles to make a go of it in far-flung Anchorage, Alaska, but tragedy strikes like a stone in a still pond, rippling out to affect each family member differently. Lin’s debut novel is a raw depiction of grief and resolve set against the terrible beauty of the Alaskan north. (Nick M.)
The Farm by Joanne Ramos: This debut novel takes us to Golden Oaks Farm, where the super-rich begin life in utero with the best of everything, including balanced organic diets in young, cortisol-optimized wombs. The surrogate Hosts offer their wombs in exchange for a big payday that can transform their marginal lives. But as the Hosts learn, nine months locked inside the Farm can be a very long time. The story roams from the idyllic Hudson Valley to plush Fifth Avenue to a dormitory in Queens crowded with immigrant service workers. Echoing The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel explores the tensions between ambition and sacrifice, luck and merit, and money and motherhood. (Bill)
Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman: In a New York penitentiary, a doorman-turned-inmate has barricaded himself inside the computer lab while a prison riot rages like hell. Alone, the inmate confesses, recounting the twists of fate that landed him in this predicament, and pondering the many—often hysterically funny—questions he has about it all. Chapman’s satirical jab packs a full-fledged punch. (Nick M.)
China Dream by Ma Jian (translated by Flora Drew): A new novel from the Chinese novelist who lives in exile in the U.K. and whose books have never been allowed to appear in China. A dystopian satire where the dystopia is today, and an exploration of totalitarianism in China. Madeleine Thien writes for The Guardian: “Ma has a marksman’s eye for the contradictions of his country and his generation, and the responsibilities and buried dreams they carry. His perceptiveness, combined with a genius for capturing people who come from all classes, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs; for identifying the fallibility, comedy and despair of living in absurd times, has allowed him to compassionately detail China’s complex inner lives.” (Lydia)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: Fulbright alumna Phillips has written a literary mystery about two sisters who go missing on the Kamchatka peninsula, an isolated spot and one of the easternmost points of Russia. Jim Shepard called this “a dazzlingly impressive first novel.” (Lydia)
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Ybarra’s critically acclaimed first novel, which won the Euskadi Literature Prize 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. Her novel makes connections between two losses in her family: her mother’s private death from cancer and her grandfather’s public kidnapping and murder by terrorists in the 1970s. Drawing on research and personal experiences, the book creatively blends nonfiction and fiction. The Irish Times praises her work as a “captivating debut…written with the forensic eye of a true crime writer.” (Zoë)
Exhalation by Ted Chiang: A new collection by the beloved science fiction writer, winner of many Hugo and Nebula awards, whose story “The Story of Your Life” formed the basis of the movie Arrival. (Lydia)
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer: Lots of people grow up loving horses; few of them end up competing (and winning) in the “world’s longest, toughest horse race.” Lara Prior-Palmer, the niece of famed British equestrian Lucinda Green, is just the person to attempt that challenge, galloping across 1,000 kilometers of Mongolian grassland, competing in a country so adept at riding that they once conquered the world from the backs of horses. In Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer follows in the hoofs of Genghis Khan and becomes the first woman to win the challenge. (Ed)
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In her much anticipated second novel, the author of the acclaimed Here Comes the Sun—a Young Lions, Center for Fiction, and John Leonard National Book Critics Circle finalist, and Lambda Literary Award winner, among other honors—Dennis-Benn plumbs the wrenching, too-real inner (and outer) conflict that women face when self-fulfillment is pitted against nurturing loved ones. Immigration, mother-daughter estrangement, sexuality and identity; “Frank, funny, salty, heartbreaking,” writes Alexander Chee. What else could you ask for? (Sonya)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Poet Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, returns with his highly anticipated debut novel. When Little Dog writes a letter to his illiterate mother, he reveals the family’s past as well as parts of his life he had hidden from his mother. With his tender, graceful style, Vuong’s family portrait explores race, class, trauma, and survival. (Carolyn)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Winslow’s debut novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through the story of Azalea “Knot” Centre, a fiercely independent woman, and Otis Lee, a helpful neighbor and longtime fixer, the narrative explores community and love with compassion and a singular voice. Rebecca Makkai describes Winslow’s voice as “one that’s not only pitch-perfect but also arresting and important and new.” (Zoë)
Vincent and Alice and Alice by Shane Jones: There’s always a hint of play and whimsy in Shane Jones’s fictions. His previous novel, Crystal Eaters, was a wonderfully sad and tender story where what remained of a character’s life could be measured in crystal counts—and where a young girl attempted to save her sick mother by reversing her diminishing numbers. In his latest, Vincent and Alice and Alice, Vincent’s life has hit some doldrums with a divorce from his wife Alice and a mindless job with the state. However, things turn weird when work enrolls him in a productivity program and Alice returns, but changed. Is she a clone? A hologram? Possibly. It’s a book that Chelsea Hodson calls both “laugh-out-loud funny and knife-in-your-heart sad.” (Anne)
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: In her Twitter bio, Arnett, known for her award-winning fiction and essays, describes herself thusly: “writer, librarian, lesbian willie nelson. 7-eleven scholar ™.” I assume you are already sold, but just in case: This debut novel starts when Jessa walks into the family taxidermy shop to find her father dead. Though grieving, she steps up to manage the business while her family unravels around her. Besides dead things, Jami Attenberg points out this novel includes all the best things, “messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida.” (Claire)
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann: In the essay “Spill Spilt,” T Fleischmann writes of itinerancy, languorous Brooklyn summers, and art-going, with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) at its center. The artwork is a pile of candies piled high in a corner that visitors are invited to take from and consume, and I am struck how sensual and alluring and and contemplative and intimate both the artwork and Fleischmann’s writing feel, how this pairing seems essential. I can only imagine that essential is the word to describe Fleischmann’s forthcoming Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, a book-length essay which reflects on Gonzalez-Torres’s artwork while probing the relationships between bodies and art. Bhanu Kapil says the book “is ‘spilled and gestured’ between radical others of many kinds. Is this love? Is this ‘the only chance to make of it an object’? Is this what it’s like to be here at all? To write ‘all words of life.’” (Anne)
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: The bestselling author of The Signature of All Things—and of course, Eat, Pray, Love—returns to historical fiction with a novel set in the theater world of 1940s New York City. Ninety-five-year-old Vivian Morris looks back on her wild youth as a Vassar College dropout who is sent to live with her Aunt Peg, the owner of a decrepit, flamboyant, Midtown theater, called the Lily Playhouse. There, Vivian falls in love with the theater—and also meets the love of her life. (Hannah)
How Could She by Lauren Mechling: A novel about women’s friendships and professional lives within the cutthroat media world that Elif Batuman called “as wise and unforgiving as a nineteenth-century French novel.” (Lydia)
Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge (translated by Frank Wynne): A perverse love story about two victims of traffickers in an unnamed country who become traffickers themselves, by the renowned novelist from Mexico. The Guardian says “Monge’s realist, deadly topical fiction is a weighty metaphor for our world gone mad.” (Lydia)
The Travelers by Regina Porter: A debut novel-in-stories with a large cast of characters from two American families, one white, one black, flung across the world—in America, France, Vietnam, and Germany—from points in time ranging from 1950 to the early 2000s. Garth Greenwell calls this “an innovative and deeply moving debut.” (Lydia)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: A new collection of essays by Native writers using the art of basket-weaving as a formal organizing principle for the essays and collection. Featuring work by Stephen Graham Jones, Deborah Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Eden Robinson, and Kim TallBear. (Lydia)
Oval by Elvia Wilk: In Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, weird things have been happening in Berlin: strange weather, artists hired as corporate consultants. Young couple Anja and Louis move into an “eco-friendly” community on an artificial mountain, The Berg, where they live rent-free in exchange for their silence on the house’s structural problems. When Louis invents a pill called Oval that has the power to temporarily rewire a user’s brain to become more generous, Anja is horrified—but Louis thinks it could solve Berlin’s income disparity. Described as speculative fiction, but also sort of just what life is like now, Oval depicts life in the Anthropocene, but a little worse. For fans of Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink. (Jacqueline)
I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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.
If you’re a slob, you’re a pig. If you’re sneaky, you’re a weasel. Cowards are chickens, and followers are sheep or lemmings. If you give bad loans, you’re a shark. If you’re fat, you’re a cow, or maybe a whale. If you’re lazy, you’re a sloth. Crazy folks are batty; people who talk shit are catty. Villains are snakes, women are bitches, and the lowest of low are dogs. The president of the United States of America recently said of undocumented immigrants, “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.”
In the English language, at least, being compared to an animal is rarely a compliment. (Even if you’re called a fox because you’re oh so sexy, there’s also the implication that you’re sly, tricky, and untrustworthy.) In fact, comparing people to animals isn’t just unflattering, but dangerous. According to Genocide Watch, equating members of an ethnic group with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases is the third stage of genocide, as this type of comparison “overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.” During the Holocaust, Jews were called rats; during the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called cockroaches. This made them easier to kill: They weren’t humans. They were animals. They were less.
But if you called Sy Montgomery a dog, she wouldn’t be insulted; she would be flattered. In Montgomery’s new book How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, the renowned nature writer best known for her book on eight-armed mollusks focuses her observant eye on her own life and the creatures that shaped her. “Though I’ve been blessed with some splendid classroom teachers—Mr. Clarkson, my high school journalism teacher, foremost among them,” Montgomery writes in the introduction, “most of my teachers have been animals.” In her memoir, Montgomery argues the point that not only should being compared to an animal be taken as a compliment, but we should be humbled in the presence of our fellow creatures. We have so much to learn from them.
The first creature Montgomery introduces us to is, naturally, her beloved childhood dog, Molly. A strong-willed and independent Scottish Terrier, Molly seemed to be more of a roommate than a pet, and she enjoyed her days freely roaming the Brooklyn army base where Montgomery grew up. “She wouldn’t come in when we called her in at night,” writes Montgomery of Molly. “Eventually my parents figured out we could blink the front porch lights on and off to signal that we would like her to come home. It was merely a suggestion.” Perhaps because of the independent nature of Scotties, Montgomery never seemed to feel control or power over the dog—Montgomery was not Molly’s master, but her peer. “Many young girls worship their older sisters. I was no expectation,” writes Montgomery. “But my older sister was a dog, and I—standing there helplessly in the frilly dress and lacy socks in which my mother had dressed me—wanted to be just like her: Fierce. Feral. Unstoppable.” Molly, in Montgomery’s eyes, wasn’t just a dog; she was a superhero. “I was entranced by Molly’s otherworldly powers,” writes Montgomery. “She could hear my father’s approaching staff car long before it arrived in the driveway. She could smell an opened can of Ken-L Ration from the moment my mother took it out of the refrigerator. She could see in the dark.” Dogs are so much more than cute fuzz balls to curl up with on the couch or toss a Frisbee to, Montgomery reminds us—they quite literally have superhuman abilities. No wonder Montgomery followed Molly around like, well, a puppy.
The image of a little Montgomery in a muddied dress and Mary Janes chasing after her Scottie dog, in turn chasing after a rogue Brooklyn rabbit, is a charming visual. “Cute,” one might think. “She wants to be just like her dog. What a delightful phase.” But the thing with Montgomery is that this desire to emulate the animals in her life was not a phase. She has spent the past 60 years admiring animals and following them to some of the most obscure locations around the globe to study and write about them.
“I was never, my mother told me, a ‘normal’ child,” writes Montgomery. It’s true: People—children, and especially adults—who obsess over animals are seen as odd. It’s okay to like animals; it’s okay even to love them, but not too much. It’s not “normal.” It is easy to dismiss Montgomery as one of those over-the-top animal people: She is a vegetarian, she lives on a farm in New Hampshire, she has had pet dogs, turtles, ferrets, parakeets, cockatiels, chickens, and even a pig named Christopher Hogwood (who not only gets his own chapter in How to Be a Good Creature but about whom Montgomery already wrote another entire book). She’s the crazy animal person who would hold a tarantula. It’s too much, right?
It’s not. In the same way that we are told that being compared to an animal is an insult, people are taught to believe that it is unhealthy to be too fond of animals. It’s all social conditioning. “People aren’t born with a fear of spiders,” argues Montgomery. “You can quickly teach a young person or animal to fear anything, including a harmless flower,” she writes in her chapter on Clarabelle, a tarantula she came to know and love when doing research in French Guiana. Montgomery herself wasn’t too fond of spiders before going on this South American expedition with a biologist who specializes in studying Goliath birdeater tarantulas. But eventually, she found herself holding a tarantula when “something magical happened. Holding her in my hand, I could literally feel a connection with this creature. No longer did I see her as a really big spider; now I saw her as a small animal.”
It’s all about changing your perspective. Montgomery was able to hold a tarantula after she learned that spiders rarely bite people and that, actually, encased in their exoskeletons, tarantulas are quite delicate. In this same way, Montgomery makes the point throughout her memoir that if you open your eyes to the complex beauty of the natural world, you can see that being called an animal is actually something extremely remarkable. It’s something to be proud of. If you’re called a pig, you’re super smart. If you’re called a weasel, you can hold on tight to the things you want. If you’re a chicken, you’re affectionate and have many friends. Animals have so many admirable qualities that we would be better humans if we worked harder to emulate our non-human friends.
When President Donald Trump tweeted that Steve Bannon had been “dumped like a dog,” Jennifer Weiner wrote an essay for The New York Times called “What the President Doesn’t Get About Dogs.” According to how Trump uses “dog” to insult his enemies, “dogs are failures, dogs are unattractive, dogs are unworthy of faith,” writes Weiner. But anyone who has ever had a dog knows otherwise; if someone calls you a dog, it should be because you are loyal and kind. Trump is one of the only American presidents not to have a pet at the White House, and as Weiner writes, “It takes a lot to elicit sympathy for a man whose life goals seem to be deepening America’s divisions, lining his pockets and starting a third world war on Twitter, not necessarily in that order. But it’s hard not to be a little sad for anyone who won’t ever know the singular pleasure of a dog’s companionship.”
Sy Montgomery’s latest book is all about the pleasure that comes from a life rich with many creatures. How to Be a Good Creature, though, is about more than appreciating animals: It is about learning from them. It is about how to be a good creature. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” writes Montgomery. There is something about animals that is pure. Animals are observant. Animals are loyal. Animals only attack when threatened. Animals respect the world they live in. Animals would never break up family groups into separate cages or discriminate against people for their religious affiliation or make a thinly veiled rape joke. Animals love homeless people and members of the 1 percent equally. Animals don’t care about your job or your power or your fame or your status. Animals value you for the content of your character. This is why we should follow Montgomery’s advice and be more like animals ourselves.
While How to Be a Good Creature is Sy Montgomery’s memoir, it is actually much more about our current political climate than Fear or Fire and Fury or any of those “fuck Trump” books. What Montgomery seems to be saying, underneath her personal story, is that when our human leaders fail us as role models, we should look to animals. “I can tell you that teachers are all around to help you: with four legs or two or even eight; some with internal skeletons, some without,” writes Montgomery. “All you have to do is recognize them as teachers and be ready to hear their truths.”
When you feel despair at the actions of your fellow humans, turn to other species for guidance.
Writing fiction is an act of formulating the right questions, not providing direct answers. This from Chekhov. But being a writer also presents many questions, two of which are perhaps universal to all generations and time periods and yet seem, as so much these days, more pertinent now than ever.
The first question I’ve mulled over since childhood, when I vacillated between Stephen King and John Steinbeck: what distinguishes a piece of fiction as either commercial or literary? The second question feels most urgent given the present state of our country: how might an artist’s work address times of political and social crisis?
Graham Greene seems a good writer to study in both regards. Before I read him, my perception was that he was a popular writer of thrillers and mysteries. However, the first Greene book I read was The Power and the Glory, a moral tale about a boozed-up and deeply penitent Catholic priest trying to escape persecution and find some semblance of dignity. At the time, I didn’t know about the dichotomy of Greene’s work, the two separate lineages of his fiction—the literary novels and, as he called them, the “Entertainments.”
Since then, I’ve discovered that while Greene encouraged the distinction, he didn’t offer much insight into it. In The Paris Review he attempted to clarify, saying “The [E]ntertainments…are distinct from the novels because as the name implies they do not carry a message”. The quote also implies Greene’s distaste for commercial novel, a phrase oxymoronic in the context of a serious writer discussing craft; the commercial fiction, the Entertainments, are not novels at all.
If we take his definition at face value, this presents an obvious problem. Because the Entertainments often do, like the literary novels, have a message. The actual difference may rest in how that message is delivered and to what effect. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace distinguishes literary fiction by pointing to the relationship between reader and writer, each with separate agendas, engaged in a paradoxical push-and-pull of expectations satisfied and subverted. He says:
This paradox is what makes good fiction sort of magical…The paradox can’t be resolved, but it can somehow be mediated—‘re-mediated’…by the fact that language and linguistic intercourse is, in and of itself, redeeming, remedy-ing. This makes serious fiction a rough and bumpy affair for everyone involved. Commercial entertainment, on the other hand, smoothes everything over.
While commonly accepted distinctions boil down to the commercial novel’s quick pacing, emphasized plot, simplified characters, and satisfactorily resolute ending, Wallace highlights a more essential component of the writing itself, a linguistic and thematic discourse that presents the reader more agitation than alleviation, more questions than answers.
This aligns with Russel Nye’s claim, in The Unembarrassed Muse, that “Elite art[‘s] aim is the discovery of new ways of recording and interpreting experience. Technical and thematic complexity is of much greater value in elite art than in… popular art; in fact, technique may become a vehicle for thematic expression, or may simply become an end in itself.” In other words, one factor distinguishing literary fiction from commercial fiction is the author’s textual awareness, proclaiming often subversive intentions. The Ministry of Fear, one of Graham Greene’s Entertainments, has all the apparent markings of commercial fiction. And yet, it metafictionally speaks to its own making, pushing it into the realm of literary art as defined by Wallace, Nye, and Greene himself.
So far left out in the definition of commercial art is its regard for readership and financial viability. The Ministry of Fear was preceded by Greene’s most acclaimed novel, The Power and the Glory, which, released during World War II, was financially unsuccessful. In The Life of Graham Greene Normal Sherry recounts the writer’s sobering realization:
Unless books…provided information about war or spies, the chances of their becoming bestsellers were remote…Greene’s brilliant novel had to compete with…titles such as I Was Stalin’s Agent or Hitler Versus Germany…or the Gestapo in England…There was a thirst for secret intrigues and the calamities of war; there was no interest in faraway Mexico or the tribulations of a betrayed whiskey priest.
The Ministry of Fear was Greene’s attempt at providing what his greatest literary achievement hadn’t—a thriller which speaks to the political reality from which it sprung. This is where writers in 2018 come in. Though we aren’t living through a world war, we are living through a world event, one which dominates public media, harnesses public fear, and encroaches on our private thoughts. To address it might seem overkill, but to not address it, to not situate our work within this new and strange world might seem naïve or negligent. But because this is an event so unprecedented, it presents a number of new questions. How can we write anything that addresses the political reality of our times, when so much of what defines our times boils down to an unstable and unreal reality? How do we address an administration and president that seems just as much an aberration of democracy as it seems democracy’s death-rattle? How do we write truth, when truth seems lost? How do we tell intelligent lies when stupid lies have become our national discourse?
These are the questions for which I, the writer, have no answers.
But I can say the reason fiction so often eschews providing answers is that the questions in which fiction deals are often inherently unanswerable. In attempting to address the unanswerable, most writers generalize the act of writing fiction to two things: the story, and how the story is being told.
The story of The Ministry of Fear is at its barebones level an obvious attempt at a commercial thriller—Arthur Rowe is swept into espionage, accused of murder, outcast, and on the run. But amid this action are quiet moments where the book breaks from its quick pace, such as in a chapter that sees essentially no plot-level movement.
Rowe wanders the rubble of bombed London. As he passes others, he makes observations but concludes that “None of these things mattered. They were like something written about: they didn’t belong to his own life and he paid them no attention” (61). This is the first acknowledgment of literature’s sudden impracticality, as well as the fact that the events of Rowe’s life have departed from his once secure perception of reality. It is followed by further recollections of a past Rowe simultaneously longs for and fervently rejects, saying “People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month. But it’s not there anymore.” Then, in an address to his deceased mother: “It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it—but the thrillers are like life…You used to laugh at the books…about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that’s real life: it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died.”
How the story is being told is where the complication of classifying the novel as either commercial or literary enters. And with this complication comes the complication of deciding whether Greene, writing through and about World War II, is attempting to situate a thriller within it, or using a thriller to comment upon it.
The election of Donald Trump was a moment in which, for many of us, the ground of reality broke apart. But it’s important to remember that all of the major events in human history had seemed, in the present moment, like the end of reality. A single election, a single war, a single bomb, a single personal tragedy, can have this effect. It’s a defining trait of traumas big and small—the world as we know it is no longer the same.
And when reality breaks, when trauma invades, as it always does, unexpectedly, we often question the value of all that we previously held dear. For Greene, this dearly held thing that seemed suddenly, amid the trauma of the war, impractical, was literature.
In The Ministry of Fear books represent paradox—their attempts at instruction become futile in times of true danger. At one point, Rowe waits for his hired detective, someone he hopes may provide guidance in the quickly evolving conspiracy of which he finds himself at the center. He waits in a bookstore, noting that:
Here was pornography—eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches; here were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century…There was a smell of neglected books, of the straw from packing cases and of clothes which had been too often rained upon.
The books are cast under a grotesque light, impractical to the point of being perverse. It is far from the last time Greene uses books for thematic effect. They become integral to the plot in the following chapter, “A Load of Books,” in which Rowe finds himself next to a man who carries said load. At first, the bookseller seems a pitiable character. Rowe notes that “The weight of the suitcase cramped him: he looked very old under its weight,” shining light on the antiquity of the man and the books. All of this is hammered home by the bookseller himself, who says “There’s nothing so heavy as books, sir—unless it’s bricks.” Rowe agrees to help the man unload his books to a prospective buyer. But the hand of the genre is visible when he marvels at the ease with which he is being pulled into the plot: “He felt directed, controlled, moulded, moulded by some agency with a surrealist imagination.” The surrealism of commercial fiction is most often seen in the character’s easy acceptance of the environment’s absurdity. They are dropped into worlds of excessive violence, espionage, conspiracy, and they face it all with the studied pragmatism of native inhabitants. The Ministry of Fear takes great aims to measure its absurdities, to call them what they are to the average reader, deviations from real life, or deviations from pre-war real life.
Rowe finds himself in a hotel room while unseen forces of harm linger outside. The case of books, as well as its symbolism, is nearly forgotten as Rowe scrambles for a weapon, only to reappear when he finds nothing else. He opens the case, thereby ending Part One of The Ministry of Fear, with books, the symbol of rich antiquity, bringing the scene to unexpected conclusion. It is a metaphor not only of the way the world has changed in times of war, but of the culture’s expectations from its literature: where was assumed books, turns out to be a bomb.
In the second half of The Ministry of Fear, Rowe has completely lost his memory of the past two decades, thereby returning to the childhood innocence he longed for in the opening lines. The return streamlines Rowe’s character. Unburdened by the complexities of his experiences, he fully inhabits his role as a commercial protagonist. The idea of innocence being bound to narrative simplicity is touched on in an earlier section:
In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality—heaven is as near and actual as the seaside. Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities: God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock. Our heroes are simple: they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated.
Both innocence and narrative simplicity are longtime staples of commercial fiction. According to Nye “there are certain themes in popular fiction which seem to maintain perennial interest. One is nostalgia, the appeal of ‘better days and simpler times,’ the pervasive memory of the past, of childhood, of innocence not yet lost, of times free of the taint of contemporaneity.”
It’s just as easy to situate these sentiments into the Trump platform—a great America which can be had once again—as it is to situate them into the resistance—an American reality that once had, at its foundation, some semblance of truth. Our heroes, or more accurately “leaders”, are no longer brave, nor are they honest. Just as World War II turned reality into a wartime thriller (thereby turning the wartime thriller into Realism) so has the election of Trump turned reality into a piece of absurdist fiction.
Perhaps like many writers, I’ve wondered what a piece of fiction set within the current administration might look like. I started thinking about this before Trump was elected, when it seemed his run would end in a tossaway joke. Imagine the chaos of a reality TV star, an idiot, a narcissist becoming president. Imagine the damage he could do, someone with such a fragile ego, someone so brash and unqualified. A writer of fiction could do wonders with material like this. It would, of course, be a work of satire, one which comments upon the potential failings of our democracy and discourse, which remind us that there is only a thin line between our functioning, flawed system and overwhelming chaos.
But then it happened. And while the novel I imagined was an exaggeration of reality, the reality of what happened became an exaggeration of the novel never to be written.
Greene lived through a wartime thriller as he was writing a wartime thriller. And while a wartime thriller can be considered, on its own, a piece of commercial art, the fact that it was written during the reality of war, and the fact that Greene seems textually aware of this, at the very least distorts an easy classification.
Rowe learns he is wanted for murder, a murder he doesn’t yet know was staged and for which he is therefore innocent, and turns himself in to the police. After telling his story to one policeman, he is passed to another, Prentice, who the first calls “the surrealist round here.” As Prentice fills him in on the details of what has taken place in the first half of the book, Rowe is flabbergasted, asking “Is life really like this?” to which Prentice responds, “This is life, so I suppose one can say it’s like life.” In this sentiment, the story acknowledges its deviation from real life, while also asserting its responsibility to do so as an adherence to Realism. If war can so drastically shape experience, then it requires a new Realism to speak to that experience, which, according to the novel, is better aligned with commercial fiction. If literary fiction speaks to the complexities of character, the infinitely-faceted spirit of the human condition given free rein, it is starkly out of place in a world of severe reductions, of rations, of time compressed by daily bombings, of motives good and evil, of Hitler and Churchill, of existence polarized to alive and dead.
However, as Rowe and Prentice head to the next scene of the plot, the novel draws attention to Rowe’s pleasure:
It was a long and gloomy ride, but all the time Rowe repressed for the sake of his companion a sense of exhilaration: he was happily drunk with danger and action…none of the books of adventure one read as a boy had an unhappy ending. And none of them was disturbed by a sense of pity for the beaten side.
He becomes the fully immersed, complicit character of The Entertainment, as well as a mirror of its therapeutic effect. Commercial fiction is easier to digest than literary fiction; the reader of commercial fiction is not being asked to consider the unresolvable questions of real life, so is allowed a more strictly pleasurable experience. However antithetical this might be to Greene’s literary novels, which are characterized by meditations on the messy nature of morality, the second half of The Ministry of Fear finds morality streamlined—the bad are exposed and punished, the good are redeemed and go on. The novel ultimately follows the prescriptive course of commercial fiction, thereby preserving its “Entertainment” value.
Does this imply that commercial fiction in 2018 would be that that offers the reader an escape from the pervasive stories of the day? The type of work that either ignores the political and social climate or rewrites it with the happy ending the most optimistic of us have trouble imagining? And if this is the case, would literary fiction be that that fully embraces the challenge of speaking to a potentially aberrant reality, a reality that, if it isn’t aberrant, is unquestionably sad? By ignoring this reality, can we shorten its lifespan? Or by ignoring it, do we fail future generations, leaving out a part of our history that I’m not alone in hoping we will never repeat?
In any case, for Greene, the moralizing literary artist, the therapy of commercial fiction itself becomes an object of his moralizing. What makes The Ministry of Fear so difficult to classify is that its value cannot be contained to the plot. In literary fiction, the plot is only a part of the experience, which is often best exemplified by its linguistic intercourse. In the linguistic intercourse of The Ministry of Fear the claim being made is that while childhood equals innocence and pleasurable simplicity, it also amounts to ignorance. By the same turn, adulthood is not simply an immoral mess. And Rowe, embarked on his quest for justice, begins to realize the limitations of the story he has inhabited:
Over there among the unknown tribes a woman was giving birth, rats were nosing among sacks of meal, an old man was dying, two people were seeing each other for the first time by the light of a lamp: everything in that darkness was of such deep importance that their errand could not equal it—this violent superficial chase, this cardboard adventure hurtling at forty-five miles an hour along the edge of the profound natural common experiences of men.
If the Entertainments are, as Greene suggests, meant simply to entertain by immersing the reader in a message-less tale, this paragraph is a move in the wrong direction. The tragedy of Rowe’s past is that he killed his wife, a “mercy killing,” to spare her a drawn out, painful death. With his memory gone, this formative episode is no longer part of him. He regresses to a childlike innocence, but he is an adult. It is the adult in him that senses the emptiness of his hero-like bravado, which the surrealism of the Entertainment demands, yet which he is too Real a character to be satisfied with. Even prior to his memory being fully restored, he understands that, “Happiness should always be qualified by a knowledge of misery… Knowledge was the great thing—not abstract knowledge…but detailed passionate trivial human knowledge.” The tension between difficult knowledge and therapeutic ignorance is hammered home in lines such as “The sense of adventure struggled with common sense as though it were on the side of happiness, and common sense were allied to possible miseries.”
The questions posed by literary fiction are rarely ingredients for pure happiness. The realism of literary fiction deals in the most irreconcilable facts of daily life. Happiness, on the other hand, according to Nye is a required component of popular fiction. He writes that “Since the popular arts aim at the largest common denominator…the popular artist cannot disturb or offend any significant part of his public: though the elite artist may and should be a critic of his society, the popular artist cannot risk alienation.” If commercial fiction is meant to promote happiness and not criticize society, Greene breaks both rules in the novel’s last line: “It seemed to him that after all one could exaggerate the value of happiness.”
Happiness is not a word that could earnestly be used to define our recent history or, I presume, the years ahead. In a deeply divided country, it’s possible the ultimate distinguishing trait between literary and commercial fiction will be whether that fiction attempts to avoid disturbing/offending or whether it embraces its critical impulse.
However, it might be difficult to write fiction that criticizes society when much of our current cultural dissatisfaction stems from the same sources. When this thought bothers me, I try to remember that art has always been an expression within a limited medium. Each medium has its own rules and functions. What has always been most interesting about great art is what the artist can do within these confines, how the artist conveys infinity within the finite. The writer of fiction should not attempt a fictional version of Fire and Fury. What the writer of fiction should do, I think, is what the writer of fiction has always done: look beneath the overarching problems of our day, where a woman is giving birth and an old man is dying. For all the helplessness we may feel, this is where narratives, real and imagined, begin. This is where the events of human history take shape.
Though the dual nature of Greene’s body of work is still preserved, it has become a less viable method of differentiating his novels. The Ministry of Fear invites classification, thereby making it difficult to classify. This difficulty is inherent in all discussions about Art and Entertainment. The fact remains that Art, the literary novel in particular, is not worth a whole lot unless it compels one to consume it. By that same token, Entertainment’s entertainment value is often a result of its bits of wisdom and confrontation that tease out an audience’s emotional and intellectual investment. And whether we’re talking art or entertainment, books are being read by people who live in a world besought by political turmoil, gender and racial inequality, devastating economic disparities, war, violence, terror. I don’t know what an artist does with this information, but I do believe an artist has a responsibility to keep this information in mind. Good writers, good readers, and good books do not exist in a vacuum. Nor is fiction obliged to be journalistic. Somewhere between these two facts exist the answers I don’t have.