For the Los Angeles Review of Books blog, Rachel Feder considers why Mary Shelley is often credited as the “ingénue inventor of speculative fiction,” while authors like Margaret Cavendish remain relatively unknown. “To take Shelley seriously means acknowledging the unromantic nature of this time in her actual human life,” Feder writes. “It also means including Shelley’s long career as a working single mother, publishing to support and maintain custody of her only surviving child, as part of the story. And if we want to take women writers seriously in general, then we need to see past the fantasy of Mary Shelley as the inventor of a genre to the authors who innovated the Gothic and science fiction genres on which Frankenstein is based.”
Image credit: Richard Rothwell
For the burgeoning fields of environmental humanities, it has long since become a commonplace notion that there isn’t really any such thing as “nature” or “wilderness”: both words used to connote real places—pristine and untouched places—but with the increasing knowledge that such a state of being likely never existed, the words come up empty. There are, however, new narratives: Through a case study of the global matsutake mushroom trade, anthropologist Anna Tsing shows compellingly in The Mushroom at the End of the World that the human-disrupted landscapes we find everywhere are worthy of study.
How far do we have to look to find that in the stories we tell today? Not far at all. Lauren Groff’s collection of stories, Florida, seems to see every landscape it describes as contaminated—the wreckage of things wrought by both humans and non-humans. In “Dogs Go Wolf”—a survivalist tale of two sisters stranded on an island, abandoned and threatened by adults—more than monkeys, more than dogs, it is a menacing man from whom the sisters hide. “He moved toward the boat and kicked it once, twice, then the girls saw the rotten wood break apart, and a hundred frightened bugs ran out.”
Groff rarely allows herself the common narrative—what is termed “declensionist” in academic works, i.e., the conventional narrative trope of “human beings cause progressive degradation,” a trope that is, depending on your point of view, incorrect, selective, colonialist, racist, and/or anthropocentric. In one instance, she allows it smack-dab in “Snake Stories,” a story, arguably, about ambivalence itself:
In February, one day, I found myself sad to the bone. A man had been appointed to take care of the environment even though his only desire was to squash the environment like a cockroach. I was thinking about the world my children will inherit, the clouds of monarchs they won’t ever see, the underwater sound of the mouths of small fish chewing the living coral reefs that they will never hear.
But because this is an ambivalent story, this passage follows soon after the narrator asks her son, “Why, of all beautiful creatures on this planet of ours, do you keep writing about snakes?” He answers, “Becus I lik them and thy lik me.”
Although I myself am uncertain about the extent to which we ourselves are aware of how literature is changing with regard to nature, when you begin to see the ugliness, the ambivalence—the “contamination”—of nature in one place, you begin to see it everywhere. Carmen Maria Machado’s justly lauded collection Her Body and Other Parties, for instance, seems to me just as much a realist rebuke of the triteness of “nature” as a work of science fiction or fantasy. The tentative resident at an artist’s colony, for instance, finds the horrors of nature everywhere: She tests the railings on the deck of a cabin “to see if anything was rotting or came off in my hand like a leprous limb”; looking up in the bathtub, she finds a showerhead “dark and ringed with calcified lime, like the parasitic mouth of a lamprey”; when the discovery of a rabbit she had previously run over turns up outside her studio door, she observes that “its visible organs glistened like caramels, and it smelled like copper.” Kneeling to the rabbit’s carcass, she apologizes. “You deserve better than that,” she says.
What does it deserve? Where did this vein of what I can best call un-nature writing begin? When did the environmental historians and anthropologists begin to convene with novelists and storytellers to arrange this complicated vocabulary? More precisely—when did we begin to recognize the banality of “nature writing,” a legacy largely assumed, correctly to some degree, as that of the Romantics?
The answer, in short, is: We didn’t. The legacy of long, meandering, anthropocentric meditations on nature—be they through Wordsworth’s “tranquil restoration” by nature through springs, sycamores and sober pleasures in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798,” or Coleridge’s hymn to “green vales and icy cliffs” in “Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni”—may actually be very much with us.
When we think of “nature writing,” a common Romantic phrase that comes to mind is “sublime.” Sublime, too, is an unstable word. But unlike “wilderness,” which has switched from negative to positive connotations, the sublime is more capacious. When Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime, it was to refer to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” One assumes that could apply equally to the experience of death as it would be to experiencing vertigo while bungee jumping in the redwood forests of Humboldt County, California.
Paradoxically, it is both a banality and a point of actual contestation to confront Romantic literature as the era of simply “nature writing.” The literary scholar Alan Bewell, who focuses particularly on British Romanticism, admits that one of the biggest problems he faces “in writing about or teaching British Romantic poetry to a mainly urban audience is to explain why most of these poets … spent so much time talking about landscapes and rural scenery, describing the seasons and the weather, and meditating on birds, flowers, mountains, rocks, and trees.”
Bewell would do better to start off with why the works of Romantics are so heavily contested in literary studies. Bewell himself represents a school that calls itself various names—as, frustratingly, many academic schools do—but ecocriticism should suffice. Broadly, the ecocritics argue that what the Romantics’ preoccupation with nature represented was a response to modernity, one that foreshadowed the biological, materialist understanding of “nature” that formed the basis of modern environmentalism. The Romantics in other words, were “proto-ecologists.”
Collapsing a whole academic school of thought is an act of heresy, so allow me to pause and insist that the ecocritics are obviously not a monolith, nor do they agree entirely on particular works. Still, writ large, ecocritics argue for some degree of coherence in the Romantic tradition. This is, in and of itself, controversial. The British literary critic Marilyn Butler, for instance, who lived long enough to see the beginnings of these tensions in the meeting of environmental and literary studies, was scathing on the attempts to slot things in neatly. Butler argued that the contemporary intellectual tradition saw “aesthetic discussions often [resting] upon the belief, also ultimately historical, that there is a single coherent Romantic movement. This belief is reflected in, say, the unquestioned coupling in a book or article of Coleridge and Shelley, or in the widely found inference that a work with Romantic traits has found something it ought to have found, that it is profounder and better than work characteristic of an earlier date.”
Ecocriticism developed as a counterpoint to “new historicism,” the literary theory that emerged in the mid-20th century and argued for examination of the cultural contexts of literature as a way to chart intellectual history. New historicism ascended along with postmodernism; the two are historically connected. The ecocritics are a response to these new historicists, academics for whom the ecocritics charge “nature” was merely a smokescreen behind which ideology, history and politics hid. According to Bewell’s characterization, the new historicists saw “nature” “as an obstacle to both the history that human beings make and the histories that they write, and since it places limits on human freedom, the task of most historicist criticism of Romantic literature has been to penetrate or dissolve nature so that the human agency that stands behind it can be recognized.”
It boggles the mind a bit that these two forms of literary theory do not find a common middle, but most often they haven’t. More than once, a new historicist has argued that there is no such thing as nature; in turn, ecocritics have objected strongly that that is a rebuke to materiality itself. But contemporary literature has certainly found a middle. In an essay entitled ”Not Your Grandfather’s Nature Writing” in the Fiction Writers Review, Andrea Nolan points to a spate of literary journals like Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, which focus on the environment and distance themselves from “nature writing.” Indeed, she quotes the mission of Ecotone as being distinguished from “the hushed tones and clichés of much of so-called nature writing.” As far as I can discern, however, the most radical change in register for un-nature writing lies in complicated human/nonhuman juxtapositions. In Lauren Groff’s most recent story for The New Yorker, “Under the Wave,” an arresting little passage appears mid-story in what reads as a wild nightmare with a fluid sense of time:
Images accumulated. A woman in filthy panties limping down a road with a bone knuckling out of her arm. A mass of faceless people huddled around a fire. The gray vinyl of a bus seat, scored like aged skin, and the strange flat brown landscape passing dreamily by the window.
Filthy panties. Bone. People. Fire. Gray vinyl. Aged Skin. Flat brown landscape. These juxtapositions of the excruciatingly human with classically-descriptive words for nature that seem so new are made possible in a literary landscape that is realizing how incontestable it is that nature is inseparable from the human and the cultural. Thus far, literary theory has found this difficult to attain, especially for the work of the original “nature writers.” As postmodernists tend to dismiss materiality entirely, the ecocritics bristle from dismissing it even the slightest: Ceding any ground at all would be to dismiss the aesthetic and, crucially, ecological worth of the Romantics’ work.
Take, for instance, Coleridge in “France: An Ode”:
O ye loud Waves! And o ye Forests high!
And O ye clouds that far above me soared!
Thou rising sun! thou blue rejoicing Sky!
Yea, everything that is and will be free!
The ecocritic Karl Kroeber notes that “Coleridge can imagine the sky as joyous because he feels that freedom of individual being is to participate fulfilling in a dynamic unity of forces greater than himself but to which he can satisfyingly belong.” Granted, Coleridge’s invocation of forms of unity emphasize an interconnectedness with nature that can be termed “proto-ecological” because they emphasize both the aesthetic power and beauty of nature as well as the practical and social duties of man to the natural world. Further, it would be hard to argue that this view of nature does not represent some actual thing—the sky is, basically, blue; the forests, often, very high.
But simultaneously, the ecocritics decry the commercialization of ”nature” based on the idea that human beings only leave alone those natures that they do not value. Could it not be, then, that the Romantics’ views led us here directly by romanticizing the pastoral and pristine and wild—by representing the nature that deserved to be valued? After all, for every complex representation of the environment through writers like Groff, Machado, and those who grace the pages of Flyway, Ecotone, and Orion, there are non-literary works that play right into the hands of problematic assumptions of nature. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work of science journalism The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, for instance, has been heralded as a major work charting the loss of species. At the same time, however, it has been criticized by environmental scholars for its focus on some species and not others, for its unquestioning assumption of “species” as the unit of analysis, and for assuming that some Platonic form of “nature” existed before industrial humans began destroying it.
And so even as the postmodernists have lost ground, problems remain. While ecocritics take their cue from environmental scholars about the need to examine environmental and natural themes in their work, the idea that “nature” itself might be a construct—many, many different constructs, in fact—remains largely unquestioned. It’s a reactionary impulse. As literary critic Dana Phillips has argued, even as the ecocritics bring back the idea that there is something material, biological, and empirical about the world (i.e., “nature” is not entirely a cultural construct), what that “something” is remains to be settled—not in ecology or humanistic inquiry, and definitely not in Romantic literature. For compare Coleridge to the Percy Bysshe Shelley in the third stanza of “Mont Blanc” personifying the mountain itself: ugliness (“rude, bare, and high”) and bleak destruction (“Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven”):
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone,
And the wolf tracks her there – how hideously
Its shapes are heap’d around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarr’d, and riven. Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply – all seems eternal now.
What Shelley did was strip away some of the sentimentality of nature writing. “Mont Blanc” is, after all, an expression of Shelley’s atheistic beliefs and his political reformist idea that without human imagination, all those silences would be vacuous (“Mont Blanc” is famously considered a rebuke to Wordsworth and Coleridge).
Whatever “Mont Blanc” is for the Romantics, it’s clearly not just a well-described mountain.
In the Romantic works I’ve encountered, none poses as direct a challenge to the generalizability of the Romantic view on nature than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The fable has been seen, variously, as anti-modern, a cautionary tale about science and technology that echoes contemporary fears, as a nightmare about “nature” gone wild, and a plea for stewardship: that humans must care about nature so it does not go awry.
To see how different Mary Shelley was from her contemporaries, consider Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring,” which begins with Wordsworth glorifying Nature and decrying the state of Man:
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Despite Wordsworth’s “faith that ever flower / Enjoys the air it breathes,” there is also doubt:
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The doubt, of course, is less of a service to the representation of nature (“If such be Nature’s holy plan”) than to Wordsworth’s lament of “What man has made of man.” Even as Wordsworth trucks in pleasure and invokes doubt and uncertainty, his representation of nature is relatively benign. Autonomy is granted to “nature,” but it is a gentle and soothing sort of autonomy. It stands in contrast to Wordsworth’s helplessness about the state of man.
Needless to say, this is fundamentally different to the autonomy of nature that is presented in Frankenstein. The famous passage where Victor beholds his making:
For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
This grants Victor a terrifying hyper-autonomy. Where Shelley’s Frankenstein departs from Wordsworth is in the hyper-autonomy both of man and of nature when man is hubristic enough to wish to dominate it, which is why Frankenstein is thought so often as the anxious industrial precursor to living in the age of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, more than one literary critic has seen the current geological epoch of the Anthropocene as the modern-day Monster from Frankenstein.
There are problems with reading even Frankenstein as the “proto-ecological consciousness” of a Romantic writer. The most major is that it collapses “nature,” “science,” and “technology” as if they were all part of the same whole. There is considerable ambivalence in Frankenstein about this. It is, after all, the Monster who regards “nature” in a similar fashion to many of the Romantics:
Autumn passed thus. I saw, with surprise and grief, the leaves decay and fall, and nature again assuming the barren and bleak appearance it had worn when I first beheld the woods and the lovely moon. Yet I did not heed the bleakness of the weather; I was better fitted by my conformation for the endurance of cold than heat. But my chief delights were the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel of summer.
The obvious other problem with the “proto-ecological” Frankenstein is that it blurs too many lines. Not only does it transpose an eloquent man-beast who resents his birth, his maker, his countenance, and society—all qualities and emotions that many humans express and are known to have—onto the “nature” that faces us in the Anthropocene; it also casts Mary Shelley as the prescient seer of the Romantic movement, undercutting the prescience of other skeptics with less forceful work.
If Mary Shelley is the Romantic double of Lauren Groff and Carmen Maria Machado, it goes without saying that William Wordsworth has his, too. In an essay in n+1, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” environmental historian Jedediah Purdy skewers the anthropocentric conceits of contemporary works of nature-writing, works that bear an uncomfortable similarity to “Mont Blanc”:
For writers, this strange world — tamed to death, feral as a wild hog — has inspired a fascination with nonhuman action, agency, and consciousness. This is true in high academic culture, where literary scholars wax lyrical on the agency of storms and trees, political economists propose that capitalism be seen as both an ecological and a social form, and social theorists outline ethnographies and alliances across species. But as usual the academic trends are just the owl pellets of Minerva. Stronger evidence of a mood is the ambitious, often excellent, sometimes ridiculous writing, from essays and memoirs to popular science, that asks obsessively: What is looking back at us through other species’ eyes? Could we ever escape our own heads and know the viewpoint of a hawk? Is there such a thing as thinking like a mountain?
Like me, Purdy also finds ridiculous that this is all still called “nature writing” in an age where no one knows what “nature” is. But his broader point is key: Whatever this genre, it has made a comeback, just as more complicated works of un-nature sit beside them on shelves.
Tsing’s work has its doubles, and so does the ecocritic’s. It’s like the ecocritic sitting next to the new historicist: The battle lines are real but also bewildering. They probably tell us more about ourselves than about “nature,” but they may also be very captivating. Or if you prefer: distracting.
After all, as Purdy points out, it remains both “baffling and beautiful” that Thoreau once asked of his pond: “Walden, is it you?”
Victor Frankenstein stands listening to his creation, the creature who he brought to life from the sewed-together remnants of the dead, who he abandoned at the height of his success, and who now asks his father to remedy his rejection buy building him a companion like himself. The creature says:
I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself: the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless, and free from the misery I now feel.
Among other things, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an exploration of how one creates a monster. It is clear throughout the novel that he is not a monster because he was sewn together from the desiccated scraps of the dead, but because everyone who saw him said that he was so. It is a monstrosity carved into the creature’s psyche by rejection, forced upon him as the only refuge of the utterly banished.
And it is probably for this reason that the novel and its exploration of monstrosity have long been a potent symbol for trans people and their advocates, who have often explicitly sought to reclaim the slur for themselves. The gender theorist and University of Arizona professor Susan Stryker most notably did so in her 1994 essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix,” writing provocatively, “I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster.”
But more important here, Stryker makes another observation that readers of Frankenstein will appreciate. “The transsexual body,” she says, “is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction.”
And what technology it is! Roughly a decade and a half since Stryker’s article, medical science has begun to provide trans people seeking gender affirmation surgery with once unimaginable options. Just a few months ago the first recipient of a uterus transplant in the United States gave birth, and scientists have had recent successes growing penises in a lab.
These developments have obvious benefits for many trans people. Though not all trans people seek or want such surgeries, those who do could benefit immensely. They are also genuine scientific marvels. Making an artificial penis, for example, is a demanding process, that involves weaving together multiple overlapping tissue types to form a highly complex organ. Using a collagen scaffold taken from a donor, the doctors grow the new tissue from samples from the patient, resulting in a functional penis that will not be rejected from the recipient’s immune system. It is an impressive achievement.
However, these advances seem rarely to be made with trans people in mind. Indeed, the articles linked above don’t even mention them. If trans people benefit, it is often as an afterthought. The narrative of scientific triumph seems to pass them by.
It passes by Victor Frankenstein as well, and his monster too. It is often hard to remember that, by his own standard, Frankenstein’s experiments were a complete success. As he says of his ambition in discovering the secret of life, “a new species would bless me as its creator and source…No father could claim the gratitude of his child as completely as I should deserve theirs.”
Not just one creature, but a whole lineage of them, all stemming from Frankenstein alone.
Yet when the monster visits, calling for his father, Frankenstein scorns him. And when the monster asks for a female companion, Frankenstein, now terrified that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth,” tears the new creature apart. After his great triumph early in the novel, Frankenstein spends the rest of the story deftly crafting failure from success. So thorough is his hatred of his son that he cannot recognize his own achievement.
We should ask then, “what is a monster?” And what does monstrosity have to do with the half-exclusion of trans people from science—the scientific moulding of their bodies coupled with their identities’ omission from the story science tells itself?
Etymology isn’t destiny, but sometimes it’s useful to check, and according to the OED entry for “monster” the word comes from Latin, monēre, which means “to warn.” As the classicist Gregory A. Staley writes, the Roman religion considered “monstrous” that which was “unnatural and abnormal” and which “both shocks and calls for interpretation.”
“Unnatural” is a slippery term, often applied more from disgust and confusion than any rational basis. Frankenstein’s monster is arguably unnatural, yet he exhibits far more compassion and kindness than his creator does, until driven at last by humanity’s rejection towards violence. Trans people, meanwhile, often describe their desire to transition as though it were the most natural thing in the world, yet bigots often invoke their supposed monstrosity to further marginalize them.
It might be “natural” for a cis woman to get a womb transplant to solve her infertility, but a trans woman asking for the same thing warrants nary a mention in the press. The distinction here was not created in a lab, but in people’s thoughts and deeds. It is itself unnatural.
Trans monstrosity—when not being consciously appropriated by trans people themselves—appears then as a warning: Thou shalt not defy thine gender role. As a recent study has shown, opposition to trans rights correlates strongly with attachment to a rigid gender binary. The admixture of genders, the sewing together of apparently discordant parts, threatens these divisions. And so for the binary’s protection, trans people (when not being ridiculed) must be pushed away.
As the scholar and artist Sandy Stone writes in her famous “Post-Transsexual Manifesto,” passing (or appearing cisgender) “means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is the effacement of the prior gender role.”
As Stryker says, the “unnaturalness” of the trans body is a technical, Frankensteinian construction—not only of drugs and surgery, but of dress, mannerism, voice, a thousand ways to be one’s self. A trans person might pass out of genuine desire, or from fear, as troubling an onlooker’s naive binary can often come with a death sentence. Or if not that, perhaps the loss of a job, humiliation in a public washroom, ridicule and threats on the street—societal expulsion by a thousand cuts.
Far from being party to science’s triumphalism, trans people instead enter the narrative as problems to be solved. The constant judgement placed upon them, the way even their most basic needs become a matter of public debate, encourages them to re-closet themselves, to pass for cis and hide their backgrounds simply out of fear.
Queer theorists–most famously Lee Edelman – often speak of LGBT people as having “no future,” in that their rejection of heteronormativity removes them from the standard narrative of sexual reproduction. The basic story of growing up, getting married, and having kids of your own becomes much more complicated when gay men and lesbians are involved. It might be something queer people do, but not what society at large expects of them. The rhetoric of “reproductive futurity” simply breaks down.
Trans people, on the other hand, have long had their own narrative of the future: after coming out they are expected to change their names, their clothes, their pronouns, maybe start hormones, maybe get surgery. At the end of the line, they all pass for cis, and their past lives simply disappear. The fact of having transitioned becomes taboo. It is not futures they lack, but pasts.
Undoubtedly for many trans people the effacement of the past reflects a genuine desire, but it is not something that all would freely choose. And it becomes a problem when pastlessness transforms into a general expectation, when the world at large decides that this is what transitioning ought to be. It is a recipe for exclusion, and for the suppression of monstrosity. Pastlessness preserves the gender binary at the expense of those it harms the most and dismantles the relationship between trans people and the science on which they depend.
“Claiming humanity in my monstrosity as a transsexual,” writes the gender theorist and sociologist Sonny Nordmarken, “I make my monstrosity human.” And it is the humanity within monstrosity that lies at the heart of Frankenstein, and in its most troubling and subversive scene.
The monster, having chased Frankenstein to the arctic and come across his corpse, declares that he now plans to kill himself by building a giant funeral pyre so that he may “exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” Yet we do not see this agony. Instead, he simply leaps from a window, bounding into the ice and cold of the unknown. We have no idea what happens to him. This lack of future, the gaping ellipsis following the recitation of his past, makes him irresolvable. He is both dead and alive, both monstrous and human. He is deathly indeterminate.
After all that we have read, he denies us resolution and refuses us simplicity. Terrorizing our distinctions, he leaves us to deal with his strangeness as simply another aspect of the world —as natural as the ice he floats on, as much a part of our society as the book he’s in.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Every year I teach Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein to first-year college students, who can’t quite believe it was written by a girl their age. How could someone so young create a work so furiously complex, alive with the energies of need, anger, love, and alienation? But then, who would have known freakishness so well as a bookish girl in a male-dominated world, secretly convinced she’d killed the mother she never knew? “When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me,” the Creature tells his creator, Victor Frankenstein. “Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” Yet the Creature’s own consciousness makes avoiding this pain impossible, and, like any writer, he is drawn to examine it: “[O]f what a strange nature is knowledge!” he tells Victor. “It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.” Knowledge brings pain. But knowledge — and its exploration, in stories — is irresistible.
The sorrowing rage of a precocious daughter who felt spurned by her father and responsible for her mother’s death certainly drives the novel. But its origins aren’t quite that simple. Frankenstein was a book Mary Shelley had to write, for reasons she might never have been able to explain. That inward pressure is part of the alchemy that makes any novel an even bigger and stranger experience for its writer (and its reader) than the writer knows. While we may sometimes connect the real Mary Shelley with her brooding Creature, Frankenstein’s enduring allure comes from a much more mysterious place — an imaginative energy born of transgression, memory, fear, and desire, which may spring from real life but isn’t ever fully bound by it. That energy communicates itself to us, elevating the idea of the novel itself — to a heightened sensory tour of a recognizable human reality, fundamentally not responsible to any laws but its own.
Joan Chase, whose first novel was published when she was 47, is a writer whose work demonstrates this energy. She’s won many awards (including a Guggenheim, a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and PEN America’s Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award), and, according to one online source, is “still writing.” Yet she’s a shy, little-known presence in the modern literary world, with no webpage or Twitter feed. When confronted with so specific a fictional realm as Chase’s, readers accustomed to copious author bios and Internet availability will find themselves baffled. Yet her fiction demonstrates just how little “authorial intent” or “biography” can matter. Chase teaches us what it means for a writer to submit herself to the story, letting fiction and fact alchemize according to the needs of the created world on the page and following wherever that world’s logic leads, regardless of literal “truth.”
Recently reissued by NYRB Classics, Chase’s first novel, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983), is narrated by a collective “we,” a group of sisters and cousins living in a matriarchal farm household in northern Ohio in the 1950s. “For as long as we could remember,” they tell us, “we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world.” Celia, Jenny, Anne, and Katie are cousins and sisters, “like our mothers, who were sisters” and who are all living in the house together at one time or another. “Sometimes we watched each other, knew differences,” they say. “But most of the time it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal.”
The girls’ days are marked by farm-kid pleasures (kittens under the porch, playing in the hayloft with a hidden deck of cards) and violence (fighting with each other and their boy cousin, the sinister Rossie) and family crises that descend like weather: cancer, marital discord, courtship and impending marriage, abuse and making-up again. Family members come and go and come again until three generations — parents and their daughters, and the daughters’ husbands and children — have settled into the house. At every turn the girls feel knit deeper into the place:
Peaceable, we waited on the porch in the dappling noontime. In the Mason jars stacked up dusty and fly-specked on the side shelves, in the broken-webbed snowshoes hung there, the heap of rusty hinged traps waiting this long time to be oiled and set to catch something in the night, was the visible imprint of the past we were rooted in.
The girls’ world is presided over by a fierce, dominating goddess — their grandmother Lil. Nicknamed the eponymous “Queen of Persia,” Lil has been working her entire life, starting as a scrawny 11-year-old nanny for a neighbor with tuberculosis. Even an inheritance from a rich uncle, which enables her to buy a farm for herself, doesn’t soften her sense of grievance at the world. “She vowed it was peculiar,” say the girls, “her father spent his life in the West, searching for oil, when all along it was right out back under the corn crib. Now wasn’t that just like a man? Like life.” Focused in old age on her own self-protection, Lil widens her angry judgment of the world to include her daughters and granddaughters. Sometimes she condemns them, but sometimes she protects them. When her oldest daughter Grace dies of cancer, Gram squares off against Grace’s feckless husband, Neil. Yet at the novel’s end — after making a decision that shocks the reader — Gram snorts, “What did we ever have around here but dying and fighting? Work and craziness.” For the girls, Gram models womanhood as sheer cussedness and endurance, a “soiled and faded apron and her exhausted face, marked like an old barn siding that had withstood blasts and abuse of all kinds, beyond any expression other than resignation and self-regard.”
The man for whom Gram reserves most of her fury is her husband, Jacob, a stern Amish outcast who “was bigger than all the other men we saw who came around the farm…it was a bigness of bone, as though he were solid calcium with only skin stretched over him.” Cursing at the cows, backhanding Rossie into the barn wall for smashing eggs, and changing his long underwear only a few times a year, Grandad is a dark force of nature whose inability to interpret or express his own emotions makes him terrifying but, initially to Gram as a young woman, alluring:
Every night his eyes were watching, wanting her and letting her see it in him; but he wouldn’t touch her…though when she would pass close beside him she would hear his breathing, harsh and quick. It nearly drove her wild and her mind came to dwell on him nearly every second. Sometimes, when she lifted up the handle of the stove to stir the wood, the glutted, ashy coals crumbled at the slight touch and something inside her seemed to fragment in the same way.
Eventually, marriage — marked by furtive, rape-like sex and Jacob’s long absences — bends Gram’s desire into a thick club of anger, aggression, and dark humor with which she attacks everyone around her, and herself:
I seen more damned men than you would believe drinking themselves crazy, killing each other over nothing. And their women dying with babies or something else unnecessary. But you can’t tell them. I’m through trying. You can’t tell a young gal nothing, nor an older one neither. Not anything she don’t want to hear.
Watching Gram hang on to her life exactly as it is — remaining married to a man she hates, stashing her money under the floorboards, and shaking up her family with daily small cruelties — makes the reader wonder: in a world that thwarts women, what makes a woman also thwart herself, surrendering to meanness and pushing against a hard life in a way that only makes it harder? What’s the source of that particularly Midwestern passive aggression, self-sabotage, and buried rage? And why hate the one who gets away from it all — in this case Aunt Elinor, a successful New York career woman whose efforts to care for her dying sister are mocked even as they are relied upon? “Aunt Elinor looked patient, as one who had seen a wider world,” the girls observe, “one she constantly made visible to the rest of us — accepting the fact that a wider world might mean a weaker place in the old one.” Why love a place where the ordinary marvels of life — “The wet orchard grass and briers gleamed like washed planking, while above, the branches held green sails to the wind” — are braided with such pain?
When you are immersed in Joan Chase’s writing, that love seems wholly inevitable. In her review of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Margaret Atwood described the girls’ connection to this place:
Will the ‘we,’ having known a childhood so all-enveloping, so histrionic and so collective, ever be able to resolve itself successfully into four separate ‘I’s? For despite the horror of some of the events they witness, the children’s life at Gram’s is fascinating and addictive, and they live with an intensity and gusto that prevent their final vision from being a bleak one.
Indeed, something in the girls cleaves to their “flamboyantly, joylessly unpredictable” grandmother, no matter what:
When we are grown up and have been through everything, we’ll be like that. We’ll order kittens drowned by the bagful. Then at night we’ll dress in our silken best, pile on jewels and whiz off to parties, bring home prizes for the family. We’ll bet on horses.
This thread of resilience brightens the otherwise dark weather of this novel, which nevertheless isn’t forced or melodramatic — it’s only doing what it must, only being what it is. Lacking answers to the questions we might ordinarily ask the author — Is this your family? Are you saying something about women and passive-aggression here? — we fall back on the novel itself and on our own reactions, delving deeper into the territory of self-investigation. Which is to say, into literature.
Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which was published three years earlier, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is poised on the border between strict realism and something like a dream. If the governing element of Robinson’s novel is water — the frozen lake, the drowned train — Chase’s novel is of the soil. Rooted in landlocked northern Ohio, it is replete with cluttered farmhouses and barns and deer stealing windfall apples from the orchard. Yet its effects are never showy or awkward, never just rural Gothic cliché. Like William Faulkner, whom Chase admires, this is novelistic imagination with no elaborate scaffolding between reader and author — just direct immersion in a stream of subjectivity and life we come to know through that immersion itself. In this, the novel echoes its subjects: terrifying, marvelous, and memorable things happen here, and that’s just how it is — here in this dark Midwestern Eden, with its gnarled and faithful apple trees.
Chase found an early center of gravity in a large family homestead in rural Ohio like the one in Queen of Persia. “[I]t was wonderful,” she has said, “to have so much family around me.” On an “Ohioana Authors” radio program, she said, “When I began to write what became During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, I didn’t decide on Ohio as the setting, Ohio was just there, my imaginative heartland. It was the land of my childhood and from my perspective the most lovely and thrilling place in the world.”
These biographical statements (among the few Chase has made) don’t account for the elements of Queen of Persia that are less than “lovely.” But they don’t really need to; we all know that what is “true” doesn’t always make the best story. A writer must let the emotional qualities and images on the page shape the story according to her own emerging logic. This means that tracing a writer’s “biography” in a novel can be difficult. Particularly for the writer herself. And that, too, is perhaps as it should be.
Chase’s later works return to themes similar to Queen of Persia, although in more diffuse, experimental ways. Her second novel, The Evening Wolves (1989) explores how a feckless, wandering father warps his daughters’ lives. Francis Clemmons is charming and fierce, self-centered and often irresistible. The first-person narration (traded among his three children and second wife) is precise and pithy, rooting us in particular bodies and subjectivities: “My hair is straight, quiet hair,” young daughter Ruthann declares, “and my head feels peaceful, at least where it shows.” Elsewhere she tells how a boy “started rubbing my bones, their stone hearts luminous in the dark, binding me like stays.” Unlike Persia, the novel feels inconclusive, with an open-endedness that is employed to better effect in Chase’s short fiction.
Gathered in Bonneville Blue (1991), Chase’s stories are strange and shapely, centered around striking images from down-at-heel rural worlds reminiscent of Persia’s barns and backroads. Sally in “Crowing” accompanies a cranky old man around his barn: “People say farm animals know when the hog butcher is coming. Somehow. Even the day before, they will be restive, off their feed, as though word of the appointment has reached them.” Here, too, women are yearning yet uncertain how to act. In the lyrical “The Harrier,” an unhappily married woman dreams of a younger man:
I didn’t go with him up into that bed in the forest, not in the end, although as I said, in that winter of cold and driving spikes of ice he seemed to slam against my bedroom window all night like some night bird wanting in. But I chose to lie on, hugging the curve of my husband’s unyielding back, dreaming the smell that is feverish and rank, the distillation of roots and vines newly turned over.
Like Elena Ferrante, whose novels of growing up in midcentury Naples have drawn fresh attention this fall — and who writes from behind an inviolable pseudonym — Joan Chase disrupts the links we seek between a writer’s life and her art to let her work stand alone in the public eye. Of course, Joan Chase is her real name. But her relative silence, while thwarting readers’ curiosity, serves us as Ferrante’s pseudonymity does by sending us back to the work, which stands on its own — enigmatic, dark, and gorgeous.
Reading Chase, Ferrante, and Mary Shelley all together reignites my curiosity about women, writing, and boldness. What interior permissions, or exterior disguises, or at-long-last states of peace and determination must a woman attain to in order to speak the story that wants to take shape, whatever that shape may be? I’m wondering, too, about the relationship between personal privacy and the kind of boldness we need to do our work. In the Internet age, Ferrante’s pseudonym and Chase’s quietness both suggest strategies to address that issue: if you want to avoid complaining family members, or earnest reviewers asking you about “which parts are autobiographical,” or random readers’ emails, short-circuiting the link between you and the public might help. Maintaining privacy might also quiet interior voices that insist a good daughter would never write this. Seeking recognition is just not what we do in this family. If you get the wrong kind of attention, it’s your own fault.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia does make me wonder about Chase’s family’s reaction: whether they recognized themselves, whether they objected, whether they half-resented the one whose success they also envied. But ultimately, it’s not our business. It is enough that Joan Chase brought into the world a novel so vivid, risky, and beautiful, and that from it we can learn to trust our stories — to finger the jagged grain of those trees in our childhood Edens, those lost orchards of memory — and let them take us where they need to go.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.
Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”?
Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet’s path most enjoyably at November’s Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845)
In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first “Conversation,” a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She’d later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were “talking with pen in hand.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins — nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed — Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
The restless desire of Hardy’s doomed characters, especially the bewitching “Queen of the Night,” Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel’s beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th’s Bonfire Night.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
It’s on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and — either lost or saved, she doesn’t know — makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there’s no escape.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945)
Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation?
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Mr. Ewell,” asks the prosecutor, “would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?” Those disputed events are what the jury — “twelve reasonable men in everyday life” — is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese (1966)
A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile — and profile of celebrity — for Esquire.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970)
Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal — trying to make a number of deals, in fact — in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.”
The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)
The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother — both lost to him — stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)
Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice.
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995)
The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen.
A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004)
November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud.
In her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes movingly of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Shelley gave birth to four children, but only the fourth survived. “In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children,” Solnit writes:
…she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.
But before the meeting comes the solitude, the book as a private space that a reader steps into, and nowhere is this clearer to me than on the subway. On any given morning, a majority of my fellow passengers are reading. It’s a way to pass the time, of course, but it seems to me that escaping into a book in these moments is also a bid for some measure of seclusion.
In the places where everyone drives, the roads fill with single-occupancy vehicles in the mornings and the late afternoons, thousands or millions of drivers in their solitudes. On a subway commute, packed in with strangers in an underground train, solitude is more elusive. We resort to small tricks to find some space for ourselves: the noise-blocking headphones, the iPad, the book. I wear earbuds on my commute, but unless I’m too tired to read or the person next to me is loud, the iPod in my pocket is dark. I just want things to be a little quieter, so that I can disappear into my book more fully. In those moments I just want to be a little more alone.
It probably goes without saying that you’ll crave different solitudes at different moments in your life, both in books and in physical places. I have an immense love for loud books. Novels like, say, Nick Harkaway’s, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length, books that come galloping into your life with their doomsday machines and schoolgirl spies and ninjas and leave you daydreaming for days afterward about clouds of mechanized bees. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the immense pleasure of novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which I finally got around to reading a few weeks back. Very little happens in Open City, plotwise. It’s a very intelligent meditation on memory, dislocation, family, music, national identity, and other interesting topics, but the action is mostly a man wandering the streets of New York. I found it mesmerizing.
Lately, possibly because it’s been a long summer of continuous hard work on a new novel and I don’t want to think about plot just now, or perhaps because my annual allotment of vacation days at my day job resets every September 1st, I’ve been out of vacation time since February, and reading quiet books is the closest I can get to a vacation at the moment, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for books that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum.
Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler’s prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren’t quiet.
The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials. If the solitude you crave at the moment is a quiet one, here’s a short reading list of quiet books that I’ve recently read and admired:
1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The book takes the form of a letter written by an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. I found the language extraordinary.
2. Open City by Teju Cole
A young psychiatrist, Nigerian-born, walks the streets of New York City. The walks open the city to him and serve as a respite from the stress of his working life.
3. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
A North Korean man defects and immigrates to a coastal town in Brazil following the Korean War, where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice. An elegant account of a quiet and solitary life.
4. The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin
A deeply moving chronicle of drinking, friendship, and grief. Paul was among the scores of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, his best friend, David, moves like a ghost between the bars of Manhattan, sometimes with and sometimes without Paul’s widow, Mel. Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her.
5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Sophia, age six, and her grandmother, who’s nearing the end of her life, while away the days of a summer on a remote island in the Bay of Finland. Jansson’s depiction of both characters and of their relationship is delightful.
6. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
A classic in Australia. A couple raise their children in the slums of 1940s Sydney, “in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.”
Image via Michael Veltman/Flickr
Over the course of more than a dozen works of nonfiction, Rebecca Solnit has built a singular vehicle that traverses the poetics of place, and by “place” we mean everything. She writes, with cerebral ferocity, about photography, human culture, literature, walking and wandering, politics, environment. In her latest, The Faraway Nearby, she writes about herself: that is to say, about the stories that comprise autobiography (the notion in general and hers specifically), literature, myth, fairytale, and the act of writing. By which we mean, again, everything.
“People disappear into their stories all the time,” she writes, inviting us to disappear into hers. We gladly do, since every careful sentence, every judicious image comprising chapters that take the reader forward and back into the nature of storytelling, is plenty alluring. It is her contention that making stories — something we are, anyway, helpless not to do — is an act both of creation and deception, of the self and of others (“I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you”; “We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind”).
Solnit deploys several themes she manages, with a pickpocket’s skill, to remove from one place and insert into another: a visit to Iceland, her mother’s decline into the losses (and gains) of dementia, her own cancer surgery, and narcissism as personality disorder as well as literary construct, among others. Along the way, her erudition acts as a seine net wide enough to catch at once Frankenstein, Road Runner cartoons, Che Guevara, the Duino Elegies, Dutch vanitas paintings, and arctic terns. Improbably they all come together just so, and it’s a tour de force of logic and writing (done well, the latter is impossible without the former).
In the award-winning River of Shadows, Solnit’s project was to show how photographer Eadweard Muybridge, by inventing moving pictures, invented modern culture through giving rise to the California of Hollywood and Silicon Valley (near her home, another frequent subject) that has become our imaginative center; in the canny A Paradise Built in Hell, it was to explore the flip side of mass psychology and posit the contrary notion that it is in severe crisis that humans experience the bliss of ideal society, helpful and compassionate. Of course, this is the high-concept sell: they are no more “about” their ostensible subjects than a Cézanne still-life is about fruit. To truly describe her work, nonfiction in name only, it would be necessary to reproduce it in its seamless entirety; it is prose poetry, and cultural criticism, and polemic, and…just itself, sui generis. Her latest? Even more so.
The title is taken from the correspondence of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe who, after she had moved from New York to New Mexico, signed off “from the faraway nearby.” It summarizes Solnit’s primary thesis on the role of storytelling in our lives: that it displays an interplay of advance and retreat simultaneously bringing us close to a narrative’s meaning and distancing us from it. (And so a frequent theme of all her work, geography, here becomes metaphoric.) The whole book is an intricate working model of the idea. The progression of Alzheimer’s, which afflicts her mother and is a story that begins and ends the book and enfolds all that comes between, also causes a return to childhood; “time runs backward,” just as it does in varying accounts of “the mother who eats her children,” an Inuit woman who reputedly cannibalized her family during a weather-induced famine. (By association, Solnit also implicates her own mother, the selfishly bereft type “who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.”) The book itself is structured so that it goes forward, meets a mirror, whereupon it runs backward: the table of contents forms a chiastic concrete poem, Apricots, Mirrors, Ice, Flight, Breath, Wound, Knot, Unwound, Breath, Flight, Ice, Mirrors, Apricots.
A common theme of late in literary theory is the unreliable narrator. You’d think one of our foremost cultural critics, in a book about making stories, would be driven to have the last word in that debate. And so she does, firmly, but only by not mentioning it. Her model of the story is one of lineage, of begetting and begat, of dialectic. By writing, “You can have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.” Underneath every story there is another one, and another below that, descending into the infinite basement of the past which is attained, temporally, by ascending into the future. Then she makes this assertion literal: beneath the stories on every page runs a single italicized line from yet another, and we can choose how to read them, continuously, like a subterranean stream, or as poem fragments intercepting the whole. (The one on page 6, by accident or even more incredibly by design, appears to give the reading instructions: “…like a ballad of one line or a history compressed down to its barest essentials…”)
The tale of Scheherazade, naturally, recurs in this symphony of recurrences. It distills the idea that telling stories keeps us alive. Solnit makes clear that it has saved her, again and again. In reading her story, we forestall the death of its ending, though “there is always more to tell; one thread is tangled up with all the others; even when it stops, other threads carry the story onward, beyond the horizon.”
The Faraway Nearby is a work of literary origami, amazing in its construction. Perfect, even. If pricked, though, I suspect it would bleed ice water, that which surrounded her in the art installation in which she took her Icelandic residency: it was called the Library of Water.
Like I said, perfect.
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
It’s always hard for me to choose the best book I’ve read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I’ve read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year’s included Matthew Kneale’s wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro’s quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa’s masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield’s eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen’s Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?).
But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the “most printed original English book.” It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, “What if you reversed that? ‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.’ Doesn’t work at all, does it?” And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…” Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses.
A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first–or, perhaps, the second–sentence–and I wept over the last.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the story, in case you’ve waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away.
Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction–eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader–the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man’s shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did.
For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor).
Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page.
io9 offers up “The Twenty Science Fiction Novels that Will Change Your Life,” from Frankenstein to Pattern Recognition. (via)Cathleen Schine on the charms of Peter CareyThe “Thomas Bernhard cult” claims a new initiate.F.O.T.M. (Friend of The Millions) Lydia Millet talks about “endangered species, the idea of motherhood, and her stint at Hustler.””Why do scribblers make drinking their second art? For one thing, it primes them for their task.” Writers and booze.Some American Studies undergrads at The University of Virginia have put together an online exhibit titled “The New Yorker Magazine in the 1930s.”NPR’s “In Character” segment considers Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne.
“My Best Friend, my doctor, won’t even say what it is I’ve got.”-Bob DylanI recently became aware of a trend, the Modern Medicine Lament, in which American writers struggle to make an uneasy peace with a system from which they feel alienated. And it begs the question: has it always been this way?Doctors have enjoyed a colorful depiction in books and letters over the years. Kafka’s brilliant short story “A Country Doctor” is still read and taught frequently. Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was a man of principle in any language, in any time. Chekhov was a trained physician. I should also mention my favorite doctor in literature, Dr. Livesey, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Stevenson, you’ll recall, sketched another doctor, Dr. Jekyll, whose enthusiasm for chemicals took him off the rails (if Jekyll lived in America today he would surely declaim in a basement recovery meeting about the social transgressions committed by his intoxicated self). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written almost 200 years ago, offers a remarkable foreshadowing of the moral and ethical challenges inherent to the practice of medicine, which has always had one ultimate goal: triumph over death. It is telling that we will in passing mistake the name of the title character for that of the monster.In 1885 Louis Pasteur, a Frenchman, first administered vaccine to a human, a child bitten by a rabid dog. The treatment was successful. It was not an insignificant moment in human history. Giant scientific leaps forward like Pasteur’s continue to inject health and medicine into the lives of everyday people. Vaccines and antibiotics changed the world, though today their administration is practically mundane. In America, where good health has always been considered something of a birthright, we resent doctors. They are a necessary evil, a reminder of the basic infirmity of our bodies and the inevitability of their decline. Sure, Americans love watching fictional doctors treat fictional patients on television, but in reality aren’t doctors society’s consummate whipping boys? After all, that goal – sticking it to death – has never yet been achieved. Good news from a doctor cannot amount to more than “you will live for maybe a few more years, all things being equal.” And anyway, Americans don’t want to live forever, they simply want their life on earth to be pain-free, and believe it should be.Pills that govern the chemical workings of the brain are now at the forefront of our ever-advancing medical knowledge. They treat disorders like depression, schizophrenia, autism, addiction, panic, mania, and garden-variety anxiety. Neurochemistry remains the least understood field in medicine, but the sales figures of these drugs have exploded in the past twenty years. Pharmaceutical manufacturers employ direct advertising – and also work more quietly through doctors – to encourage the public to treat a psychological condition far enough from bliss as a disorder. Comparatively little attention is paid to the fresh array of stresses and overload of stimuli that burden the modern brain, and how these factors can capitalize on the ease of modern life, where we are at greater leisure to explore exactly how we feel, as opposed to wasting all of our energy on mere survival. Effexor, Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac: ugly mash-ups, yes, but also household words. The drugs have brought relief to millions of people suffering from mental duress.But the rise of Psychotropic Nation has created a cultural preoccupation with pills here in the U.S., one that has in turn given rise to questions about the efficacy of our medical system (actually just one of many aspects of our system that provoke such questions). If you are writing a novel, say, and wish to introduce recreational drug use into the plot (you may want the characters to seem more subversive, irrational, hedonistic, or edgy), you might shy away from the ho-hum world of schedule 1 drugs: your pot, your cocaine and heroin – in favor of those that can be obtained with a doctor’s note: pain pills, sedatives, amphetamines. The irony payoff is just too great, and writers love irony. The companies that make these drugs want you to want them, but as soon as you do, you probably should not have them. And maybe you, the writer (or the characters for that matter), don’t have health insurance, or went through a period when you weren’t covered – that just adds to the irony. Without insurance you’re not seeing a doctor, making it a whole lot easier for you to go schedule 1 than to buy a bottle of valium. And, given the cost of such pills, cheaper too.Jonathan Franzen wrote extensively on this aspect of American life (see also Ben Kunkel’s Indecision, in which psychopharmacology plays no small roll). In The Corrections the drug is called Aslan, and its effects are somewhere between Prozac and ecstasy. At least two Lamberts use the drug, Chip during an unfortunate weekend sex binge, and Enid, Chip’s mother, whose little helper gets her rather strung out over a longer period. Franzen’s treatment is made more complete as Gary, eldest of the Lambert kids (and hilariously aware of the ebb and flow of his own serotonin and dopamine levels) invests money in the drug company that makes Aslan. Meanwhile, the pill is pushed by a leonine doctor with a creepy, guru-like aspect. And, of course, the one individual who could really use a pick-me-up, the crushingly depressed father Alfred, gets none. Collective dysphoria has never been so amusing.Life imitates art, but it’s no barrel of laughs. That said, the cover story of this month’s Harper’s, “Manufacturing Depression: A Journey into the Economy of Melancholy”, by Gary Greenberg, does deliver the odd ironic chortle. Mr. Greenberg, a psychotherapist, is writing a book about the “misuses of medical diagnoses,” and if his magazine piece is any indication, it may be worth reading. The piece opens with Mr. Greenberg cataloging the failures and dissatisfactions of his life to a kindly psychiatrist, Dr. George Papakostas, in order to see if he qualifies for an experimental drug study at the Depression Clinical and Research Program of Massachusetts General Hospital. And, after checking some boxes, the doctor delivers his diagnosis: Mr. Greenberg has Major Depression. Would he like to try Celexa, Lexapro, Mirapex, or omega-3 fish oil?”It was hard to believe that Papakostas really thought I had major depression,” writes Mr. Greenberg. Mr. Greenberg does feel bad sometimes, inadequate, feckless, and yes, his hair is thinning. His life is not blissful. But what is made abundantly clear to him is that the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of Depression, codified in the psychiatrist-developed Structured Clinical Interview, are bunk. Your score on this questionnaire, determined by the doctor, is totally subjective, the questions laughably interpretive. Dr. Papakostas, looking for subjects for a drug study driven by new medicines from Forest Laboratories, Inc. and paid for by the federal government, is predisposed towards a diagnosis of Clinical Depression. That’s really what someone looking to join such a study wants to hear, right? “‘Are you content with the amount of happiness that you get doing things that you like..?'” It is a standardized question asked by the doctor at one of Mr. Greenberg’s weekly follow-ups. “‘I’m not big on contentment,’ I said. Is anyone? I wondered. Is anyone ever convinced that his or her pursuit of happiness has reached its goal? And what would happen to the consumer economy if we began to believe that any amount of happiness is enough?”The uncomfortable intersection of the consumer economy and medicine is at the heart of an article by Bruce Stutz that appeared in the May 6 issue of the NY Times Magazine. Unlike Mr. Greenberg, who never believes that he is clinically depressed even as he dutifully takes his Mass General fish oil, Mr. Stutz begins from a different point of view: he, like millions of Americans, went through a period of debilitating depression for which he sought medical treatment. Talk therapy and a prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, Effexor, worked for him. Three years and a more positive outlook on life later, Mr. Stutz found himself shaking hands with his psychiatrist at the conclusion of his final session. But there was no mention of going off the drug.”Somehow I couldn’t believe I had to take this pill for the rest of my life,” he writes. How many people taking such medication have had that thought? It’s not just the side effects, the occasional bouts of impotence, the weight gain, the dulled sensory perceptions and emotions, and it’s not just the monetary cost of the pills. It is also living with a stigmatizing reminder that one is sick and will never be well. But Mr. Stutz was well: he felt better; he was able to go one with his life. The stresses that had predicated his mental slide, the death of a parent, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job, were in the rearview. So he tapered his meds and hunkered down. Fierce withdrawal symptoms followed: mental torpor, physical discomfort, and the frightening “brain zaps,” blinding, incapacitating insta-headaches. With the help of some experts in clinical biology, Mr. Stutz does an admirable job of elucidating the chemical processes that were at work in his brain, which was, without the help of the meds, running a serotonin deficit. What Mr. Stutz did not experience during that period was a return of his depression symptoms. And so he wonders, “does our long-term reliance on these drugs become more of a convenience than a cure?”Drug companies and doctors have about as much interest in helping people go off their psych meds as tobacco execs have in helping people quit cigarettes. Still, the medical industry is simply giving us what we want, a quick fix. What happens when the quick fix goes bad? The title of Ann Bauer’s May 18 article on Salon.com, “Psych Meds Drove My Son Crazy”, is inelegant but to the point. Her story is gripping, horrifying, and ultimately infuriating. Mrs. Bauer’s eldest son was born with autism. At the age of 17 this highly functional kid living in Minnesota became depressed, and his mother took him to a psychiatrist who prescribed an anti-depressant, which, she was assured, would not only snap him out of his funk, but also help control some of his autism-related obsessive tendencies. Instead, his condition grew worse. Doctors at a “respected neuropsychology clinic” reevaluated Mrs. Bauer’s son, now 30 pounds heavier and sleeping 16 hours a day, and changed the original diagnosis: in addition to his autism, her son was experiencing “‘psychomotor slowing’ – a form of schizophrenia.” And so a different drug was prescribed, Abilify, which was new (and, Mrs. Bauer notes, had been marketed direct-to-consumer in Time and Newsweek). Still her son’s condition worsened, “humming, shifting foot to foot, screaming if anyone touched him or tried to move him.” He would dialogue with voices that Mrs. Bauer could not hear. She tapered him off the Abilify.Two days later he “got out of bed and stood in one place for a solid hour.” When Mrs. Bauer placed a hand on him, he beat her up.Amazingly, the doctors managed to convince Mrs. Bauer to try yet another drug, a powerful anti-psychotic, Geodon. Her son took to living on the street after that. Only by conducting her own research, and getting a lucky referral to the Mayo Clinic from a retired doctor in Stony Brook, N.Y., an expert in a little known condition called autistic catatonia, did Mrs. Bauer find her son proper medical care. It took two years. Five days after checking him into Mayo, Mrs. Bauer read a front-page story in the NY Times “about psychiatrists in Minnesota who were collecting money from drug manufacturers for prescribing atypical antipsychotics, including Abilify and Geodon.” The article cited some hefty payout numbers, and also some serious risk factors for the drugs. It did not mention a fact that the doctors at Mayo confirmed: administered to an individual suffering from autistic catatonia, which they determined was the root cause of her son’s initial decline, neuroleptics like Abilify and Geodon only amplify the effects of the disorder, and they can cause permanent neurological damage.She doesn’t say so, but I really hope Mrs. Bauer sued the pants off some folks. I would be interested to know.There will be more Modern Medicine Laments to come. We will read them, and we will also watch with interest TV shows like “The Sopranos”, in which the writers have taken an increasingly critical line on the treatment of depression in America, and films like Michael Moore’s upcoming documentary about the ills of the American health care system. We will see more legal settlements against drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma (OxyContin) and Pfizer (Celebrex) for misrepresenting the effects of their products to the consumer public. And, of course, we will continue to pop pills. We are a nation of armchair doctors. Sometimes it seems like a prescription pad is the only thing separating us from the real thing.Update: The Libra in me desires balance. I do not want this post to seem an ad hoc dismissal of the medical profession as a whole. So I would steer folks to a book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder, that had a profound impact on me when I read it. The book is about Dr. Paul Farmer, whose work battling T.B. while bringing basic medical care to corners of the world like Haiti and Peru where none existed before makes him something of a medical superhero. Kidder’s profile of Dr. Farmer proves that modern medicine is still changing the world for the better.
Brandon of The Bibliosphere weighed in with the best book he read during a year in which he got around to catching up on a bunch of classics, new and old:I couldn’t resist joining in on the fun of all the best-of lists making the rounds: the New York Times Book Review printed its own list, as did Publisher’s Weekly. My reading is pretty varied, but I always seem to be a few years behind: the most recent books I read this year were published in 2004.2006 was more of a year for me to play catch-up – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger were among my favorite books this year. They exemplified everything I love about literature; they were thought-provoking, obsessive, and deeply unsettling. Franz Kafka’s The Trial disturbed me on a level no horror novel can reach. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, while treading a fine line between pretentiousness and genius, obliterated the very idea of what a novel is supposed to be. And Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gave me one of the freshest and most sympathetic heroes I’ve come across in a long time.But Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, without a doubt, the best book I read this year. It’s funny, infuriating, tragic, and beautifully-written. Neither too long nor too short, this book is, in a word, perfect.Thanks Brandon!